As a mother of a half-African baby girl, each day I discover how little I know about black hair. Take for instance the question of combing. My position is, if Ziya’s hair is combed, if it isn’t, no biggie. She’s not yet two, she doesn’t care and I am happy to postpone her having to bow to the tyranny of rules regarding respectable hair for as long as I can. She’s a girl, she’s going to be (self)conscious of her hair for the rest of her life, does it matter if she isn’t now? If her hair matters to other people, and worse is a judgement on me, that’s their business and their bias. Who have hair on their head, let them busy themselves combing it.
However, clearly, I’m on my own in this point of view.
Stone is the complete opposite of me. It’s like ethnicity has caused us to exchange gender roles. He’s always keen to make sure that Ziya’s hair is combed, and therefore often combs it himself. He claims that combing it keeps it from being “hard”. I have no idea what that means. He is sometimes a little freaked out if people come over and Ziya’s hair looks like a cross between Einstein and Don King. Like a Chia pet, she’s got a massive Afro full of whirly bits, straight bits and bits about to locks. I think it looks wild and free. Stone thinks it looks wild and messy. He thinks it’s important that she learn to sit quietly and comb her hair because neat hair is important. Perhaps, for him, it’s how she learns about self-presentation, discipline and respectability. I don’t so much care. In time, rightly or wrongly, the entire moral universe will impose itself on her anyway.
I’ve realised over time and conversation that the different approaches in our house stem directly from our different hair. I get how nice neat hair looks and I like when Ziya looks freshly bathed and combed just as much as everyone else who cares for her, including her Indian grandmother and babysitter who are constantly twirling and pig-tailing her curls. Yet, it doesn’t occur to me to see her hair as a statement of how she will be received by the world. Stone tells me I want the kids in school (note, she is not yet in school) to call her “Mad Head”. Stone’s mom tells me she is glad Ziya won’t have “late for school hair”, another concept I’ve only recently met. The Afro-Trinidadian women in my office tell me that hair is important, having combed hair is important and that this is something black girls learn early, because of the general disparagement of things African and the overwhelming pressure to bleach, straighten, press or cover natural black hair. Having to present as acceptable, decent and civilised is a given because its alternative is to fall to a racist stereotype.
I think natural African hair is beautiful and I admire my sistren whose ital looks or locks powerfully normalise something that should be unquestioned. Yet, learning for the first time about the messages Ziya is receiving as she is also learning them makes me understand how different my own socialisation has been and how growing up as an Indian girl freed me from concerns my sistren had to confront. More and more I realise, not just intellectually or politically, but as a mother making daily decisions regarding her girl’s sacred self, the significance of the associations that straight hair has to softness and being untangled, to beauty and being free-flowing, to acceptance and being good. More and more, the pejorative words applied to black hair that would never be applied to mine strike close to home. Stone and I are only beginning to sort out why he is aware, even as a man, of aspects of Ziya’s hair that I don’t even notice. We are both becoming more conscious about ideas we carry unconsciously. Looking at Ziya, I wonder what she will decide matters for her as she lives and challenges a reality with which neither Stone nor I have ever had to entirely identify. All we can do as two people completely different from her, is give and teach her the whole-hearted acceptance that she will one day need.