Rocking a Baldie With Pride Isn’t Just About MJ — It’s About My Mother
As a kid, I helped take out her braids; years later, she joined me in baldness
In the late ’80s, I was 13 years old, and puberty was not kind. With pimples sprouting all over my face and gangling arms and legs flailing everywhere, I looked like a human grasshopper, scrutinizing my acne in front of the bathroom mirror while figuring out my identity.
When I wasn’t in there picking and primping, I could find my mother there fixing her hair. Momma kept her hair braided for most of my adolescence. She would spend an entire day at a makeshift hair salon — usually the living room of a woman’s house — getting it plaited. My dad was a fierce enough proponent of natural hair that he only approved of an Afro; he wasn’t shy about voicing his disapproval of the time (or money) my mom spent on her hair. He told her it was nonsense, a useless exercise in vanity.
Momma would often defer to my father in most matters, but not when it came to her look. Getting her hair done by a professional hairdresser was an essential component of her happiness. And despite my dad’s protests, they only lasted a couple of days; I think he understood.
Momma’s braids were intricate and fine, perhaps an eighth of an inch in width, and cascaded across the length of her shoulders. Her hairdresser Camilla would intermingle smooth synthetic hair with Momma’s natural hair and weave the two.
I’m a boy, I thought. I shouldn’t have to do my mother’s hair. Then Momma would arrive home with new hair the next weekend, and I’d love her hair all over again.
When Momma stepped into the house with a fresh new hairstyle on a Saturday evening, a winning smile lighting up her face, my sisters and I couldn’t help but smile back at her. Momma has been a beautiful woman since I’ve known her, an object of desire for many men no matter her hairstyle. But Momma’s plaited hair created an aura about her, which stole the breath from my lungs. She looked like a demure queen, and it made me ecstatic for her. I loved her hair.
I loved Momma’s hair, that is, until it was time to take out her braids.
Every few months or so, we’d have to move the coffee table from its usual spot on the carpet and replace it with newspapers and a kitchen chair. Momma, wearing a pair of black sweat pants and a wrapped towel, would settle in, a plastic bag positioned next to her feet and a comb nestled on her lap.
My younger sisters and I would form a semicircle around her, select a braid, and start the delicate process of untwisting the plait. Momma’s real hair would have grown some in the previous months, creating new knots with the synthetic hair that we had to untangle. We devoted hours of our weekend to her hair, and it became a painful process for everyone involved, both physically and mentally. If one of us happened to yank on the knot during the ordeal, Momma would let us know about it.
Once after accidentally pulling on a knot and getting chastised for it, I slammed my hands against my sides and said, “Why can’t you have the lady who fixes your hair undo your braids, Momma?”
My two sisters stopped untwisting and looked at me, their eyes telling me that I’d done wrong.
“That’s okay,” Momma said. “You’re doing a good job. Just slow down a little. We’ve got the entire day to do this.”
I would sometimes rush through, because I hated the project. I’m a boy, I thought. I shouldn’t have to do my mother’s hair. I was so relieved when we’d finally finish the job. Then Momma would arrive home with new hair the next weekend, and I’d love her hair all over again.
In the early ’90s, I shaved my head bald. I did it for two reasons: I wanted to be like Michael Jordan, and I was fed up with getting haircuts from my parents, who would often cut bald spots in my hair, opening me up for ridicule from my classmates. My father’s eyes widened when he saw his son sporting a bald head for the first time. “You look like a middle-aged man,” he said. “Why can’t you cut your hair like the other boys?”
“I like keeping my hair this way, Daddy,” I said. “I like not having to worry about it.”
I like not having to worry about how my hair looks after you and Momma butcher it, I thought.
Dad and went back and forth about my hair until it was time for me to leave for college in September 1995, and he sat me down in the living room to admonish me one last time. “I won’t have you going to college looking like that,” he said. “You have to look like you belong at that place.”
I’d been able to secure college scholarships, loans, and grants. Unfortunately, they could only cover a fraction of my expenses at Boston University. My parents had to cover the remaining two thousand dollars — money that I didn’t have. So I knew I had to listen. “Fine,” I told him. “But I want to go to a professional barber next time.”
I was going to be like my mother. If I had to have hair on my head, then I insisted on exerting control over how it looked.
After I graduated BU in May 1999, I returned to my childhood home. When I secured a job two months later and earned a salary, I returned to my baldie, and my father resigned himself to the fact that I would remain that way until I decided to grow my hair again — which was never.
On November 12, 2012, my father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a lymphoma that feeds on blood in the bone marrow. He fought for a year before succumbing to both cancer and kidney failure on November 8, 2013. Shortly after that, tradition forced Momma to lose her hair.
Momma, 60 years old at the time, went to Nigeria to see that my dad was buried in his ancestral homeland and to undergo a compulsory ritual. The practice requires that the new widow subject herself to hardships. A widow has to drink the water that was used to wash the husband’s corpse, fast, sleep on the ground without a blanket, sit motionless for a specified period of time, eat only with the unwashed left hand, and shave her hair.
By shaving her head, the widow committed to shunning vanity and the attention of other men. Momma spent six days in Nigeria before coming back home with her head clean-shaven.
Before my mother was bald, I’d always associated a bald woman with a cancer diagnosis. And here was my still healthy mother, somehow looking like she’d aged 10 years. We were eating dinner at the table one evening, and my blood began to boil. “I mean, God! It’s 2014,” I yelled. “Why do these people insist on still holding onto strict interpretations of ancient cultural traditions?”
“It’s part of the culture, my dear,” Momma responded. “I’ll just wait for the time to pass. They say it gets better with time.”
Moving forward from my father’s death meant that my mom would also have to resume her night-shift work schedule at the nursing home. Before heading out one night, she stepped in front of the vanity mirror in her bathroom. I watched her as she applied her makeup, lotions, and other essentials. She fastened her obsidian black earrings onto her earlobes and dropped her hands to the side. She stared at herself in the mirror, turning her head from left to right, and sighed.
“It just doesn’t look like you,” I said.
“I look sick,” Momma replied.
“Nope. You look me like me since we’re both bald eagles now,” I smiled. “Can I rub your head?” I reached my hand in the direction of her head. Momma laughed and waved my hand away.
She headed to her closet, reached up, and grabbed two separate wigs from their white foam heads. She returned with a brown curly wig with the golden highlights in the right hand and a jet black wig in the left. She modeled both; I liked the black one because it was simpler, less ornate. But Momma chose the curly one. I told her that the wig she chose accentuated, and she broke out into a smile.
Despite cultural obligations and the thoughts of others she’d carried on her shoulders for years, Momma stood there proudly — and chose herself. At that moment, she reminded me to always do the same.