By DENENE MILLNER
Good grief, why didn’t anybody warn me? I mean, I had a bazillion dolls most of them black with coarse hair that I spent hours combing and washing and pulling into ponytails and meticulously parting into perfect and perfectly fabulous rows of cornrows. Sometimes a piece of brown paper bag or a spare sponge roller could coax a curl or two, you know, for special occasions. An assortment of pomades (Afro Sheen and Dax were ready for the sneaking in the bathroom cabinet), Afro picks, rat-tails, and wide-tooth combs, and of course ribbons and beads, made my dolls Ebony Fashion Fair runway-ready. Their hair looked good, okay? And between every brush stroke/twist/hair clipping/braid, I plotted, man. I was going to have babies and those babies would be girls, and those girls would wear beautiful dresses and sit quietly while I weaved their natural hair into incredible hairstyles that would make them the envy of grade schoolers everywhere.
I got what I’d been begging God for since the day I learned how to braid hair at age five: two girls with a lotta hair I can comb. Except my girls don’t sit still like my dolls did. Their hair and scalp isn’t made of plastic and synthetic fibers. I can’t brace them between my knees and pull it and twist it and tug at it. I’m charged with taking great care of two heads of kinky, curly hair not including my own with little information and great trepidation, even after all these years. There were no books out there to help me figure it out when they were babies. And there still aren’t any black children’s hair care books out now. Taking care of all this hair is not easy.
If I just look at Lila’s head, or, Heaven forbid, announce that her hair will need washing sometime in the next month, she screams holy hell like I just told her the moment all 7-year-olds will be hung upside down by their toenails is imminent. The girl can go three weeks with the same twists—lint and dried grass and all manner of rug remnants intertwined in her luscious locs—and not give a rat’s booty if it looks like complete madness. Just please, don’t say you’re going to comb it.
Mari is much easier. I still remember the first time Nick and I washed her hair; she wasn’t even a week old, swaddled in a blanket, nestled in Nick’s big hands. He held her head under the stream of warm water in the kitchen sink, and I rubbed Johnson’s Baby Shampoo over her curly hair. The girl fell asleep like she was in a spa. I can pull it, twist it, scratch it, the kid is cool. But she’s got a dry scalp condition that keeps me workin’ day and night trying to figure out how to keep her head moisturized, shiny and healthy and natural. Some weeks, I have to wash, condition, and style her hair twice, almost two hours worth of work at each sitting.
I’ve spent exorbitant amounts of cash on hair products that promised miracles. When those didn’t work, I put together my own rosemary oil, Vitamin E, glycerin, and water elixirs for Mari’s hair, and shea butter and coconut oil concoctions for Lila’s—mixtures wholly conjured up from a patchwork of advice and internet research on how to care for African American hair. There’s plenty information about grown folk hair. Hardly anything about the tender tendrils of little brown girls.
And when I’m not researching and combing, I’m talking to my babies—constantly talking. About how wonderful it is to have natural hair, with its gloriously kinky, curly, poofy texture soft like cotton, strong enough to break the teeth of a comb. How it doesn’t need to swing to be beautiful. That afros are the fire.
Nobody tells little black girls such things.
No, we grow up with our own people telling us how nappy our head is, and mamas popping us in the neck for crying when all that tugging at our strong hair/tender scalps gets to hurting, and watching TV and magazine ads celebrate little brown girls with fine, loosely-curled, other hair. Brought up to believe this hair is a chore and a burden.
And so I wash and condition and massage and mix elixirs and spray and oil and pull and twist and part and braid. And I don’t complain. At least not to my girls.
They are not the dolls from when I was little, this is true. But they are dolls, the two of them, and their hair is beautiful.
Every. Single. Strand.