I was eight when I tried to cut myself “a fringe.”* Instead of falling heavily over my eyebrows as I’d envisioned, the three-inch chunk of hair formed a defiant right-angle with my forehead. My sister found me sobbing and trying to force the remaining hair back towards the bun at the centre of my head as I anticipated my mother’s slaps. Asking whether I thought I was white, and dissolving repeatedly into laughter, my sister angled me between her knees, picked up the long-tailed pink comb and began to part and cornrow my hair to hide the damage.
There are many reasons to think highly of Dee Rees’ Pariah, but I loved the careful handling of domesticity. While the symbolic, emotional and physical violence in Alike’s house are significant parts of the narrative, there is also non-violent touch, playful, easy and routine intimacy.
I was surprised by how moving I found more mundane moments, like the one pictured above. I realized that non-romantic, tactile intimacy between black women and within black families is almost as rare in film as well-paced and beautifully-lit scenes of sex and seduction between queer black women.
When the black domestic space appears onscreen the characters that people it are the single black woman, the heterosexual couple, or the chronically dysfunctional black family. Touch is romantic or sexual, violent or simply absent. The hair salon becomes the primary site of sustained and ritual touch between women, and although that space can be multifaceted and social, touch is part of a business transaction.
In my house someone was always begging to have their hair twisted, their scalp oiled, shouting for bobby pins and a hand with a style. The first time my mother asked me to twist her hair I felt a thrill of pride, and sensitive to the fact that I understood doing her hair a rite of passage she graciously thanked me for producing twists that can only be described as janky. When my sister cornrowed my newly-cut hair, she didn’t just help me avoid my mother’s ire, but each braid was a rhythmic suture on the chasm between my aesthetic aspirations and my actual appearance.
These interactions are rich and important, and have the potential tell so much about the dynamics in a home. Maybe I’m only writing this because I’m watching Tyler Perry’s (Netflix) oeuvre right now which is wildly depressing, but intimate touch and the postures and rhythms of black women touching black women, bear representation. Without them black family life descends into caricature and spectacle, and contributes to a broader failure to engage the complexity and nuance that shapes us.
*UK term for bangs