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?