Seven years ago, at my grandfather’s funeral in Kumasi, Ghana, my extended family and I all wore matching outfits, as is the custom. In our tradition, fabric patterns have distinct meanings, and ours was printed with a symbol that resembles chain links, representing the unbreakable bonds between the living and the dead. There was a key variation, though, between the older and younger generations: While my female cousins and I left our heads uncovered, my aunties wore glossy black head wraps, tied in small bows at the center of their hairlines.
My grandmother and aunties own head wraps for every occasion. As a child, I loved watching my Aunt Violet produce glamorous, turbanlike creations from stiff, exuberantly patterned wax-print fabric. Sometimes she would let me add the finishing touches: a tighter twist, a smoothed crease. When my grandmother is overdue for a visit from the hair braider, she gossips with guests wearing soft cotton wraps in bright colors, knotted simply at the nape of her neck.
At the funeral, the elder women were beautiful as they danced under the searing afternoon sun, sending off my grandfather to the ancestral world. I admired one woman’s architectural head wrap that added at least three inches to her height. Despite the heat, these women all looked fresh. Bare shoulders. No hair in their faces. I longed for that kind of freedom — from the blow dryers and curling irons 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 fantasized about chopping it all off and growing a lush Afro. Later during that trip, at a hotel restaurant, I saw a woman around my age wearing a leopard-print head wrap twisted around her fluffy hair like a crown. I loved her style, but I wondered if I could get away with it.
There were reasons I had never worn a head wrap myself. Though I’d spent many glorious holidays bounding about Kumasi with my cousins, I didn’t grow up in Ghana. My father worked for the United Nations, and we moved back and forth between Europe and East Africa. In Italy, I was one of a few Black students at my school, and my coiled hair made me stand out even more than I already did. So, in middle school, I relaxed it. At first, I was pleased with my straight hair. But it soon broke off, leaving me with spiky sections that I disguised with headbands, clips and gel.