When my husband and I committed to adopting our Haitian daughters, I knew I needed to learn how to do hair. Like most white women, I had no experience with African hair but somehow, I knew that in the African American community hair was very important and that it was imperative I learn to do it well. I never wanted to be in the grocery store and have an older African American woman feel the need to shake her head in sympathy for my daughter and say, Look at that poor child's head.
I wanted my daughters to hold up their curly heads proudly. I wanted them to feel beautiful.
So, I studied. I bought a book to educate myself, and asked my black friends lots of questions. I even bought a Barbie head and practiced parts, braids, twists and cornrows.
The first time I took my oldest Haitian daughter's hair down to re-braid it she wailed! Then, when I was finished she looked into the mirror and smiled delightedly. She later told me she did not think I would know what to do.
Crazy white lady. Yellow stick up hair. What does she know about parts and braids? I'm in trouble now!
The Haitian women scrutinized her head with a careful eye. You did this? they asked incredulously.
Since then, I have done a lot. I love my daughters' hair.
But I never really, really understood why it was important until I sent my black daughter to school in a white world. Suddenly, she was out of the protective cocoon of church and home and the people who loved her. Suddenly, she was very much the minority. Suddenly, I realized that life for a black child in a white world can be brutal. Suddenly I realized why hair is important.
The attack on her ethnicity and place in our family came sometimes like an ice cold bucket of water thrown in her face.
Every day on the bus ride home..
Is that your sister? She doesn't look like you. What is she? Adopted?
Then, spat like something indecent- She looks bi-racial.
Sometimes, the attacks came like noxious fumes borne on the wind. Stealthily, softly, and perhaps even more deadly than more blatant attacks.
A little girl comes up to me.
Are you Claudine's Mommy?
Yes, I am!
Our teacher told all of us that you are lighter than her.
Our teacher told us all that you found her.
I feel sick.
Then, one day I did an innocent thing. I bought her a new head-band. It was wide, fuchsia and studded with jewels. I saw it and knew she would love it. She did.
Mommy, I want to have big hair tomorrow. I want to wear my head band!
Okay, sweetie, I will twist your hair tonight and tomorrow you can have big hair.
The next day we undo the twists and put on the colorful, flamboyant head band. She looks in the mirror and squeals with delight.
Pretty! she cries.
She comes home from school and some of the light is gone from her eyes. She turns those big brown eyes up to mine.
Mommy, my teacher loved my hair but no one else did. I don't want to have big hair again.
Then, I understand. I understand down in my heart and not just in my head. I understand why for generations African American mothers have braided, parted, and added beads, beads, and more beads to their daughters' hair. It is because a white world sends a very clear message to those sweet babies- African hair is not pretty. African hair is bad. I lean down to hold her close to me.
I love your big hair. Your hair is beautiful. Do you know why it is special?
Her soulful eyes bore into mine. No.
I have told her before but tell her again. You can style your hair anyway you want. We can make rows of hair planted like corn in a field. We can twist, braid and bead. Those little white girls can't have braids, twists and beads like yours. Do you know why? They fall out! Their hair won't hold them.
She giggles as if I have told her a secret.
I pull her close and whisper fiercely in her ear. Your hair is beautiful. Don't you listen to those little girls who tell you it is not! Don't ever listen to them.
It seems so unjust for a child who has already suffered so much to endure more. It is as if life is determined to knock her down and keep her down. Then I hold her face in my hands and tell her a greater secret. I pull the sword of truth from its sheath and place it in my strong little girl's hands.
Listen to me my child. You are the daughter of the Most High King and He is so, so strong. He is so strong that He can take whatever bad happens in your life and turn it around for your good.
She wraps her small fingers around that weapon and holds it close. And for a moment I am sure I hear the gates of Hell shutter as the angel God has placed to watch over her shouts the shout of victory. A conquering warrior for the Kingdom is born.
Sherri Gragg and her husband Michael live in Franklin, Tennessee with their 5 children.