Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Biracial Life in Strands

Written June 16, 2009

Black girls with white mothers experience a hair journey lik
e no other parent and child. In fact, the subject of black hair is so distressing to new white mothers that they are often sure they will fail in so vital a role as “hairdresser.” I have become an adviser to my white friends who have adopted African children, and my own hair has undergone distinct and radical changes throughout my life… almost as representing separate identities or developmental phases. These phases started off in a mother/daughter fashion, and then continued throughout my adult years in my own quest to find my identity.

This is how my hair looked fully grown out when I was a kid:

(me with my father in approximately 1984)

My mother would painstakingly comb my hair while I watched Sesame Street and put it into two huge braids that fell down my back. Then I’d go off to see my dad and he would take the braids out to let my hair fall free. It was a constant battle between them, and I would come home with beautiful flowing, but tangled, hair.


Then in 3rd grade I got lice and it all got cut off. I cried and I felt like I had lost my femininity:

(me and my mom, approximately 1985)

My mom and I kept it in that afro until my freshman year of high school. No more combing the hair in front of the TV. Now it only took a matter of minutes to get the tangles out and create a style.


At my request, my mom took me to a black stylist and I got my hair chemically straightened with lye:

(my mom, sister, and me in 1990)

The lye process burned my scalp while it was being applied, and after the straightening I had scabs all over my head. But I also, finally, had straight hair.


After swearing off the expense and danger of lye, I started relaxing my hair at home with kits bought from the grocery store. With this bi-monthly treatment, it stayed a less bone-straight version of the original lye treatment for about 15 years. (To keep it so straight would have required daily hair iron treatments, and straight hair wasn’t in fashion for white girls):

(my friend Brian and me at the Sadie Hawkins dance in 1992 or 1993)

But my hair did have some intermittent changes along the way.


During the beginning of my senior year, I got my hair braided for my senior picture. My chemically straightened hair was not as refined or polished as I wanted it to look (it was too poufy to wear down), so I figured braids would do the trick. It would also help to define me as a black woman, even though—even with the braids—I still had friends say, “What are you anyway?”

(My friend Jackie [from the Caribbean Islands] and me in 1993)

My mom and I found a black salon through a phone book, and the hairstylist came to our house to cut down on overhead costs. The braids were expensive and made my head itch, so I went back to the grocery store relaxer kits until I got braids again in 1997 for my best friend’s wedding in Iowa. I got them again after going off to college for the first time in 1998. I would find a braider by asking women on the street who had done their hair. It was usually a cousin who braided out of her home, and I would go there and sit on her living room floor for 8 hours while she did mine. Both times the itching got worse and braids were still expensive, so each time I went back to the relaxed style.


In 2000 I married a white Navy reserveman. For the first time in my life, I decided to document the important occasion with my own curly (but relaxed) hair:

(my sister and me at my wedding in 2000)

The white hair salon did a wonderful job on all my bridesmaids’ hair, but was at a loss of what to do with mine. I wasn’t much help, because I myself still did not know how to wear my hair down, but I figured a salon would. The picture here isn’t bad, but after an hour or so my hair turned into a big puff of disaster.


After the “disaster” I did research and discovered that treating hair with (proper) lye was actually better for the hair and scalp than treating it with kits from the grocery store. So

I looked in the phone book and drove to the black part of town. Finally my hair was relaxed enough that I could actually wear it down:

(me in 2005)

By the time the above picture was taken, I had gotten divorced, gone back to school, and moved to an area that didn’t have a black part of town. Once again I was a customer of a white hair salon, but one that provided lye treatments for its few black customers.


Still in school, in 2005, I got my first apartment with no housemate or husband, and I found a Puerto Rican hairstylist in a nearby town through an African friend—My first African or African-American friend since childhood. My friend got cute dreadlocks and I got my hair chopped off and learned how to make it bone straight with an iron (it took 3 hours each time):

(my mom and me in 2005)


That was the first step towards growing it out curly, which the hairstylist showed me how to do: combing only while the conditioner is in the hair, using leave-in conditioner, and curl activator or pomade, and blow drying with a diffuser. My hair had been slowly thinning over the years because of the persistent relaxing process, so when it was long enough (a few months later) every bit that had been relaxed got cut off. This picture is from about 2 years after that:

(me in 2007)

It was the first time that friends and acquaintances “ooed and awed” at my hair. And it turns out the great hairstyle was there all along. I just hadn’t had known how to unleash it.


My last really short haircut was right before coming to grad school, and now I am slowly growing it out again to be how it was back when I was 9, before the lice. Here is its progress so far:

(me in 2009)


Of course, I wear like this though:

(my sister and me in 2009)

In my new, white college town, I have actually been turned away from the owner of a hair salon, because my hair would be “frizzy for weeks” due to the rain. However, I’ve found a salon that will cut my hair even though they don’t know how to style it, which is okay because now I actually do. I’ve also, through a white friend, discovered a Puerto Rican hairstylist two hours away in Boston. After the life changing experience with the first Puerto Rican stylist, it will be worth the drive.


My hair has undergone many changes over the past 32 years. I’ve wrestled with how to make it coincide with the fashion of each decade, and I’ve struggled to tame the curls that kept me from looking like my peers…. and my mother. As the only one with curly hair in my extended family, and having a distant and now deceased black father, I was truly at a loss with how to maintain my biracial existence and embrace my biracial hair. Even now, many black women are chemically treating their hair to make it look similar to the white mainstream. While I can’t judge my black peers for their hair decisions, I am pleased to find that so many black women are letting their hair be natural again. Maybe it has to do with East coast graduate school fashion, but I find I’m not the only one sporting my natural curl. In fact, I now have three black friends who do just that. It’s nice to finally see a reflection of myself in someone else’s hairstyle, and I am so thankful and grateful for my mom, and for those hours she spent with me watching Sesame Street and tackling my hair with a wide toothed comb.

(my friends Denia, Eboni, Rachel, and me in 2008).

--Shannon Luders-Manuel


  1. LOVED this post about your hair! SO interesting! Makes me want to see Chris Rock's movie EVEN MORE! such an interesting part of black culture.

    and your fro is HUGE!!! glad you are going natural. although I don't know how you get it smaller. ;^)

  2. I really enjoyed this post,and seeing all your hair photos! Oh my gosh, your childhood afro was as big as mine (but mine was more oblong, yours nicely round). It's so good to see someone else's struggle and journey. It's funny and heart breaking at the same time to so very much recognize those pictures almost like my own. Thank you!