It was very late and my middle daughter and I were the only ones still awake. I rose stiffly from the sofa and muscles weary from my labors. My daughter yawned sleepily, and I kissed her goodnight.
"Go ahead." I said. "We are finished. You can go take a look."
She smiled, shook her hair back and forth to hear the beads click and clack, and then ran off for a quick look in the mirror before bed. We had spent most of the previous three hours on her hair. It is an activity usually reserved for Saturdays, but daily time spent in the pool had taken its toll and a style that started out incredibly cute a few days before had gone south very quickly. I knew that if we were going to survive the next few swim lessons, it was time to put her hair in cornrows and beads.
I am white, and new to this skill, so unfortuantely for my girl a process that would take a long time anyway always takes even longer. So, hours earlier after dinner was finished I had given her the summons.
"Come on, Baby," I called. "It's time to do your hair."
She scurried off to find toys to entertain herself for the first stretch of taking down the old style and combing through a multitude of tangles while I gathered the tools of the trade: wide tooth comb, rat tail comb, detangler, spray bottle filled with water, and a pair of tiny scissors used to cut the elastics free.
I sat on the sofa with her in front of me in a small chair and got to work. Soon, three of her siblings gathered there with us and began to play as we settled into one of the comfortable expressions of our family culture "doing hair", just one way this family morphed into a new entity when our girls came home from Haiti. As a African American friend once told me, "You are now the white mother of a family of color."
Later, after I washed my daughter's hair and began to cornrow it, my children passed the time by watching the BBC's DVD of Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis, leaving me time to think. As always, I found the process of styling my black daughter's hair profoundly humbling.
It is not that I am bad at it, I am actually pretty good to be honest. Each Sunday, I receive the highest praise possible for my efforts from the people who should know: African American women. Still, each time I pick up the comb and place my hands on one of my daughters' heads I feel a little nervous.
"What if I don't do a good job? What if my baby is ashamed of her white mother's creation?"
Because I know hair matters.
It matters because it is such a definitive expression of the African race and all their descendants scattered by the diaspora across the globe. It is both the pride of heritage and so often the focal point of the pain of discrimination. It is at once a deep heart's cry to be validated as the unique creation of God but at the same time to not be defined by any one characteristic of one's race.
It matters because as a white family, we had a choice to make when we brought our Haitian daughters home. Would we strip them of their culture and force them into our white world, or would we lay aside our own and meet them there. Black, white, Haitian, and American. Descendants of the oppressed and descendants of the oppressor woven into a family.
And a white mother with a cornrow in her hand.
"I am not my hair. I am not this skin." India Arie