When my daughter Katharina was born, one of the first things my Mom said was that she had a "potato nose." The same potato nose that I have and that my mother would spend endless time squeezing trying to make it look European — an eternal reminder that having black features is seen as “bad." Afro Latinos, or in our case, Afro Brazilians, are informed from birth that Blackness is a hindrance. Although I struggle with this issue myself, I knew that I did not want to pass down the anti-Black rhetoric to my child.
Motherhood is a personal journey that is much bigger than just nurturing a child into adulthood. In many ways, it's an awakening. I already knew that I wanted to raise my daughter completely differently from the way I was raised. I didn't want her to feel fear or shame, and most importantly, I wanted her to feel comfortable in her Blackness.
Oddly enough, a good portion of Latino culture comes from the same African descendancy people want to eliminate. We also, as Afro Brazilians, have the additional burden of explaining our Blackness to Black people and our Brazilianness to Latinos.
My mother is a fair-skinned Black woman, tall with long dancer legs and "good hair." Those features have served her well, and she has always been thought of as beautiful. I, on the other hand, inherited none of those features. There isn't any racial ambiguity about me. I knew that I would not let my child suffer insults I had to endure about her own body, hair, or facial features. Not from me or anyone in my family. I never wanted my daughter's identity to be defined by her proximity to whiteness. Terms such as "good vs. bad hair" would not be spoken.
I surrounded my daughter with love and positive affirmations of her Blackness. It started with me telling her she was beautiful and that God doesn't make mistakes. Combing her hair has always been a time of love for us. I told her how beautiful her curls were. I knew then that I would never use such language as “cabelo duro,” aka bad hair, a term my mother used to describe the texture of my hair. Most of all, I never said that her hair was unmanageable. In fact, my daughter’s curls are voluminous and soft, and her hair fits her spirit, which is quiet but strong.
She loves her curl pattern. The curls are an extension of her ancestry. They represent personal freedom. They're also a way for her to bond with the Black women in her family. Her hair gives her an opportunity to express herself artistically. Lastly, her curls are a silent call of unity with her girlfriends.
"The curls are an extension of her ancestry. They represent personal freedom."
Katharina's signature look is her high bun. Slick on the sides and edges smoothed down. I started styling her in a bun when she was about 3. It’s a hairstyle that accentuates her face. But whenever I show a Black person a picture of her with her cute bun, they often say, "Aren't you going to braid it?" They imply that hair like hers shouldn't be worn in its natural state. Others needed to understand that their comments weren't invited or tolerated, especially when around Katharina. How can our children learn to love themselves when the messages they receive say that everything about them needs to be corrected. Historically, Black women have always received scrutiny concerning the hair that grows out of their head. It was essential to me that Katharina knew that anything done to her was something we decided, not determined by standards of beauty created by strangers.
The conversations are more challenging when many of these fallacies come from your family members. When my daughter was young, my parents would see her a lot. Despite my anxiety, I wanted her to have access to her grandparents. I would send my daughter to visit her grandparents in New Jersey with clean, pressed clothing, and she would return with professionally straightened hair and new clothes. I couldn't understand why my parents felt the need to make changes to my child or, better yet, take her to the hairdresser at such a young age.
I believe you must permit children to get dirty, have fun, and, yes, have unkempt hair. Against my better judgment, I allowed her to continue to get her hair straightened for special occasions, but for her day-to-day lifestyle, she would wear it in its natural state. I was looking toward balance, and this seemed to be the best outcome.
Grade school was also when she became more assertive about her appearance and I started by letting her have an active voice, from her wardrobe to her hair. The personal evolution expanded in high school: Katharina decided she didn't want to straighten her hair anymore for special occasions. She wanted to wear it curly permanently. She was noticing that the heat was causing damage to her hair. Straightening requires using a flat iron and the heat causes one’s natural curl pattern to break down. The hair loses its luster and begins to appear dry and brittle.
Katharina began her journey to healthy, natural hair by researching on the internet. YouTube was extremely helpful in her process. She was able to connect with other young women that had undergone a similar journey.
I felt it was vital for me to support her decision by buying products and complimenting her transition to wearing her hair in all its natural glory. I would also check in with her about the change. I shared with her some of my hiccups when I decided to stop relaxing my hair. I explained to her that it was essential to focus on the long-term goals, not the immediate result. This decision has bolstered her confidence in how she sees herself. The journey helped her to develop her personal style and it gave her individuality.
We also made strides culturally. I always reinforced that she wasn't just American but also Brazilian. Blackness is not just something that exists in North America. I would play Brazilian music, show her Brazilian family pictures, and cook Brazilian food at home. This led to her to decide to learn Portuguese as a young woman. I also introduced her to as many amazing Black Brazilian role models as possible. Those icons were also intertwined with some of my favorite Black American heroes.
History has done a poor job when it comes to Black history. School teaches us that we were slaves, then came Martin Luther King Jr., finished off with Barack Obama. I wanted her to know that Black people are global and that we existed before slavery and that our chapters were more voluminous than the four paragraphs in her history books.
"I wanted her to know that Black people are global and that we existed before slavery and that our chapters were more voluminous than the four paragraphs in her history books."
Part of that history is hair. Hair plays an essential part in African culture. In some tribes, a hairstyle can indicate if a woman is single, married, or with a child. Different tribes in Africa had particular braiding patterns to set themselves apart. Hair braiding was also a way for multigenerational women to bond together. During slavery, hair was braided in patterns to detail maps. Many African women braided seeds or rice into their hair before undergoing the cruel journey of the Middle Passage. Hair — more specifically how we wear our hair — is a part of our ancestry.
As a parent, there is no rulebook to help you raise a young, strong Afro Latina. Simple things like trying to find dolls that look like your child or having hair like your child are frustrating, not to mention combating the attitudes of many adults who cannot grasp that one can be Black and Latino. I can't fix all of the issues, as much as I try to, but I knew that if I gave her a good foundation and exposed her to positive images, she would be more equipped to tackle the world.
I am proud that my daughter, as a young woman, stands firm in her Blackness and Latinidad.