Unfolding Inheritance

The Big Chop

This is Unfolding Inheritance, a column by Kristen Gentry exploring mother-daughter relationships, the impact of parental addiction, and the journey of finding and loving yourself through it all.


My life’s timeline is split–before BC and after. A calendar that places me, a Black woman, not a man purported to be white, at the center. 

More times than I can count, I’ve been shopping and stopped by a compliment, “Your hair is beautiful!” A turn will nearly always reveal a Black woman with natural hair–an afro, locs, braids, a fade, two-strand twists, a twist-out, you name it. I’ll thank her and throw a compliment right back. “Yours is gorgeous!” 

These exchanges draw us to one another, tracing our dates of origin, “How long you been natural?” We share our stories, products that get us through, laugh and sister-girl tap one another on the arm, the shoulder.

Sometimes I initiate. There are many jokes about this, Black women’s enthusiastic validation of one another. The funniest I’ve seen was on A Black Lady Sketch Show because IYKYK. 

But why do we do this? 

Because, afterward, we carry on with our cups, too often empty, now brimming. Because natural hair journeys are cute on Youtube–a sequence of photos set to India Arie’s “I Am Not My Hair” revealing curls and baby locs climbing out, reaching, milestones of hangtime and ponytails, hair sweeping past shoulders, stretched straight to meet the back of a bra strap–but we know how hard the journey is  off-camera. For all the moments we couldn’t see, we say, “I see you.”


The BC is an after and the beginning. 

The origin of that beginning can be traced to my funds, stuck in college student struggle, that left me holding out for long overdue touch ups. I’d part my hair at the crown and marvel at the thick waves pushing from my scalp wondering what they would become if freed to grow without a relaxer. This curiosity led me to Nappturality.com, where my initial spark of interest quickly blazed into a full-flamed obsession. I’m talking a real obsession. Not that flimsy, fleeting brand of “obsessed” people sling around nowadays to define their affinity for mediocre rappers and cheap crap bought from sketchy websites. I pored over forum members’ freeform locs, tight-fisted curls glistening with homemade moisturizing concoctions, twist-outs rioting around brown faces in unruly fluff. It was 2002, and I was riding the wave of what the Black hair zeitgeist would be throwing down real heavy by the end of the decade. 

In the year of the dumpster fire that was 2020, I had locs that could cover my breasts if I wanted to take an artsy nude, and all of my younger cousins wore their natural hair. I stood at our Juneteenth cookout watching the sun shine down on their braids dangling with beads, ribboned with mermaid pastel weave, locs thrown up with a scarf, thrown out of the face with a rubber band, an afro puff blooming fat like a hydrangea. Their hair was the most beautiful “fuck you” –flipped straight from their scalps–to the respectability politics thrust on Black people, Black youth especially, following the murder of George Floyd. White people who hated us and other Black people who loved us wanted us to apologize, raise our hands, bow our heads, pray, and hope we could somehow make right whatever a white eye had found wrong in our breathing, driving, sleeping, being. The Louisville Police Department murdered Breonna Taylor five miles away from my cousin’s home where we lit the sky with our Juneteenth fireworks.  

But all that wasn’t until later. 

Before then, it was just me with the acronyms I’d learned from Nappturality.com, telling my mother I was planning a BC (big chop) to cut off my relaxed hair and sport a TWA (teeny weeny afro). As expected, Mama looked at me like I spoke a language she didn’t, couldn’t, understand. 


In the few pictures I’ve seen of my mother before I was born in 1980, she sports an afro.  If you attended a public school in the United States and didn’t blink, you may have caught the lesson of the Black Power Movement taught in February’s rush of Black history after slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and Martin Kuther King, Jr’s assassination. You may have glimpsed a flurry of fists and afros thrust into the air, black leather jackets, rifles. Even if your teacher didn’t have the knowledge or interest to deliver the message with words, you could discern the fertile political ground of Black natural hair in the images, damn near hear the horn blast and grunt of James Brown. But my mama wasn’t an “I’m Black and I’m proud” type of chick. Her afro wasn’t about that life. It was the style’s trendiness for her, not the revolution. And afros were popping, until they weren’t. 

