When she was a young girl, Little M dreaded having her hair groomed. Sure, disentangling and combing her kinky hair would require some uncomfortable pulling and tugging, but she feared something much worse than the rough feeling of her grandmother’s hands in her hair: the even rougher tone of her grandmother’s words in her ear. Ordered to sit still on the floor while her grandmother unbraided, combed, and re-braided her hair, Little M endured a stream of insults and negative assessments. Her grandmother stretched the hair-combing sessions out as long as possible, so that she could maximize the time spent telling her granddaughter about all the things that were wrong with her; all the inappropriate gestures and language she had used; all the problematic requests she had made. With each charge of bad behavior, Little M’s grandmother painfully pinched her cheeks, or wrung her ears. Grandmother’s hands left behind smears of hair oil on Little M’s face, like a scarlet letter broadcasting to the world just how inadequate she was. As she walked away, finally dismissed from the session, she felt shame and inadequacy; she believed that she was worthless.
Half a century later, my mother combs my daughter’s hair everyday. Together, they have a ritual. Little K runs to retrieve her booster seat, places it on the table, and asks to be seated in it. Ninnine unbraids my daughter’s hair, as my daughter begs her to comb it into her favorite style—an afro. My mother tells her, “non, mon amour, Mommy does afros; Ninnine does cornrows.” My mother starts the French DVRs that they watch during the sessions, and together they fall into the rhythm of the language lessons. “Strawberries!,” my mother will say; “fraises!,” my daughter will respond. “Bread!…du pain!” “Cake!…gateau!” “Oh, my little Kisou,” my mother ultimately says; “I love you all the time!”
When I come home from work, my daughter runs to the door to tell me about her day, and to show me her new hairstyle. “You look beautiful, K,” I tell her, and she responds, as she does everyday, with “Ninnine combed my hair!” I feel grateful that my mother manages my daughter’s kinks and coils in this way, and I admire the intricate rows and patterns of braids my mother has created with my toddler’s hair, like a crown. Deeper than beauty or convenience, however, the hairstyle and accompanying ritual are symbols of the bond my mother and daughter are creating with each other. I like to imagine that each cornrow represents a long line, stretching from my mother, the dispirited little girl, made captive to words that hurt and tore her down, to my daughter today, the spirited little girl who is repeatedly assured of her worth. Along that line lays a path of healing. My mother, no longer trapped between her grandmother’s legs on the floor, has released the pain and indignity of those hair sessions so long ago, knowing that her caregivers didn’t really know any better. Our mothers and grandmothers don’t always realize that their good faith–but old-school–attempts to discipline us can inflict wounds that we are later compelled to re-inflict on the vulnerable in our own care, just as little children act out their abuse on their dolls in an attempt to make sense of it all. Ninnine, however, has broken the cycle, using her power during hair sessions today to build Little K up, rather than break her down. Each flick of my mother’s wrists weaves a new hairstyle and a new connection, conveying to Little K just how adequate, indeed just how inherently worthwhile and perfect, they both are.