I realize I have no standing to discuss Black hair

I get that. In Emily Hauser’s words, “This is not my business. Not.My.Business. I know that, and if any African-American readers want to tell me as much, I won’t be able to argue.”

I also get that there are things that African-American women do to their hair that is arduous, painful, and time-consuming. I can’t even be motivated to dry my hair unless I have to appear in court before 10:00 a.m., so I am in awe of the effort. But I also realize that what many African-American women do to their hair is motivated by generations of internal and external prejudices about what constitutes good hair, meaning, most of the time, hair like white people have.

With all those caveats here is my small contribution to the conversation: our family’s micro-level Kenneth Clark experiment.

I have a November birthday. When I was ready for kindergarten in 1965, the Jefferson City, MO, public schools were not ready for me, so my folks sent me to the kindergarten affiliated with Lincoln University, an historically black university.* As a result, my kindergarten class was almost entirely African-American, but for me and one other white kid. Our teachers were all African-American, many of them being student teachers from Lincoln U. I still remember Miss Flowers — pictured below — who I totally idolized. My fifth birthday — Mom brought cupcakes:


Anyway, what the hell does this have to do with hair? I’ll tell you. Apparently one day during my year at Lincoln U’s kindergarten, my folks discovered me in our bathroom applying Vaseline to my hair, in an effort to make my hair look like my classmates’ hair. I don’t actually remember doing this, though I do remember thinking that being able to braid your hair effortlessly into multiple braids was way cooler than anything my hair could do. OK, the photo shows that really almost anything would have been cooler than my hair,** but the cute ‘dos of my two female classmates were out of reach even if I (or, let’s be candid, my mother) had had any hairstyling sense at all.***

So I think about this every time I read about what African-American women go through with their hair, or even what teenage girls of all races do to conform to the (skinny, racy) images that confront them constantly.  I wonder if you sent a skinny girl to a school full of fat girls — and deprived her of access to fashion magazines — whether she’d come away with an earlier recognition of this life truth:  fat people are generally cooler than skinny people.

*********
* While getting the link for their website, I learned that Lincoln U’s mascot is a blue tiger.  I wish I had known that all these years.  That is seriously awesome!  I’m thinking of acquiring a blue tiger sweatshirt — my earliest alma mater!

** Memo to my brother:  comment on this at your own risk. I have photos of your haircuts from the late 60s and early 70s. You know what I’m talking about.

*** I can’t tell from the length whether this was before or after the “one more word out of you and I’m cutting it all off” incident, but let’s just say that I did not spend much of my childhood with long hair.

5 thoughts on “I realize I have no standing to discuss Black hair

  1. MFurness

    Holy craptasticness!! I live 30 miles north of Jefferson City, MO!! I work alternate weekends IN Jefferson City, MO!! And my husband works EVERY FREAKIN’ day within shouting distance of Lincoln U!! (State Capitol) Want that sweatshirt? I can get you that sweatshirt…and a mug… and anything else from there!! How did I not know all this, when I’ve know you for ages?

    Oh, and I am one of those plump people endowed with curly hair that never does what fashion says it should do…I learned long ago to leave it alone….

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  2. Sporcupine

    Small fact you’ll love: the doll selection studies listed Kenneth AND Mamie Clark as authors, and the core research is in her graduate school research.

    Small fact I love: I learned that from my dad, who figured it out from looking at records of the Rosenwald Foundation’s support for African-American scholars.

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  3. Amy Robertson Post author

    @mfurness – that’s so cool! We lived in Jeff City from when I was about 2 to 6, so I have only little kid memories of the town. My father was the Executive Director of the Missouri Commission on Human Rights at what you can imagine was an interesting point in Missouri history to have that position. We moved to Arlington in 1967 and probably met you not long after!

    @sporcupine – those are excellent facts! Indeed, I love them! I will be sure to call it the Kenneth and Mamie Clark study now!

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  4. MFurness

    WOW!! I wish I’d known your dad–what a fascinating job, and a fascinating person he must have been!
    Someday you’ll have to come back and revisit the area–we are awesome! It’s one of the country’s best-kept secrets!!

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  5. Kevin Williams

    I confess I have been torturing my curly locks and self straightening my hair all these years. Also, automatic: All people are cooler than white people.

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