The Value of Scratching the Scalp

We are featuring blog posts in honor of National Black History month and as a resource for trans-racial adoption. Adoption STAR’s First Annual African & Caribbean American Culture Day is on Saturday February 22nd from 10:30am-12:30pm, celebrating Black History Month through cultural crafts, music, foods and more. The celebration will be held at 131 John Muir Drive, Amherst, NY 14228 (see all event details here). Please call (716) 639-3900 to RSVP or email

Ursuline BankheadOur guest blogger Ursuline Bankhead is a psychologist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and has worked with many trans-racial families. In today’s blog post, Ms. Bankhead describes the rich familial legacy of hair care.

The other night my daughter was sitting on the floor with her long legs splayed out and her head in my lap. The big purple comb in my hand, I parted her hair and began to scratch her scalp. She let out a soft “mmmmm” as I did the gentle quick motions, careful to not scratch too long or too hard while looking for dry skin. I moved on to make a new part and began the process again. She stretched a bit and I noticed her eyes were closed contentedly.

That sigh, the stretch, and closed eyes of contentment brought me to another time of scalp scratching. I remember being a little girl and being called over by older relatives, mother, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, adult friends “[B]aby, come here for me to scratch your scalp.” I would sit on the floor, carpeted or bare, on the porch step, a blanket, or on a pillow, typically nestled between the knees of one of these women as my head was tilted this way or that. I remember those fingers and combs that went through my hair, smoothing, untangling and (“mmmmmmm”) scratching my scalp. As a child, I remember this as a time to hear neighborhood and family gossip as I played possum and listened in on “grown folks talk.” Of course, there was always “the One” who tried to dig their way to China through my scalp, especially if she was upset or passionate about something. I’d flinch a few times and then hear, “Sit still! What’s wrong with you?” But, usually this led to a lightening up on the pressure. Other times, it earned me a pop on the head with the comb. Thank God I have thick hair!

Later, I learned to be an active participant in the ritual. I specifically remember standing, as a child, behind my grandmother’s chair in the kitchen and she would give me the comb and sometimes “Blue Magic Hair Dress” (or the like) to make her already straightened hair shine “but not too much.” She was one of the ones who guided me to scratch more firmly or to be gentle. She would sometimes close her eyes and “mmmm” while I scratched (and let my imagination wander) or read a book. We didn’t talk, but it was a connection, and no words were necessary. It was simply – a quiet time. This simple, but valuable, ritual is something precious I learned from the Black women in my life. And, sometimes shared with my White sisters who also said “mmmm” and then learned to return the favor as they watched us scratch. This is a time that is even more intimate than a beauty shop, because all these women are yours — there were no strangers or walk-ins.

When scratching scalps — we stopped moving and sat — still and listened to each other, but only when words were necessary. Somehow, I never felt, or feel, rushed when scratching a scalp. Whether the television is on or the music is playing, there is something soothing and nurturing about the ritual. This ritual helped me learn about womanhood and patience, to have some appreciation for the various textures of hair, straight, kinky, curly, silky, and coarse; more importantly, to gain an appreciation for sisterhood—in our quiet times; and, to have a casual time for connecting with another person emotionally and physically. In thinking about the busy world we live in, and the rushing we do, and the tasks that MUST be completed, maybe we all need to get back to scratching scalps… and our “mmmmms.”

Adoption STAR's First Annual Annual African & Caribbean American Culture DayAnd please join us for Adoption STAR’s First Annual African & Caribbean American Culture Day. This event will be held on Saturday, February 22nd from 10:30am-12:30pm and will celebrate Black History Month through cultural crafts, music, foods and more. The celebration will be held at 131 John Muir Drive, Amherst, NY 14228. Please call (716) 639-3900 to RSVP or email

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