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.
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.