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Braiding Barbara’s Hair

by Erika Solberg

Barbara’s hair is deep black, like the velvet edges of a monarch butterfly’s wings. Each strand curls around, like her never-ending questions. Together, the strands gather into tiny, soft springs. Then they weave in and out, hiding their ends and beginnings.

When I became a parent, it was the idea of fixing this hair that intimidated me the most. During our initial exploration of adoption, my husband and I read Inside Transracial Adoption. The significance of black hair care is not obvious to most whites, and the book’s authors make it clear. They tell potential adoptive parents that, if they are white and their children are black, hair care will "not come intuitively" and that "there is no tolerance in the [black] community for not taking care of a child’s hair."

These two statements daunted me. In truth, I know so little about hair care that I would have been nervous about fixing the hair of any child. But if I had had a girl with fine, straight hair like mine, I would have kept it cut short or slapped in a plastic barrette, to keep her bangs out of her eyes. Her hair would have been simple and messy, and I wouldn’t have thought much about it.

"Taking the time and effort to style my daughter’s hair tells her that she—and her hair—are loved, valued, and cherished." 

Instead, and wonderfully, my daughter, Barbara, is a black girl, which makes all the difference. For most African-Americans, hair care directly correlates to love and dignity. As writer Susan Straight, a white woman with biracial children, explains, "In our family, and in the black community where much of our family has lived, the care and maintenance of hair means more than barrettes and ponytails; hair reflects pride and care, and neglected heads display a serious lack of mother's love."

So I want Barbara’s hair to look good, because it says something about me. But, mostly, I care because of what it says about her: I want everyone to know she is loved. The problem is, I am not very good at fixing it. I have learned a lot by reading books, observing stylists, getting tips from black women, and checking out the styles I see on little girls around town. Most of all, I have learned through trial and error, from working on my daughter’s head.

I am better, and faster, than I used to be. But sometimes, I still draw crooked parts, leave strands of hair floating loose, or make lopsided styles. I lived 33 years without ever having fussed with anyone’s hair. And now, every day, I fuss with Barbara’s.

I do it because a well-kempt head indicates love; but also because teaching Barbara pride in her hair helps her feel connected to, and proud of, her racial identity. When she squirms as I pull the comb through, when I rub in hair grease, when her beads flash in the sun, even when I do not know what I am doing but try anyway, she is connected to a history of other mothers and daughters. I tell Barbara all the time that her hair is beautiful. But taking the time and effort to style her hair teaches her that she and her hair are loved, are valued, are good.

When we fix her hair, Barbara and I talk, sing, and watch TV. Lately, she has been asking for braids, with pink beads. I section off her combed and conditioned hair. I divide precisely and pull tightly. But as soon as I gather up the separate strands and start the turning and weaving, my fingers betray my hope. I don’t pull tightly enough. I gather up uneven pieces and leave lumps. Many hairs escape, fuzzing the braid, revealing my lack of skill.

Sometimes I worry that, one day, Barbara will look at photos and see her fuzzy braids as proof of my ineptness as a mother. But when I look at all of her—at this long-limbed, big-bellied girl, singing in my living room—I know she will grow up feeling my love for her twist and turn through my clumsy, weaving fingers. Dimples flashing, brown eyes shining, my daughter is beautiful and perfect, from her long, lean toes to her good, good hair.

Erika Solberg teaches English at Monmouth College, in Monmouth, Illinois. She and her husband have two children through adoption, Barbara, four, and Eddie, three. Photo by Greg Perry.


Without daily moisturizing, African hair can become brittle and break easily. Experts recommend low-stress, natural styles that require infrequent handling (braids or cornrows), gentle shampooing, and moisturizing with hair oils. Try several black hair products to see what works best. Companies like Carol’s Daughter (, Curls (, Just for Me! (, and Snapaholics ( have a selection of products and accessories for kids.


Celebrate the beauty of your child’s hair with these books:

  • Bippity Bop Barbershop
    By Natasha Anastasia Tarpley (Little, Brown)
    The story of a black boy’s first haircut.
  • Happy to Be Nappy
    By bell hooks (Jump at the Sun)
    Poetic text celebrates the beauty, freedom, and texture of a black girl’s hair.
  • I Love My Hair!
    By Natasha Anastasia Tarpley (Little, Brown)
    A tender tribute to African hair.
  • Nappy Hair
    By Carolivia Herron (Dragonfly)
    The story of how Brenda’s twisted, knotted-up, nappy hair got to be that way.

  • Connect with families in the Transracial Families group on AdoptiveFamiliesCircle

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    To Melanie who was looking for a different hair product, I have great luck with my (sensitive) daughter's hair using Curls ( products. They have a product finder at the top of their webpage that will help you find a product based on the type of curl your son has (3c? 4a? other?) and a link to a simple guide explaining the number/letter system of curl types. If that isn't quite enough info for you to pick your curl type, you can look here: as they have a more in-depth guide to sorting out the hair types. I like that one better, because my daughter has 4a hair, which is kinky with a spiral, not a zig-zag, about the circumference of a crochet needle and the site doesn't explain that very well while does. :) What we use on my daughter is the Coconut Sublime conditioner and the Curls Milkshake curl lotion because she's only 11 months and I didn't want to use a styling product with "hold" on her hair. I started with the adult products on her because you can buy them at several local Target stores (see a list at the website). Now that I know they work well for her, I'll probably be ordering 32oz. value sized bottles from the website. Also, I don't think a child should have to get used to pulling. If combing is pulling the scalp and causing pain, you need to modify your technique, add more conditioner and water, or (as you say!) keep the hair shorter. I DO think, however, they should get used to sitting while their hair is handled, and of course that requires some breaks for the little ones, and entertainment for the pre-school set. I've found a Bumbo seat to be super-helpful for styling time with my baby, or I can do the conditioning/combing while she's occupied with toys in the bath.

    Posted by: Thalas'shaya at 11:30am Nov 11

    Thank you all for adopting African-American children. It is a blessing when parents like yourselves embrace the beauty of educating yourselves about your new child's ethnicity. My advice for little girls' hair: Wash day routine: 1. Absolutely no weave or relaxers of any type. 2. Wash her hair once a week while it is in loose braids(it is ok to put plastic Barretts on each braid to prevent it from unraveling.But remove those plastic Barretts first thing it the morning.)with natural products like Terressentials ( for $10.99 a bottle). This product is a co-wash, so this is all you need. 3. Seal her hair with oil by gently applying oil from root to tip of her braided hair immediately after washing. 4. Cover her hair with a silk or satin scarf to prevent breakage and frizzes. Daily routine: 1. Mist her hair to moisturize it as apart of grooming in the morning and before going to sleep. 2. Seal her hair with oils like olive, grapeseed, coconut, or a brand of blended oils by African Royale ($5.99 at walgreens). 3. By a silk or satin scarf and cover her hair after you do steps 1 and 2 before going to sleep to prevent breakage and frizzes. 4. Limit the plastic and metal accessories as this causes breakage. My strong recommendation: Tell her she is beautiful just the way God designed her. She will appreciate you!

    Posted by: mh at 10:41pm Mar 30

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