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Hair Combing Routine A Meaningful Mother-Daughter Ritual


It's time for us to open up the pages of the Washington Post Magazine, which we do just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now. Today a story about the bond between mother and daughter. Washington Post Magazine writer Lonnae O'Neal Parker wrote about styling her daughter's hair. Now, that's a simple daily ritual but for Lonnae, like for many black women, it has a deeper meaning. In styling their hair she sees both her dreams and her fears about how the rest of the world will see them.

Lonnae O'Neal Parker is with us now in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Ms. LONNAE O'NEAL PARKER (Writer): Hi, Michel. Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Let's begin where you began. If you don't mind, I'd love for you to read the first passage for us where you talk about what you call wash day?

Ms. PARKER: Sure. As I settle myself on the couch, my 11-year-old daughter, Savannah(ph), brings me her hair basket: comb, water bottle, hair grease, barrettes. She plants herself on the floor, squarely between my knees, and I begin my work. There's the everyday hair-doing but wash day takes more time, and slowly I separate the thick, kinky tangle growing from her head. I rub in a dollop of grease - Kemi Oyl or root stimulator lotion, but mostly just dark blue Ultra Sheen, I like the standards - to make the hair obedient and part it into sections, clipping each firmly to her head.

MARTIN: You know, I can imagine that so many people can just they can feel it, they can smell it, they can

Ms. PARKER: That's right.

MARTIN: remember it. But it is such a personal moment - what made you want to share this experience?

Ms. PARKER: I just looked up one day or it seemed like I looked up one day and there Savannah was 11 years old and I only had, you know, another year or two, or maybe less, because she is already clambering to do her own hair, to have this kind of touching them every day to make them ready for the world time. And because she is my last daughter - I have a third child but he's a little boy, so that's a barbershop ritual, which is different - then I was going to lose this hair time that had just been part of my day for years and years and part of my day even before that because it was part of my momma's day and part of her momma's day. It was just something that just went so far back and really spoke to me.

MARTIN: There is so much beauty to this ritual but one of the things about the piece is that you also talk about all the sides of this coin

Ms. PARKER: Oh yeah.

MARTIN: There's more than two sides to this coin. One side is about presentability and how crucial this ritual is, because it is so fraught with all of our sense of how we as African-American women or girls - as African-American girls are viewed by the world. There's a passage about 20 minutes, about the time that it takes to do this work, if you would read that for us.

Ms. PARKER: Oh yeah, I call that a kink coefficient, by the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARKER: Sometimes, if I was pressed for time, I could get by with a few surface brush strokes and a liberal application of gel to make the girls passably presentable, but it took 20 minutes of work to make them look special. Twenty minutes to make them feel pretty so that neighbors would comment on the straightness of their parts. Twenty minutes to be reassured that I'd sent my children into the world making clear that they were valued and loved. Twenty minutes. Every day. Minimum. Apiece. For me to feel assuaged that if one day -please, God, no - they suddenly disappeared, I could persuade the 24-hour cable networks that my girls really were worthy enough to be news, because after all, black mothers can't recall a time when missing black women and children got national media attention.

MARTIN: You know, my heart skipped a beat on that but I'm sure there are some who are going to be saying, come on, now

Ms. PARKER: My editor was one of them. He was like, surely they can't be true. And I just took the approach - I said, you know what, I'm open to being wrong, so name one for me. And he just drew a blank, and of course off the top of our heads we can name missing white children because there's saturation coverage. There's a constant news crawl. But I've never seen that for missing black woman or child. So I just, again, offered him that simple test, name one. And just in his silence, in that inability, I was like this is why this hair doing is so it has so much cultural freight for us.

MARTIN: You can't go out looking like a mess.

Ms. PARKER: Right. You can't go out looking like a mess (unintelligible).

MARTIN: I had a babysitter once, and she was helping with my daughter's hair because she is better at it than I am, she said to my little girl, she said, listen, you can't go out looking like you have no parents.

Ms. PARKER: That's right. How about that looking like you have no parents, looking like your momma doesn't care, looking like nobody is valuing you; that's huge, that's huge. And again, it goes back generations. We had a woman from Mexico who did Savannah's hair when she was little. She came in and watched the kids. And it was very funny because she would be in that head of hair and I had to tell her, I said, (unintelligible) first of all, you can't be scared of hair grease. Grease is your friend. You have to be able to get in that. And secondly, Savannah might start to cry. And I told her I said there's nothing for it. I know she is going to cry but she has to get her hair done.

MARTIN: And there are those who will say, oh come on, you know, quit your beefing, ladies, you know, your, you know...

Ms. PARKER: I invite them to come over

MARTIN: You're clean, safe, warm and dry and

Ms. PARKER: Right. I'm clean, safe, warm and dry, and I invite them to come over and put their hands in some Ultra Sheen

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARKER: and mix it up with me and then we'll have that conversation.

MARTIN: Lonnae O'Neal Parker writes for The Washington Post Magazine. She also teaches writing at Georgetown University and she is at work on a book of essays about Michelle Obama. If you want to read her essay, "Balm," that appeared this Sunday in The Washington Post Magazine, we'll have a link on our Web site. If you just go to, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE, we'll take you right to it. And she was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Lonnae, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. PARKER: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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