TO BLACK PARENTS VISITING EARTH–LETTER #3: HAIR (Part II)

Letter #3: Hair

Part II

To Black People Visiting Earth:

For the first few months of kindergarten, I styled my daughter’s hair in braids and twists because I was afraid of subjecting her to more ignorance at this predominantly white private school.

On November 22, 2013, my daughter wore her hair down for the first time at school. As soon as she walked through the gate to sign in, a white female student (from the middle school classroom) came up from behind and said, “Oh your hair is so springy!” and began to touch my daughter’s hair.   I fought the urge to slap the girl’s hand and decided to see how my daughter would handle this.

Baby Girl never turned around. She ignored the girl as she signed in. I didn’t know why and didn’t ask her any questions. I just hugged and kissed her goodbye and left for work, knowing that we needed to discuss this after school.

When I held her before leaving that morning, I didn’t want her to feel my tears and rage. I wanted her to know that I loved her deeply. I wanted her to know that I understood that her beauty was too big, too fluid for some to fully comprehend … that she will encounter many with little to no experience with Black people and because of this, they will not know how to properly admire and respect her beauty. That morning, I don’t remember if I held her tighter than usual … but I hope I did.  And I don’t know if my kisses felt richer and more meaningful … but I hope they did.   All I’m sure about is that my daughter knows me well; there have been many times in her early life when she has consoled me. There were many times when I tried to hide my face only for her to see through, within, and beyond me.   Though I asked no questions and gave no lecture, I left wondering what she knew about my silence.  And I wondered what wisdom she carried in her backpack that day.

***

Baby Girl at 7-years old. © 2015 Janet Stickmon
Baby Girl at 7-years old.
© 2015 Janet Stickmon

I picked her up from school.

We sat in my car.

I pieced together my thoughts.

“So, um… how did it feel when that girl touched your hair this morning?”

“I don’t know.”

“She didn’t even ask if she could touch you’re hair,” I said, knowing damn well that asking wouldn’t have made it okay.   But the fact that she didn’t ask just made the transgression even worse the more I thought about it.

“But Mama, she did ask permission.”

“Baby Girl, no, she didn’t. I was right there.”

Alright. Now, I was already upset about the hair-touching and the not-asking, but now it seemed like my daughter was lying for this girl. Sure, psychologists and pediatricians and sociologists and teachers and Lord-knows-who-else could come up with a rationale for what was happening. Hell, I could come up with some quick explanations if it was happening to somebody else’s kid. But in that moment, the first thought that came to mind was What the fuck? Either she wanted to protect this girl or she just didn’t want me to be angry or was afraid that the white teen might come after her. Or maybe a little bit of all this. I wasn’t completely sure. Whatever the case, ultimately it appeared as though she was trying to protect the white student, and I knew far too many cases of Black folk covering up for (or making excuses for) the conscious and unconscious wrongs of white folk.   And even though Baby Girl was just a child, it was important for her to understand that she should not make up anything to cover up anyone’s wrongdoing.

“Did anyone else at school say something about your hair?”

“Yes. Bethany called my hair bushy.”

Illustration by Afua Richardson.
Illustration by Afua Richardson in The Prodigy written by Joe Robinson Currie–one of several images displayed during a Black hair presentation I delivered at my daughter’s school.

You know, I have never had a reputation for being a hothead—not a habitual hothead anyway. But when someone says or does something that hurts your child, there is something primal within a mama’s heart that makes her want to snatch somebody’s kneecaps off.

The first time I felt the true strength of this protective impulse was when Baby Girl was barely two months old.   We were at the park, and I was pushing her in the stroller. A squirrel rushed out of the bushes a little too fast and came a little too close to the stroller, and I swear, I threatened to turn that damn squirrel into a sweater if it jumped on my baby!   No lie.

Anyways, that’s how I felt. The hair-touching. The not-asking. The cover-up. Baby’s hair was springy, and now it’s bushy too?!

The words of Frantz Fanon, Homi K. Bhabha, and Edward Said were jumbled up in my head like those wordballs in Electric Company.   Their work on “otherness” lived in my mind, but as I sat in the car, I struggled to translate their words into a language that this five-year old could embrace.     Luckily before she was born, my husband and I laid down a foundation that would allow her to understand.

One of Baby Girl’s middle names is Assegai.[1] When we gave her this name, we wanted to make sure she was in a position to engage in emotional and physical combat. Whether it be the traditional assegai—a long-shafted, throwing spear used by the Zulu (prior to Shaka Zulu’s reign) and other Nguni clans—or the broad-bladed, short stabbing assegai, known as the iKlwa—Shaka Zulu’s innovation, making the assegai effective in close combat—I wanted her to be equipped with the will to fight to defend and preserve her self-dignity and the dignity of others who suffer injustice.[2]

I looked at her eyes. Her hair. Her face. I asked God why she must wield her spear so early in life. I gently placed the assegai in her hand and wept inside.

“Baby Girl, your hair is beautiful. It is African. It is natural, beautiful, and free. If someone tries to touch your hair, say, “Please don’t touch my hair; you don’t know me well enough to touch my hair.”

She quickly held the assegai, “Ok, Mama. And Mama, then I’ll just go like this,” and she did a little bob and weave move as if avoiding a hand hovering over her head.

I giggled, “Yes, you can do that too.”

