"When I was her age, I learned to be afraid of my hair—I didn’t embrace it," writes Sharisse Tracey. "She had no shame or a complex when it comes to hers."
“Look Mommy, I took my braids out all by myself,” my eight-year old Bee exclaimed proudly after school one day.
My only daughter looked like a cross between Tracee Ellis-Ross and Solange Knowles in all their natural, chemical-free glory. But unlike the natural elongated curls from the star of the hit television show, black-ish, and the “Do You” style trendsetter musician who makes news with every outfit and hairstyle, my Bee’s hair tangles from the root while fooling everyone on the outside that it’s manageable and carefree.
I stared at her in shock, trying not to scream. I knew what was waiting for me underneath the curl.
When I was a kid, a big rule in my house was "don’t mess with your hair," which my mother, like so many African-American mothers, would spend hours pressing.
Unfortunately, my hair also didn’t take easily to being straightened. I always had a tender scalp and early on hated getting my hair done. After years of screaming and hollering, my mother couldn’t take it anymore. She sent me to a professional hair stylist when I was eight. All the same, I became obsessed with the straight hair the kids at school had and how all the people on television wore theirs.
Despite the agony I went through to get it, I eventually got used to the pain it took over the three-hour process every other week. After getting my hair straightened by a pro, my mothers’ instructions to leave my hair alone were even stricter. As an adult, I continued the vigilance and put Bee under the same rigid orders.
That afternoon in our living room with Bee, I could not get over how stunned I was. “Bee, what have you done?” I asked, trying to stay calm and imagining all the knots hidden in her massive mane. “But I did a good job Mommy,” she answered, not understanding why I was upset. “Now you don’t have to do it before my hair appointment and hurt your hands,” she said, referring to my carpal tunnel syndrome that caused me severe pain. “Don’t you like it?” she asked, displaying all her teeth like she does when she shows me one of her creative art projects.
I gazed at her beautiful brown eyes and black lashes. Her thick head of hair surely gave her hairdresser a good arm workout. “You did an excellent job, but you know you’re not allowed to touch your hair."
Before I started my next sentence I paused and asked myself, "What am I doing?" My kid was skilled when it came to understanding how to manage her locks. She instinctively knew how to plait, twist and almost braid. She’d listened to what I’d taught her about proper hair maintenance. She’d done as good a job as I would have taking her braids out, maybe better. It was true I suffered from carpel tunnel but my inability to style her tresses couldn’t be blamed on that.
I lacked the skill for hair outside a simple ponytail or a no-nonsense flat style. Not all black women are born with the gift of knowing how to cornrow, press or even curl for that matter. It’s not like we descend from the womb with a comb and some grease in our tiny hands. I’d come to peace with that: I never imagined I’d have a daughter that had hair as thick as Bee’s.
Prior to her I’d only had boys. The stylist washes, conditions and styles her hair in a way I could manage throughout the week with large braids that can be left in until she visits again, or sectioned ponytails I could refresh. When she was younger I spent three hours every other day attempting to do what takes her stylist less than an hour. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it the outcome hadn’t resulted in a complete breakdown of our relationship for a few ponytails. Three days each week of her screaming, squirming and having to be held down just to get four ponytails in her head was hard on all of us. My mate couldn’t understand all the fuss. Her baby brother watched way too much cartoons during this mayhem, and I contemplated everything from a low haircut to dreadlocks to avoid fooling with her hair daily. Once she was older, we started braiding or twisting it for health and longevity.
When I was her age, I learned to be afraid of my hair—I didn’t embrace it. She had no shame or a complex when it comes to hers. That’s what made me pause after I scolded her for touching her hair. She shouldn’t have been yelled at. Bee rightly was excited that she was able to take her cornrows out all on her own. This is exactly how I want her to be, even if it meant doing something I told her not to do.
While out in public, she’s often complimented on her hairstyles. “Your hair is so pretty,” a nice lady told her in Macy’s elevator last weekend. “Did your Mommy do that?” “No,” she said, “Jeh does my hair.” I smiled because my daughter was direct and honest. She’s heard me say to various people when they ask about her fancy styles “No, I don’t do my daughter’s braids. I have other talents, though.” They usually laugh.
I get that there’s a natural curiosity about black hair, and cornrows that leave some folks puzzled about the entire braiding process, especially when extensions are involved. It used to bother me when people asked intrusive questions about my hair. “Do you clean it?” “How do you clean it?” “Can I touch it?” “Now, how long will that last?” “How much does it cost?” I preferred braids for most of my life only recently changing to the convenience of wearing wavy and straight weave hairstyles. Now, since I’m an educator, I’ve softened a bit, and am more likely to engage in a conversation and enlighten people rather than be annoyed.
My initial reaction to my daughter that afternoon was a reflex. Later I realized she was only doing what was natural to her. The difference between my daughter and me as a kid is that she has a curiosity and what appears to be a gift for hair. She is drawn to hair in a way that I never was. Bee already washes, braids and styles her dolls hair far better than what I can do on her. When she’s finished, her dolls look like they are going to a formal.
I definitely worry her inquiries might lead her to something that’s not easily fixed, but I’d rather she find her own solution. If she cuts her tresses, they will grow back. If she colors, we can re-do it. If she wears what I consider a crazy style, she might start a trend, be a game-changer.
On the other hand, if I keep telling her to not touch it, what message am I really sending? Certainly not one allowing her to be a free thinker.
With what I’ve experienced being worried about experimenting for lack of the unknown, I would much rather feed my daughter’s inquisitiveness than have her become a woman who is scared to challenge what she’s learned. I’m proud to raise a young girl who thinks for herself and does what works for her. After all, one day, we might not just be talking about hair.
Sharisse Tracey is an Army wife, mom of 4, educator and writer. Her family is stationed at West Point, NY. Sharisse has written In Spite Of, a memoir about overcoming her childhood and abusive relationships. Several essays inspired by it have been published online. Follow her @SharisseTracey.