It had been such a long time... I was surprised by how gently my mother made my hair, asking if she should split the rows, my locs beginning to intertwine. She gently, as if using a miniature rake of a Japanese garden attends to the grove of my hair – so softly that it barely registers as touch. I couldn’t imagine that she was doing it right, what with the absence of pain and discomfort, but she did, ordering and reordering, twisting my roots so they wouldn’t come loose and fastening them next to each other with silver clips for added strength, so they could dry. She says everything is an experiment, and she has some trees that can be manicured into different shapes, she likes the square staircase upwards, the gradually widening circles from tip to base. She says she has some foliage to practice on, with her newly gentle hands. Or maybe I had simply forgotten what my mother’s hands and fingers in my hair had felt like. She had never done my locks before, I had to show her how to grasp the new growth and then palm roll it. My mom is more familiar with two-strand-twists, braids, Nubian knots, the iconic Afro or natural, like soft leafy trellises opening towards sunlight. I almost expect my hair to begin to blossom and grow pyrus communis fruits, pears being a type of rose, or at least descended from them. I once decorated my French braid with fabric flowers all along the criss-cross lattice. I was beginning to think my hair was the length of an entire afternoon. But my hair was like the basil plant whose leaves had begun to dry out and curl inward. Once watered, it surprised us all and flowered. The Earth of our epidermis knows what it means to be parched or almost liquid smooth depending on weather conditions, inches of precipitation. This is not a tale about how I thirsted for tenderness, or my reluctance to admit need. Perhaps too many people think that natural hair is a forest, an ecosystem already — but the skin is an ecosystem, every nano hectare a home to ‘somethings’ that we coevolved with, that may not look too dissimilar from the wood louse from the vantage point of a microscope, our soil porous, our biomes active, alert. When healthy, we are mildly acidic. I am admiring tree art in Brazil, murals painted in the likenesses of Black girls; their hair the soft green of the Cedrella fissilis tree, the volume of its canopy looks, from a distance, soft as spiralled curls. I imagine residents near those murals too busy to notice one little girl’s pink Jacaranda crown of blossoms falling, her hairstyle changing with the seasons. My family didn’t drive to see the two thousand year old trees at Sequoia National Park, but we have counted tree rings as a lover might trace along the arm and curvature of their beloved. We may not be able to call the sequoias an army but haven’t they been a kind of defence, taking in what we couldn’t breathe and releasing air like a sweet cocoon over us, not favouring one person over another, not breaking in formation or phalanx for thousands of years — standing resolutely in our danger. I have turned letting go into a ritual, forming thin rings in dry inhospitable seasons and wide rings in deluge. You can hear the symphonic popping and churning of my inner layers, history woven deep into the thick grain of my bark.
About this poem
A film-poem written and produced by Zakia Carpenter-Hall. The work was commissioned by the Scottish Poetry Library in partnership with Africa in Motion Film Festival and Obsidian Foundation. The film-poem premiered at the festival in October 2021, under the theme of ‘Imaginarium: an enquiry into the embodied experience of Blackness and being in a changing climate’.