Just when I thought I could get a breather from discussing black hair . . .
On September 9, my 6 year old had a melt down about her hair. The night before, I had taken her braids out and didn’t have time to wash and style it as I thought I would, so I brushed it and put her to bed. When we awakened the next morning, we got ready for work and school as usual. I wet her hair, put some styling cream in, and slicked it back into an Afro puff. “How cute!” I thought.
She looked at herself in the mirror and was not pleased. She screamed and hollered about her hair. She hated her hair! She told me that had she known I was putting her hair in an Afro puff, she would have protested sooner.
It was a rough morning! When hubby took her to school, she was still crying and tugging on her hair. She was a hot mess when she arrived at school: both she and her hair had a complete come-apart! Daddy tried to soothe her by telling her that she was beautiful, but she was not having it.
It bothered me all day at work. How could I (Ms. Say-it-loud-I’m-black-and-I’m proud!!) be raising a daughter who was ashamed of her looks? I thought I failed at making my child feel comfortable with who she is.
It is now time for me to invoke race into this conversation: Yes, I am certain that it is difficult for parents of all races to teach their children to recognize beauty beyond size 0 blonde models, but it is important to recognize that even that image is racialized so that black female bodies (including hair) then become the antithesis of that standard of beauty. This is why it is important for us to constantly offer black/brown children alternative images of beauty and to even deconstruct the power that beauty should be given in the first place in treating each other with dignity.
But, I digress . . .
When I got home that evening, I told Nina to come have a chat with me. We stretched out on the sofa, with her leaning on me. I stroked her hair, comforting her so that we could be relaxed when we talked. I pulled out my tablet and showed her a picture of a little girl.
“Nina,” I said. “Look at this little girl. Do you notice that she doesn’t have any hair?”
“Yes,” Nina said.
“What do you think about her? Do you find her beautiful? Look at her smile?”
“She has a pretty smile. I bet she is really nice.”
“I bet she is, too. Nina, this little girl has been really sick for a while. She had an awful illness called cancer. In order for her to get better, she had to take some medicine to make her feel better. Thank God she is feeling better. Unfortunately, that medicine made all of her hair fall out. That beautiful smile you notice on her face is there because she is thankful that she is feeling better and because now she can go home and be with her family. Pretty soon, she’ll be able to play with her friends. That’s beauty–the fact that she can have a smile on her face, despite what she has gone through, because she knows that God will take care of her. You have so much to be thankful for, and that hair on your head is only a small portion of it. Your meltdown this morning was a bit outrageous. What was going on?”
It was what she said next that broke my heart and it proves that we should never underestimate how much our children understand and even internalize what they hear.
“I was afraid that if I wore my hair in an Afro puff,” Nina began, “they would send me home.” She then told me that she overheard me talking about Tiana Parker, the 7 year old girl at Deborah Brown Community School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who was sent home for wearing her hair in locs. Their school policy stated that “hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, mohawks, and other faddish styles are unacceptable.” Nina asked me why wouldn’t they let her go to school.
I looked at her and I said, “Sometimes, adults say and do mean things. That school was wrong for making her feel like something was wrong with her for wearing her hair in locs. Her hair is beautiful and Tiana is beautiful and smart, too.”
I then told Nina that she is more than her hair and more than her beauty. I told her that she is a funny, smart, loving, caring, and kind little girl who is loved by many who are happy to remind her that she is just fine the way she is. We also looked at the collection of pictures put together by Dr. Yaba Blay to help Tiana Parker feel confident about how she looks. This digital picture book also includes inspirational words to comfort her.
I am glad that this occurred so that we can begin the conversation of the importance of Nina valuing herself, because it is never too soon to do so. School-aged children learn a lot about themselves once they start school. When Nina was in preschool, her teacher would always make comments about the various hairstyles that she wore. It was unwanted attention, as my Nina, the only black child in the class, did not seek to be the center of attention.
As for Nina, she is back to loving her Afro puff.