Wednesday, March 26, 2008

How White Women Taught Me to Love Black Hair

Ok, this is a big thing for me to admit. And it's surprising because it's something I just discovered today.

Now, I've discussed hair here before - and I'm sure I'll discuss it again. Hair is a big thing for me as it is for all women - particularly Black women. Culturally, we have all kinds of hang-ups about hair. There's just no getting around it. It's ingrained in us from the time we're young. And honestly - there are a whole LOT of attitudes that Black women have about hair, that we just need to get past.

I tend to think that because I'm aware of these issues, that I am beyond them. But I'm not. I've got my own issues about hair - proof of which being that I cut all my hair off last summer because I wasn't feeling right with long hair - and since then I've felt even worse with short hair. But that's a whole other story.

Now, when I was a kid, I never got to wear my hair out. It was always contained in ponytails that were either twisted or braided - or on very special occasions rolled into great, big "banana curls." But my hair was never free and un-contained. Ever. It was long and curly and tangled easily and was never allowed to roam free. I hated it and when I graduated from elementary school I had it all cut off.

As an adult, looking at other children, I, surprisingly (when I look back on it) always preferred to see little girls with their hair contained as well. You'd think that, based on my own experience, I would have liked to see little girls with their hair out. But it always looked unruly and haphazard to me.

Now, for the most part, it's rare to see Black girls with their hair out. In fact in my experience, whenever I saw a Black girls with her hair out and all over her head it would turn out that they had a white mother. And the assumption was always that the reason the girl's hair was out was because her mother didn't have the faintest clue about how to handle hair with some texture to it.

Now, with my own experience of hating wearing the same 3 hairstyles for the majority of my childhood, but with the culturally ingrained preference for seeing girls with their hair neat and orderly - when Sugar was born I became an expert at getting creative with hairstyles. Braids, cornrows, twists, elaborate series of connected or disconnected ponytails, different colored barrettes, bands, beads and clips. I really had a handle on her hair and I got compliments on it everywhere I went. People stopped me in the street to ask me how I got her to hold still for these styles. Friends begged me to teach them how to do their kid's hair.

I discovered that it wasn't only White women who didn't have much of a clue about how to style textured hair - many Black women didn't have a clue either. They'd been going to hairdressers for so long that they didn't even know how to do their own hair - much less their daughter's. And many of them had been wearing their hair in a processed style for so long that they had no clue about how to deal with naturally textured hair.

For a long time, I nurtured the idea of writing a book, or creating a video or teaching lessons on how to do hair. It's an idea I still haven't really let go of.

But then a while back, I suddenly realized that I NEVER let Sugar wear her hair just out. Completely out - no twists or other manipulations of her hair. And I realized that despite the fact that I gave wonderful lip service to the idea of teaching Sugar to love her hair - that I was sending just the opposite message by making her believe that her hair was just too unruly to be left to it's own devices. So, on occasion I started letting her wear it out. And then when Spice was born, I made the decision to do the same with her.

With both girls, their hair looks the most beautiful and is the most manageable for wearing out when it's freshly washed. Textured hair desperately needs moisture - and when it gets it, it follows it's own twists and turns beautifully - catching the light and bouncing and just being ALIVE.

Well, last night, I washed Spice's hair. And I decided that I would just let her wear it out for a couple of days. So I put some conditioner in it and let it be. Today her head was filled with crazy, twisty beautiful curls when she woke up. I did nothing more than stick some barrettes in to hold it out of her eyes and let her go.

She LOVED it and so did I. And, as usual, I started wondering why I didn't do this more often.

And I flashed back to how I used to think about girls with their hair out and wild like Spice's. And how it would make me cringe and want to teach the mother how to take care of her child's hair.

And I thought about how maybe, in some cases, those White women I saw with their kids hair out and wild, weren't leaving it like that because they didn't know what to do - but maybe they were leaving it like that because they enjoyed the natural beauty of it.

