These days Josie is always reaching into bags or up to counters or under chairs. When I ask what she’s doing she says I’m lookin’ for (or geddin’ or movin’ or doin’) sumpin’. Then she gives me a look with raised eyebrows that says: ok? She’s not particularly irritated. She does not roll her eyes. She’s speaking as a fellow grown-up. It’s all very mature and her message is clear. She does not need my help.
But, of course, I continue to give it to her in a variety of useful and useless ways. I, for example, collect hair care supplies – combs, clips, beads, head bands, ponytail holders – as if simply owning this equipment will make me a better hair stylist and, by extension, a better mother.
When I recently found out that Josie’s hair stylist (yes, she is too young to have her own stylist) moved out of town, I called around to all the local kiddie salons, asking if they have any African American stylists. No, I’m not looking for someone familiar with black hair; I’m looking for someone with black hair. Yes, that’s right, I’m looking for a real genuine black person. You, blondie, will not do.
I hear about a hair salon that specializes in “kinky, curly or locked hair textures.” Pefect! I ask the woman who answers the phone how old Josie has to be to have her hair cut. The woman asks what Josie needs done. I say she just needs a trim. She says, well, how does she wear her hair now? Is it an afro?
What I think she really means is: are you sure your baby is black because you sure do sound white?
Meanwhile, I’m thinking: what is the technical definition of an afro? Does it mean, super-curly hair worn loose? Or does it have to be a certain size to qualify as an afro? Because Josie’s hair isn’t super-big but it is often unstyled. I have no idea how to answer this question. I am so white. Josie is so doomed.
Eventually the receptionist tells me Josie needs to be about 5 years old and “salon ready.” My child is definitely not 5 years-old, and defiantly not salon ready.
A few days later, I’m walking through the mall and I see a black child waiting in a hair salon. I walk in and ask how old children have to be to have their hair done. Two. Two! Wesley, the brunette at the front desk, tells me she’s familiar with African American hair. Step aside, Wesley, you’re not needed here. I make an appointment with their black stylist.
I come back a few days later with Josie, and I’m a bit nervous. It’s not a kiddie salon and, as I’ve mentioned before, my kid generally does not sit. So I do my best to talk to Josie about it beforehand. To play it up as a special treat – going to the salon. I can see the terror in the stylist’s eyes when we arrive.
We survive the wash and comb-out and the stylist rubs in a little dab of two products – one promises to make her hair smooth and the other to make it shiny. Anxious to learn everything I can, I pick up the bottles, write down the names, and read the instructions. On the back, in all caps, both bottles say HAIR IS FLAMMABLE and should be kept away from cigarettes and open flames. Tap, tap, tap. Excuse me, did you just douse my child in lighter fluid?
When her hair has been dried and while it is being cut and braided she gets a little antsy. I hand her a sticker book and she flips through it like its People Magazine. I ask what she’s looking for, if I can help. I’m doin’ sumpin’ Mommy. Fair enough.
By the time she’s finished, Josie’s been in the chair for over an hour. She sat quietly the whole time. I’m so proud. We have a little celebration that includes lots of high-fiving and a few bunny crackers.
The next day is the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day and Paul and I decide the best way to celebrate the day and celebrate black culture is to go to the gospel choir concert at a Baptist church. I dress Josie in her cute dress and tights and shoes, her hair still a bit of braided perfection. We find a seat on the aisle. Josie squirms on Paul’s lap and then mine. She’s turning and twisting, and wants to get down, then wants to be up, then wants raisins, then wants to be with Daddy, then with Mommy, then more raisins.
Then the music really gets going. I mean really going. Everyone is dancing and clapping. I stand with her in my arms and I dance. The choir is loud, beautiful and stunning but the energy in the church is even bigger, even louder. I’m trying to clap and dance and hold her. The bag of raisins falls to the floor. She’s completely still, gripping my arms with her hands, and staring at my clavicle. She’s full and open and focused with every sense except sight as if seeing the choir in their swaying robes would take away from the sound, the energy, the movement.
It looks as if my girl with her flammable braids has started moving toward the place I cannot take her. I wish I could go with her, but I can only hope she’ll give me a glimpse into what it is like to be a black person in America. Maybe by living her experience I’ll learn sumpin’, like how to be a better mother or, if I’m lucky and pay attention, maybe I’ll even learn how to be a better person.