The hair-care-as-American-history quandary sprang up immediately. Minutes after I’d signed the adoption papers, I was walking out the hospital door. Using one arm to tote a bag of free samples—a plastic tub, wipes, a six-pack of Enfamil—and having taken a crash course in how to bathe, feed, burp, I used my other arm to hold the car seat with its big handle and headed for the parking lot. At last I understood those window stickers: Baby on Board. I felt like bragging. It was late. A stranger, a black woman, said: “Better get some grease.” I said, “What?” She said, “Her hair. For a little girl, the pink stuff.”
Hours earlier, though most of my conversations with the birth mother had been stilted and sad, I’d tried for a moment to be chatty as ordinary women in an ordinary maternity ward. To be relaxed, cordial, but also to express my longing and admiration for the baby that lay beyond the glass wall in a transparent crib, the charmed child, I said, “She has such thick hair.” I said so carefully. I’d never been around black babies. What if they all did? I’d been around white babies who are mostly bald as Popeye. It was shocking, this six-pound bundle, smaller than a sack of sugar, with her outsized afro. Her birth mother said, “I mean. My other baby had hair, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”
A few days later I was back in the city at the airport, picking up my friend, Shen. Shen is from Utah where baby boutiques are big business. When I saw her, though I’d barely slept, and I’d stumbled carrying the baby seat through the hot parking lot, and my dress was torn, my knees scraped, I said, “Do you have some satin baby headbands in your suitcase?” She bent down and pulled out a pink one. We left the airport with my daughter in a rosebud dress and matching fancy headband. People stared. Two white women with a black baby: one happy to the point of exultation, the other serene as a sage, rolling suitcases overflowing with gifts. People stared because the baby was so beautiful, I felt.
We went to a beauty supply store and asked for pink stuff. “Grease,” I said. The clerk sent me to a tiny store on the other side of the interstate. Its shelves were filled with colored elastics attached to glittery baubles; red, white, green, blue, and purple barrettes shaped like bows, dogs, lambs, and daisies; scarves to wear to bed; hairpieces; wigs; packages of fake hair; packages of real hair; packages of pre-braided braids; gel and sheen. I unscrewed the cap on the pink pomade—it smelled like bubble gum. “What’s it for?” I asked the Chinese woman who ran the store. She shrugged. I asked how to use it. A customer glanced at me and my baby and, already heartsick about the mistakes that lie before us, she said, “You put it on her hair every day.” I asked why. “You just do,” she said.
Saturdays, I washed and combed my daughter’s hair. Grueling work. Other days of the week, I put pink stuff on it, held a section, worked a wide-tooth comb tips to roots. Comb the front. Turn her over. Comb the back. The back matted because she lay on it. Yet the hair on the back of the head is notoriously recalcitrant. It’s called “the kitchen,” I learned. No one knows why, but in the old days hair was greased and hot-combed bone-straight next to the kitchen stove where the hot-comb got heated. Grease smoked as it protected hair from red-hot metal. Even after emancipation, blacks worked in kitchens, did hair in kitchens. Kinky hair was unassimilated, undesirable. The section least likely to conform, the section that wouldn’t do its bidding, was a menial place. My daughter’s kitchen matted but I combed it each day, and in a week I’d used enough pink stuff to wax a small car.
If you’re white, black...