Seven years ago, at my grandfather’s funeral in Kumasi, Ghana, my extended family and I all wore matching outfits, as is customary. In our tradition, fabric patterns have distinct meanings, and ours was imprinted with a symbol that resembles chain links, representing the unbreakable links between the living and the dead. There was one key variation, however, between the older and younger generations: While my cousins and I left our heads uncovered, my aunts wore shiny black headbands, tied in small knots in the center of their hair lines.
My grandmother and my aunts have headbands for every occasion. As a child, I loved watching my Aunt Violet produce glamorous, turban-like designs from a stiff waxed fabric and exuberant patterns. Sometimes she let me add the finishing touches: a tighter twist, a smooth crease. When my grandmother is late for a hair braid visit, she chats with guests wearing brightly colored soft cotton wraps just tied at the nape of the neck.
At the funeral, the elder women looked beautiful as they danced in the scorching afternoon sun, sending my grandfather to the ancestral world. I admired the architectural headband of a woman who added at least three inches to her height. Despite the heat, these women all looked cool. Bare shoulders. No hair on their faces. I longed for that kind of freedom – hairdryers and curling irons that I used to keep my hair straight and long; from the daily battle with my damaged, brittle hair that now stuck to my sweaty neck. I dreamed of cutting it all off and growing a lush afro. Later on that trip, at a hotel and restaurant, I saw a woman my age wearing a leopard print headband wrapped around her fluffy hair like a crown. I liked his style, but wondered if I could pull it off.
There were reasons I had never worn a headband myself. Although I had many glorious vacations visiting Kumasi with my cousins, I did not grow up in Ghana. My father worked for the United Nations and we traveled back and forth between Europe and East Africa. In Italy, I was one of the few black students in my school and my coiled hair made me stand out even more than I already did. So, in college, I relaxed him. At first I was happy with my straight hair. But that soon cut off, leaving me with spiky sections that I disguised with headbands, clips, and gel.