a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
The women’s hair hangs loose
in colorless rooms, in yards sheered from sky
by barbed silver wire. Hair is personal. They own it.
The language they use to describe it, words that weren’t stripped
like their names—whether straight and long, clipped into mohawks,
teased into pixies, plaited in cornrows or tiny bantu knots; it is theirs.
Even in Mississippi, where prisoners wear black and white striped ring-arounds,
hewn from the same rough cotton some of their ancestors picked,
where they are called out for count on cold yellow ground
while relatives gawk from the visiting room
their hair roots them. Caring for it is an act of rebellion.
Those strands bind; fine threads of obsidian, garnet, gold
flecked in sunlight. An ancient connection
to mothers, grandmothers, sisters, who sat them at the table
and parted it, muscled out knots, combed relaxer;
held bobby pins between lips, plaited fish bones, twisted
chignons and updos—women who may have left the soft earth
before their children were old enough to work their own hair;
but return, occasionally, in half memory,
the back of cool hands on fevered foreheads.
Machelle’s mother comes to her in dreams during the holidays,
spinning Shirley Temple ringlets around the iron.
She still can feel the gentle pressure of her mother’s hands
on the back of her skull, curls blossoming under fingers.
Others remember the oily baby scent of their own children’s scalps,
plastic animal barrettes they shelled open, the gentle clinking of beads.
Styling is an act wrought of hard desperation, the boiled bone
soup that soothes stomach aches. They improvise.
When dreads are forbidden, they fight for curl activator,
flip back body where ponytails are illicit, band steel tight plaits
in lieu of hairpins. Kenya trained her cracked
hands to seal braids with contraband using straight razors to cut,
tapering the ends with stripped wire spark.
Lack of product causes distress. They save pennies made mopping
dingy floors, sitting suicide watch, assembling hotel coffee packets;
to buy cocoa butter and hair grease. Underground favors are ferried
for denture tablets to alchemize into dye paste,
then work with plastic bag covered hands from roots to end.
Monistat is used to grow thicker locks,
strawberry jam for gel, tampons to shape finger curls.
Haircuts shed heavy pasts, shorn dead ends balance the incongruity
of existence in a place that will never be home.
Brush strokes are incantations, braid patterns an ancient code.
Grooming is a deliberate practice honed during moments of faith.
Each strand holds primordial strength, jeweled cells wired for survival.
The woman’s hair hangs loose, bound, private, theirs,
in these stony places where every touch is forbidden
Danielle Wolffe is an intrepid ghostwriter, novelist and poet. Her work has appeared in the Nation, the Associated Press, the Elephant Journal, Mused, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, All Things Considered, the Takeaway, Telling Our Stories Press and in other publications. She is currently seeking a publisher for her novel “Natural Life” which (like this poem) was written for/about women sentenced as teens to life without the possibility of parole who recent Supreme Court decisions made eligible for resentencing. Her clients’ work has been picked up by major publishing houses. She lives in Manhattan.