My Son's Black/Jewish Hair – Kveller
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My Son’s Black/Jewish Hair


One of my most commented upon Kveller posts came in January of 2012, when I wrote about my daughter’s Black/Jewish hair. In a nutshell, she wanted to wear it long (like Rapunzel!), and I was terrified of the tangles, the snarls, and, most of all, the arguments.

So we made a deal. (Yes, you can negotiate with 5-year-olds. Just as long as they want something you’ve got.) We agreed that I would let her wear her hair long. But that she would let me take care of it, brush it, wash it, condition it, anything I saw fit. And the minute she complained or whined or so much as whimpered, off it would all go.

It’s been three years, and we’ve only had to hack off several inches once, and that was to make combing through easier during a lice outbreak.

You would think that all is now serene in our household (at least as far as hairy issues are concerned).

You would be wrong.

Because now, it’s my son’s hair that’s in the spotlight.

I have three children. There’s my daughter, whose hair grows downward. (Though, this past Rosh Hashanah, as she sang in the temple choir, I literally watched her loose hair growing bigger and bigger from the humidity, until the boy standing behind her asked her to take a step down. He couldn’t see!)

There’s my oldest son, whose curls are the most like his father’s, tight and kinky. He alternates between wearing it closely cropped short, and letting it grow naturally, a la 1970s-era Jackson 5. My oldest son’s hair grows out.

And then there’s my middle son. His hair grows…up. (Think Kid n’ Play. Or see photo, above.)

My middle son and his hair have a very symbiotic relationship. From the day he was born, he would twirl his bangs in his hand, especially while he was nursing. It became a comfort object for him. Whenever he’d get stressed, he would dig his fingers in and twirl. Whenever he’d get bored, he would twirl. Whenever he’d get mad, he would glare. And twirl.

He is also extremely sensitive to physical sensations. He’s the kid who doesn’t like loud noises, who presses a magazine perfume sample to his nose because he hates the smell of cars, and the one who kept a spoonful of oatmeal in his mouth for hours (!), when he didn’t like the texture and refused to swallow it. (I would think, under the circumstances, you’d want to get rid of it as soon as possible; I, too, would be wrong.)

For him, the buzzing clippers that barbers use to trim hair like his is pure torture. He can’t sit still in the chair; he jerks his head away and wriggles, infuriating the barbers. We’ve even been thrown out once. (I get it. I have sensory issues, too. But sometimes, you’ve just got to tough it out.)

As a result, my son regularly refuses to get his hair cut. He would be perfectly happy to let it grow indefinitely.

I would not be.

No, not because it’s a power-play between us. I let my other kids wear their hair any way they like.

And not because of the political association of the Afro, whether you happen to relate it to “Black is Beautiful,” Angela Davis, Black Power, Foxy Cleopatra, or young African-American men profiled by the police, as verbalized by then-NYC mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio’s biracial son in a TV ad that won his dad the election. (In the interest of ethnic parity, I’ll mention that my brother-in-law is constantly asking my boys whether what they have are, in fact, Afros or Jewfros?)

The reason I don’t want my middle son wearing his hair long is because he is 11 years old AND HE DOESN’T COMB IT.

His hair is a mess. He picks up sand and lint and stray bits of food. Hats don’t fit him (and winter is coming). He sticks pencils in it and forgets they’re there. We joke about him growing an entire ecosystem in his curls, but I’m not certain it’s completely a joke. (I’m afraid to look too closely.)

I thought I’d be fighting about hair with my daughter, but it’s my son, instead. Dragging him to get a trim even every six months is a major battle. There are tears and threats and slammed doors. From both of us.

I don’t care if my kids’ hair is long or short, but I want it neat and presentable. Why? Because, no matter whether you think it’s fair or not, people judge you on the way you look. There are things you can control about your looks, and there are things you can’t. I harbor no illusions that my kids won’t still periodically be judged on the color of their skin.

But no one is going to get a chance to judge the content of their character if they’re first repulsed by their overall appearance. Neatness, unlike race or ethnicity and its accompanying physiognomy, is something you can control. And I want my kids to get into the habit of good grooming—clean clothes, washed face, brushed teeth, and combed hair—so that they don’t lose opportunities. Plus, good hygiene on your part is a sign of respect towards others, as any New Yorker who has ever been squeezed in the subway between a pair of fellow riders who view deodorant as a bourgeois tool of the oppressing class can attest to.

I’ve read many a Kveller post from moms and dads going back and forth about whether to get their newborn boys circumcised. Well, we’ve already made that “to cut or not to cut” decision (FWIW, we went with cut). But now I’m faced with another one.

Look at the picture again. And tell me what I’m supposed to do about…that.

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