And I realized, that this is probably very true. White women don't have the hang-ups Black women do about feeling the need to mold, meld, contain and control hair. Not that White women don't have hair issue of their own - but honestly they are not nearly as extensive. And I'm not even talking about the politics of hair.

A white woman can have a child with tons of texture in their hair and just enjoy the beauty of it without feeling compelled to want to DO it. And the beauty of it has begun to transcend the personal and become part of American culture through advertising and media. Pick up any catalog for kids clothes, any flyer for the Children's Place or Old Navy or Hannah Anderson or Land's End and you will find a picture of a Black girl with her hair out and free and twisting, curling, dancing to it's own beat.

And I realized that these ads, these children whom I see, they've broken through my own upbringing to let me see the beauty of my own girls' hair. To show me that their hair isn't only pretty when it's pulled and twisted and braided - but that it's even more stunning when it's out and curling and free.

So I'm thanking every White woman with a child with naturally curly, nappy, kinky, textured hair who either didn't know how or didn't want to DO it and so let it go free - showing me that if I want to get over these hair hang-ups one of the first things I need to do is stop tying up my kids' hair all the time.

Spice says, "blech" to ponytails and braids - she loves that wild hair and so do I!


Ros said...

AACK! I have a bunch of the same judgments about "undone" hair, and I've commented more than once that I'm bringing a comb & a jar of grease to school to do some girl's hair. But Spice's hair looks fantastic out. And some girls at the high school where I work wear their hair free -- free and conditioned I can deal with. What irritates me is the hair that looks like it's been straightened and then just combed back, or someone slapped a headband on. You know, the hair that when you comb your fingers through it, you can make it stand up straight. I'm guessing it's over-processed, under-moisturized hair. Sigh, I have a few hair hang-ups too, obviously.

You know how for some cultural groups, feeding people shows love? Do you think we interpret intricately done hair as love too?

The Bear Maiden said...

I kind of agree with Ros' point that intricately done hair is love... as evidenced by the "crazy braid" trend in young AfricanAmerican (and some Hispanic) men. Cuz those braids are *usually* done by girlfriends or wives or sisters... who love to play in a man's hair.

And I do love the trend of little brown girls with a thousand little braids with beads or barrettes... especially when they are all different colors, and the little girls dress or sweater has all the same colors. And how happy those little girls are as they skip along with the barrettes "clacking" in their ear.

Although I have awful memories of my mom tugging at my hair (I was extremely tenderheaded) and how happy I was when Poppy cut it all off and I wore a "natural".

And you know I love that beast my Sun has--he calls it his brother. But I admit I'm afraid of the beast. I tame that bitch as best I can. He would prefer it out, though... but I tell him when can deal with it, he's welcome to it...

Fat Lady said...

Ros, I agree about cringing at unkempt hair. But the hair you describe is hair that isn't cared for - that's neglected, and unloved. That hair now makes me sad. It's had the life fried out of it to try to shape it into something it's not and then it's still tossed aside. Without being too radical about hair - I think there's at least a little self-hatred in that. Not that I think that processing hair is always a sign of self-hatred - but there is a lot of sadness in the prevalence of it.

And without projecting too much of my own crap onto people I've never even met, I wonder if there's kind of frustration and hopelessness in that kind of neglected hair. I know I've gone through the trouble of having my hair chemically straightened, or of using heat to straighten Sugar's hair and then had it still not cooperate - still try to puff up, curl, "go back" and there's this feeling of "fuck it, why bother?" And then you don't want to do it at all.

Well cared for hair, though, whether processed or natural is beautiful. And I think that well cared for hair can be a sign of love. Taking the time to care for someone's hair - whether that means styling it intricately, or taking the time to condition and comb through it in it's natural state - takes much love and patience.

But, I know with me, that making sure Sugar's hair was always "done" was more from a sense of social pressure than a desire to express my love for her. I honestly felt that the shame of being caught out there by another Black mom with my kid's hair a mess was one of the most embarrassing things that could happen.

