Black Girls with Barrettes

The brightly colored barrettes hitting one another sounded like faint wind chimes as we ran and played.

Most of us girls had colorful, plastic hair barrettes in an assortment of shapes and sizes that our mothers, or the women who loved us, clipped onto our hair to secure our braids and plaits.

We all had boxes where we kept our barrettes, bows, and bands. Conveniently, a barrette may also be found in the kitchen junk drawer or on the back seat of mom’s minivan.

We always noticed when someone’s hair had been freshly combed. The soft braids glistened from Blue Grease or Luster’s Pink Lotion. Different barrettes replaced the old, sometimes trading more for less, less for more, or the barrette would be placed at the top of the braid and bottom, or simply just the bottom. On special occasions like church, birthdays, or picture day, barrettes and bows always got larger.

The Whiting sisters had long, brown hair that their mother must have spent hours working with. Every three or four inches of hair, Ms. Whiting secured another barrette. When all finished, the Whiting sisters easily had 50 to 60 barrettes in their hair, creating a mosaic of dainty colors and shapes on a backdrop of lush, deep brown plaited hair.

We all had braids and plaits that were adorned with barrettes. This is what we knew and this is how we wore our hair.

We moved from Houston, from the only place that ever felt like home, right before the first grade. When my family pulled up to our new house in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, I couldn’t believe I lived in a two-story house. The remaining week before school, my siblings and I played all-day on the stairs, inventing new games to test our speed and strength.

When the first day of school arrived, my hair was fresh from my mother’s styling the night before. Mom had even bought new barrettes. I was excited for my new school and new friends.

As I walked into the school, I gradually noticed that there were very few other Black kids. I arrived in Ms. Hitt’s classroom and immediately noticed there were no other Black girls in the classroom. A few of the girls had maybe one or two bows in their hair, but it didn’t look like mine. Their barrettes and bows sat differently in their straight hair. They seemed to be for a different purpose.

I was surprised to be in a classroom with no other Black kids and no other Black girls with barrettes. Previous to my new school, I had attended an all-Black private school at the church down the street from our home. Until that moment, I had never known that spaces could isolate or leave you feeling different.