Politics of Hair Care: Black Motherhood, Black Girlhood, and Intergenerational Learning

By Kierra Trotter and Konstantina Karageorgos

Two young Black girls in pink tutus
Photo by Keisha Montfleury on Unsplash

This piece is a part of our Spark series: Celebrating Black Women and Girls — 50 Years of Black Women’s Studies

“Care is the antidote to violence”- Saidiya Hartman

I have experienced October 5th exactly thirty-seven times in my life. October 5, 2019 is the only day I will remember forever. That morning, while doing my six-year-old’s hair, she (“Z”) announced that she did not want to wear hairballs anymore — they smack her in the face when she is playing at recess and that hurts! That this declaration was actually a rehearsal of the same complaint she shared with my husband and me the night before did not lessen my shock, and, if I’m honest, my rising frustration. How, I wondered, and why had she developed the audacity to believe she should have the option to detach herself from the painful rite of passage that is wearing (and surviving) hairballs?

A young Black girl with loose natural hair
Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

In my professional life, I have examined the politics of Black women’s hair. I have designed a Twitter and Instagram campaign celebrating Black hair in the workplace and presented at local, regional, and national conferences. I know precisely the ways in which Black hair is weaponized, surveilled and policed by employers, well-meaning colleagues, and even TSA staff following orders. I consider myself to be a student of the many lessons of Black women’s hair, both in theory and through lived experience, yet my reaction to Z’s request shook me in unexpected ways.

When I was pregnant with Z, my husband and I had long conversations about how we would raise her to reject the Black superwoman schema. Our daughter would know — with the certainty it has taken me a lifetime to develop — that the collective cultural investment in Black women’s preternatural strength is a social practice rooted in Black women’s dehumanization. The same cultural logics that figure Black women as superheroes are implicated in the destruction of Black women’s bodyminds — which refers to the body and the mind as a single integrated unit. Our parenting would counter this insidious form of violence. Z would be raised to know that Black women are not bulletproof; she would instead embrace the vulnerability of being human. We would do everything we could to ensure her Black girlhood and womanhood were characterized by love, joy, magic, and agency and not the glorification of pain and sacrifice.

I had all of the tools I needed to turn Z’s request into an opportunity to teach her an intentional practice of care, but in the moments between her announcement and my response, I faced an obstacle of the heart, not the mind.

Every time I look at Z, I see a better, purer version of myself. She remains largely unaware that the world she is so eager to engage with has never loved or tolerated tenacious little Black girls. The fountain that contains the cure to her thirst for a careless childhood is closely guarded by a sign that reads, “WHITES ONLY,” and because I want to protect her from spiritual and physical death by White supremacy and patriarchy, I surveil her. At a time in her life when all she wants to do is dance wildly, sing freely, and laugh loudly, I watch closely and correct often, because as much as I love and want to nurture this free spirit, I want to preserve her life even more. So, my first reaction to Z’s declaration of independence from hairballs was to call upon the tactic that has served generations of Black women before me: don’t complain, endure. I realized that my years of reading, questioning, and practice had not cured me of anything! My attempts at dissimulation had failed me.

I wanted to treat this moment as an opportunity to prepare her for a lifetime of injustices, but such preparation is not what she needed. She did not need me to attribute her intolerance for pain to a personal inadequacy known as tender headedness. She did not need me to chastise her for following her innate flight response by pulling her head away from my heavy hand. What she needed is what all little Black girls and women need: validation, to be listened to and seen as the authority on their own experience.

A young girl wearing cool clothes in front of a blue wall
Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash

“You’re right. It hurts when someone pulls your hair. It’s hard to sit in one place for so long. Let’s take a break and when we come back, I’ll be as gentle as I can be.”

While engaged in an internal battle between my lived experience and my hopes and dreams for a different future for Z, I asked her if she would be okay with not wearing hairballs to school or when she is doing something active. Instead, we could use them as accessorizing options on the weekends and for special occasions. She happily said, “okay!” and went about her business.

With Z’s first big negotiation settled, my husband and I continue to bond over long conversations about our do’s and don’ts of parenting. Since October 5, 2019, we have consciously shifted our talks to not only include the essential need to protect Z (and our one-year-old son) from anti-Blackness, but also the important work of unlearning or revising the lessons we learned in our own childhoods. For instance, Z’s willingness to share her thoughts and preferences with us communicates an expectation of security, not disrespect. She is fully aware that we are the parents and she is the child, and this distinction is what allows us the opportunity to nurture healthy growth rather than overexert our dominance. Now, Z chooses to wear hairballs when they best serve her needs. We talk about their cultural significance as well as their function, because hair choices involve as much duality as the Black experience itself.

Kierra Trotter is the Director of the Comprehensive Studies Program (CSP) at the University of Michigan, and is responsible for strategic direction and fostering the professional growth and learning of all members of the CSP community. Trained at Michigan State University, she has extensive and varied experience in Student Affairs. She spent several years as a Residence Hall Director at The Ohio State University before finding a home at the University of Michigan where she has served as an Academic Advisor, Coordinator of Bridge Programs, and the founding Director of Student Engagement for the LSA Opportunity Hub.

Konstantina Karageorgos is a lecturer in the First Year Seminar Program at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on the intersection of African American literature, multiethnic American literature, settler-colonial studies, and literature and theory of the global South. She is currently completing her first book-length manuscript, “The Lost Futures of Black Radicalism: Reading Protest Juxtapositionally,” which analyzes post-Ferguson reconstructions of mid-twentieth century African American literature and visual art.

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