Having a white friend who has adopted a black child, and bearing witness to the process from the get go, feels alternately like receiving some sort of epically heartbreaking gift, and time-traveling on a really high-quality hallucinogen.
When my friend, who I will call Alice, and her husband were first meeting with the birth mother then pregnant with the child they hoped to adopt, Alice told me the first thing this woman asked was: "Do you know how to handle black hair?" To which Alice responded, "Well, no. But I have a friend who does." I look at little Zahara Jolie-Pitt, as cute as she is, and I think, does Angelina Jolie have no black friends whatsoever?
My mom did not have any black friends, which you'd likely have been able to tell by looking at my own head of unkempt hair as a child (that's me, below), but she did manage to find me a black dance teacher, who wore her hair in a lovely, understated Afro. I didn't mirror her look knowingly, but I'm sure her Afro made me feel less freakish about mine.
And really, I didn't feel all that freakish about anything until I started middle school. Then I didn't need to simply worry about getting boobs, toning down my boy-craziness, and coveting the latest Nike sneaker (white leather with red swoosh). I also had to figure out how to somehow make my coarse, frizzy and difficult hair appear shiny, silky and easy.
My sister had a curling iron, which I used to no avail. I pulled and tugged at my hair. I wore head wraps and forced barrettes to hold what they couldn't, and weren't made to. I had a neighbor braid the front half, the rest was too knotted to comb through. And then there was the issue of my scalp. It was dry and itchy, and I had no idea what to use for it. And in any event, none of these efforts, which went on through high school, came close to producing the result I was hoping for, which was to bear at least some resemblance to Julie McCoy from 'The Love Boat.'
In college, I had a (white) boy ask me why, if I washed my hair regularly, as I told him I did, was my scalp so flaky? And then I had girls (white) ask me if I was able to get my hair wet -- could I, they wondered audibly, 'Go, like, you know, swimming?' I said that I could, of course, but secretly wondered if I hadn't been properly taught that black people were not supposed to get their hair wet.
My mom, who made gorgeous crowns of wildflowers for me to wear around my Afro when I was small (don't judge, hippies are people too), always just told me that my hair was beautiful. It did have a certain beauty, in retrospect. It was strong and willful, oddly elegant with its rough-hewn sprigs of anger, as I tried to force it into something it could never be.
It wasn't until I was in my early 20s that a (black) girlfriend, who straightened her own hair, was thoughtful enough to tell me not long after we'd become friends, "Honey, you need to put some oil on that scalp." I returned the favor, at that point fully embracing of my inevitably boho style and sensibility, by telling her to go natural, which she did.
My friend's suggestion didn't solve all my problems -- and lord knows, we black women are engaged in an endless dance with our hair. It is a defining characteristic of our lives -- for better or worse. How we care for, think about, and wear our hair takes us to emotional heights and depths unimaginable to most non-black folks. And much of the time, it's nearly impossible to explain why.
And so it's really important, Angelina Jolie, for black girls to be taught proper hair care in much the same way that they are taught to ride a bike -- as an integral part of their childhood learning. Luckily for my friend Alice, the birth mother had a boy, and black hair for boys is tons easier.