Editor’s note: the following excerpt is adapted from Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself,by Ylonda Gault Caviness. © 2015 by Ylonda Gault Caviness. Jeremy P. Tarcher Books, Penguin Group USA, Penguin Random House.
By YOLANDA GAULT CAVINESS
My baby’s tresses had me stressing. I began to pray for kinks—day and night.
For black women, hair is not just something that grows out of your head. In many ways, it can define your place in the world. Now don’t shoot the messenger; I’m just being honest. Many of us struggle into adulthood with hair issues. Here’s the thing, I wanted Trinity’s hair to be pretty. To my mind, that would be one less thing for her to worry about. It was a given that she’d—at some point—have to grapple what I call the Three B’s of becoming a young woman: Booty, Boobs, and Bearing—though not necessarily in that order and by no means limited to these three areas.
For me, booty—or the lack thereof—was one of the first orders of adolescent business. Mama sent us to Catholic school; I started to notice that not everyone’s uniform lay flat in the back, as mine did. When Wanda and Darlene walked up to the blackboard, their skirts danced in a rhythmic back-and-forth motion—giving them a womanly swagger I craved. For months I worked to emulate the gait that sent the blue and green plaid print a-flapping, but I could never quite perfect it. And the effort was draining.
Then it hit me: What Wanda and Darlene and them have going on was not a practiced strut; it was a big butt. I thought all that booty was a handy accessory, but they hated carrying all that trunk junk. They lamented the fact that boys and men stared at it all the time. Same with boobs—because, as you may have guessed, Darlene and Wanda were the first bra-wearers in my crew.
Few of us are completely happy with our booties and boobies, especially early on. Suffice it say, everything about our bodies is “too” something. So we wait. We reach womanhood and go out into the world—praying that Spanx, underwire, and a little help from Victoria will keep our secrets.
But then that’s just the outside. I thought, if my daughters’ lives were anything like mine, the third B would pose even bigger problems. See as it just so happens, I move about the world with a certain bearing that often seems to confound folks. I appear supremely confident to most (I’m really not). I’ve been told I have a proud air (that one is true). Some call it regal (thing is, I have a freakishly long neck—and mama always made me stand straight).
Now all this may seem unimportant, but it is no small matter. In my experience (and I have been walking the earth forty-odd years) people like to be able to put a woman—especially a black woman—in a slot. Is she Aunt Jemima? Is she bookish? Is she angry? Is she slutty? People don’t like it when they can’t figure you out. It’s not enough for most women to just “be.” Despite Yoncey’s claim that “Girls run the world,” sadly we don’t. Men do. So then we have to learn how to conduct ourselves in the world in a way that gets us noticed enough to nab the coveted scholarship or promotion—but not too noticed that we pose a threat. We’ve gotta grab the attention of the men who hold power, but not so much that they end up grabbing on us. We have to find a way to show off our smarts without being seen as show-offs. But then—and here’s the rub—most decision-makers, whether they are men or women, have a love-hate relationship with smart women. As Run-DMC will attest, “It’s tricky” for sisters like me. We have to dance a dicey two-step to pepper meetings with just enough intelligence to keep things stimulating but not so much that a potential boss might find intimidating.
Rightly or wrongly, I reckoned my girls would face the same issues. And since I brought her into this world—sorta, kinda, if you downplay the way she bolted out of me—I wanted Trinity, both my daughters, to have an easier life than mine. All mothers want that for their children. My black woman-child did not need one more ingredient for the world to stir into its already-ample jug of hater-ade.
I’ve got to keep it real—this hair thing could totally tip the scales against Baby Girl and jack up her future. Importantly, it could also lead to an identity—not to mention—fashion crisis. Seriously, what does straight hair even do? Just lies down all the time with no sass, no point of view. That’s not my child. She may be only weeks old, but she is no milquetoast kind of girl. Besides, for the better part of my adulthood, I myself had been rocking my natural-born naps (with varying degrees of “texturizing” success). And I rather liked it. As my offspring, it seemed only right that she look like as though she actually shared my DNA. I know it seems shallow, but I’m just keeping it real. I didn’t want to be one of those mothers pushing their baby in the stroller only to be asked, “Are you the nanny?” Straight, white-looking hair would be a problem. Okay?
Thank heaven that the course and exceedingly dominant Mandingo genes from my side of the family prevailed. Slowly, but surely, my baby’s hair started to thicken and curl quite nicely—thank you very much.
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Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.