The torture usually came on Saturday evenings, in the kitchen. I’d be sitting on a stack of thick yellow phone books and a pillow, squished between my mother’s knees; she’d be perched on the hard wooden kitchen chair, bent over and leaning in at some ungodly angle, trying hard to tame the kinky curls at the nape of my neck with gobs of thick grease and a scorching hot comb.

I can still hear the sizzle of the comb on my hair and smell the thick, greasy, burnt hair scent clinging in my nose. I can’t tell you which hurt worse: The fire-red hot straightening comb or the pop my mom would give me with the wide-tooth plastic comb for not being still or screaming out in pain or breathing while she tried to “straighten my naps.”

From there, it just got worse. Like when my Aunt Sarah would braid my hair into cornrows so tight I couldn’t see straight. And when my mom paid a professional hairstylist to have my hair “relaxed” with skin-burning lye. And then there was that unfortunate time when my dad, left in charge of my hair while my mom spent a few weeks in the hospital, gave me a jherri curl. He read the directions off the box and went to work right there in the middle of the linoleum floor, just me and him.

Right.

This is the story of all-too-many brown girls everywhere — a story that some of us African American moms are desperately trying to change with our generation of daughters.

Which is why there was such an uproar recently when Newsweek’s Allison Samuels openly criticized Angelina Jolie, a white mom, for letting her adopted, Ethiopian-born daughter, Zahara Jolie-Pitt, sport hair Samuels said was “wild and unstyled, uncombed and dry. Basically: a ‘hot mess.’”

Now, I’m not going to jump in the middle of the raucous debate sweeping like wildfire through the internet; there’s been enough piling on from both sides of the issue without me adding to it (Should Zahara’s hair be wild and carefree? Should Angie take a black hair care class or two so she can “tame” Zahara’s hair? Why are we criticizing a 4-year-old’s hairstyle anyway?)

But I will say that even as an African American mom, it’s not easy being in charge of two heads of kinky, curly hair — not including my own — with little information, great trepidation, and horrible memories of the Saturday night torture. There were no books out there to help me figure it out when my girls were babies; all of the information in the parenting books focused on hair and skin that didn’t look or feel like my girls’. I mean, I knew everything there was to know about how to care for a baby with thin, blonde hair, and it seemed like every product in the kids’ shampoo section was made specifically for them. But what was I supposed to put in my baby’s hair? What would keep it from drying out? How was I supposed to comb it? What was I supposed to do as the texture changed, sometimes just on one side of her head? Was it safe to braid it? Pull it into puffs? Put barrettes in it? And what was a nice, curt, way of telling my mom’s friends that my kid’s hair was in an Afro, sans braids/puffs/hairclips/lye because I liked it that way and it was actually better for her?

Honestly, there still aren’t any black children’s hair care books out that explain it all, and while there are a plethora of black hair care blogs online (I’m a HUGE fan of afrobella.com), mostly they focus on grown folk hair, not the delicate but thick tendrils of black children. Simply put: Even if Angelina wanted to find new ways to care for and style her African baby girl’s hair, surely, she’d be at a loss, ‘cause I sure am.

And so we are left to our own devices. Black child hair care ain’t easy.

Mostly, my girls wear their hair in twists, though occasionally, I’ll have it pressed so that I can have their ends clipped. When it comes to maintenance, their hair care tolerance is light years different. Lila screams holy hell when I announce that her hair will need washing sometime in the next month; she’s truly the most tender-headed child on the planet. The girl can go three weeks with the same twists — lint and dried grass and all manner of rug remnants intertwined in her luscious locks — 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 baby shampoo over her curly hair. The girl fell asleep like she was in a spa. I can pull it, twist it, scratch it, and 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.

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 — whether loose and wild and free, or teased into a puff or twirled into two-stranded twists like those rocked by Malia Obama — 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 twist and part and braid. And I don’t complain. At least not to my girls. Because I want — need! — them to know that their hair is beautiful just the way it is, no matter what other people think about it, no matter how many think it should be “tamed.”

Beautiful indeed. Every. Single. Strand.

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15 Comments

  1. PREACH! I'm guilty of carrying out that famous pop. But that was then. Now, I am much more patient and aware of the message that I send my little girl concerning her bountiful mane. We have been having so much fun with it, doing twists, and twist outs, and her famous afro puff is still in rotation too. I listen to her, and let her look at a collection of natural styles and pick which she'd like to try. I'm still trying to talk her into a braided mohawk, lol.

  2. I wish that all the world would read this post. Chris Rock has brought lots of attention to the black womans hair woes and my white friends have been bombarding me with questions about my 'natural' hair. The funny thing is that white people seem to love my natural hair but it has been the hardest getting acceptance from my african american brothers and sisters. What's that about? We as AA women need to embrace our God given beauty….by any means necessary! We were blessed with these locs for a reason and shouldn't be ashamed to flaunt them!

  3. Jewelry Rockstar

    I was criticized my daycare workers for not putting my 6 month old's hair in pony tails or braids or something. I thought it was fine to let it be an afro on her head.

    Anyway since then I have spent many hours doing hair for two little girls with natural hair. I sent my daughters home for a month one summer and the oldest came back with 4 or 5 inches less hair because of getting it straightened everyday. This year I was forced to put it in braid extensions, so no one would touch it. I couldn't let the discuss for natural hair that my sister has take anymore inches from my baby's hair.

