Dip the cup into the water and fill it up. Gently place my palm against his forehead to avoid spilling into his eyes. Slowly pour over his head. Repeat until completely saturated. Add conditioner. Rinse. Add leave-in conditioner. Then, with Dave Wyndorf of Monster Magnet, Joe Duplantier of Gojira, or Devin Townsend of Strapping Young Lad punctuating the background, the ritual starts.
Slowly, methodically, my fingers snake through his curls, catching on knots and tangles. There’s much work to be done tonight since bicycle helmets have their own unique way of adding to the nest of tangle-opolis. And sometimes he’s not as amenable to this 10-minute exercise in patience, so in some ways it feels like the clock is ticking here. Yet I find myself enjoying it. My hands move in seemingly random yet fully intentional patterns. Extract the curls with my fingers, find the knot, slowly yet precisely unwrap the strands. After doing this nearly every bath for at least the past 2 years I no longer need to focus; I can meld the movements and the music into one.
I love everything about his hair. The curious intersection of tight ringlets and loose waves. The thick, gentle knot he’s weaved just behind his left ear from constantly twirling his finger through. That it can turn into this beautiful, voluminous afro when it’s both wet and dry, curls falling gently over his ears and down his forehead. I can only hope he loves his hair as much as I do.
But then it hits me. As much as I want him to take pride in his hair, there are millions of people who haven’t or don’t. People have been scorned, shamed, bullied, beaten, and even killed because of this hair, the roots of its culture, and the illogical and unfounded threat it supposedly represents. Generations of children, women, and men have seen this hair as “unnatural”, as something broken to be “fixed” in order to look pretty, to look human in the eyes of others. Billions of dollars are spent every year on products designed to make this hair – a natural gift – look like “white hair” to avoid being seen as the other, a reject, an outcast.
This is something I’ve never had to live through and not something I want my son to experience. And yet I need to accept that he most probably will, especially if we stay in this little town where we live much longer. This is one of many lessons we will have to teach him about acceptance, being accepted, and loving who you are and from where you come. These lessons may be difficult as I acknowledge the world we live in but above all else he can look to me and his mother for wisdom, guidance, and support.
But even then isn’t it much easier for me to lead by example when I, as a cis white man, am the least likely to be oppressed? Even as his advocate, defender, and protector, will he not eventually turn to me and say, “Dad, you can never understand what it’s like to be me”? And for me to then have to painfully admit that I can’t??? Can I ever be more than a parent, an educator, a safe harbor, and a comforter?
Then a literal splash of water hits my face, preventing me from exploring these real-yet-philosophical depths further. This water is cold which signals the end of bath time. I open the drain, slowly lift my son out of the tub, and wrap a towel around him.
I watch the tiny droplets of water bead up and dangle at the end of his corkscrew curls, unaware neither of the safe space from whence they came nor the cold reality of the hard bathroom floor they will meet when they fall. I pull my son in close and hug him tightly; this is a metaphor for everything.