She was in her early 30s when she passed away from complications associated with diabetes and we were all in deep mourning as we sat in her mother's living room, waiting for the limousine that would ride us to her farewell. Memories were exchanged. There were tears, of course. And then all attention fell on us. Specifically, my baby daughter, barely two years old, and her hair.
"You need to comb that stuff," one auntie sniffed, looking with great disdain at my Lila's afro. My attempts at justifying why I thought it better to keep her hair moisturized and let it just do what it do were met with side-eyes and teeth-sucking from the roomful of old southern black ladies. "Put it in some pigtails or press it or something. Tame it is what you need to do."
The one thing as certain as death? Black women sitting around judging another sistah's hair. I mean, we were on our way to a funeral, for goodness sake, and there they were, discussing the merits of snatching my kid's hair into a style they thought was more acceptable than the one that celebrated the way it grew out of her head.
Nine years ago, this was standard conversation anywhere I or my daughters wore our naturals around black folk; the stares, the side-eyes, the "why's," the questions about "appropriateness" -- it was never-ending back then, when wearing your hair in an afro, braids, twists, Bantu knots, locs or any other natural hairstyle was much less the norm than it is today. I had my reasons for going natural, the biggest one being that my oldest daughter, Mari, nearly scalped herself cutting off her twists so that she could have straight, blonde hair like one of her little classmates.
She was three.
I nearly died a thousand deaths.
Rather than stage a Drop Squad-styled/Happy To Be Nappy intervention on my baby, I went natural to prove to both my brown girls that their kinky, curly hair was more beautiful to me than anything I could buy in a Korean beauty supply store. I needed my babies to know that, and there wasn't a day that passed by that my husband Nick and I didn't tell them how spectacular their hair is -- soft like cotton candy, strong enough to break a comb, shinier than a new penny, perfect for parting and a million little twists and a bunch of beads swinging and clacking in the wind. Each of these things I'd whisper into their chocolate little ears as my fingers weaved fantastic styles through their hair. And soon enough, I was satisfied that both Mari and her little sister were happy being exactly who they are: beautiful bundles of chocolate goodness with kinky black girl hair.
And the more they fell in love with their hair, the more confident they grew in rocking their styles. And the more confident they were, the more adoration they got for looking delicious -- particularly from their white friends and their moms. That latter part was always such a shock to me. After all, I'd spent years fighting my own people on the merits of rocking natural hair and keeping my daughters natural, too. The idea that the styles I spent upwards of four hours creating in my daughters' heads were complimented and adored by anyone, let alone white girls was... interesting.
Of course, the questions were inevitable: How long did it take to get her hair like that? Where did you learn how to cornrow? Does it hurt? Do you take it down every night? How does it stay that way? And for how long? Can I touch it?
I know, I know -- I was supposed to pause on all of that, right? After all, my girls aren't museum exhibits, they're not animals in a petting zoo. And, as recounted in a CNN story last week, there's all kinds of history and baggage that bubbles to the surface when white folk try to touch black women's hair.
Thing is, the questions and the touching doesn't offend me in the least. Don't get it twisted: You better ask first, or risk drawing back a nub. Both my girls understand and will tell you with a quickness that their hair is a part of their body and not a living soul has the right to touch them in any way without their express permission. But what, exactly, is the harm in answering questions from people who genuinely just want to know the answer? Or who have never seen a thick head of kinky hair up close or never felt the glory of a thick, beautiful mane of black girl hair between their finger tips?
Mari's friends really dig her locs, notice when they're freshly palm-rolled and scented with rose-water, rosemary and grapefruit oil, and love helping her tie them into cute styles. Lila's friends get a kick out of loosening and redoing her twists and trying to duplicate the intricate parts and cornrows in their dolls' hair.
Granted, their love of my daughters' hair grew out of curiosity at first, but now, their playing in each others' hair is no different from them painting each others' toes or pretending to put make-up on each others' faces or playing dress-up. Play in each others' hair is what girls do. Especially if they're friends and they're familiar with each other and they are comfortable in each others' space. This doesn't happen if you're slapping peoples' hands away and telling them that touching your hair is akin to slave masters examining black bodies on the auction block circa 1836. Around our way, it's just not that deep.
In fact, I like to think that their asking -- and yes, touching -- teaches a very useful lesson about black girl beauty. That in a world where we have "researchers" trying to scientifically prove that black women are ugly, natural, kinky, curly black girl hair is lovely and worthy of celebration. That it matters.
That it is something beautiful -- exactly the way it grows out of our heads.