Mama kept her jheri curl long past the style’s prime. Hers wasn’t the stringy, greasy mess of Coming to America Soul Glo jokes, but it was still embarrassing when I, fifteen-years-old rocking a fresh asymmetrical stacked haircut with long face-framing bangs à  la T-Boz on the CrazySexyCool album cover, answered the phone to my boyfriend clowning, “May I speak to the last woman on Earth with a curl?”

The curl died three years later with Richie, my maternal grandmother, whom my cousins and I called by her first name. Mama showed up to the funeral with wispy relaxed hair styled in a tousled mushroom bob. 

I can’t help but question this timing, though I may be reaching. The rift between my grandmother and mother, Richie’s first of six daughters, second of nine children, was as wide as the Ohio River’s length, old as time as I knew it. Like me and Mama, Mama and Richie shared a face. Richie wore a curl until chemo took it, and the shared hairstyle further highlighted their physical similarity, the mother-daughter relationship that never was. As a child, I couldn’t fathom Richie’s opinion keeping Mama from doing anything. With the exception of Richie’s face, Mama seemed fully independent, formed on her own. As I got older, it became easier to see the influence of mother hunger and past hurts in Mama’s behavior. I don’t remember Richie saying much, but her eyes could cut. I wonder if such a wound is what Mama was avoiding by waiting until Richie was gone to make a change.  

The relaxer’s harsh chemicals were unkind to Mama’s hair. Over the years, she fought to maintain her hair’s length and health until she eventually returned to her natural hair out of defeat. 

Didn’t matter to me; I was elated.

But Mama refused to bare her hair. She wore wigs of long, barrel curls outside of the house and, inside, kept her plaits covered with a wrap cap. She called her hair “nappy.” This word in mama’s mouth was not the positive remix on the pejorative like that of Nappturality or bell hooks’ children’s book, Happy to be Nappy. It was “nappy” in the classic sense, a racist slur championing white beauty ideals. I hated that word with the intensity it  was meant to make me hate myself. I especially hated that Mama used it indiscriminately. We’d be in the car after some gathering and she’d say, “Whoo! So-and-so’s baby got some nappy hair!” and shook her head while I cringed.


L’il Wayne claims, “Long hair, don’t care,” but I beg to differ. 

Long hair cares. A lot. At least, I did.

Long relaxed hair wasn’t just what I had, it was who I was for large portions of my life in predominantly white schools–”the Black girl with the long hair.” When I got the aforementioned T-Boz haircut, I’d grown tired of being boxed because of my hair. I didn’t really like the cut, but I was proud of myself for trying something new. 

A couple years later, inspired by Nia Long and emboldened by my first cut, I got a pixie, and soon realized that the easy, breezy ‘I woke up like this’  vibe  of the cut was a whole lie. Getting it to look good took time–to wrap a teeny, tiny ass curling iron around every strand of hair stacked in the back or it would stick out–and money–to maintain regular appointments for cuts and touch ups to stop new growth from making my own hair look like a poorly attached wig chilling on top of my head. I didn’t have either of these resources so I chose to grow out my hair again.  

When my natural hair obsession hit, my hair was long again, so the chop I was considering would, indeed, be big. 

When I told my boyfriend about my plans, he sicc’d his mama on me.

“Nooo! Nooo!” she cried. “Your strength is in your hair.”

I knew the strength she spoke of held more attributes than beauty, but I was twenty-two, and strength and beauty were often one and the same. I wondered what role my hair played in my bond with her snitching ass son and his attraction to me. Did my hair hold the strength of our relationship? 

My cousins just wanted me to do the damn thing already. They were tired of the saga of my back-and-forth.

Both of my fathers showed their usual support for my decisions. As far as they were concerned, it was my hair, my business. 

Mama, however, was invested. “You don’t want to do that,” she said. “What if you don’t like it?”

Leave it to a mother to feed your fears with her worry. 

“It’s hair. It’ll grow back,” I feigned nonchalance.

“That’ll take a long time,” she said. “What are you going to do until then?”

I flopped my shoulders in a flippant shrug. 

Nom nom nom went the fear. 


Still, I made the choice and booked the appointment–BC Day. 

My mistake was calling Mama on the way to the beauty shop hoping to drum up some encouragement. I knew she didn’t want me to do it, but thought she’d relent into support and offer something comforting when she heard the fear pinging in my excitement. “You’re not gonna like it,” she said. “Don’t do it. You’ll regret it.” She read my future with blunt certainty. 

