Our Hair, Our Memories, Our History

black-hair-washington-post

That photo above is from the Washington Post, from a photo gallery titled The Roots Of It. But it could easily have been me, 25 years ago. Or any one of you bellas reading this, I am sure.

This weekend’s Washington Post included an absolutely lovely article on the traditions (and trials) of braiding a little black girl’s hair. Click here to read Balm: By styling her daughters’ hair each morning, she was attending to something deeper than a beauty ritual, by Lonnae O’Neal Parker. This riveting personal essay reveals how hair styling is so much more than just tending to the superficial exterior, in black culture. Please read it, it’s SO good.

Back then, when I craved only sleep, my children’s tears — because there is an unassailable physical hurt to the pulling and detangling of black girl hair — often left me unmoved or impatient, or sometimes mingled with my own tired tears. Because, like my mother before me, I had so many other things to attend to.

My mother, a Chicago schoolteacher for 33 years, combed my hair and my sister’s hair for 35 minutes every morning in her slip so as not to get hair grease on her work clothes. She reminds me of how much those mornings used to hurt. “You’d want to turn around and look at me with all this woe on your face so that maybe I would stop,” Momma remembers. “But, you know, I couldn’t stop, because you had to have your hair combed.” And she had to get to work. And every two weeks, when she washed my hair, “it would be all over your head, like you had an afro the size of a small umbrella and that had to be pulled back down in something I could reasonably deal with.”

Years ago, it was easy to lose sight that this ritual, this touching of my children every day, had an expiration date. But now ours is close.

I begin at the nape of Savannah’s neck and make my first row of two-strand twists small and precise. The style is much like the one that first daughter 11-year-old Malia Obama wore last year on her first day of school in Washington, and this summer in Rome and at Martha’s Vineyard. For us, children favored by the sun, whose natural kinks want nothing more than to stand at attention all over our heads, this hair thing between mothers and daughters goes back to the beginning, and I wonder if Malia’s momma washes and twists her hair on Sunday afternoons, too. Or if the first lady knows how quickly this time with our girls slips away. Probably not. When our oldests are still young, we think they’ll stay that way forever.

So beautifully written, it makes my heart ache. And it makes me wonder how things will be when I have a little bella of my own, who will sit at my feet waiting for me to comb her hair, as mine was once combed. Will she feel as miserable as I did?

That’s me at age 3, getting my hair done. And as I wrote in the original post back in 2007, “already my little face is drawn and my eyes are troubled at having to wear rollers and get my hair done.”

My hair issues started early – I hated the ritual, hated having to be “neat” and therefore “presentable” and I rebelled against it from day one. I would sabotage my own hairstyles — I distinctly remember waiting till the hairdresser wasn’t looking to turn the time dial on my dryer, just so I could get out of there faster. I read Lonnae O’Neal Parker’s piece with great interest and curiosity. I wonder how her little bellas will grow up to feel about their hair. They have such beautiful natural styles now! Will they grow up loving their natural hair and wanting to maintain it that way? Or will rebellion lead them to chemical relaxers?

We pass down our feelings about our hair to our little ones, and most often we pass them down just as they sit at our feet, waiting to be styled, waiting to be made “presentable.” During this Black History Month it’s worth thinking about how we continue to live our own history. What lessons are we passing down?

What are your childhood memories of hair combing? Were they pleasant? Or were they torturous? How did your childhood hair experiences shape your feelings about hair today?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this touching tribute to black hair. Yes, I remember those torturous days – I don’t know what was worse – getting burned by the hot comb or the hours of sitting still; bored while my brothers and friends got to run free. But there is more to styling hair – it’s bonding time. When I’d do my mother’s, sisters’, or daughter’s hair, that’s the most we’d talk (maybe cause that’s the only other thing we could do). Now as I’m teaching my 13-year old daughter how to care for her own hair, we’re on to the milestone that comes with hair-styling – which is letting go and letting her grow up. Yes, styling black hair is deep – painful and beautiful at the same time; a time of bonding and friction. There are so many underlying reasons why we put so much into styling our black hair.

  2. I have mostly painful/pleasurable memories of my childhood haircair rituals. My mom would sit us down between her legs and comb it in sections. She joked that I had a rubber neck b/c I refused to keep my head still. It was a mix of feeling pleased to be near my mother, and feeling pained by the tugging at my hair.

    I hope for my own (future) daughters, my knowledge of my natural hair texture will lessen their pain and perhaps they won’t hate their hair or see it as “unmanagable” or “unpresentable.”

  3. This was a great tribute! Thank you. It was a combination of both. My mother wasn’t great at doing my hair so she would sweep it into one big ponytail on top of my head with two little curls on the side LOL. I loved going to my cousin’s who would cornrow my hair. I learned how to plait and cornrow by the time I was 7 so my mom and I would sit together and she would part while I would braid. that was a memorable time for me… we joke about it up to this day.

