Black Lives Matter

Published on September 7th, 2016 | by Janet Stickmon

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TO BLACK PARENTS VISITING EARTH: Letter #3 from Janet Stickmon, on HAIR

It took many jars of relaxing cream and scabs on my scalp before I stopped strangling Africa. The day I stopped putting chemicals in my hair was the day I began loving it for being natural.

Despite my Filipino mother’s attempt to get me to love my hair (as she gently ran my fingers through my scalp to feel the beauty of my own waves and curls), I was still subject to the world’s disgust with Black hair—a world today that has plenty of Korean-owned Black hair shops where you’re sure to find Cream of Nature and aisles of Indian Remy hair but never find Sheba Locks and Miss Jessie’s; a world where Gabby Douglas is condemned by Black folk for the appearance of her hair as opposed to being praised for her feats as an Olympian.

In 2011, I wrote an essay called “Locks” that describes the journey that led me to decide to lock my hair in 2005. Below is an excerpt that explains what messages Black women receive about our natural hair:

There are systems in place that communicate to the world that long, straight, flowing hair that blows in the wind is the standard against which all other hair types ought to be measured and evaluated. Though it may be true that those with straight and/or limp hair receive the message that having more body or wave to one’s hair is more desirable, one must take a close look at how prevalent such messages are in comparison to the implicit and explicit messages (from within and outside our race) that bombard Black women and girls, telling us that straight hair is not only preferable and normative, but anything other than straight is deviant, dirty, messy, and akin to pubic hair. These judgments don’t stop at your physical appearance, but they also imply that your inner way of being is just as dirty and deviant. Secondly, there is a big difference between telling women that hair with more body and wave is beautiful and telling women that coarse, kinky, or nappy hair is beautiful. Ads, for example, that implicitly or explicitly promote hair with more body and wave (or maybe even ringlets, too) communicate the message that it’s okay to have some waves, but if its too curly and too frizzy, at the same time, you are on the brink of creeping into ugly territory! Such messages are communicated through casual conversation, jokes, silent stares of contempt, magazines, music videos, television, Korean-owned and Black-owned hair supply stores, billboards, cinema, dolls, greeting cards, the Internet, and much more. Never had I researched how to straighten and damage my hair through the use of a chemical relaxer, hairdryer, hot comb, or curling iron. Nonetheless, this came quite naturally to me considering what was readily available; I was provided with plenty of assistance. Over the years, however, becoming aware of how I internalized these destructive external messages put me in a better position to actively choose to reject such messages and begin to understand my hair. How strange it is to realize that in my thirties I must learn from books how to take care of my natural hair.[1]

I wrote this when Baby Girl was about 3-4 years old. I had a clear sense of what my daughter would encounter. Around this time whenever my daughter’s hair was in braids or twists, people didn’t say too much about her hair—good or bad. But when she wore it down, people had all kinds of things to say and here’s just a taste:

  • White adults (who believed they were complimenting her): “Wow, you’re hair’s so cool. It’s so wild!” or “I wish I could be that free,” or “It looks like a cloud.”
  • Older Black women (usually with disdain): “Why don’t you do something with that hair?” or “You need to moisturize that hair.”
  • White adults (often enthusiastic women): “Nice hair” or “I like your hair.”
  • Young Black women (usually with their own hair worn natural): “Go ‘head lil’ mama! Your hair so beautiful!” or “Let your crown go!”

Hearing these things, particularly the countless negative, ignorant comments outweighing the number of affirmations, came as no surprise.

babygirl.hair2

Baby Girl was small with a sweet mind filled with popsicles, playgrounds, and confetti; I could barely imagine how she was making sense of the world’s preoccupation with her hair. I would need to explain this to her; my husband would need to explain this to her. But for the time being, we reveled in moments when young sistas told her how beautiful her hair was. Baby Girl could count on this love at places and events like Juneteenth celebrations or the Ashby Flea Market in Berkeley or the Malcolm X Jazz Festival in Oakland. Such environments were sparse but served as just enough medicine for the sickness that suggested her hair was abnormal and in need of being tamed.

She continued hearing a strange mix of insults and awkward comments about her hair throughout her preschool years. But when she started kindergarten, it was a whole different game.

