Beauty, the Brush and Black Girl Pain

Getty Images
Getty Images

At first blush, it looks like a familiar ritual in many black homes: A little girl with abundantly gorgeous, kinky-curly coils sits down with her mother/caregiver for a little grooming. Like most little girls, she’s none too happy to be participating in said ritual. So she lets her displeasure show.


And that’s when a harmless little ritual morphs into YouTube infamy, sparking a furious debate about black parenting styles and the difference between hair care and child abuse: We watch the mother/caregiver as she proceeds to “brush” the girl’s hair, pulling at it with a ferocity, yanking and yelling and telling the little girl to move her “goddamn hand.” “I’m trying to get these f****** naps out of your head so you can look like somebody,” she tells her.

It’s hard to listen to the little girl scream. It’s also hard to watch her try to escape, and to watch her mother—if it is indeed her mother—run after her, pinning her down with her thighs, “brushing” her hair with a vengeance, cursing her the whole time. You can see clumps of hair floating about.

The anonymous girl’s big sister—who posted the event on YouTube under the heading, “My Lil Sis,” and “Nappy Ass Hair 2,” films it all, laughing so hard that sometimes she can’t film straight: “America’s Funniest Home Videos!” she chortles.

Most of the viewers watching it on YouTube didn’t find it funny. It was flagged for child abuse, taken down from the site and then posted again. And then it went viral, cropping up on sites like, and Some bloggers played detective, tracking down the provenance of the video and reporting it to authorities. (It looks like the video originated in Detroit.) Hell hath no fury like bloggers on a mission to save a child.

The video serves as a Rorschach blot for the female sector of the blogosphere, be they black, white or other: They see the little girl, and they see themselves. There’s cynthiarf, who posted her own reaction video. She saw unrepentant child abuse:

“The stuff that she’s putting into that child’s psyche is gonna be irreversible. I’m damn near 40 years old, I ain’t forgot shit. …. It’s been a long time since I was 5, and I remember it like it was yesterday. … If you ever see this shit, say something. … I just hope this bitch is in jail.”


Then there are those who watched the video and saw a little girl with a little too much attitude, a little girl who, above all, needed to calm down and submit to the brush. Their mothers brushed their hair with similar force, so what’s the problem? Says beauttty07 who re-posted the video on YouTube after it had been taken down by site administrators:

“its just a trip how the girl is actin all that screamin and stuff and throwing stuff cuz she dont want her hair brushed the little girl is actin way over the top and the mother means no harm.”


Let’s just say that I disagree with that assessment: The mother seems to be getting sort of grim pleasure from the girl’s pain. There’s no reassurance: there’s no soothing; there’s no attempt to be gentle. When the little girl, who looks to be about 5, screams, “I want my daddy,” she is told, “You ain’t got no f****** daddy.”

Then, in another video—it comes in three parts—her sister, the videographer tells her, “You’ll be pretty, baby, again.”


As if.

The message she’s getting, the message too many little black girls get: Your hair is ugly; therefore you are ugly, too. To be beautiful, to “be somebody,” you need to have your hair smoothed into submission. There’s no room for spirited hair—or spirited little girls.


Some note that the anonymous little girl appears to be of mixed race and that her mother is dark-skinned and appears to be wearing a weave; therefore, the reasoning goes, the mother must be jealous and is exacting her revenge on the little girl’s head. We don’t know these people; we can’t ascribe motives to their actions. Their actions are troubling enough. A whole lot of psychological mess is getting played out in that little 5:46 video.

Hair is such a loaded issue for us; the legacy of 400 years of slavery and brainwashing, good hair vs. bad hair, wannabes vs. the jigaboos, yada, yada, yada. I’m not trying to minimalize the impact, because our wounds go deep. Really deep. I’m just tired of seeing it played out again and again.


Talking about it doesn’t seem to help. Books have been written about our issues with hair; Spike did a movie about it; Oprah’s talked about it; India.Arie sang about it; Chris Rock did a documentary on it; and we still can’t seem to get beyond it. True, in the blogosphere, there’s a whole natural hair revolution going on, with scores of sisters resolving to love the hair they were granted and documenting that love—and obsession—in countless videos, blogs and online organic hair recipes. (Part of the horror generated by the video is the fact that someone in the girl’s environment is savvy enough to upload a video to YouTube but isn’t hip to the fact that brushing kinky or curly hair is a recipe for disaster.)

But even beneath the love for all things “naptural,” we’re still stratifying and categorizing black hair, ascribing numbers to assess the degree of kink and coil, with “4b” being the ultimate in Negritude.


So we talk, and talk, and talk some more. Maybe one day we’ll talk ourselves into a healing place. I’m not so sure. Talking about it is akin to picking at a fresh scab, again and again and again. In the meantime, there’s another generation of little girls, little girls like the girl in the video, who are listening, and taking notes. And running when we reach for the brush.

Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.