    As for my daughter it was very easy doing her hair as I made it a playful experience keeping her occupied with dvds, toys, etc. The traumatic experience came after I left her with her father and his family to attend a wedding and when he brought her home my daughter with a relaxer. Outside of nearly going to jail for killing him, it was a very hard time for ME and for her. It took a lot of explaining that there was nothing wrong with her hair before.. Now she is a teenager with her own opinion and style.. she rocks a short crop that she gets blowed out and flat ironed. she is exercising her “hair power”

  4. My childhood memories of hair styling are great ones–my mom would sit in her recliner by the window, and I’d sit on the floor between her feet, jar of pomade, brush, and comb on the sill. We would sing songs from Church together, we’d exchange stories, and just talk. She did this for several years, this ritual of parts, braids, ribbons and beads. Around puberty, the relaxer came, bringings both joys and pains.

    While I loved having her do my hair, both then and now in retrospect, it certainly made me wish for a lower maintenance hair commitment. I rebelled a bit when I got older–no more parts, lots of straight back ponytails, lol. I’m 28 now, and aout a year ago, I made the decision to stop relaxing my hair. Once in a blue moon, I head to the salon to blowdry it straight, but for the most part these days I enjoy trying out different curly styles.

    I don’t plan on relaxing my daughter’s hair–I don’t have a daughter yet, but hope to one day :) –but I do plan on outfitting her curly head with ribbons and beads!

  5. I have to say…when I hear folks reference hair as ‘just hair’ feelings like the one sparked after reading this piece really take hold, & I have to firmly say…nah. It can never be…it’s all so ingrained in our memory…our mother…her mother’s mother and so on…that to ignore it, and to negate it to something ‘just’ is not doing our history it’s proper justice. I’d love to have this bonding ritual with my daughter. It’s such a blessing.

  6. I hate to be negative Nancy, but I have to say this. I am more than a little suspicious of this sudden attention to the culture of black women and our hair from the mainstream media microscope. I may have an unpopular opinion about this. I’m so happy for Kinky Kurly hair custard, wide tooth combs, spray bottle and air drying. Personally Id rather read a good book, go hiking, or bike riding with my little girl, than to oppress her scalp, and F with her self esteem for 5 hours on sunday to make her look “presentable”. Obviously I’ve had bad memories of getting my hair done.

  7. @Em – I’m so sorry that you had bad memories of getting your hair done. However, I can assure you that there is no need to be suspicious of the main stream media, specifically this author. I know her personally and can attest to how grounded and self assured both of her daughters are. My daughter Nia and Savvy both enjoying rocking their two strand twists and at times will rock their “free hair” (as Nia calls it) letting it blow in the wind. Please don’t read more into the story than what it really is. Simply a lovingly and rhythmically told ritual between mothers and daughters.

  8. Wow. This picture is so true to form down to the grease on her hand and the many ways that my mom would try to keep the sections apart. Clips. Clamps. Combs. Rubber bands. Anything that would allow her to focus on taming the section of hair that she was working on. Worse yet when she had to blow dry it….oh my gosh! I feel like it was a mental exercise for both of us.

  9. For the most part they were memorable until I got to Jr. High then the torture began. I guess my mom felt that I needed straight hair to fit in? I hated getting my hair pressed and would run out of the kitchen after getting burned several times. I ended that nonsense when I got to high school.

    Sure, over the years I’ve gone from natural to straight, but I cut it all off ten years ago and haven’t gone back. This is me and I love what I look like!

    I’ve got four daughters and they all wore their hair natural until my sister relaxed their hair while I was away on business.

    Today I have a beautiful little granddaughter who is my little “Afro Puff” Princess who I hope will continue to truly love the hair growing from her scalp and that black women will one day no longer be judged solely on the surface but for what we possess deep inside of us.

  10. MAN. Bella…I think the reason that I am not tenderheaded today was because my mother killed the nerves in my head when I was little!! LOL, but I was ALWAYS on point and there was no way that my mother would allow me to walk outside without my hair combed.
    I had a flashback on Christmas Day ’09 when she combed out my hair for me and greased (YES GREASED) my scalp. My hair was big and my scalp SORE when she finished but the days afterwards, my hair was extremely manageable! I am attaching a picture of her doing my hair on Christmas.

    http://i62.photobucket.com/albums/h99/lmtatum/HAIR.jpg

  11. W/folks will probably come away from this article remembering nothing but the every two weeks part. At least the ones I work with would.

  12. oh what a time to reflect that was a special bonding time. I missed the mark with my daughter but my grandaughter who is eight yrs old and has locs down her back has worn them since she was three and loves the hair that grows from her scalp halleluyah incidently ive worn locs for 10 yrs so she and i have a special bond that her mother envies we are so happy to be nappy

  13. Awww, look at baby Bella. Sooo cute! When I was younger I HATED getting my hair done. Every Saturday evening meant having to sit between my Mom’s legs and have her fight my hair with a comb. I have battle wounds from the hot comb. And even when I got a perm, I hated sitting hours in the hair salon. Hated that the style would only last a few days. And I hated not being able to swim because doing so ‘might make my hair fall out’. I’m sorry but I can’t think of many good hair memories pre-natural. That’s kinda sad, uh?

