hair

While the Black experience in the U.S. is not a monolithic one, much of it is defined by vastly collective Black childhood memories. Just as many other aspects of identity are gendered, so to are the experiences of growing up Black. Being socialized as a Black girl child is fundamentally different from Black boyhood. Our average experiences differ in various ways, and a significant part of that is the difference in our experiences with our hair.

With barbershop haircuts being perhaps the only exception, hair grooming is constructed as a feminized labor and as a feminine or frivolous activity to engage in. Gender has been ascribed onto this practice that is necessary for the hygiene and hair health of all genders. So much so that Black fathers are often praised for successfully performing the simple act of managing to gather their child’s hair into a single ponytail, and Black men are openly vilified and called homophobic slurs for letting another man touch their beard. It is because of this gendering of the act and my own memories of Black girlhood that I and many others associate the act of caring for our hair with Black mothering.

It was a weekly ritual. Sitting on a pillow between my mother’s knees while she pulled at my hair and wrangled the giant mass into a tamed look for the school week. Resting my head on her legs. Feeling her thigh against my face. The Blue Magic grease placed in every part. The smell of Pink Lotion as she pumped it out of the bottle. The hairbrush scratching at my forehead as she battled my edges. Her hand resting on my temple and covering my ear as she began to braid. The sounds of the little rubber bands popping, and the sharp pain of them snapping when she stretched them too far. The neck pain from holding my head in whichever direction she commanded while trying to contort my body so that I could still glimpse the television out of the corner of my eye. The tears that flowed when she reached the crown of my head — the most tender part. The smoke coming off of the hot comb as it lay on the heating plate and the indescribable sound it made while sliding through my bangs. The burns on my neck from many an accident. Sometimes she would do it as I was half-asleep. Sometimes, she let me help pick out which beads or barrettes she would use. Sometimes, it took what seemed like forever and I would ask, “How many more braids?” Or I would lift my hand to see how much loose hair was left, and she would slap it away. The discomfort of sleeping in rollers. The sound of beads clanking against each other when I rolled over in the night. So many memories.

This type of care is associated with physical intimacy and feminine touch. It’s almost like a rite of passage for Black daughters to have this collective or shared experiences with mothers, big sisters, aunts, grandmothers, and guardians.

One Sunday morning, I told my mother that I wanted to wear my hair down like my friends did. I did not have the language or capacity to understand this yet, but what I was asking for was straight, relaxed hair. She did the best that she could and fashioned my hair into two big braids that hung in the back of my head and just barely touched my shoulders. They were essentially pigtails. They were not what I had asked for, but I liked them anyway. In Sunday school, one of the popular girls laughed at me. She got up from her seat in the back of the classroom, walked to the front where I was sitting, laughed in my face, and returned to her seat possessed with giggles. It was intentional. She wanted me to witness her laughing at me. She had the kind of straight, relaxed hair that I wanted. I was deeply hurt and embarrassed. I never wore my hair that way again.

A few years later, I asked my mother for a relaxer at the age of twelve. I wish she had told me no. I was lucky in that the relaxers were not forced on me like it had been on so many others, but I still wish it had never been done to me. I wish someone had educated me on what a relaxer was and what it would do to my hair. No one explained to me that it was a chemical that would permanently alter my hair. No one explained to me that I would have to keep getting relaxers every six to eight weeks in order to maintain straight hair. No one told me that this would be the end of my mother combing my hair every week.

So many Black daughters were forced into relaxers and hot combs and the like by Black elder women during our childhoods. The first trip to the salon or the first installment of a Just For Me box perm at home was its own rite of passage in a way. This grand event that came with a sigh of relief from whomever was charged with caring for our natural hair in all those years prior. It came with a sense of pride and belonging, knowing that we would no longer be bullied, picked on, and laughed at for our cottony hair by the other kids at school, or at church. An indoctrination into white ascendant ideals of decency and beauty and normalcy, and some of us would carry this with us for years to come. Some of us were deeply hurt by it. Some of us were traumatized. Maybe all of us were.

How do we contend with that trauma? A trauma enacted through Black mothering and hair care. How do we address the trauma, while also holding reverence for that experience of sitting between mama’s knees every Sunday night? Something done with the intention of love, but that ultimately was a practice rooted in the hatred of Black hair.

I knew when I set out to write this piece that it would be an emotional labor — to dig through that trauma, to name it as the abuse that it is/was for some, and to do so publicly. I have attempted to discuss the particular traumas perpetuated by traditional Black parenting practices in the past, and it is always met with “I turned out fine” rhetoric. Here’s the thing: if you internalized the same normalization of abuse and the same anti-Blackness that these Black parenting practices are rooted in, then you are not fine.

Believe me, I understand the apprehension in naming the things that you have viewed as normal for so long as abuse. I understand that it goes against what has been widely accepted in Black culture about Black motherhood and Black mother figures and how they mother(ed) us. I get it. I really do. But naming traumas is necessary in order to begin healing from them.

Throughout this series, I have traced the history of natural Black hair in the U.S. and discussed how anti-Blackness manifests itself through laws and practices that discriminate against us because of our hair. It is because of this history that the Natural Hair Movement was so important when it first began, though it became diluted by whiteness along the way. #Type4Takeover will hopefully be fulfilling in the spaces where the Natural Hair Movement has fallen short. I am hopeful that it will remind those of us with the most wild and unruly kinks that embracing, celebrating, and caring for our own hair is an act in mothering ourselves.


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Sherronda J. Brown is a native North Carolinian with an academic background in Media Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, and African American & African Diaspora Studies. She writes pop culture and media analysis, and is passionate about social justice, black feminisms, and zombies.

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