MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Some of the most distinct memories that black women recall of their childhood involve hair.
Many can remember sitting between their mother's, aunt's and grandmother's legs, determined fingers working to nourish their scalp and the teeth of a comb edging through their hair. If you sat long enough with your legs crossed or knees pulled to your chest, you could feel the prick of pins and needles rising from your feet.
Nightly and weekly hair care routines were an early lesson in patience that prepared young girls for some of the rites of passage that would follow, like summertime box braids that required daylong salon sessions.
The bonding it provided was priceless. Moms and daughters talked about what went on at school or simply watched TV together. Some sat in silence, feeling the warmth of the shoulders and the legs that wrapped around them.
But for some white adoptive parents and the black children they're raising, these sessions can be a source of anxiety and frustration, complicated by a lack of knowledge about how to properly care for their children's hair.
"As people of color our hair plays a huge role in who we are and if you're not properly educated on why that's a big deal for us" that's a barrier, said Nicole King, owner of Tre'ss Bien, an African American salon that specializes exclusively in natural hair care.
King hosted a workshop on Nov. 2 aimed at teaching white adoptive parents how to maintain the health of their black children's hair.
King said the idea grew out of some of the experiences she heard from her friends who foster, like being approached in public by strangers that questioned why their children's hair looked poorly styled or unkempt.
For most white parents, it's their first experience learning how to style black hair and considering the myriad issues that must be weighed when fostering or adopting a child, many don't realize just how necessary these skills are until their children have already come home.
The considerations are numerous; learning the appropriate language and subtle differences in textures, which range from curly, to kinky and coily; finding a suitable comb or brush to detangle that won't cause damage; a shampoo that won't completely strip the hair, the right conditioners to keep it moisturized, and the best products for styling.
For Hannah Taylor, a white foster parent who cares for five black and multiracial children, it's an ongoing challenge.
"Every single one of them uses completely different products because they all work differently for each of their hair types," Taylor said.
On YouTube, where brands and vloggers vie for clicks, misinformation is rampant. And beauty stores dole out a dizzying array of suggestions, adding up to time, effort and money wasted when products don't live up to the hype.
"I have gone to so many different places and each place I get a different answer," Taylor said. It's an experience her 13-year-old foster daughter finds frustrating, opting to wrap her hair in a scarf when she can't figure out how to execute a style. "I hate for her to feel that way, I hate for her to feel like she's not presentable."
The workshop covered what King calls the essentials of maintaining healthy hair and common myths. Her goal was to equip the women with knowledge that will serve their daughters throughout their lives.
But before King addresses products and styling, she is adamant that parents must understand the perception and stigma that surrounds black hair in American culture, as well as their role in creating an environment of love and acceptance around their children's hair...
While adoption agencies require prospective parents to undergo competency training, not all provide courses that cover the unique issues that transracial families face.
The Children's Aid Society, a statewide agency that receives funding from the Alabama Department of Human Resources, is one that does offer some services to assist multiracial adoptive and foster families and encourages parents to embrace traditions and role models that are specific to their children's cultural background.
"When you foster, it's inevitable that you're going to have a child that doesn't look like you in your home and so you've got to learn" about their identity, said Jill Sexton, a clinical coordinator at CAD. "That's who they are, and you can't take that away."
King hopes to host the free hair care event annually, and will offer personal, private consultations with mothers and daughters that include scalp analysis, individualized product recommendations and daily and weekly hair care regimens, which adoptive parents can schedule by appointment after the workshop.
To some, learning about black hair care may seem trivial in comparison to issues like loss and grief that adopted and fostered children must come to terms with as they discover who they are.
But for many black adoptees, hair is a marker of an identity they may not yet fully understand, and developing that knowledge offers a connection to a culture and lineage rooted in them from birth.