Before Teddy was a year old, many people (strangers) approached us to caution us against cutting his hair. We learned it was a cultural practice to leave a black boy’s hair wild until his first birthday. We dutifully saved his first trimming of the locks for shortly after his turned 1, Mike faithfully shaves Teddy’s head every few weeks, and no one has said a word about his hair since.
Lydia is one-and-a-half now, and we’re struggling with hair again. We’ve talked to many friends who’ve all confirmed there’s no set cultural timing for cutting a black girl’s hair. Styling it, however, is a different story.
A few months ago, at the beginning of the summer, we were riding the bus to church one Sunday morning, Mike playing rock paper scissors with Teddy, Lydia enjoying the passing scenery from my lap, when Mike wondered out loud whether it was time to do something about Lydia’s hair. We knew it was coming: black females’ hair is a serious matter. I was well aware that I’d have to learn to braid it/twist it/clip it/whatever…at some point. But I was intimidated by black hair and thought, surely not yet. We have time, I said confidently. It’s not nearly long enough. After church, as we were getting off the bus to walk back home, a woman handed me a slip of paper and gestured toward Lydia. “I do hair,” she said, as the door closed behind us. I looked at the paper and on it was written the name of a salon in NE DC that claimed to have served the likes of Diana Ross. “I guess I was wrong,” I laughed as I showed Mike the paper. “Evidently, it is time to do something about Lydia’s hair!”
We made plans to visit the salon the next weekend, just to explore options, but posting about the note on Facebook elicited offers from friends to braid Lydia’s hair. So two weeks later, a friend came over, and, armed with nothing more than experienced fingers and conditioner we’d purchased (on recommendation) expressly for this purpose, proceeded to twist Lydia’s hair into a couple dozen braids. The whole process took two hours. And while Lydia periodically expressed objections to the extended tugging and being restrained for so long, at about the hour and three quarter mark, she hit her wall, squirming, crying, jerking her head away whenever our friend attempted the last few sections of hair. I tried different positions, but Lydia was having none of it. I suggested I could finish it later, but our friend was determined. She did not want to leave this project undone. So after giving Lydia a few minutes break, she discreetly wove her fingers through the last few conditioned strands and finished plaiting. It was done. And it looked amazing. And our friend said it would last two weeks.
I sort of expected to be lauded on our next outing, given how awesome Lydia’s hair looked. And we did–by white people. Our white friends oohh’ed and aww’ed over Lydia’s beautiful braids. But black people, from whom we were really seeking approval, said nary a word. Because you don’t get kudos for meeting expectations. We were so proud of ourselves for taking this step, but it was what we were supposed to do. We should’ve just been happy to avoid unsolicited advice during those two weeks.
Two weeks passed, and as predicted by our friend, Lydia’s braids began to fray. Unfortunately, my toddler was even less excited about having her kinky curls set free than she was about having those locks tied up to begin with. If I so much as brandished the comb, she put up a fight, screaming, squirming, whatever she had to do to keep that piece of plastic as far from her hair as possible. It took two hours over two days to return her hair to its wild glory. And after that effort, I was not in a hurry to rebraid. Lydia has a little section of hair at the front of her scalp a bit separated from the rest that lends itself to being clasped in a barrette, so for a while, I went that route. I snapped that one clump into a brightly colored plastic flower and called it good. And my black friends approved. So I thought that would suffice, until Lydia was older and more likely to endure the tugging torture of braids.
However, I still got comments. Lydia’s hair was pretty wild outside of that one Pebbles-like poof. And women on the bus and at pickup at Teddy’s school frequently commented and offered their services. I oscillated the whole summer. One day, I would assure myself that the one accessory was ok for now since my black friends gave it the thumbs-up; another day, I would see a child Lydia’s age or younger with perfect cornrows and decide I really should make more of an effort. Black caregivers assured me that Lydia would “get used to it”. But I wasn’t keen to subject her to something she fought so vehemently. A couple friends were still willing to try; I was just hesitant to make plans and then have the session devolve into screaming. And the practical aspect: she was strong enough to squirm out of my grasp. Forcing the issue would entail three people: one person to hold her down, another to hold her head, and a third to work her hair. This mama’s heart could not handle that kind of ordeal.
About midway through the summer, after receiving several comments in one week and chatting with a Chick fil-A employee who shared that she didn’t use a comb, she just used her fingers, I finally determined to give it another try. And a miracle happened. I sat Lydia on my lap in front of a cartoon one Sunday morning armed, as my friend before, with only my fingers and conditioner, and she sat still for 45 minutes. I was able to braid most of her hair. And with her brother entertaining her, I finished the last couple sections on the bus ride to church. Unfortunately, I’m not nearly as talented as my friend, and the braids were not nearly as tight or tidy. They began fraying after only a week. But taking them out took only an hour, this time. My confidence soared. Maybe this was something I could do after all.
However, Lydia’s cooperation remained hit or miss. I could not count on her to sit still long enough for me to braid and unbraid her curls weekly or even biweekly. And then, after chatting with another adoptive mom who simply gathered her black daughter’s hair into small poofs with elastics, I had an idea. Young black girls’ braids are almost always decorated with barrettes and beads. Maybe the braids weren’t necessary. Maybe I could just clip all the sections of Lydia’s hair into barrettes. Her hair, while long enough to warrant styling of some sort, wasn’t so long it would look odd simply accessorized. One morning, I conditioned her hair as usual, partitioned it into a dozen (somewhat untidy) sections, and clipped each into a barrette. It was beautiful, and it took five minutes. Lydia struggled a little, but she enjoyed playing with the barrettes. And once more I went out and received compliments from my white friends and nary a comment from any black people. This time I was thrilled about that silence.
Barrettes without twists is my plan for now. I’m getting better at coordinating the colors with her outfit and sectioning her hair more cleanly. But whenever I see another young child whose head is embossed with braids, I ask the adult present how they do it make a mental note of their answer, because the next time I attempt the impossible, I’ll need the help of my village.