The Ugly Green Monster

Black hair, white mother and embracing the tangles.


This is how I knew from the very beginning that my mother loved me: Every morning, like clockwork, she would pull out the Green Monster, and every morning, as soon as I saw the thing, I would turn the other way and run. She would chase me around the living room of our brownstone with a green plastic hair brush until I surrendered. Then, she stood behind her squirming daughter and somehow, heroically, managed to tame my raging curls into a single, thick braid.

I thought about the Green Monster recently when I heard my anti-political, often cynical mother arguing viciously over the telephone. With her Irish temper in full force, she demanded her best friend explain herself. How the hell did she support Clinton and Edwards, and maybe even McCain, but not Obama?

As I packed up my childhood bedroom and prepared to leave my parents' house for good, my mother was downstairs screaming at the top of her lungs, ruining a 30-year friendship over the Democratic primaries.

At first, her sudden burst of political passion was inexplicable to me. That's when my scalp began to tingle and the Green Monster returned to me.

In our Green Monster days, my mother did not see my riotous curls as a problem at all. Tough to control, sure, but she also saw them as beautiful and wild, as much a part of her daughter as anything else. Every year, at Christmas, my black paternal grandmother gave my mother a hair brush for me. It was her not-so-subtle way of suggesting my white mother do something, anything with my increasingly nappy hair.

While my grandmother may have been out of line, she was also very right. The nappiness had to be overcome. Or it would overcome everything.

By elementary school, the nappiness rose above my small brown frame, straight up into the air like a crown. At the time, we didn't live in some kind of post-racial utopia. We lived in Brooklyn. And it wasn't long before the nappiness became more than the distinguishing physical feature between a mother and her daughter. It was the reason hostesses went strange on us in restaurants and felt it reasonable to ask a 4-year-old and a 40-year-old if they would like to sit together. It was the dubious rationalization for dirty looks, silly assumptions—no, sir, the little black girl does not have an Irish nanny from Michigan—and years of general harassment.

It made some people very angry. One day three black kids I had never seen before circled my mother and me on bikes just down the block from our house. "Look at that girl," one spat out with bitterness. "She's not white. She's not black. She's nothing!" he said, weaving in closer with his wheel to try and separate the daughter's small hand from her mother's tightening grip.

And so I carried that braid with me wherever I went. It was there tucked away into my helmet on baseball diamonds, tugged at nervously during math tests and garnished with a shimmering bow on special occasions.

As I got older, the twisted and tangled masses of curls became larger, more complicated and intricate, until they were so dense that the divide between mother and child was daunting, unnatural, unfair.