  14. I so completely remember those days when my mom would wash my hair and then sit and grease and braid it.

    Those were the days…although we didn’t know then that greasing actually clogs the scalp! LOL

  15. I remember having my hair washed every saturday and then having it chiney bumped (bantu knots). I used to love running around the house in my bumps and becoming very confused when I was told I could not leave without them being pulled out. To this day its hard for me to go out with bumbs because I feel it is not appropriate, although I like how they look on me. My aunt did my hair and she had loving hands for the most part, LOL.
    The hairdressers on the other hand shuddered when I came through the door, they only liked to see me when I got my first relaxer.

  16. BlackBetty says:

    I have great memories of getting my hair done. Although I was very tenderheaded with a head full of long curly hair, it was a time for mom, sister and I to bond. I see that now.
    Thankfully, I was always strong willed and refused to give in to hairdressers who thought I’d look so much better with a perm! Even my mom thought I’d look great with bob. smh. We are all natural today and loving it!

  17. My Mom doesn’t do well with combing hair, hers, my sister, or mine. She paid someone to comb my sister’s hair, or my dad did it. When I came along, she tried and failed. At the age of 5, I tired of wearing the same pony tail for 1 week, while she brushed it every morning. The other style choice was two braids, same routine. I began combing my own hair, only asking her or my sister to part it for me. My Mom also began sending me to the Beauty Shop every two weeks for a shampoo and press.

  18. I agree with Em. This article was sad and there was so much negativity and pain that seems to be coming forth into the NEW/NEXT generation. Must pain be a part of hair care? EVERYBODY from stringy/straight to curly/kinky has an ouch once in a while, but PAIN? Too bad it is part of the history but let’s not make it a memory for our children!!

    I am feeling happy for vonmiwi’s Granddaughter! Em, enjoy those bikerides!

  19. I saw my 4 yr old niece get her hair done by my sister in law this weekend. That childe was not happy. I had to put The Princess Diaries on to distract her she was crying so hard. And I was told that she has worked herself into so much of a frenzy somethimes she has thrown up.

    I don’t have a lot of hair memories. I remember getting it pressed just for it to revert before church service the next morning. I remember the burns on my ears. My mom wasn’t the best braider so I wore lots of ponytails.

  20. I remember being tender-headed and having lots of hair when I was a little girl. My eldest sister would braid it for me and put lots of wooden and plastic beads on it, sealing the ends with foil. How I loved to shake my head around and hear the beads “swoosh”! LOL On special occasions, my mother would press my hair. This usually took place on Sundays. My mom was really gentle with my hair though, but I hated sitting in my slip on two telephone books for what seemed like hours trying to press through my thick, long, bushy Chaka Khan-like mane. When it was done, my mother would either pin-curl it or set it with foam rollers. I loved my curls and mama would put yarn ribbons or barrettes in them. I got my first relaxer at about 11 or 12 years old, then I started doing my own hair.

  21. talktotisha says:

    I have fond memories of getting my hair done.

    Yep – it was always Saturday evening.

    Yep – it hurt sometimes. But I got to watch TV while she did it.

    Yep – she greased my scalp.

    When my mom did my hair – it was all love but then my older sister started doing it. I guess she was mad that Mom made her do our hair – because she made sure to braid real tight and push the beads into my scalp while doing it!

    Great article! As always Bella, thanks for sharing! (Cute picture)

    T.T. that’s a cool picture!

  22. This article and your story of becoming natural is a testimony to how we BOND through our hair rituals. I hope more people though will be positive about the times when our mothers took time to make their daughters CUTE everyday for school. That’s some love even when it hurt getting our hair combed or hot combed!

    I think that is a testament of our mother’s strength. I’m so thankful for all the times my Mom combed my hair, hot combed, washed my hair and introduced me to the hairdresser who gave me my first perm.

    Though I’ve been natural, permed, natural and permed and now natural again, it’s a testament of all the things we can do with our hair texture. My Mom has always transitioned between natural hair and permed hair. I guess I’ve observed and I’ve been doing the same thing.

    Thank you for sharing as always, afrobella.

  23. I hated those times and cringe at that memory. The pain, the tears, the sobbing. Feeling my hair break and seeing handful after handful being tossed to the floor (not believing for a moment that that was natural). In fact, I wore braids for a good decade so I would not have to go through that daily ritual. I am so glad I decided to give my hair another chance and research what it takes to at least get a comb through it properly. Both my hair and I are grateful.

  24. My memories are not of bonding but sheer torture. Sorry, getting burned with a hot comb was not fun.

  25. I used to joke about not having the right to be tenderheaded because my hair was so nappy, but now reflecting on the old attitudes and shame I carried makes me sad. Glad I got over it!

  26. Great article, my memories are from doing my daughters hair every Sunday. She would never sit still for anything, so we had a lot of screaming going on. After the hair was done, she goes to a mirror and shake all the beads or barrettes in her hair. Then the smiles would come.
    Amanda
    curlyprincesshairboutique.com

  27. What’s up, just wanted to say, I liked this article.
    It was inspiring. Keep on posting!

Speak Your Mind

*