When I was 10 years old, my Aunt Peggy, the fashion icon of the family, arrived at a party with her long, sleek hair shaped into a massive Afro.
“Cool, Aunt Peggy!” my older cousins chimed. I was mesmerized by the shock on my grandparents’ faces. “Girl, what did you?” Granddad bellowed.
We were a “we-shall-overcome” middle-class Detroit family. The tension of that day didn’t dispel until my aunt’s Afro did, years later, creating the perfect platform for an African-American girl to begin to understand the language of black hair. Our dreadlocked, relaxed, curled, twisted, braided or Afro-ed hair becomes the first thing we say to the world, and every hairstyle choice holds a different meaning.
In college, like my aunt, I detoured from a “press and curl” into an Afro, seeking my roots. My parents reacted just as my grandparents had, for two years, until I opted to define my blackness in other ways. By 25, I began wearing my hair chemically straightened. Around two decades later, February 2010, I would take my traditional bob to Africa to complete the adoption of a child.
The cocoa color of my skin held more interest to Ethiopians than my western hairstyle. Just after I’d met my 4‑month-old daughter for the first time an orphanage worker whispered, “You look like us.” Her words offered balmy praise that I didn’t share with the other families in my group. All three were Caucasian from the Midwest. They stood out in ways no one would want, garnering stares, even in the capital city of Addis Ababa. The families ignored the gazes; I tried.
“Welcome Home!” the United States Customs agent said as I approached his desk, four months later, cradling my 8‑month-old little girl whom I named Julia, after my great-grandmother. Then I pressed the United States Embassy envelope with the official seal into his hands. The man’s face shifted. We were no longer just mother and daughter.
He studied the documents then said, “Let’s see that beautiful face.” I turned Julia’s brown round face toward him.
He stared at her visa photo for the longest time, then said, “Welcome to America, little lady.”
From then on I disclosed my daughter’s adoption to some, other times, depending on the crowd, I opted to be just another black mom with a black child.
“You’re lucky, you guys can pass,” a white adoptive mom of a brown boy said as our children toddled about a Manhattan playground. I blinked, hard. She probably had no idea that “passing” held a completely different meaning for blacks. Still, I understood. And if the difference between the skin tones of white parents and adopted brown children weren’t enough, the unique qualities of black hair intensified matters.
I watched two white moms who were friends try to manage their adopted black daughters’ hair as their own, with a single headband straining against the girls’ kinky hair and their parental hopes. The girls’ hairstyles revealed their otherness.
I read online tales of white moms of black daughters shamed by armies of black women offering unsolicited help. A famous black Hollywood actress reportedly sent a hairstylist to Madonna’s home after seeing the state of her African-born daughter’s hair in photos. When I heard Wanda Sykes joke on her comedy special “that you could always tell a black girl raised by white parents, because they always ran up to you with lint and car keys stuck in their hair,” I vowed that my friends and their daughters wouldn’t be viewed that way.
At the next play date in my adoption circle I approached my friend Kristin. “Hey, I have the hair oil that I use on Julia’s hair,” I said. “Try it on your daughter’s hair.”
“But I like her soft curls,” she said.
“Look, it’s all natural,” I said. Kristin stared at me, then said, “Have you thought about schools, yet?”
A sadness sat down in my chest. I was trying to leverage my friendship, not my blackness. For three more years, I approached white moms at Ethiopian adoption events, parties and playgrounds. No one wanted my help.
Then one day, at a preschool interview, as our children played, another black mom said, “I love your daughter’s hair.”
“Twin Afro puffs, just like my mom did,” I said.
“What does your husband do?” she asked.
I beamed. “I’m a single parent, I adopted Julia from Ethiopia.”
The atmosphere shifted. The woman drifted away toward other moms. So proud of Julia’s heritage, of my journey to motherhood, it never occurred to me that we held an otherness, too. The chill I perceived outed my own adoption insecurities, exposure my white mom friends confront daily.
I’ve since stopped my hair care interventions. I still wish a white adoptive mom would ask me about black hair care. It is quite different. But until then, when the brown daughters of white moms in my community want to explore the differences between a Beyoncé do and an Angélique Kidjo Afro, I’ll be there, ready to translate.
Have you ever provided hair care advice to another mother (of any racial background) who seemed to be struggling with their daughter’s hair?
Do you think you’ve have unfairly judged (or been judged) based on the condition of a child’s hair?