This poem came from the September 4, 2012 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from siege and wyld_dandelyon. It also fills the "clean" square on my Cottoncandy_bingo card. It has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette. This poem belongs to The Steamsmith series, and you can explore that further on the Serial Poetry page.
Read about bantu knots. Afro-textured hair comes with a lot of political baggage, but the styling can serve as female bonding. This is the British spellchecker that I used.
When Maryam is a little girl,
her mother washes her hair
and carefully twines the springy curls
into snug knots all over her head.
"These are bantu knots,"
"Our ancestors in Africa wore them.
The queens there put up their hair
in rings of pure gold."
Maryam looks at her mother's hands,
so much darker than her own.
"What about our British ancestors?"
"Your British ancestors,"
Sarah says, "wore hairpins of gold
and put up their hair in French twists."
Maryam grows up between worlds --
between Africa and Britain,
between black and white,
between servant and nobility.
She is as much boyish as girlish,
as much deviltry as duty.
Maryam learns what the world expects of her
and decides what she will deliver.
She learns about Queen and country,
studies alchemy and politics,
dances between rights and responsibilities.
She learns why her parents are not married --
the tragedy of her father's lost wife,
the grace of her mother's comfort,
their choice not to change who they are
for anyone else's expectations.
Maryam learns to be herself,
first and last and always.
When Maryam is a young woman,
she comes home to visit as often as she can.
Then her mother washes her hair
until it squeaks through the rosewood comb,
twists the dark curls into bantu knots
and fastens them with little brass rings.
"Why choose brass?"
Sarah asks Maryam the first time.
"Brass as in money, brass as in courage,"
Maryam replies. "Brass and not gold
because I am a steamsmith and not a queen.
Brass rings that I took from an old engine
and polished to a shine again."
Sarah laughs, deep belling notes
that Maryam remembers from her childhood.
"You got brass, all right," Sarah says,
running her fingers over the rings and the knots.
Maryam's hair is never all one thing or the other:
the story of her life.