Though even innocent babes could be on the receiving end of her critiques, she’d never called my hair nappy, at least not to my face. That wasn’t her way, the realization dawned on me. Her hard refusal to offer reassurance, her unwavering conviction that I would hate my natural hair carried the words she wouldn’t say: my hair was nappy, no good.

I knew this wasn’t true. 

But I didn’t want my boyfriend to break up with me. I wanted to know I was beautiful and receive the validation of this truth from others. I didn’t want to hear whispers of “That girl got some nappy hair” floating behind my back. 

What I didn’t want to do was exactly what I did. I told my beautician I wanted a touch up instead and cried while she applied the relaxer. 


I know my mother loves me. That she meant no harm. 

She was trying to shield me from the pain of my fears coming to life, all the brutal ways we’ve known this world to reveal its cruelty and prejudice against Black bodies, Black beauty. I understand this.

Seeing ourselves through white eyes renders Black women invisible or beastly, dismembered to the juiciest parts, chopped, and screwed so bad that freeing our nature becomes a danger that spurs our mothers to attack us before the world can. 

The problem with that protection is that it still hurts. 


I wore my long, straight strands in defeat. They were a constant reminder of the way I’d let fear, my own and my mother’s, bully me into denying myself of being the Black woman I wanted to be, an “I’m Blackety-Black and I’m Black, y’all” type of chick wearing her hair boldly, unapologetically, like a crown, like the  good thing it is, because all Black hair is. 

I vowed that nothing would stop me again; I didn’t give a damn who wouldn’t like it. 

As luck would have it, my boyfriend and I broke up while I was waiting to grow enough unprocessed hair to finally follow through with my big chop. I was also accepted into Indiana University’s M.F.A. program in creative writing and would be leaving in the fall. My doubts about finding a good Black beautician in the ultra whiteness of Bloomington gave me confidence about my decision to go natural and do my own hair. The money I’d save was very necessary since I’d be living on my own for the first time, paying all the bills with my fellowship money. And I was excited about the journey of learning my new hair, which was simply my old hair, my only hair, a realization that was wild when I thought about it.

The next time I sat in that salon chair, I was ready. I didn’t tell Mama I was doing it. Instead, I brought my cousin to cheerlead. 

My stomach dropped, heart leapt, breath caught as scissors crunched through my ponytail, snipped strands into my lap, and clippers buzzed around my ears. Then, a spin and stop. 

The sight of my reflection in the mirror–the exposed neck, my brown face unframed, the profile of my pea head beneath tight curls–brought air back to my lungs in a dramatic gasp.

“Awww!” My cousin smiled. “I like it. How do you feel?” 

I turned my head in the mirror, finding myself in multiple angles. “I like it!”

I rose from the chair and stepped over the old me, shed all over the floor. 


Mama didn’t like it. This was disappointing, but, of course, no surprise. What was  surprising was how easily I pivoted past her judgment. I’d lived my whole life craving my mother’s approval, but I was twenty-three, setting out on my own to write stories and live a life that was mine. Finding pride in my reflection had become more important than her praise, which was no longer required to anchor my self-confidence. 

Like me, Mama was a product of the racism that raised her. We’d simply lived in different generations and places that grew us different. This strangely twisted us to one another as I matured. 

A couple weeks before she and Daddy D would drive with me to Bloomington in a stuffed pick-up truck, Mama gifted me hefty bottles of fancy shampoo and conditioner. “They said it’s supposed to be good for natural hair,” she said, squinting at the shampoo’s label for the truth of this claim. “Anyway, it should last you for a while,” she set the bottle on the kitchen table with a thud. 

“Thank you.” I hugged her and felt nostalgic for the days when she cared for my hair. 

I longed for a return to my first beginning, for her to grease my scalp with a small tub of yellow hair grease, to sit between her knees feeling safe and loved, to know only that my hair, our relationship, everything was good.  

Filed under: Unfolding Inheritance


Kristen Gentry is the author of Mama Said. She received her MFA from Indiana University. Her award-winning fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Jabberwock Review, and other journals. She is a VONA and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference alumna, former Director of Creative Writing at SUNY Geneseo, and a member of the inaugural Poets & Writers publicity incubator for debut writers. She lives and writes in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.