There were many other incidents related to my daughter’s hair and the need for education about Black hair at her school; many of these took place during the following year in the first grade. Students continued to make fun of Baby Girl’s hair.   There were also children who insisted they had the right to touch her hair even when she told them not to.   There were Baby Girl’s tears. There were talks with teachers and parents.   There were sincere apologies. Heavy apologies. Empty apologies. Awkward apologies. Sympathetic emails. Ignorant emails. “Good” intentions obscured by big egos. Folks of color in solidarity with each other. Textbook cases of white female tears when their unconscious racist behavior was exposed. Fragments of distorted, monolithic views about other ethnic groups waved around by whites in the name of inclusivity and used as a bludgeon to silence Blacks. White allies quick to listen and quick to take effective action. Baby Girl’s punches and kicks, defending her self-dignity. Mama and Papa’s hug-infused talks about the beauty of her skin and hair … in between reading time and math worksheets.

Though I was pleased with the support from the principal, her teachers, and the afterschool care providers, I had grown weary from the regular occurrences of ignorant responses to my daughter’s hair. I couldn’t just stand by and let my daughter wait until the next student insulted her hair.

Since I was already planning to come in to do a Kwanzaa presentation, I asked my daughter’s lower elementary teacher (equivalent to grades 1-3 in public school) if I could come in to do a presentation about Black hair, as well.  She loved the idea and welcomed me to the class. Later, I was also invited to do the same presentation for the kindergarten class.

I began with reading Hair Dance (the book that inspired me to see Baby Girl’s hair as a halo). I spoke about the many textures of Black hair, ranging from straight and wavy to coarse and tight curls. I pointed to a display of illustrations and photos of Black women as I described various Black hairstyles like afros, afro puffs, cornrows, locks, twists, and African thread wrapping.   I explained that it’s important not to refer to Black hair as wild, springy, frizzy, bushy, or wiry.  (No one asked why, but if they did, I was ready to explain that most (if not all) of these words carry a negative connotation and suggest an implicit inferiority to straight hair; in short, they just aren’t flattering.) Our hair is curly, beautiful, and African. If someone with straight hair wants to compliment our hair, they can simply say, “I like your hair,” and leave it at that. Don’t try to touch it.   Or else your hand might get slapped. Ha! No, I didn’t say that. (I was thinking it, though.) Instead, I illustrated this point using two stuffies: a Black doll named Imani and a white poodle named Molly. I had Imani approach Molly, wanting to pet the dog because it was so cute. I asked the children to imagine how some of us might do this when we see a dog. Then I said “What if one of us saw Imani’s hair and tried to touch it because we admired it so much or we were just curious to see how it felt? This might make her feel like a dog and that’s not a very good feeling.”

Afterward, I answered questions, and left behind Hair Dance and another book called Cornrows for the children to read. The children and teacher thanked me, and I moved on to the kindergarten classroom.

Overall, the presentation went well. However, something felt fundamentally wrong. Something akin to being beaten up by the cops and then being asked to come in and train the police department about racial profiling in law enforcement. Or something like being a Mammy, feeling grateful for being “treated well” by massa, remaining forever loyal to him, serving as his personal cultural ambassador—his Black pocket dictionary—translating the “strange, unusual ways” of Black folk … all to calm his fears and ease his confusion.

The experience really fucked with my social justice sensibilities, but I still felt it was important work because I believed in the sincerity of a handful of teachers and parents who wanted the institution to change and wanted to help make that change happen.  More importantly, Baby Girl had endured far too many incidents for me not to fight back through education. I needed her to see her Mama defending her honor and the honor of our sistren and brethren with hair hailing from Africa.

“Niobe” illustrated by Afua Richardson in The Untamed (Stranger Comics, 2014)–a second image displayed during Black hair presentation.

The emotional fortitude required to keep from slapping someone’s hand, cussing somebody out, or snatching off kneecaps—when faced with a world that repeatedly attempts to strip you and your family of its dignity—is enormous; sometimes this fortitude can be found in smiles and other unnatural things that maybe puzzling for those unfamiliar with resiliency’s many faces or that maybe confused for naiveté by the self-righteous.  This emotional fortitude must be praised for its depth and longevity. Should I be thanked for my patience and mild-mannered, yet impassioned approaches to confronting injustice, let also my latent anger be acknowledged and respected like an elder watching in the back of a room.

It was this emotional fortitude that  sustained me in that classroom.   This education was necessary, but it was just one front on which the battle had to be fought. There is a difference in approach between a presentation that teaches non-Black children about Black hair and a presentation that instills Black children with pride in their hair and every other aspect of their being. Such education must become widespread to reverse the self-hatred that has already set in.   It must remind us of the beauty of our inheritance, gifts from the ancestors that we can proudly reclaim and show off. It must provide a space, an anchor where we can freely celebrate in each others’ beautiful halos and brilliant crowns, enabling us to celebrate in our beauty no matter what space we step into thereafter. Here, we can sing loudly to Les Nubians’ “Afrodance,” Lady of Rage’s “Afro Puffs,” and “Hold On” by Pharoahe Monch and Erykah Badu.[3]  Why hide? There is no shame in letting Africa shine through, free of shackles, regardless of where we are in the world.

Your Sister in Spirit,

Janet Stickmon

______________

[1] Assegai is used as a generic term for spear in the research of anthropologist Eileen Krige. She lists several types of the assegai used by the Zulu. The long-shafted, throwing spear is specifically named the inCusa.   See Eileen Krige, Social System of the Zulus (New York: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1936), 400-401.

[2] See Brian Roberts, The Zulu Kings (London: Sphere Books Limited, 1977), 48; Donald R. Morris, The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation (London: Pimlico, 1994), 37-47; Eileen J. Krige, Social System of the Zulus (New York: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1936), 400-401.

[3] Big thanks to my husband, Shawn Taylor, who shared “Afrodance” and “Hold On” with me. These songs have filled our home and brought much self-love and self-reflection into our lives and into our daughter’s life.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Stickmon

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