African-American children's books: A terrible incident shows — we need books celebrating black kids' hair

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African-American children’s books are a growing area of publishing, but we need even more selections for this burgeoning market — particularly black children’s books that celebrate black kids’ hair. Why? A harrowing experience was inflicted on my son when we tried to access basic black children’s hair care services — at a black establishment.

The day that it happened had been, up until that moment, a fairly happy day.  I had left my husband at home to work on our shoe line,, and had gone to Queens, NY with our two boys to spend time with their grandparents. My parents commented that my three-year-old boy, Jojo, could use a haircut, so my father and I left my then six-month-old baby boy, Miles, at home with my mother and went out in search of a barber shop and professional hair care for my black child.

We entered a shop that looked reasonably empty. The sound of reggae music filled the air and Jamaican flags decorated the walls. My family is of Ghanaian origin, and we know Jamaicans are our “brethren,” so we thought that we would feel at home.

I told the barber not to shave off all of Jojo’s hair and to just make it shorter. He then proceeded to, in my view, shave Jojo’s head practically bald. “Whoa, whoa, I told you that I did not want it bald, this is way too low!” I exclaimed.

“How can I tell you this? You’ve got a real n****r here. He is a native boy. He is from the tribe. This ain’t pretty hair. This is the best cut for him,” said the barber with his clippers still in the front of Jojo’s hair.

I forced a giggle and then entered a state of shock. I’m ashamed that I did not have the presence of mind to yell, scream, pick up Jojo with his half bald head, and get out of there. I let the barber continue to shave Jojo’s hair as thoughts about how I’m going to shield my son as an African-American child from developing internalized racism ran through my mind. The accented harangue of agreement from a very obviously skin-bleached African-American female hair stylist wearing a lace front wig provided the soundtrack to my despair.

The next day, I still felt sick to my stomach. No matter how much certain black people claim that the n-word has been re-appropriated, the word still has a vicious bite. I tried to get my mind off of my pain by watching mindless television. But alas, the television assaulted me too. The Fashion Police hosts were critiquing Solange Knowles’ choice of attire at the New York City premiere of The Great Gatsby.  Joan Rivers made a comment that an afro is not an appropriate hairstyle for a red carpet event.  My head began to spin.

Joan Rivers was basically calling Solange a n****r too, or at least her words stung the same way as when my black son’s hair was rejected. Both the barber and Joan Rivers professed the belief that afro hair as it grows out of the scalps of people of African origin is not “pretty,” not elegant, and not worthy of admiration. More recently, comedian Sheryl Underwood has apologized for expressing similar sentiments on the TV show The Talk.

This thinking is part of our unique challenge as black mothers. Like all mothers, we look at our children and see their beauty, intelligence and worthiness. We try our best to teach them to see the beauty, intelligence and worthiness in themselves. We pray that other people will acknowledge our children’s worthiness and that our children will not be victims of teasing, bullying or other forms of abuse.

But unlike all mothers, we nurture these dreams in the context of the undissected history of slavery, colonization and Jim Crow. We try to nurture our African-American children to ignore the modern media subtexts of black inferiority and criminality, pop rap masquerading as black culture, and a lack of racial diversity in children’s media. Today’s multi-billion dollar industries of chemical relaxers, imported human hair weaves and skin bleaching creams aim at telling African descendants that we are not beautiful as we are.

So what is a mother to do?

In my sickness during those days after the barbershop incident, I remembered hearing somewhere that one must make pain beautiful by turning it into art. So, I wrote an African-American children’s book, Sunne’s Gift, about a magical creature named Sunne.

God imbues Sunne with the power of the sun and for that reason Sunne’s skin is a sun-darkened red shade and Sunne’s hair grows out in spirally twists towards the sun. Sunne has the power to make the sun rise and set.