She was rushing past me into the bathroom, a whir of caramel skin and blue jeans and reddish-brown locs flying behind her, when I noticed the patch of uneven Afro stretching across at least a third of the back of her head.
My daughter Mari, 17, had announced her intentions to change her hairstyle a month earlier. So it was no surprise that she had taken on the arduous task of combing out the just-past-shoulder-length locs she’d been growing since age 10. Still, knowing her intentions didn’t stop that bass drum “boom” I felt in the pit of my stomach when my daughter confirmed she’d been using copious amounts of conditioner and a rattail comb to pick at and unravel seven years worth of love and energy and labor we’d been tending together.
The finality of it all felt like the end of an era — like the connection we’d built over the styling of her hair, and the control I excised over it as her mother, was gone.
Such was the bond between my daughters and me; it was carved into intricate lines that framed their cornrows, intertwined in the twists that flew with the wind. For the longest time, right there on their scalps was evidence of my love, measured in the complexity of the style and the time it took to tend to the kinky, curly garden atop my baby girls’ heads and the pleasure I took in doing it.
I can’t claim that childhood experience with my mother. I spent many a Saturday night perched on a stack of thick yellow phone books, crouched at some ungodly angle between my mother’s knees, trying desperately not to flinch beneath the heat of the fire-red hot comb as she dragged it around the edges of my thick mane. The cool of her breath on my neck was little solace; greater was the fear of being burned — definitely of being popped with the giant, wide-toothed Afro comb if I didn’t hold perfectly still or screamed out in pain while she tried to “straighten my naps.” I loved how pretty my press-and-curl looked, but getting my hair done never felt like an act of love between my mom and me.
I made a point of doing better by both Mari and her little sister, my baby, Lila, 14. This was no easy task; in 1999, when Mari was born, there was plenty of info in parenting books on how to tend thin, silky white-baby hair, but when it came to how to keep kinky baby Afros from drying out, getting knotty or falling victim to the judgment of “aunties” who preferred seeing little black girls with “tame” — i.e., straight — hair, there was zilch. So with the intensity of Serena Williams in a Grand Slam match, I volleyed countless reasons my daughters’ hair should remain natural rather than conked: “It’s pretty that way,” and “It’s healthier in its natural state,” and “Because I’m their mama and I said so,” were consistent refrains.
Teaching Mari to love her hair exactly as it grew from her head was an altogether different proposition. At age 3, Mari practically scalped herself with scissors — fluffs of her curly Afro clumped like polka dots across our beige carpet — to make room for the long blond hair her white classmate, Missy, wore.
I considered a “Drop Squad”-style indoctrination that involved putting Mari in a dark room with a single harsh light and a table full of natural sistas reading “Happy to Be Nappy” and “I Love My Hair” through a bullhorn until my daughter publicly swore off any delusions of silky, swinging, white-girl hair.
But I focused, instead, on whispering into Mari’s little ears as my fingers wove her hair into fantastic styles, telling her how beautiful her Afro was — soft like cotton candy, strong enough to break a comb, black and shiny, like a new moon in a night sky, swirly and all awesome all the time. She’d shake her hair and giggle when the barrettes bounced against her little round face. And soon enough, I was satisfied that she was happy being exactly what she was: A beautiful bundle of chocolate goodness with pretty black girl hair.
For a while, my work was paying off. Inspired by her paternal grandmother and a few dear friends and their daughters, Mari decided that, like them, she wanted her hair styled into locs, a process in which hair is divided into small sections and left uncombed until it mats and coils and grows into itself. Within weeks of her pronouncement, she was on her locking journey, and within months of that, she was taking great pride in putting sparkly barrettes in her hair to accentuate her newly forming locs and admiring herself in the mirror. She loved her hair.
Until she didn’t. By ninth grade, Mari was attending a school here in Atlanta where black girls tended to wear weaves and wigs and false eyelashes, looking more like “Love & Hip Hop Atlanta” castoffs than young black girls interested in just being themselves. I chalked up their choices to a mixture of teenage desire to experiment and a pop cultural pull to look more “other” than natural and black. But for my daughter, being one of only two girls in the school with locs was an epic disaster, worthy of teary wall-slides, pronouncements that she looked “like a boy,” and a lot of begging. “Please, Mommy, can I cut out my locs?”
I understood the pull: It’s not easy to be different in a sea of cultural clones. We watched how-to videos to find cute loc styles, and then added a few key pieces to her wardrobe to make her, a jock, look a little more girlie. I even let her wear eyeliner and lip gloss with a smidgen of color.
Now, three years later, I’m proud she’s happy to be exactly who she is, in all the ways I’ve poured into her since that fateful afternoon when she was 3 and trying to look like Becky with the Good Hair.
Which is why I buttoned my lips and let Mari follow through on her decision to comb out her locs. She wanted, she said, to feel the texture of her own hair and love it fully in its most natural state, as an Afro that she could twist, braid, press or let stretch up and out toward the sky.
I watch her at the mirror, the counter full of hair butters, oils and elixirs, experimenting with different hairstyles. Just a few days ago, she wanted to try out a new one, but she couldn’t get the part right or make the flat twists look neat. “Mommy, can you twist the front for me?” she asked, finally, exasperated.
“Sure,” I said, looking up from my computer, trying hard to contain my excitement with being invited to play in her hair and the tacit acknowledgment that when it comes to her thick, juicy mane, Mari still needs me.
And there we were, me crouched over in my chair, her bent between my knees, holding up a jar of Soultanicals hair butter as I parted and combed and wove her hair into an intricate pattern of flat twists, enjoying our closeness.