***

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 majority 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 don’t know why, and I 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 fluid, too big 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 were many times in her early life when she 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.

IMG_0843

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 your 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 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 of 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 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.”

 

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 came out of the bushes a little too fast, stopped, and crept 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.[2] 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.[3]

Iklwa

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 blow to the head.

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

 

There were many other incidents related to my daughter’s hair at that school. The need for education about Black hair was apparent. The other incidents took place a year later when Baby Girl entered the first grade. Students continued to make fun of her 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 and awkward apologies. Sympathetic emails. Stupid emails. “Good” intentions obscured by big egos. Folks of color showing solidarity. Unconscious racism exposed, followed by textbook cases of white female tears. Fragments of distorted, monolithic views of other ethnic groups waved around by whites in the name of inclusivity only to be used as a bludgeon to silence Black folk. White allies quick to listen and quick to act. Baby Girl’s punches and kicks, defending her self-dignity. Mama and Daddy’s hug-infused talks about the beauty of our baby’s skin and hair…in between reading time and math worksheets.

Though I was pleased with the support from the head of school (a.k.a. the principal), her teachers, and the afterschool care providers, I had grown weary from the regular occurrences of ignorant reactions to my daughter’s hair. I couldn’t just stand by and let my daughter wait until the next student said something stupid about her hair.

hair dance

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. 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—using age-appropriate language—that such words carry a negative connotation and suggest an inferiority to straight hair; in short, these words 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,” I said. Or else your hand might get slapped. Well, I didn’t say that. (I was thinking it, though.)

BabyGirl.hair1

I ended the presentation with a little skit using two stuffies: a Black doll named Imani and a white poodle named Molly. Imani approaches Molly, talking about how cute she is, and reaches out to pet her. I asked the children to imagine how some of us might do this when we see a cute 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 because we were curious to see what it felt like. This would 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 to give the same presentation.

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, ease his confusion.

The experience really fucked with my social justice sensibilities. But I was still glad I did it because I believed in the sincerity of a handful of the teachers and parents who wanted the institution to change. I had to do it because there were far too many incidents Baby Girl endured for me not to fight back through education. I needed her to see her Mama defending her honor and the honor of all our sistren and brethren with hair hailing from Africa.

cornrows bookThe amount of emotional stamina…the number of smiles and other unnatural things required to keep one 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. This emotional stamina must be praised for its depth and longevity. Should I be thanked for my patience and mild-mannered approaches to confronting injustice, let also my latent anger be acknowledged and respected.

It was this emotional stamina that I drew from in that classroom. This education was necessary, but it is just one front on which the battle must be fought. There is a difference in approach between a workshop that teaches non-Black children about Black hair and a workshop that instills Black children with pride in their hair and every other aspect of their being. Such education must become widespread to the 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. Here we can sing loudly to Les Nubians’ “Afrodance,” Lady of Rage’s “Afro Puffs,” and “Hold On” by Pharoahe Monch and Erykah Badu.[4] Why hide? There’s no shame in letting Africa shine through, free of shackles, no matter where we are in the world.

Stay Black.

Blessings always,

Janet Stickmon

 

[1] Janet Stickmon. Midnight Peaches, Two O’clock Patience. (Oakland: Broken Shackle Publishing, 2011), pp. 78-79.

[2] Anthropologist Eileen Krige uses the assegai as a generic term for spear and lists several types of assegais 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

Originally posted at Broken Shackle Publishing.

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About the Author

Janet Stickmon

Janet C. Mendoza Stickmon is an educator, author, and performer.  Prof. Stickmon is the founder and facilitator of Broken Shackle Developmental Training and the Black Leaders and Mentorship Program.  Stickmon’s Crushing Soft Rubies—A Memoir and Midnight Peaches, Two O’clock Patience—A Collection of Essays, Poems, and Short Stories on Womanhood and the Spirit have been used in courses at several colleges and universities across the country; she is also known for her latest blog series, To Black Parents Visiting Earth:  A Love Letter-Life Guide to Raising Black Children in the 21st Century.    Janet Stickmon is currently a professor of Humanities at Napa Valley College, teaching Africana Studies and Filipina(o)-American Heritage.



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