Monday, November 9, 2009

The Joys (and Pains!) of Kinky, Curly Black Girl Hair



By DENENE MILLNER

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?

To read the rest of my take on this whole Angelina/Zahara/Black Girl Hair Care saga, click HERE to check out my latest blog on Parenting.com.



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8 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.

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  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!

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  3. 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.

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  4. @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!

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  5. 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!

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  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.

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  7. 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.

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  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!

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