I start with a definition. Let me flip open my American Heritage. Ah, yes, here we are. Culture. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of work and thought.
Culture has been an ongoing conversation between Michael and me since we met. We certainly do not see brown eye to blue eye on everything, however, we respect each other's point of view, which sometimes means shutting the fuck up.
For instance, my husband wouldn't let Sebastian's hair be cut until his second birthday. It's a black thing. It's part of his culture. Thing is our son looked like a sheepdog by the time I finally got him in a barber's chair. Sebastian is white.
So, if I understand the definition, my black husband socially transmitted his African American beliefs on to a green-eyed boy of Lithuanian dissent.
You would think then, tit for tat, I'd have something to say about our black daughter's hair. But you'd be mistaken. You see, black hair is huge. It's Empire State. It's Everest. So, to frame it in my WASP perspective, how one styles black hair is on par with which investment firm handles your disposable income.
Ever since Maxie was small enough to be carried in a Guatemalan sling, black folks would come up to me, say what a beautiful girl, and then without missing a beat grill me about what I was putting in her hair. But she was a baby, I couldn't imagine clogging her pores with product at such a tender age. This would cause Black Stranger to let out an audible harrumph, making me feel I'd egregiously let the culture down. Then, she would tell me about a hair care product that does wonders and make me swear to go out and purchase it that day. Which, of course, I would.
On Maxie's bureau, there are bottles and jars of leave in conditioners, lotions, oils, hair balms, moisturizing creams and tonics. The goal is to find just the right cocktail for my daughter's specific hair type: a soft tight curl. As of this writing, Maxie has amassed fourteen containers of product. She's two.
Michael originally promised to be in charge of Maxie's hair and I was thrilled. Teaching my sausage fingers the intricate art of twist, braid, puff and lock, was highly intimidating. But at some point, he got busy and I became the caretaker of my daughter's do.
I am partial to her natural hair and that's not just because I sometimes wake up woozy from late night vodka binges and want to do as little styling possible. I actually think Maxie's curls are beautiful.
Now, we're to the crux of the story. Maxie goes to a nifty little pre school. I chose it for two reasons: proximity and really cool staff. My one complaint is that the student body isn't incredibly diverse. Where the staff is a fricken Benetton ad, the students are Eight is Enough. Maxie has two beautiful teachers, one is of Mexican dissent, the other black.
One day, Black Teacher tells Black Husband using black vernacular, "If she comes to school with her hair looking like that one day, that's okay. But three days in a row! That's unacceptable. Bring her early, I'll do her hair."
Michael was mortified. He was raised to be better behaved, better dressed, and better groomed than his white contemporaries. His sisters always had their butter whipped. And it was never a consideration to keep their hair natural. His culture had wrapped him on the knuckles and he was smarting from the pain.
I'd like to introduce another character into this narrative. Sally Foster. My mother. A woman who probably still hasn't visited my blog because she's too embarrassed to type the word penis. Sally would never let us leave the house unkempt. I remember my aunt saying, "Only Sally would dress her kids in white and then demand they not get dirty." And we wouldn't! We sipped soup without slurping. We answered the phone with, "And whom may I say is calling?" And we wore alligators on our clothing with alarming frequency. Welcome to my culture.
At some point, this broad definition of culture gets silly, doesn't it? It can apply to pretty much anything. Letting your pants hang down half mast...culture. Creative spelling, using a 'k' where a 'c' should be...kulture. Five thirty cocktails, face lifts at fifty, wrapping the family car around a tree...culture, culture, culture.
With my mother firmly a part of me, you better believe that both my children look good when they leave the house. So, I couldn't take Black Teacher's chastisement with the same gusto that Michael did. Besides, kids at Maxie's school have leaves in their hair, grape juice stains on their shirts and drag around old wigs as toys. Trust me, my daughter is put together just fine.
Two weeks ago, I was late picking up Maxie at school. And when I got there this same teacher was tightly weaving Maxie's hair. French braiding...or corn rowing...not sure which, perhaps it's a cultural distinction. What first looked to be a loving gesture from behind, became a thing of horror from the front. Maxie was near tears from the pain. I mention this and with a knowing smile Black Teacher says, "Well, we all had to go through this."
Bam! The culture card trumped parental concern.
I didn't know how to respond.
I then collected my daughter, who was thankful to be out of her clutches, and we bumped into Mexican Teacher, who said, "Maxie would really look cute with pierced ears."
Bam!! Culture card again.
My mouth hung open like a codfish.
I am positive that Paulina Perfect, WASP mom of Vanilla Viv, has not been subjected to such blatant cultural beatdowns! My kid was singled out by dark skinned ladies because of her dark skin. I'm sure their hearts are in the right place, but it's part of my culture not to concern two year olds with excruciating hair designs and ear lobe piercing, not yet. I know there are some painful years to come. Battles to win and loose on both sides. But for now, isn't she allowed to be a little girl who's hair comes loose on the playground, without social repercussions?
Of course, my husband shrugs his shoulders, siding with Black Teacher. So, I mention this to a longtime friend (also black) hoping to get some balanced perspective, but she tells me "It's not too young for her to learn." Learn what? I query. Then she tells me what a teacher said about her son's afro, "Isn't there something you can do with it? It distracts the other students." Her son does not attend that school anymore.
I thought it was black folks who were judgemental about black hair. But now I'm told white folks are the ones who judge. Is this the case? I thought back. Have I ever stood in follicle judgement? All I came up with was, "Oprah, girl, before you went in front of the cameras, did you really think you looked good?"
Maybe white people are intimidated with natural black hair. It's big and ballsy. It's Empire State and Everest. It says take me as I am, bitch. Barack Obama probably wouldn't be president today if Sasha and Melea didn't have their hair pulled and straightened and contained in neat curls. A bit of a leap, but anyone willing to challenge me?
There's only so much I can do to control my daughter's hair, let alone her world. She will meet many people who will want and need her to be a certain kind of women. So, for you, Maxie Pearl, when it gets a bit thick, I offer the following India Arie lyrics...
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am not your expectations no no
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am a soul that lives within