When rocking my daughter to sleep, I often spend time delighting in the patterns her hair makes on her head. Like many people, her curl pattern is not uniform; it’s looser in the front and top, creating a soft crown of hair that I love to touch. The hair in the back is more tightly wound, creating beautiful coils that dot her scalp. The hair on the sides gently fan out in little waves, framing her tiny ears.
When I take her out in public, however, I sometimes forget to see the beauty of her hair, scanning as I am for the disapproval of others. I find myself apologizing for the lint that her curls tend to trap. If she’s just come from her father’s care, I interrogate him: “did you brush it before you left?!?” In response to suggestions that her hair is short, I tensely explain, “it is growing; it’s just curly, so you can’t tell.” The well-intentioned offers by relatives to “cornrow it so that it can grow” do not help. In response, my back stiffens, and I plaster a smile on my face: “oh no; she’ll never sit for that.”
And, she won’t sit for it. My 15-month old doesn’t like to be restrained, and since learning to walk and run, she doesn’t have to be. But the truth is, I don’t want her hair braided or corn-rowed, because I like her poofy little afro. Her short hair isn’t bothering her none, and it certainly doesn’t bother me. My daughter is beautiful every day, whether her hair is long or short, lint-speckled or fresh from a washing, curled tight or billowed around her head like a halo.
I wish I could tell people this. Tell white folks who have no experience with black hair that her coils are near perfect in their uniformity; that although more complicated to handle, black hair is the most versatile in the world. Tell black folks who should know better that black hair needs moisture, not grease; gentle detangling, not too-tight cornrows; that every kink, standing for itself, does not have to be brushed out. I’d like to tell everyone to abandon their obsession with long locks for my girl; stop teaching her at such an early age that she is less beautiful with tightly coiled hair.
But mostly I just smile and nod; it seems like such an uphill battle, and at this point in my life, I’m used to it. After having worn locs for 2 years, a cousin asked me before I got married, “you’re gonna perm your hair for the wedding, right???” When I go to the salon to get my hair re-tightened, the other stylists insist on standing near my chair, staring at my hair, and asking inane questions like “how does it stay???” Just yesterday, I thumbed through the pages of Essence magazine, and found not one article on natural hair care. There was no end, however, of articles offering maintenance tips for chemically straightened hair.
I don’t begrudge other women the opportunity to make hair choices that are right for them. But it saddens me that my family and friends don’t always appreciate the beauty of textured hair. I don’t understand how you can be a licensed hair stylist but have absolutely no understanding of the basic mechanics of dreadlocs. It’d be nice if acknowledgment and celebration of natural hair on black women went beyond a superficial pop-culture fixation on larger-than-life afros and perfectly groomed locs.
Until that day comes, I continue trying to shield my daughter from an onslaught of messages that undervalue her beauty, while navigating an aesthetic landmine of my own. I’ve been talking about cutting off my locs and rockin’ a short afro for 2 years now, but I can’t work up the courage to do it; it seems I, too, am invested in a white beauty standard that prizes long hair. Taking scissors to it all, however, just might be what liberates me from all this hair oppression, finally freeing me to delight in my child’s hair–and my own–whether we’re inside the house or out.