Just the other day, as I was getting my daughter ready for school, she asked me a question that will forever stay with me. “Mommy, is my hair beautiful?” You see, Dear Daughter, my beautiful baby, has a full head of gorgeous, thick, curly, kinky hair that I adore. When I wash it out, detangle it, comb it through and let it flow loosely on her beautiful little head, it doesn’t just lay there in some uniform, flowy mass. No, hers and all the other beautiful little black girls’ hair with so-called kinky hair proudly springs up, forming this gorgeous halo of brown or black curls atop their heads, free for all to see. Her hair, like that of so many, is as unique as it is free, and as a Black woman and a Black mom, it is my job to remind myself, and to remind her, of it every single day, or at least every time she asks the question.
In all my years, and in my own struggle with my own hair, the real one, not the relaxed, straightened or somewhat tamed version of the crazy mane I was gifted with, I had never expected my own daughter to ask me this question. Yet it is a question I myself, like so many others, have pondered at length, especially after I went natural some year and change ago. “Is my hair beautiful?” “Is the color of my skin a shade too dark?”
Like myself, Dear Daughter is of African ancestry. I was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal, of a fair, beautiful Cape-Verdean woman the shade of milk tea, and a mahogany dark father of Malian and Cape-Verdean ancestry. In an African society where color plays more of a role than it should, where colonialism has been absorbed in the skins and minds of the people, where being fair-skinned still affords many an automatic stamp of approval, I experienced firsthand the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle hints of racism many of us experience in our own cultures before facing it on the outside. My nickname was “Pretinha”, meaning “little dark one” in Cape-Verdean creole. I was always dark, but at least I was “pretty for a dark-skinned girl”. At least, and as my saving grace, as many contended, my hair had a smooth curl in it…At least….
Fast-forward 34 years in post-Obama America, the American-born daughter of a first-generation African immigrant asks the same question as generations of Africans, Americans and pretty much every nationality, origin, or racial creed out there: “Is Black hair beautiful?” Really? Really…
If anything, even as we choose to leave behind the scars and hurts of a heavy racial past worldwide, that only ought to remind us that there’s a part of the discourse as Black parents that we may be omitting. That raising our kids as Black girls and Black boys, to be tomorrow’s Black women and Black men, involves a bit more than providing them with more opportunity than their forefathers, and shielding them against prospective (and promised?) harm. That it involves dispelling the same myths we grew up with, and never really addressed, the same questions that we asked and are still asking, and that now our children are asking, and that one day their own children may keep on asking.
That day, all I could muster to answer Dear daughter, in a hint of a choked up voice, was: “Of course your hair is beautiful!” And no, it wasn’t the right answer. It was at best average, at worst misleading. What I did not tell her is that everyone’s hair is beautiful, that Mommy decided to let her hair be in preparation for this very day when she would ask about Black hair, that it’s ok to ask and ask and ask again until we all know the answer and no longer need to ask ourselves or others…
That day, I did not say all these things because I was not ready for the question. And although I don’t have the right answer,I hope I’ll have some better answers as I go…