I was washing Tin’s hair last night using Ms. Jessie’s Super Slip Sudsy Shampoo and Creme de la Curl conditioner and thinking about our ritual. I’m in charge of hair in this household and it’s remarkable that I’m the one who doesn’t have any. In March of this year, my hair started falling out and now I’m completely bald. I have Hashimoto’s Disease, which is an auto-immune deficiency that caused my body to quit making hair.
The interesting piece of my newfound baldness is how many times I am stopped by an African American woman who tells me, “You look beautiful.” I’m not sure if they are more used to seeing women bald because of choices their friends or family have made or as byproducts of chemical burns from using straighteners, or if they simply see me as beautiful because what used to separate us the most – hair – is now gone.
Hair has been the topic of conversation since I first began the adoption process. As an older woman, and then in a partnership with a woman, the children that came to me when I opened myself to the universe to adopt have all been African American. The first time we were picked to be potential parents was by a 35-year-old woman who had grown children, who found herself pregnant from a casual relationship, and who was in no mind to start all over again having begun motherhood at the tender age of 15.
I remember that day in the attorney’s office, when the birthmother and her 20-year-old daughter met with me. I spoke nervously and candidly with her, while her daughter held back, scrutinizing me until she finally blurted out, “What are you going to do about hair?” At that time, my thick, red hair was obviously not what she meant and I knew it. I had already begun reading and studying about African American hair and its meaning in black culture. I told her that I would take classes to learn how to do the baby girl’s hair and if I couldn’t do it myself, I would bring her to a salon to have someone else do it.
There is a school for African American hair on the Westbank that my hair stylist had told me about. Scott at Jupiter Salon had already informed me that the art of styling hair has been lost to our generation of mothers (mine included). After the birthmother selected us, I went out and bought a salon doll head with African American textured hair and began practicing my braiding.
Two potential adoptions later, we adopted a baby boy, my son, Tin. And I began to learn hair in real time on a real child and it wasn’t easy. From an early age, Tin wanted his hair natural, in an afro, and I began using the Ms. Jessie’s products and began my routine of trying to make bathtime and hairtime a wonderful time between us. Wonderful and challenging is more what we have ended up in. I have been stopped by older African American women, some friends, who have said, “Shave it off.” Another friend called after pointing out many other styles Tin could be wearing and said that a unique opportunity had come where her niece, who does braiding, was in town and could do Tin’s hair. And I had one African American friend tell me point blank, “You are doing a good job.”
I took Tin to an African American hair salon in the French Quarter – a place that is like something out of a movie, with chandeliers and chaise lounges and hip hop blaring, but the people there were unsure of how to cut an afro. That should have clued me in as to how this hairstyle is perhaps out of style, or out of time, but I persisted. And then a good friend of ours, and now honorary uncle of Tin’s, who has had an afro from an early age, has taken it upon himself to be Tin’s barber.
Hair is identity and when I read about African American’s obsession with their hair, I now know what they mean. People who do not have hair like Tin, always want to touch his hair. I read that white parents of African American children are scrutinized first for their child’s hair. Hair is cultural, it’s unique, it’s self-identity. Having lost my own thick mane that used to be what I referred to as my “crowning glory,” I know how much it is hard to get away from what hair says about who you are and where you belong.
On a recent trip to Atlanta, I went dancing at a bar that was populated with 95% African American thirty something year olds – the pulchritude of Hotlanta. I felt that my baldness freed me from my whiteness and from my age. A woman approached me and said, “You are so beautiful. So spiritual.”