Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Caring For Black Children's Hair (essay & related links)

Written by Azizi Powell

Note: This is a posting with minor typographical & grammatical corrections of an article that I wrote in 1992. The article was published in Ours magazine (November 1992, pps 32-34). Ours was published and distributed by The North American Council On Adoptable Children. One section of the article is missing. I will add what I think is missing in brackets. I recognize that given the internet it's far easier to find information about Black hair care & far easier to purchase Black hair products now than it was in 1992. However, I'm posting this article as it was written for the historical record and with the recognition that some of my comments would be different now in large part because of the internet.

An adoptive African American parent discusses Black hair care for families who have adopted transracially.
by Azizi Powell, 11/1992

There she was, a 2 or 3 year old Black girl standing next to her White adoptive parents and her Asian older sister. The little girl's skin was brown like mine. Her eyes were alert and expressive, but her hair was dry, lackluster, and badly matted. It ssemed clear that the girl's White parents didn't have a clue how to take care of her hair.

There were more than 100 people at the reception held at the Pennsylvania governor's mansion celebrating the establishment of an initiative to improve the state's adoption services. People were mingling, networking, and socializing. But the family I had noticed earlier was standing alone, isolated. That family bothered me. More to the point, I was bothered by the condition of their daughter's hair, and the fact that I've never been sure what the proper etiquette is for offering unsolicited information and assistance.

The girl's hair

I wasn't the only person who had noticed that little girl's hair. Actually someone else had surreptitously pointed her out to me and whispered that this confirmed her position that White people shouldn't be raising our kids.

There were other transracial families at that adoption conference's reception but they were White families with Asian children. While these families have to face issues of differentness, they don't have to so immediately confront their prejudice and other people's prejudice about what society calls "good" and "bad" hair. They also don't have to learn how to properly groom hair whose management needs are different from theirs.

It's not unusual for African Americans who attend adoption conferences to see Black children whose hair isn't properly groomed and combed. While that little girl's hair was in worse shape than most I'd seen, there have been other Black girls whose hair needed grooming, and Black boys whose hair needed a good hair cut, some hair grease, and the use of an Afro pik.

It takes a certain amount of psychological preparation for African Americans who have concerns about transracial adoption to attend these conferences. Issues of entitlement are potent and rarely addressed. Often transracial adoptive parents see you as the enemy and are on guard against your every statement.

At other times White parents ask you to provide suggestions and advice about raising children of color. [But what do you do when you think a person needs advice but they haven't approached you for it? Do you approach them? That's what I finally did. The liitle girl had gone off with her father and older sister, and I walked up to the mother and started the conversation by saying something like "I noticed that your little girl's hair texture is a lot like mine. I wear my hair in an afro, but many Black girls under the age of 12 years old, or even older prefer their hair in other styles."

The woman seemed somewhat taken aback that I had introduced that subject, but she admitted that she didn't know how to take care of her daughter's hair. I suggested that she comb her daughter's hair with a wide tooth comb or an Afro pik, and use a detangling spray or dampen each section of her daughter's hair with a little bit of water before combing it.]

Finding Black hair care products & other issues

The adoptive mother told me that she lived in a town where there were no other Black people except for her daughter. She explained that she didn't know where to buy an African pik and detangling spray. I asked the woman how far her family lived from the city where this conference was held. She said 100 miles. I told her that I regretted that there were no other Black people besides her daughter in their hometown but wasn't she lucky that she lived so close to a city where she could meet some Black people.

I told her that she needed to be more assertive about reaching out to others and encouraged her to be creative about how she and her family could grow more knowledgeable about African American lifestyles so that she and her family could be more comfortable interacting with Black people. I suggested that after attending this conference in the city, the family stop at a convenience store and purchase some Black hair care products, asking for help if need be. I recommended that she subscribe to some Black magazines, read them, and order some Black hair products through those magazines. I also suggested that when the family traveled to the city they could attend a Black church and attend community events in African American and integrated communities.

If the family had lived far from African Americans, they would have to be more creative and assertive about finding resources and resource people for their entire family. A family could contact a National Association For The Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) or a branch office of the Urban League in the nearest large city to ask for assistance. Or they might want to consider seeking information from and cultural exchanges with a Black student group at a nearby college or university.

Other Black hair care tips

Here are some other Black hair care tips that I didn't share with that woman because of the circumstances:

Under normal circumstances, don't wash tightly curled hair more than once a week.

Because most African American hair is less oily than most Caucasian hair, replenish the hair's natural oil at least once a week by using hair grease, hair oil, or hair gel. When combing this hair, slightly dampen the hair by wetting a washcloth and rubbing it through the hair. Or you can apply a detangling spray or a little water to the hair while combing it.

For thick, coarse, tightly curled African American hair, use an Afro pik or wide tooth comb. Section the hair in parts and deal with one section of the hair at a time. Place a dap of hair grease, hair oil, or hair gel on the palm of your hand. Rub your hands together and place the grease (or oil, or gel) on the hair stand and not the scalp. Place one hand above the portion of hair that you are combing and begin to come the hair from the bottom up. Move your hand up the hair as you comb up. Then you can braid the hair as you go, combining more than one section of hair into braids.

There are almost as many types of African American hair textures as there are Black skin colors. When their hair is wet, some Black people use a blow dryer with a comb attachment to straighten out the tangles in their wet hair or in their children's wet hair. However, frequent use of a blow dryer takes a toll on hair that is already less oily than most Causcasian hair.

For years, most Black women have been using iron combs heated over the kitchen stove, and lately, electric heating irons or chemical perms to straighten or "relax" the tight curls in their hair cuticles. While stores do sell some chemical relaxers for children, most Black hairdressers recommend that those products not be used until the child is at least 8 years old. The reason for this is that prior to that age, children's scalps and hair are too sensitive. Cosmetologists also don't recommend using a hot comb or an electric comb in girls' hair prior to the age of 8. Hoever, quite a few Black parents have done so, particularly for special occassions.


Hair is such an important determinant of beauty. I told the White transracial adoptive mother that her daughter faces special challenges because she is of a different race than others around her. Why add to those challanges by having people tease her because her hair doesn't look good or feel good?

I explained that even though I knew that she and her husband would take measure to try to ensure that their remained physically healthy, they also owed it to their daughter to help her grow up emotionally healthy. And that means liking herself. And liking her hair is a big part of liking herself.

-End of article-

Disclaimer: I'm not a beautician. I merely shared the way that I take care of my hair and the way I took care of my children's hair. That said, I recall asking for tips on hair care from two African American beauticians before writing that section of the article on hair care tips.

Here are links to two online pages that provide tips on Black hair care:

Black hair care tips

Black hair care tips, continued

Also, here's a link to a current adoption magazine Adoptive Familes

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