And even now that I've chosen to let my girls wear their hair completely natural at times - I always have a little apprehension about what other Black women will say about it.

My family used to give me hell for it. Now they don't say anything when the girls have their hair out, but the next time they see it done, they'll make a big deal about how nice it looks and will say things like, "I didn't know your mommy could do your hair so nicely."


Bear Maiden, I love little girls with beads and braids and barrettes too. And I certainly have gone through phases where Sugar's barrettes HAD to match her outfit. At one point I went so far as to change the barrettes if she dirtied her clothes and had to change them in the middle of the day. But that used to be the only thing that looked right to me. I couldn't stand to see little girls with their hair free. Now I love both options.

Personally I think all kids are tenderheaded. It HURTS to have tangles worked through. And I think back in the day parents really didn't bother to figure out ways of combing through hair to make it hurt less - at least no one in my family did. They'd stick the comb in close to the scalp and yank it through - pulling and prickling all the way down. I've found a few techniques that make it hurt less for my girls - though they still complain. It's just what kids do. But things little things like starting at the ends and working up, and not combing hair dry make a world of difference.

The Sun's hair is a bit of an enigma or me. I am convinced that there's a product out there that can domesticate the beast if not completely tame it. I'm sure that if I could have a whole day with it, I'd find just the right way to deal with it so that it could be worn out without fear of it becoming irreparably tangled.

Ginger said...

Well here's a white woman thanking you for your advice. It has helped both Piper and I too work through her tangles.

Now I'll have to say that there are days I don't comb it. And I don't think it's about not loving or caring. It's about being just too tired to mess with it. And she needs that too. She needs days when I'm not spending an hour fussing over her hair. And I really did consider just letting it dread. I love dreads, and know that for many they do require care. Yeah there are the dreads that just get nasty from lack of attention but there are dreads that are loved and fussed over too. But for now we'll stick to lots of conditioner and some days of just freedom:)

And I am loving Spice's wild hair!

The Bear Maiden said...

LOL. Fat Lady, I triple-dog-dare you to mess with his hair. Remember... it's not just "our" hair (whatever that means...) but it's half Albanian hair, and that's a whole other kettle of fish. His dad's hair (and his aunt's) is extremely dense, and each strand is extremely thick. Almost wiry, and very very strong. I used to marvel at the texture of his father's hair. I've never seen anything like it.

And I love your girls hair. No matter whether it's out or bound, it looks loved to me.

Yolanda said...

She has a beautiful head of hair- love it! 7 years ago I decided to stop wearing chemicals in my hair because I realized that if I ever had a daughter I wanted her to love and appreciate her hair just as it grows out of her head since in my 26 years of life I had no clue of what that felt like. I never did have any girls but love my hair just how it is (though I do want to lock it eventually). I can't even imagine the comments that must come from behind my back with my free and wild fro at times but that's their issue not mine. You are doing a wonderful job teaching your girls so early just how beautiful (and not problematic) their hair truly is.

Doulala said...

Her hair looks absolutely beautiful!

Mom said...

I agree. Blech to ponytails and braids. Lizzie's hair is a walking natural disaster, no processing needed. She has multiple cowlicks and a profusion of curls that makes her hair stand up all over the place. We went through a phase where we let it go and it was WILD. Now we are in teh phase of wetting and gelling and clipping every morning. I HATE it! I'm not a hair person. My idea of doing my hair is brushing it (most of the time, some times, that has to go too) and slapping in scruncy if it gets in my face. I can (well could before I got it cut and am now trying desperately to grow it back out) literally do my hair at a stop light while taking C to school, that is how minimal the effort I put forth it.

We had cut Lizzie's hair short but she is sensitive to being called a boy and with her "hand me down" clothes from her brother and short hair, it was happening alot. She begged (remember she isn't even 3 yet) to grow her out for ponies so now we have to do something with it everyday :(