My mother died when I was very young, and as a result she's remained near perfect in my eyes. But the one big parenting fail I can recall was our relationship around my hair.
My hair was/is very different from hers, less "manageable", and she always treated it as a hassle and an inconvenience. She couldn't braid, never learned, and so every style effort essentially became about making my texture straight enough. After the overall process of styling became a real strain on our extreme closeness -I dreaded Saturday night [wash + straighten] with a burning passion - she had a hardcore professional relaxer put in my hair at the age of six. On top of the chemicals, I began going to the salon religiously every other Thursday after school for a three-hour heat styling session because even relaxed my hair still had texture, which was clearly unacceptable.
Her mother, my grandmother, used to ask me: "Don't you wish you had hair like your mama?" I took what I was supposed to take from this question - that something was wrong with me, wrong with my hair, and that my job was to alter it, in a way that would make it acceptable. Just whom needed to accept it was never fully explained.
Just like so many other Black women born in the 80's and 90's, this was the recipe that baked the cream-filled cake of self-hatred. I didn't learn to love my natural texture - or what my natural texture even was - until I was in my late 20's.
In contemplating this complicated history from an adult perspective, I've realized that a mother's treatment of her daughter's hair is actually deeply symbolic. It is both a statement on the girl as a human being as well as a her beauty. I learned at six years old that my hair, much like me, was wild and unpredictable, and that the wildness was something complicated and offensive that needed to be tamed. I learned that my hair, in its natural state, was too curious a spectacle. I learned that it had a tendency, also, to take up too much space, and that I needed to learn to occupy less space in the world. I learned that I was not considered beautiful without this submission.
But that was 1988.
In 2017, it both warms my heart and gives me chills to see little Black girls being raised to understand, care for, and yes, celebrate their natural hair. I love that they're being raised to know that it is okay if the curls God gave them impose or command attention, that they are not a deviation from but simply a variation of a standard of beauty. I also love that they are learning something so young that I am still learning now: not just how to cherish their hair but how to nourish it. Every woman, regardless of ethnicity or cultural background, understands the vast difference in hair's texture and appearance when it suffers maltreatment. Understanding how to feed, fuel, and yes, style your crown to its full potential is a labor of love. Realizing that, outside of a chemical paradigm, we can't always control our tresses or how they behave is humbling, and humility is the fundamental lesson for a human.
As a woman, I understand my hair as an extension of myself. The cautious marriage of three distinctly different textures/personalities, the unquenchable thirst, and the need to feel protected to thrive are all facets of my humanity. Like my hair, when well-conditioned I am easy, generous, beautiful. Like my hair, when ignored or mistreated I can get ugly.
My mother was a big believer in ardent, conspicuous beauty. I am as well. I inherited my vanity directly from her and my grandmother, as well as my meticulous attention to detail where appearance is concerned. For years, this included hair that seemed docile and simple.
There is a time for docile and simple, to be sure. After all, we understand that a woman must be many things in the course of womanhood. Docile has its day. Simple has its place. But I also relish the opportunity to be the mess I actually am, to display the indomitable spirit of my natural-born self by wearing hair that is big and loud and messy and free.
I do not know if I will ever be blessed with a little girl, but if God sees fit to give me one I hope that I will be brave enough to teach her that space for her is limitless and that she does not have to squeeze herself into a box to be accepted or appreciated. I hope that she will understand the beauty of something that doesn't submit easily to a will outside of its own and something that, when offended, will revert to its comfort and stand its ground until it is loved in that way it demands. These are the lessons every woman should learn.
These are the lessons I wish I had been taught much earlier but am deeply grateful to know, now.