Preface – A few weeks ago I decided to write an essay on hair, specifically my sons’ hair. Hair is a hot topic at our house and I thought our family might provide a unique perspective. I was wrong. Unique? Not at all. As I researched the topic I soon realized mine was not a lone voice. There are a lot of white mamas out there discussing the hair debate as it affects their black children. (The conversations are not limited to adopted children; biological white mothers of bi-racial children have a lot to say as well.) Links to a few of my favorite stumbled-upon blogs will be provided at the end of the post. Some are humorous, some defensive, and some simply offer basic hair-care advice, but each one reflects passionate views. My words offer a small window into the Veatch-view on all things Veatch-hair.
My husband Devan cuts his own hair. He does so in the name of frugality, but he also believes that clean and simple always out-trumps fashion. Secure in his skin, his hair has never been something he saw as a statement – it’s just hair – so clippers in hand, he self-sheers on a regular basis. His method is quick, efficient, and the resulting close-cropped-do prevents his motorcycle helmet from bending his hair every which way. As far as he knows, others do not define him by his hair and he cannot recall ever being asked, “So why do you have such a bad haircut?” (Okay, I confess that I’ve asked him that a couple of times, but he’s always adorable so I just let it go.)
Sam, our oldest, has evolved from mom-cuts to dad-cuts to barber-cuts to no-cuts to stylist-cuts and now, like his dad, he cuts his own. Yep, he even owns his own clippers. (Devan is so proud.) Like his dad, Sam considers hair, his or anyone else’s, a non-issue. It’s just hair.
Nathan and Jack have also experienced a range of hair-cutting venues, from home-cuts to barber shops to back home again. Unlike Sam, however, the boys have had encounters that border somewhere between the outrageous and humorous. And unlike Devan, who is rarely given hair critiques, Nathan and Jack are the recipients of hair-related comments and questions on a regular basis. Folks representing a cross-section of racial, religious, and political spectrums offer unsolicited advice on a frequent basis. (And touching the hair? Don’t get me started on the touching.) My sons have worn their hair natural, shaved, straight-edged, Afroed (it’s a word), twisted, braided and dreadlocked, each style opening the door for the curious to add their two-cents. (Our overriding family hair rule? Keep it clean, keep it reasonable, and remember that handsome is as handsome does.) A few more thoughts . . .
. . . I’m not sure why, but approaching a white mother and her black children to ask hair questions seems socially acceptable to some. It’s a bit like a TV show one would call All the Questions I’ve Wanted to Ask and Now I have the Chance. I’ve been asked (in the boys’ presence), “How often do they have to wash it?” . . . “Is it true that if you just leave it alone it will just stay short?” . . . “Did you pick a boy so you wouldn’t have to worry with the hair?” (That last question is in my hall of fame.) Nathan was asked by a stranger in the grocery line if his braids were a political statement. He answered, “No. I don’t think so” then looked to me and mouthed “Help!” If you’re my friend and you have a question about my sons’ hair, ask me in private; I know you love my boys and you’re curious. If you are a stranger in Target, go home and do a google search . . .
. . . “Braids” were the second wish on Nathan’s 2005 Christmas list. Five hours in an Eastleigh* kiosk and 500 shillings (about $6 at the time) was all it took to make his wish come true. A few days later we flew to Turkey to spend the holidays with family who were teaching at the University of Ankara. The Turkish people, warm and welcoming, were more than fascinated with Nathan and Jack and had little regard for their personal space. Cheek pinching, direct pointing, and photo snapping made the boys’ time there a bit uncomfortable. While walking down an Istanbul street, a group of men shouted at Nathan, “Allen Iverson,” obviously referring to the legendary Philadelphia 76ers player known for his rows of braids. Nathan looked at me and in all of his 8-year-old wisdom said, “Do they really think we all look-alike? I don’t look anything like Allen Iverson.” And he doesn’t. Side bar – During the Friends sit-com craze I, along with almost every other American woman, tried a Jennifer Aniston cut at least once. While my hair may have looked a bit like hers, no-one ever called me Jennifer Aniston. Ever . . .
. . . I personally don’t think a certain hairstyle will turn my sons into criminals, but there are those who think otherwise and have felt it their duty to tell me so. Once in a while I’ll skim the arrests photos in the local paper and have come to realize that criminals are very eclectic in their style. I’ve spotted braids, clean-shaven, bald, crew cuts, comb-overs, and cute pony tails in the police report; there doesn’t appear to be one preferred criminal style. Wearing a Dorothy Hamill cut in 1976 did not turn me into an ice-skater and my sons’ hair adventures won’t robotically turn their hearts to crime; hearts are turned by bad choices. My daily prayer is that all three of my sons would be men of integrity, kindness, and honor, regardless of their hair style.
. . . Jack is now sitting beside me, reading over my shoulder and adding commentary. He just said, “Remember to tell them about the touching thing.” In Jack’s own words: “I hate it when women come up to me and say, ‘Oohh, your hair is so soft.’ They did it a lot when I was a kid, but even now it happens once-in-awhile.” When I asked him what women touched his hair, he said, “I don’t know. Old women in Publix. Girls at my school. Church ladies. They ask me if they can feel my hair, but start touching before I even have a chance to answer.” Jack hasn’t really formed a theory as to why this happens, but the bottom line is that it crosses a personal boundary. When Jack was little he had sweet curls and it was not unusual for ladies to walk up in airport restrooms and say, “Ohh . . .” and then touch away. To all the touchers out there – please don’t.
There are more stories I could tell, but the bottom line is that we all need to remember that it’s hair. It’s personal. If opinions are wanted they’ll be solicited. (I have go-to girlfriends who have no qualms setting me straight about my own hair. They’ve earned that right. They love me. I trust them.) If you say anything to my boys about their hair, please simply remind them that they are incredibly handsome (smile) but much more importantly, encourage them to be concerned about having good hearts and intelligent minds.
In the song “i am not my hair” (have a listen to this beautifully-sung memoir at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtYarYhKa9c ), singer India Arie expresses what my clumsy words have been trying to say:
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am not your expectations no-no
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am a soul that lives within.
There are so many words out there about the hair issue, most written by adoptive mothers. Two for you to consider:
http://www.chocolatehairvanillacare.com/ – great hair advice for those of us who know nothing
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frenchrevolution/2012/05/06/transracial-hair-adoption-and-what-ive-managed-so-far/ – love this mom’s perspective
The video at the link below is hilarious, at least to those of us who’ve been through it, but hilarious regardless. When Devan and I viewed it we counted the ones we’ve heard. Yep, almost every single one. Seriously. Enjoy. (And though the title suggests otherwise, no curse words were used in the filming of this video. Smile.)
*Eastleigh is a residential and commercial area in Nairobi, Kenya. Nathan’s hair salon was a corrugated tin and wooden kiosk. I sipped warm, sweet tea from a metal cup while two lovely Kenyan women transformed Nathan’s look. What a lovely memory.