Cornrows and YouTube
After we adopted domestically and began to introduce Isabel to our friends, one of the first questions Caucasian moms would ask me was: "What are you going to do about her hair?" This question was usually accompanied by big, wide eyes and a shake of the head full of sympathy and pity. To most women who are not black, the hairstyles we see gracing the heads of small black girls seem complicated and daunting. I admit that the thought of caring for an African-American girl used to terrify me when we began the transracial adoption process. I was completely ignorant of all things related to black hair until Isabel came into our lives and, with her, her head of thick, curly, gorgeous locks.
Well, the gorgeous locks came eventually. When she was handed to me, at two months old, all she had was a tiny patch of baby-fine hair on top of her head. Piece of cake, I thought! And it was, for the most part, until her hair "came in" and, by the time Isabel was three, we were dealing with a full head of thick hair
Being the independent, self-sufficient mom that I am, off I went to Wal-Mart to find some products to wash, detangle, moisturize, and manage her hair. But as I stood in front of the "Ethnic Products" aisle at Wal-Mart my eyes rolled to the back of my head. So many options! And so many names: grease, oil, hairdress, hair milk, gel, gro spray. All the jars and bottles with smiling little girls with perfectly coiffed hair were dizzying, and reading the descriptions didn't help much.
The next day at work I polled my black students and colleagues to find out what they used. Though they were all willing to offer advice, everyone gave me a different answer and nobody could remember the name of the product. Most gave an answer like:
"You go to Wal-Mart and you will find this blue jar of grease. I think it's on the bottom shelf. It's blue, you can't miss it."
Except for the five other blue jars, next to the green ones and the black ones and even a pink one or two. Come to think of it, I don't know the names of most of the products I use but, being a rookie, I needed specifics. At one point I had a rainbow of jars and bottles in Isabel's cabinets but could not find the right product or the right combination. Not to mention that, as she got older, her hair texture changed, which meant that what had worked six months ago didn't work today. The general consensus among my black friends was that, while they could give me advice, individual hair requires individual treatment, so I had to find my own way through the maze of products and processes.
When I don't know what to do, I research. I discovered there are many websites that sell products and I began to read the reviews. I also learned that there is a big push to use natural oils and other ingredients rather than synthetic products
. I became a fan of Carol's Daughter
products because, while they are pricier than whatever Wal-Mart carries, they are natural, smell delicious, and seem to work well. Of course, it took trial and error to figure out the ones that worked best for Isabel's hair. I think we have a pretty good routine now and her hair is healthy, soft, and shiny. Success!
When it came to styling her hair, however, I ran into another intimidating task. From talking to my black friends and colleagues I came to understand how important hair and its care are in African-American culture
. If a child's locks look unkempt and unruly, that may be taken as a reflection of the care the child receives at home. My daughter will surely face some challenges based on the fact that she was adopted by non-black parents
. I did not want her to also suffer from not looking
right. I started paying attention to the styles I saw around town and asking questions about how to do them. Everyone I talked to was very kind and I quickly had several ideas in my toolbox.
I also learned that washing, combing, and styling hair is a bonding time
for women in the African-American community. I did not want my little girl to miss out on this experience, so I reached out to my closest black girlfriends with small daughters. Ironically, none of them did their own child's hair. They all had an aunt, grandma, friend, or neighbor who did it for them, so they could not teach me. But I wanted to learn to do my daughter's hair myself because I wanted her to know that I took the time to educate myself on something so important in her culture. In my mind, I saw it as a labor of love and respect for who she is.
So I turned to the one place where you can find anything: YouTube. And, sure enough, YouTube delivered. There are hundreds of videos on styling African-American hair
. Sitting in front of the computer screen, with Isabel at my feet, I learned to cornrow and twist like the best of them. At first it took me five hours to cover her head with two-strand twists. Today, I can do it in two hours, tops. We put on a movie and spend a morning watching, laughing, and getting beautiful. It has become a special time for the two of us and a ritual we look forward to.
There have been external rewards, as well. When my friend Kenisha, who is black, asked me to teach her how to cornrow her daughter's hair I thought she was being kind, but when a complete stranger stopped me on the street and asked me how I did Isabel's hair, I beamed as I explained the simple steps. There is a lot I will not be able to do for my daughter, like protect her from stereotypes, racism, and intrusive questions
. But you will not be able to look at her and guess that, just a few years ago, her mother thought "grease" was what you fry fish in.
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