What the Rabbi is Reading- 13 January 2008

It’s All Good Hair: The Guide to Styling and Grooming Black Children’s Hair by Michele N-K Collison.

Here’s what I wrote about the book itself, with links to great kids’ books about Black children’s hair.

As a White woman, I knew absolutely nothing about Black people’s hair, except to wonder why women’s hairstyles were so often so elaborate or why men wore “do-rags” (actually, I didn’t even learn the name of a do-rag until a few years ago, though of course I’d seen them). I thought that straightened or relaxed hair was all about wanting to mimic White people. Shows how little I knew.

Then we cared for a Black baby for 18 months, and now we’ve had Black foster children for two years. But it was always boys till now. Now I’m getting into the intricacies of a little girl’s hair. So I hauled out the book and I’m learning.

But theory is one thing. Practice is totally another! She has very fine, wispy hair, quite beautiful when worn in flat twists… but she’s two years old. She doesn’t want to sit still. (I may resort to plunking her down in front of a video.) So I would like to do a little bit of her hair every day, but I’m not home at the right time. A rabbi’s schedule, or mine anyway, means that I can be home in the morning (when she’s at preschool) but not in the afternoon and evening most days . And right now, even when she and I are home together, there are usually 4 other kids in need of attention too!

So I’m actually pretty pleased that I’ve managed four (lumpy) flat twists at the back of her head, even though they’re coming out all over the place in less than a week. I know that our girls should be wearing something while they’re sleeping, but I haven’t gotten that far yet. Fortunately I have the name of a Black woman who does hair, and I’ll see if I can take her this week. My goal is to learn to cornrow. Again, the theory is easy. Practice? LOL.

It’s a matter of … well, honor and respect. I should no more have my Black foster daughters in public with messy hair than I should have my White son in public in khaki pants with grass stains. It’s just not done. And now I understand why I’ve seen so many Black women (and sometimes men) with scarves or do-rags on (besides the ones wearing them just for fashion): Good-looking hair is a matter of pride. And if there isn’t time that morning, or if you just haven’t been able to get to the hairstylist in too long, or if (like the woman whose sister I hope will care for my foster-daughter’s hair for a while; her sister did her hair a little at a time over a week) it’s an intricate hairstyle which takes more than one sitting to complete — then you just cover up your hair and go out.

Me, I just run the brush through, with water if necessary. My hair is short. Even when it was long I could wear it loose, or simply pulled back. But not so many Black women wear short hair. A crown of glory, perhaps — ateret tif’eret. And kinky and tightly coiled hair needs more attention to look neat than straight or wavy hair. And those straightened or relaxed hairstyles? It’s not necessarily about White people at all. It’s about simpler hair care and having another option for what to do with your hair. Do I assume that a White woman who gets a tightly-curled permanent wave is mimicking Black people? Get real, rabbi. Sometimes yes — often, no.

So I’m reading and re-reading the book, trying to figure out what will look good on this little girl and what hair products I need to use and when it needs to be wet and when moisturized and when covered and when shampooed… I’ll learn.

One of our foster daughters is visiting regularly with an aunt. She comes back each time with a new, beautiful, cornrowed-and-beaded style. Again, I see how to do it, but it will be years I imagine before my fingers are that nimble. And before my other foster daughter will sit still that long!