Braid my hair, doctor, please

Black women are meticulous with our hair. Whether it’s permed, natural, extensions, or braided, the time, money, and attention that goes into it are all indications of the glory we each consider it to be. For all these reasons we choose our hairdressers very, very carefully, and we are extremely selective of who we will allow to minister to our hair. So, who’s going to care for our hair if/when we are in the hospital?

One privilege that I’ve known in my gut for a long time Black women live without, but I’ve not articulated until now is this: what happens to a Black woman’s hair when she is in the hospital. Let me explain using my own story.

Knowing that I was going to be in a Guatemalan hospital for the birth of my daughter, I decided to get my hair braided at home before I left for that country. I figured that with my hair braided I wouldn’t have to worry about it while in the hospital, and I wouldn’t look like a hot mess in the newborn’s pictures. Instinctively I knew that there wouldn’t be anyone around me who would be able to care for my hair in even the simplest of ways: that of parting it and putting in two braids.

So, I gave in and had my hair braided as I have done probably only one other time in my life. The braids were cute, but they were not me, and with every passing day, I got less comfortable with them. Actually, with every passing day I took scissors to them and cut them a little.

I woke up a couple mornings before my water broke and knew that I could keep the braids in no longer! I think my fingers were loosening them even before I was fully awake. Throughout that morning, I thought only about myself and my comfort; newborn pics didn’t matter anymore. I had to get those things off of my head.

Once the process was over, I ran my fingers through my own hair, enjoying that freedom of feeling it again, and watched all the braids in a pile on the floor. Suddenly I thought about my upcoming hospital stay, and laughed at myself. My hope for looking ‘decent’ lay at my feet. Not only was my hair no longer neatly braided; I also had fresh-out-of-the-braids hair. Oh, well, I’d just have to make do.

To me this has always just been a story about something that happened to me on my journey; but in reality it’s a common story for Black women. I didn’t give it much thought, and the truth of its significance lay buried even after hearing recent viral stories about Black doctors braiding Black patients’ hair before surgery. It was finally prompted out of hiding when I recounted the story once again to the now-adult child at whose birth it had taken place. She said, “Blog that!” Up until that moment, I hadn’t thought enough about this to even write about it.

My hair that I love and pamper as a woman of African descent becomes an issue during any hospital stay. Along with all the things we worry about during such times is, “Who is going to take the simple, necessary care of braiding my hair if I’m not able to do it?” I knew this in my gut years ago; and I feel both validated and sad, now seeing that when a doctor braids a Black woman’s hair before surgery, it can make the news.

It makes me think: how many other non-privileges do we just take care of because we know they aren’t available to us, and therefore can’t be taken for granted? Past, lived experiences tell us that if we don’t get out ahead of them, the result will be very predictable. (In my case, the predictable result was that indeed, I wound up looking like a hot mess in those newborn pictures).

These stories about Black doctors braiding Black patients’ hair really warm my heart. Things are changing, slowly but hopefully, and maybe if I’m ever in the hospital again, the predictable outcome won’t be so predictable anymore. I imagine the relief that would be in so many different ways.

Copyright © Debbie Mendoza July 2021

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