Thursday, June 7, 2012

“Daddy Did My Hair” – Weaving the Nature of Fatherhood

My father always seemed larger than life.  A booming baritone who made the first Great Migration north with his family after the Stock Market Crash of '29, he worked throughout his schooling to help support his mother and numerous siblings.  My father finished Hampton University, and served his country during World War II as one of the first African American army captains leading an all-White company in the Pacific theater.  This was a man who integrated the public school system along with a group of brave high school teachers, who with my mother at his side was instrumental in exposing unfair housing practices and the need for the Housing Discrimination Act of 1968.  As an Industrial Arts teacher, he was so proficient at carpentry that he could design and build just about anything with his seemingly unlimited imagination and skill.

One morning, my father faced a daunting, never-before-performed task ... doing his daughters’ hair.

My mother, a homemaker par-excellence, happened to take a rare overnight trip away from home.  In her absence, our father was to make certain my sister and I were washed, fed, and presented relatively unscathed upon her return – which, of course, included hair duty.

My father’s calloused, workman’s hands set about their business on my head early that morning.  His hands were far more accustomed to wielding a hammer than a comb, yet their tenderness on my three-year-old scalp was as sweet as candy.   

When we were presented for inspection upon Mama’s return, it didn’t matter that our braids were uneven, our edges fuzzy and our parts jagged with bows and barrettes decorating odd places.  In spite of my haphazard triple-braid-'do, I was delighted to inform my mother that “Daddy did my hair.”  My father never had occasion to do my hair again, yet this memory has remained vivid through the years.

Today, as my husband and I travel and lecture, I often hear him encouraging fathers to do their young daughters’ hair, and to do it regularly.  Having done this with his own daughter, he is persuaded that it created an indelible bond between them.  I affirm my husband’s observation; I would add that the surprises of our tangles, kinks and curls make it easy to compare our hair's inconsistent glories to the mutability of our days. 

Fathers, your comb and your care can unravel the complexities of both hair and life with the patience modeled by our heavenly Father; in doing so, you will discover the twists and turns of your daughters’ natural patterns of growth and personality.  By sharing in her intimate world, you may glimpse firsthand how the elements of life can cause her hair – and her – to either shrink back in confusion or step forward with courage.  You’ll come to know how each individual strand misbehaves on its own, yet with gentle guidance stands in solidarity with the whole of the head; you’ll learn to encourage her new growth, while tending to the health of the old.

The vicissitudes of life can affect both our hair and our outlook.  Touching a girl’s heart through her hair touches her in a place where she is vulnerable.  Affirm her in that place and you stand on holy ground – this is especially true for us as Black women.  There is a comfort in knowing that our earthly father's gentler side waits for us in the priestly tending of this temple, and his sacrifice of time and bravado becomes a fragrant offering.  And each time you present her to the world for God’s purposes, you will have celebrated her hair and her identity for what God has uniquely made them both to be.

A father can shape the womanhood of a girl like no one else on earth.  For those whose natural fathers abandoned this wonderful privilege, our heavenly Father stands ready to affirm you in ways far beyond your coiffure – ways as unique and personalized as our hairstyles themselves.

Sisters, even the numbered hairs on our heads are fearfully and wonderfully made – our marvelous complexity is indicative of our Father’s love for creativity, and of his love for us as his creatures.  Nature’s rains and the storms of life may act as kryptonite that weakens us, but both our heavenly and earthly fathers can strengthen us to face the inclemency.

Few things melted my husband’s heart more than to hear his daughter say, “My daddy did my hair.”  I hope that it was the same for my father with me.  My life on any given day can still be messy, and far different than I expected it to be – so it is also with my hair.  What stands in my memory is not my father's lack of ability, but rather his tender love expressed in an area where he was least skilled, and I was most vulnerable. 

Indeed, what I remember best is being enraptured with my imperfect father, and the tangible way in which our perfect Father met us there.

Karen Angela Ellis holds a Master of Fine.Art from the Yale University School of Drama and a Master of Art in Religion from Westminster Theological Seminary.  She is both performing artist and educator, happily married to Carl Ellis, Jr.  Follow Karen on Twitter @KarAngEllis, where she tweets about theology, life, culture and the arts.


  1. Enjoyed this very much. I think all little girls have a special place in their hearts for thei fathers!

  2. I am not trying to be mean or contentious, or whatever, but it seems to me a call to men to do hair is much too effeminate in a culture--world and church--that already has men reeling on their masculine haunches. A call to do family worship on a regular basis; to stand as men against abortion (which demeans women); a call to be faithful to their spouses (over 50% church divorce rates); these things seem to be much more important.

    1. No offense taken, Ron.

      I'm the man who did his daughter’s hair. It is not “effeminate” for a father to love and care for his children. After all, our heavenly Father is both tender and strong. We agree that masculinity today is often diminished by gender confusion. We also agree that the other issues you articulated are of vital importance, and we are actively involved in addressing them. However, concern for these issues and the nurturing side of fatherhood are not mutually exclusive.

      Young children need regular affection from their fathers, ranging from rough-housing to affirmation. A major contributing factor to today’s abortion and divorce crisis comes from young men and women making bad choices, confused in their identity, trying to fill the void left by an absent or distant father. It is of utmost importance that we raise children to be balanced adults who don’t exacerbate the problems you pointed out, who will be positive contributors to our culture.

    2. You are so right Mr. Ellis this isn't the time to play the man law card. There are too many insecure women out there because of men not knowing how to balance tenderness and machismo. Women need to see their fathers being men however we also need to witness their tender side as well...towards our we will witness the kind of man to marry in the future and also towards us so we will know what to allow and how we should be treated.

  3. Wow wonderful post! I still remember the one time my father did my hair and it is a very fond memory seeing that my father is very stoic. Thank you very helping
    me remember to appreciate that moment al the more.

  4. This post caught me off guard...thanks for sharing. As a father I recognize these tender moments that you have to treasure.