  4. MBB Founder and Editor Denene Millner

    @MsBarB: You know I'm a HUGE fan of baby girl's HUGE afro puff, and the braided mohawk would be straight fire on her! If you do it, post pictures—I need to see how to do it; it would look adorable on Lila! Come to think of it, wouldn't that be super cute on Mari, too? I could braid the sides up, and then twist the ends… hmmm… if I do it, I'll post pix!

    @Shanita: OMG—you're SO right! Whenever I wear my hair natural, white folks literally stop me to tell me how beautiful it is, but black folks give me hella shade! What IS that?! First of all, I'm grown. I'll wear my hair how I please, mkay? Secondly, I'm not judging you for your weaves/relaxers, so don't judge me for what I do with my own head of hair!

    @Rockstar: Girl, when Lila was a baby, she wore her hair EXACTLY like Zahara's—in a curly, beautiful afro—and I got SO much grief from my mom's friends. They just couldn't stand that I wasn't combing/braiding/putting barrettes in her hair. And you're right: Who wants to fight with family over such a hot-button topic? But then, why do we have to fight?! I'm glad you figured out a solution to get around the issue. Keep doing what you do!

  5. Diva Ma @ Mommy Fabulous

    I'm guilty! My baby is 5 and I have her sit through an hour of flat ironing. I just can't do the "natural" thing as I love my hair straight. I love her hair straight. It's easier and more manageable. Like everything It's about personal preference. To each sista, her own!

  6. "To each sista her own!" is the best take-away from all of this, in my opinion. It straight irks me when women get judgmental about what we do to each others (and our daughters' hair). Sure, I personally would not perm my 5 or 3 year old daughters' hair, but that's ME, and I get to choose, as does every other mother out there. Manageability is so important, that's why my daughters have locs. But if someone else straightens, perms, braids, bantu knots, etc…more power to them! Fortunately, we do have resources (on and offline) now that can help us take care of our brown babies (and our own) crowns of glory without thinking that a relaxer is the only viable option.

  7. T.Allen-Mercado

    I'm guilty of having the "unkempt" baby/ies. There was nothing even closely resembling a hairstyle going on around here for years, a cue taken from my mother's own progressive hippie handbook. Children need to be children they aren't show ponies. Of course as they've gotten older and started shaping their identities, we have all manner of braids and Halfro puffs (my oldest came up with this term for their mixed race manes). I currenty wear my hair relaxed, I've been shaven, natural, braided etc. it's really just hair for me. But, I'd never chemically alter my daughter's hair it was a choice I made as an adult and I'm showing her that same respect.

  8. My daughter's hair grows at about 4 inches a month so chile has a lot of hair. At 3, her hair is down the middle of her back, just a glorious cascade of curls. I've heard so many snickers and helpful offers to "do her hair."

    "You need me to braid it?" my sister-in-law asks me EVERY.SINGLE.TIME she sees us. I'm like, "No, I didn't need you to braid it yesterday, I don't need you to braid it today. Thanks."

    My go-to item for her was the headband. Put a little conditioner on her hair and scalp, slap a headband on her, finger comb it and go. She looked precious. But, like you all mentioned, because she didn't have the hair bows and plastic little beads everywhere, her hair wasn't done. I want my daughter to love her hair just as it is, something that it took 23 years for me to do. The words "good hair" are never mentioned in my house or in my presence.

    Nice work, Denene!

  9. I’m white, and I love the way natural hair looks on Black women. I always wish that I had gotten the curly hair so typical of my people (I’m Jewish), but I’ve always had straight hair. Other side of the family’s got what we call “Jew-fros”, lol.

    It’s amazing how little white women know about what black women do to their hair and why, and how black hair is so different to care for than “typical” white hair.

  10. I am about to tell you my story, and here it is: I’m white, and i’m a man. With long, african hair a lot of people around me keep asking “wow, where does this hair comes from ? ” and remarks like “your hair is a mess” in high school, when i started feeling like letting them grow. Anyway, any “standard” salon would not give me a good-looking haircut. Because the girls in these salons were trained on pretty usual hair, and just attributed this super-curly texture and lots of knots to zero care … and i’d always end up with hair full of styling gel, and the next day … weird-looking haircut, small glasses and acne. Looking like a complete dweeb.

    It has pretty much printed inside my head that my hair was non-acceptable. Actually, my parents pounded a lot of wrong things into my head… but that’s another story, and let’s get back on the “me and my hair” saga.

    At some point i just realized that my hair was actually one of my best feature, when i started dating girls and a lot of them (if not all) always told me my hair was beautiful, and they loved it. And i can’t help but remember a mom telling me, out of the blue, that my hair was beautiful, just like his son’s. Somehow, it got printed in my head.

    Long story short, i realized how much i loved my hair (amongst a lot of things like who i was) and realized it was up to me to unleash their full potential.

    And so, here i am, looking for answers. How should I take care of this big, beautiful hair of mine, because it might look fantastic. Check Guthrie Govan on youtube, i have this exact same hair (except it’s a bit shorter), and it looks great, especially since i work in the “music business or whatever” and so i’m free to have the hair i want to have (unusual looks are pretty standard anyway in this “industry”) .

    So … i’m printing a few articles, and i’m starting to get this hair into shape !

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