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.