Cicely Tyson and Viola Davis ~ The Skinny

Ophelia (Cicely Tyson) runs the comb through Annalise's hair (Viola Davis)

Ophelia (Cicely Tyson) runs the comb through Annalise’s hair (Viola Davis)

How to Get Away With Murder
ABC 9/8 CST ~ “Mama Here Now”

It was a most intimate moment on primetime television last Thursday night: daughter-between-momma’s-legs getting her hair parted, her scalp scratched, and her hair combed. Annalise Keating, Esq. (Viola Davis), the fierce instructor of criminal law, dresses to the nines and leads a cadre of bright students who sit at her feet in Shonda Rhimes’s drama How to Get Away With Murder. Then, there is Anna Mae, the abused child who never received an acknowledgement from her momma that something went wrong that night when the uncle came to stay. So Anna Mae grows up and transforms herself into Annalise, and hides under a wig the hair that the uncle touched when something went wrong that night. Momma Ophelia (Cicely Tyson) knows the truth; so, Anna Mae can come out now, and let her hair be.

Momma Ophelia went for Anna Mae’s natural as she observed (and I paraphrase), “come here let me get at your hair; your kitchen is tight.” That gesture accompanied by a gentle command was all too familiar (as well as the ‘kitchen’ code) because it reminded me of my mother’s call for me to sit in the chair to let her “run the comb” through my hair when I came home for a visit. Not one thing was wrong with my hair, but I intuited as I answered her call that mom wished to keep going the ritual of dressing the hair of her eldest daughter as she had done for her three girls from the time we came out of her womb.

Yes, it was a ritual. Every night, mother sat on her bed and called us one-by-one to sit between her legs on the floor. There, she would part our hair, apply Ultra Sheen or Royal Crown to the scalp, brush and comb our tresses, patiently plait our hair, and wrap up her handi-work to make sure each plait stayed in place. In the morning, she untied our wrap, brushed our edges, accentuated the plaits with barrettes or ribbons, and prepared us for school or church. When we grew into teenagers, the time came for us to wear our hair down and in curls. In other words, we were ready for the press and curl. My sisters and I would wash our hair on Friday night, plait it up, and then loosen the tresses early Saturday morning for them to air dry as we did our chores. That’s right: no hair dryer nor blow dryer. Then, Saturday night, mom parted our hair into sections. As she gently glided the hot comb through our hair, she told stories of something or someone or other, and we would nod, or laugh, or attend with “really?” “you’ve got that right”, and so on and so forth. The result? A fresh press we would roll up with pink Goody sponge rollers. It never was a painful process as most women with these memories often posit; momma had a gentle hand, and this home salon ritual made possible a kind of bonding between my mother and her daughters.

"Don't ya'll know a VIP when you see one?" Momma Ophelia

“Don’t ya’ll know a VIP when you see one?” Momma Ophelia

My heart saddens–almost breaks–as I imagine what mother must have felt when we, in our young adult years with a little money in our pockets from our first jobs, released her hands from our hair in favor of a hair salon and a beautician–a stranger–who applied the Revlon mild perm to our scalp, shampooed then wet set our tresses, and put us under the dryer for the heat to make our curls. I guess that is why I obliged her every command to let her “run the comb through it” on my treks home when I began to let my hair grow into its natural state.

The sound of Momma Ophelia’s comb through her daughter’s hair sent me. It did, just as hearing the sound of the comb made from wood Sethe (Oprah Winfrey) pulled through Denver’s (Kimberley Elise) hair in front of a cackling fire in the movie Beloved moved me; or, the memory of the scene in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God when Teacake scratches the dandruff from the scalp of Janie’s head made my heart sing. It wasn’t just the combing of Anna Mae’s hair. No. The storytelling Momma Ophelia brought along with it added depth and substance to the Annalise’s onscreen presence. Even more significant, her revelation released her daughter from the night terrors brought on by an abusive relative her little girl experienced that only a “long match and a very flammable hooch” could handle. That Annalise, a grown and well-accomplished woman, allowed her mother to be momma initiated the process for Anna Mae’s healing, as only a momma’s validation of her little girl’s pain could do–all of this the night she dropped down in between her momma’s legs on the floor in her house.

Last Thursday night brought that intimate moment and, in that moment, I missed my momma calling for me to run the comb and her hands through my hair.

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