Recently, my mom and I wrote about spanking and the choices she made regarding punishments when I was younger. It led to a broader discussion on how we can grow up and bring parenting into the modern era while respecting our parents and the choices they made. Dealing with hair care for a daughter with tons of curls is something my mom and I also have in common—even though we’re approaching it differently.
I was born with a head full of hair. And by the time I was 3 years old, there was enough going on that my mom had to practically chase me down to do something to it. Like most in my generation, I eventually got a perm and hair care became much easier. I never truly understood what my mom went through with my hair—until I had Emmy. By the time she was 3 years old, I’d had it up to here with the all-day hair-washing episodes in which Emmy would scream bloody murder with every touch of the comb or brush.
But I didn’t perm Emmy’s hair, even when others in older generations told me I probably should. Part of the reason was that I didn’t want to expose Emmy to the chemicals in hair straighteners. Another reason is that I wanted to try to show Emmy that she could be proud of her curly hair and not feel as if her kinks were some kind of deficit.
I stopped chemically straightening my hair back in college. But that’s about all I don’t do. I wear braids (with my own hair and with synthetic hair), I wear a ’fro (whom I affectionately call “Fro Girl”). I also sometimes wear a weave (whom I call “Faux Girl”), and any other hairstyle that appeals to me. And yet I stop short of chemically straightening my hair. I don’t want Emmy to see me straightening my hair because she might see it as being hypocritical when I’m always telling her to be proud of her curls.
Now, my mom has had a perm for as long as I can remember. (Although I’ve seen pictures of her in the ’70s with the most epic Afro you’ve ever seen in your life.) For my mom, I think having a perm is more about just the ease of hairstyling than some idea of straight hair being better. My mother has always instilled cultural knowledge and pride in my siblings and me.
But I do know that my mom likes to see Emmy’s hair long and straight. So is she passing that preference on to Emmy? Emmy’s got a serious case of what natural-hair-care experts call shrinkage. When her hair is curly, it’s chin-length. When I get her hair blow-dried and flat-ironed, it’s halfway down her back. And I notice that when she wears her hair straight, she gets much more attention and compliments—which frustrates me.
The micro issue here is what to do about Emmy’s hair. The bigger issue here is what to do when the generation before you has ingrained thoughts that you’re trying to correct for the next generation.
I know for a fact that my mom is as pro-black as they come. But I also know that she’s still affected, as I am, by the age we grew up in, when long and straight hair was more valued than kinks and curls—when calling someone’s hair nappy was a grave insult.
Times have changed. But there are lingering beliefs that our previous generations still carry. How do new millennial parents push for the changes we want to see—without pushing away the very people who instilled those things in us?
Aliya is absolutely right. There are certain things that were ingrained in my generation—and Aliya’s as well—that I do not want to see my granddaughter Emmy have to deal with.
When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I came to the awful, hurtful conclusion that white people were more favored by God and superior to black people. My sister and I were just two of very few black kids at a camp. The white girls jumped freely into the water with no inhibitions about anything. Their hair got wet, but it dried silky, manageable, and they could comb and brush it easily. My hair was so kinky, brittle and knotty, you dared not put a comb near it, and I was so embarrassed by it. I now feel bad for that little girl, who had no pride in the texture of her hair.
Fast-forward to the 1970s, and I had Aliya and her sister, Ashanti, both with lots of hair. As a working mom, I needed help and spent a small fortune at the hair salon when I didn’t have the time or energy to do it myself. Eventually I did what many moms did at the time: They both got perms.
Today my granddaughter Emmy has long, beautiful hair, and Aliya is right. I do love Emmy’s blown-out, flat-iron look, with her hair falling down and fluffy. (And from the amount of head-shaking Emmy does when her hair is straight, I can tell she likes it, too.)
But I don’t want Emmy to think that only straight hair is beautiful, the way I did once upon a time. In fact, I still have that lingering desire from childhood to feel my hair blowing about my face on a windy day. My generation was conditioned to accept a particular standard of beauty. But I will admit, if that somehow got passed down to Emmy, I would feel as if we failed her.
It’s such a thorny issue. But I’m grateful that even if my generation is still holding on to some of the ideals we don’t want to pass down, society is beginning to make it easier for us to change the world for our children and grandchildren. I see Mattel creating dolls that truly reflect a cross section of society, and I see that the issues of self-acceptance and value can be radically different for Emmy’s generation.
I may not ever give up my diamonds and furs, no matter what the younger generation says. And while spanking is frowned upon these days, I still don’t consider it child abuse. But when it comes to the ideas of loving yourself—and your hair—in all ways, that’s one legacy I will always support.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at her website. Rita Moore King, mother of three grown folks, is originally from Newark, N.J., and has made East Orange, N.J., her home for the last 40 years. Prior to her recent retirement as an English teacher at East Orange Campus High School, she advised the school’s book club for 12 years. Her goal is to publish her first children's book, A Fake Moon in a Real Sky, an idea inspired by her granddaughter Emmy.