Kalela Williams, “Braiding Hair”

Kalela Williams

Sunday nights, my mother braided hair
when I was a girl. We’d sit in front of the television,
she on the sofa, I on the carpet; beside me
a brush, a jar of water, a wide-toothed comb.
I would pull my head away, she would tilt it
back into place, her fingers moving patiently;
lengths of tight curls crossing over themselves.
My grandmother once did the same, and her mother, too,
on a hardwood floor, by the dim light of a candle.
Someday a woman I have yet to know will braid
my thin, white hair gently with crumpled-skin hands.
She will be my daughter, so much older then,
but who once sat between my knees, my hands
like weaver’s in the thick, black fabric of her hair.
It does not end, nor change, this line of women
braiding hair, quickly but carefully, nimbly,
like women quilting—ours of cornrows, plaits,
twists, an art as brief to complete as girlhood.

Author’s Comment: I wrote this poem at a point when I felt very disconnected from my family and friends, and disappointed with where I felt my life was going. I wanted to comfort myself with the idea of family and heritage, but most importantly, continuity. Braiding hair is an act that endures from one generation to the next, a skill passed from mother to daughter. It directly and specifically connects me to my mother, my grandmothers, and my foremothers—a chain stretching hundreds of years, maybe longer. It’s remarkable when I think of it. Writing this poem served as a mooring for me, which is exactly what I hoped.

Bio: Kalela Williams teaches creative writing at James Madison University in Virginia, where she also serves as assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, organizing literary readings, conferences, and workshops that promote African American poetry. She is orignally from Atlanta, Georgia, but she has traded a city life for the quiet pace of a small Shenandoah Valley town. Her work has appeared in Quay: A Journal of the Literary Arts, the Broome Review, Lone Star Legacy, and other literary journals. She recieved her M.F.A. from Goddard College and she is currently working on a novel.

4 thoughts on “Kalela Williams, “Braiding Hair”

  1. I see that now, Pris. My immediate association was with Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles”:

    Pound was an axe,
    Chen was an axe, I am an axe
    And my son a handle, soon
    To be shaping again, model
    And tool, craft of culture,
    How we go on.

    Interestingly, I used that poem in a workshop attended by Brenda Kay Ledford and from our discussion she wrote the beautiful “Art Quilting” which is also in this issue. Lee, Williams, Snyder, Ledford — I love how we enact the very ideas of these poems.

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