“Aw! Somebody’s black hair came in!” My oldest daughter, Vivi age 20, was talking to the youngest, Ivy who is just a year old, as she sat in my lap, my fingers tangled into her brown curls.
“I am just trying to get her used to sitting,” I answered, as I scooped the toddler up in her attempted escape from my lap. I repositioned the small, disappointed body and continued manipulating her wild natural curl into a neat braid. Vivi handed her the toy she dropped and sat down close by to try and comfort her sister.
“Glad it’s not my turn anymore,” came a voice from the dining room. My second oldest Nicole, age 18, came away from her pile on the of books and homework to join in the conversation. The mischievous look in her eyes told me that she was going to have some fun with this one. “Poor Ivy wishes she had that good hair now, don’t you?”
“Is Ivy finally getting her hair braided,” asked the fourth daughter Renee, age 16. She came in from outside with the dogs and her brothers—ages 3 (Michael) and 13 (Charlie).
The girls all sat around and began reminiscing about all the hair days we had passed along their way to learning how to manage their coils on their own. The traditional moisturizing, detangling, and braiding is a rite of passage of sorts for black girls, one that not only nourishes the hair but also provides a time of bonding amongst women. Each time I sat down to care for the mixed textures of my girls’ curls, it became a moment when we could talk about anything, truly bond with quality time.
“Remember when Memaw put a perm in Nicole’s hair?”
Yes, even if the memories weren’t the best.
The question triggered a hair memory I had long buried. Nic was around four with a head full of thick big curls that took to a braid faster than they did a flat iron. I would sometimes let her hair flow free, with a bit of gel and some pink oil moisturizer to keep the curls from drying out. Eventually, however, they frizzed into a messy halo that irritated the likes of my mother in law whenever she was responsible for Nic’s hair. She didn’t understand the frizz.
In one weekend, the women with a box of chemicals changed my kid and her hair in a limp mess of waves instead of bouncy, big curls. The change didn’t end with the hair. It was like a piece of her left with the curls. Nic became a sullen, serious kid who couldn’t find joy in the things she loved before. She played with Vivi, but when the older sister tried to pull her usual shenanigans, Nic would allow it, instead of calling Vivi on the cheating or rule changing and demanding that she return to the original rules of the game. The bounce, the life was gone from Nic for a time.
One night, at bath time, I left them to play for a second while I went next door to gather bed clothes. Vivi initiated a circus game. Nic, in a move that is so out of character for her, decided to perform a tight rope walk on the lip if the tub. She fell and hit her head. She cried for a few moments but seemed alright. There wasn’t even a bump. Later, just after I left them for the night, Vivi and Renee had a spat over Renee’s favorite toy. Somehow, Nic got hit in the head (probably accidentally as Renee tried to pull the doll tug-of-war style from Vivi, and Vivi just let go, a move that happened a lot with the girls). She started throwing up. We went to the ER where they diagnosed a concussion. During this whole experience, Nic was seized by a melancholy that was chilling in such a young child.
Hair day also became a perplexing ordeal as I tried different things to preserve what was left of Nic’s hair. Much of it died from the relaxer perm, leaving the rest thin and limp. It wouldn’t hold a braid and refused to curl at all. Each hair session, I tried several different styles before settling on two moisturized pigtails twisted into barrettes.
After a few months, I was done. I had enough of Nic’s sulking and her hair that seem to defy every effort to groom it. The two seemed linked. I had to cut the bond. I took scissors and cut Nic’s hair, with her permission. She was ready to get the odd hair off her head too. I cut away several inches, just enough to get to the hair the curled into the big loops. Nic smiled at the shortcut. I picked up some headbands from the dollar store and put them in her hair. That’s all it took to get the bubbly child back to herself.
As I swooped Ivy back into my lap once again, the older three girls were soon talking nonstop, about the perming incident, Nic’s limp look, and about the cut that ultimately led to Nicole’s shortest hair yet. Ivy eventually listened to their story as she enjoyed the attention.
While we talked, I was able to weave Ivy’s coils into two parallel braids with a part down the middle of her head and neat little baby hair curls crowning her face. I got to snap the last hair tie onto the last braid just as the baby decided that she had had enough and was sliding down my lap to the floor. When my hands released her hair, she hit the ground running as fast as her little baby legs would carry her.
She will find out later, as my older girls did that hair in our culture takes on a great importance even beyond the hair day care bonding. So much of the black girl’s identity and heritage is stored up in those cornrows or ponytails, much more than our society at large can comprehend. A black girl’s hair is not only a reflection of herself but also of how she sees herself. I think that’s why Nic had so much trouble at a young age trying to reconcile her hair changes. Hair is also a part of the perception a black girl sets out in the world.
That is why the bonding ritual of braiding and caring for the hair exists. The women who have learned can pass on tips to those still taking the baby steps of learning to it through a hair session, much like my Ivy. The older girls can hand down things they have found to work on their brand of black hair as well. Theirs is a mix of my coarse, tightly coiled mane that tends toward dryness and their father’s loose wavy locks that build up oil quick if he skips a washing. By teaching the girls to love their natural black coils, I am attempting to head off some of the issues that many black girls face when they begin caring for their own hair.
For now, I will cherish the time with my last daughter, doing the dance that binds me to her and her sisters in a complex act. To the society at large, it all seems to be about just hair. I hope she realizes that it is so much more.
Jonita Davis is a mother, wife, writer, and English instructor who has found that the best way to get through a day with teens, toddlers and babies is to write about it. Read more of her work here.