Photo by Makho

By Erickka Sy Savané

It was my daughter’s 6th birthday and as a surprise I decided to get her hair braided. She never really asked for braids, but recently I thought that she might like to try something new, and when I casually ran the idea by her she said she’d like to try it. Now, my daughter has a short, thick afro. Honestly, the thought of having it cornrolled for a while so I wouldn’t have to fight with her everyday to ‘pick it more softly’ was as much for me as it was her.

Fast-forward to the big day. We’re sitting in the Senegalese braiding shop in my Jersey City hood.

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First, I discovered that one of my good friends worked there. She’s Senegalese like them, so I was happy that she’d be able to convey my wishes to the woman who owns the shop and was braiding my daughter’s hair. Already, I tried to tell her that I didn’t want it too long because the hair she got looked like it belonged on Beyonce. She didn’t seem to hear me. In addition, I asked my friend to ask her if she could do some zigzaps or something besides braiding it straight back.

“It’s too short!” snapped the owner. Then she told me that it would be $60 instead of the $30 I see plastered on a sign on the wall. I’m kinda pissed but my friend works there so I’m not going to haggle.

After about 30 mins. of sitting in the front with my older daughter while they did my daughter’s hair in a back room, my friend called me. I got there to find her with about 3 rows of cornrolls left to braid along with tears the size of golf balls streaming down her face. She hadn’t been this upset since she lost her American girl doll.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her.

“It’s. Too. Long. I. Don’t. Like. It,” she replied with her chest heaving up and down like she had just ran 20 laps.

Then the braider snapped at me, “When was the last time you got her hair braided?”

Me. Never.

Her: Never? Why did you wait so long!

Me: Because her hair is beautiful the way it is so I didn’t feel the need to braid it.

Her: You shouldn’t have waited!

Me: I don’t understand, I know in Africa a lot of girls have short hair so what’s the problem?

Her: In Africa, where I’m from, we do little girl’s hair. And when they don’t want to sit and get their hair braided we tell them that people are going to think they are a boy, and then they sit.

I instantly feel for these little girls being manipulated into sitting to get their hair braided for fear that someone might think them a boy. 

Me: Well, people think that they are boys sometimes and they’re fine. If they can learn to love their hair as it is they will be fine in life.

She gave me and my friend an incredulous look. Then reconfirmed with her in their language that the father of these two girls was indeed African, as if he had married a clueless African American woman who was somehow ruining the children, stripping them of their African culture. Then she came out the side of her neck by asking me if I comb their hair every day.

“Yes, of course, I do,” I replied through gritted teeth.

She finished the job with my daughter still balling and nothing that I or her sister could do no matter how pretty we told her it looked.

At that point, I was happy to give the woman the full $60 and a $5 tip just to get out of there. My daughter cried all the way home.

First, I decided to cut them since the problem seemed to stem from the fact that they were too long. When I cut them the hair sprung open like a flower instantly blooming from a bud. Grabbing some colorful rubber bands, I secured a bunch on the open hair to keep it in place. Now, with the hair just above her neck. She still hated it. I haven’t even mentioned how tight it was.

Finally, I got her to calm down by convincing her that if she didn’t like it in the morning, we could take it out. The next day we were having her birthday party so I wanted her to be happy in front of her friends.

My friend from the shop called shortly after to see how my daughter was doing and to tell me that the braider felt sad that my daughter didn’t like her hair. For the first time, I was able to see what happened from the stylists’ perspective. No one wants to ruin a kid’s birthday, and they long for their clients to be happy. When I told my friend I was more than likely going to take it out she screamed, “Noooo, you spent your money! Give it 3 days. The hair will loosen up.”

The next morning my daughter woke up in a much better mood, though she said she slept with her head on her hand because it hurt so much.

“Do you like it better?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Do you want to keep it?”

“No. I just feel like it won’t come out and I’ll be stuck with it forever. I want to look like you and Makho,” she said. (Makho is her big sister)

We took it out, and no sooner than the last strands of hair dropped to the floor she was back to her normal self, and smiling like somebody gave her ice cream. I was reminded of something a relative said once when my daughter’s were younger and she noticed that I wasn’t filling their heads with little ponytails that she felt would pull the hair to make it grow longer.

“All little girls want long hair, you know,” she said, as if I was somehow doing a disservice to my daughters by letting their hair be, free from the pulling, tugging, and manipulation.

I just looked at her then, and I’m smiling at my daughter now, because I’ve never seen a little girl so happy to have short hair.

Do you feel we push young girls with short hair into getting braids?

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