When I Feel Her Jump Up and Dance
Hear the Music, My God
Talking About My Nappy Hair!
Clifton, “Homage to My Hair”
My grandmother’s hair was wavy and
long, but she wore it in a bun at the back of her head. Family legend
has it that she worked at Marshall Fields “department” store in
the late 1920s or early 1930s. She could “pass” for white.
grandfather, unlike my grandmother, born in New Orleans, was a
dark-skinned man from Shreveport, Louisiana. His hair wasn’t
referred to as “fine” hair. As a result, among their descendants,
there’s an array of natural
Some 16 years
ago, I wrote an essay for an academic feminist journal about this
subject, that is, Black hair. I had just returned from teaching
English and African Diaspora literature in Ethiopia, and I came
across some very old photos, elementary school photos, in which my
hair was “pressed” out and parted into two pony tails. I likened
them to Mickey Mouse ears at the time because I was an avid seven- or
eight-year-old fan of the Mickey Mouse Club on television. What could
be more natural than to look like Annette Funicello in her Mickey
Mouse ears! Reality can be whatever you imagine it to be when you are
a young child.
In that essay,
I recalled my grandparents’ large basement apartment where my
family’s home was the maintenance
and my grandfather - painter,
electrician, plumber, landscaper, garbage man, boiler guy - was the
janitor of this courtyard building. On occasion, the white landlord
would come from his home in a northside suburb to our home on the
southside to hand my grandfather a bonus, a cash bonus, to go
shopping. Downtown! The
was for such visitors. But for the family, the center of home was the
Many times my
grandmother would prepare my hair to be “pressed” in this
kitchen. On the edge of the table, nearest the stove, she had already
laid out the “grease” (gel) and the “ironing comb” (pressing
comb). She applied the grease to a section of my hair and then the
ironing comb while I sat as straight, as still as possible. I
remember thinking, as I smelled the burning hair, if, maybe this
time, my grandmother would magically make my hair to look like a
As I noted in the essay, my
grandmother and mother (when she visited) would often refer to the
beauty of white women whose heads were naturally crowned with “good”
hair. The television in my grandparents’ home stayed on during the
day, and my grandmother watched the soap operas with those
commercials displaying white women in their homes wearing fancy
dresses that flowed out from their small waistlines. Their
“beautiful” hair, brunette or blond, looked as if the wearer had
just exited a “beauty shop.”
I don’t think my grandfather took
note of the women in these commercials or soap operas the way the
women in my family did, so, for him, there was a crown on my head,
even if what I saw in the mirror were close-but-not-quite Mickey
Mouse pony tails.
A few years
later, when living my parents, I came to know my father’s older
sister, owner of a beauty shop, located in the basement of a building
not too far from where my grandparents live. My aunt and I were “new”
to each other - she, like my father, fled Arkansas. What did I know
of Jim Crow? Of lynching? Of singed bodies and burned-out homes? I
knew “white folks,” as my father used to say. They, for me, were
the priests and the nuns down the street where I had attended and
graduated from Catholic school. They were people with jobs on the
television and jobs downtown. They were case workers and social
workers. Nurses and doctors. Landlords and bosses.
My aunt seemed
to perform the magic I had been looking for all those years before,
sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen with the ironing comb burning
my scalp, and wondering, where was the pay off? My aunt washed my
hair, readying it to be “permed” for the first time, since I was
old enough now. Maybe I would become the queen my grandfather saw in
me. I was 16-years old.
My aunt and I, sit in silence,
attentive to our own thoughts.
running my hands through my hair, I recall not feeling quite as
pleased as I had anticipated, even though I could see my hair in the
mirror move from side to side when I shook my head. I tried to feel
beautiful - like Annette Funicello.
I can smell the odor in that
basement hair shop even today. Singed hair. And the chemicals. The
burnt patches of scalp and even forehead. You learn soon enough that
the straighter the hair, the longer you are able to tolerate the
sensation of a burning scalp…
Today, taped to my refrigerator, is
a photo of me, a high school senior. I have an “Afro.”
of an original episode of The
Twilight Zone in
which a group of people find themselves trapped within a box-like
structure with super high walls. It’s open space above them, and
they are able to hear people coming and going, about their business.
Eventually, the group discover a way
to climb one wall. And the group is stunned. There are buildings on
streets. And people. Giant people! At least to them!
Rev. Willie T.
Barrows recruited three or four of us high school students attending
the first Black Expo to join Operation Breadbasket. I didn’t know
anything about being complicit with the “status quo” or being a
part of a “system” of white supremacy. There was a culture out
there in which capitalists determined what was “beautiful.” And
given the racial hierarchy, profits were accrued based on the
necessity to maintain whiteness
as a standard for all things human. A Black girl manages to climb the
wall only to discover she is likely to be crushed no matter what she
has done to prepare for adulthood.
I was beginning to learn about the
world all over again!
To my knowledge, during my year in
Ethiopia, there wasn’t an image of Annette Funicello or of any soap
opera star. Yet the women who could afford to sit in a hair salon,
looked on, dreamily, at walls decorated with images of white women
with “beautiful,” flowing hair, straight hair. The same hair
textured honored in the West is honored universally. On occasion, I
went to the salon to have my dreads twisted at the roots. It would be
a sad sight to watch as Ethiopian women, hurrying from the sink after
a washing, covered naturally curly hair as someone would if they had
suddenly found themselves naked.
After my years
of the natural,
adopted a “relaxed” hairstyle. I had such as “relaxed”
hairstyle to enter the workforce on a full time bases. The “relaxed”
hairstyle cost me a fortune in terms of the little money I earned
from freelance journalism jobs and part-time teaching positions. It
also cost me in terms of the way I viewed and valued myself at
predominantly white institutions with white supervisors and
colleagues. And to what end? Black women, no matter how
knowledgeable, in fact, because we were knowledgeable and critical
about narratives and structures of white supremacy, we were kicked
aside, and kicked down.
You can never be in “whiteness”!
I began my
dreadlocks in 2000, the
first year I came further north and crossed the Wisconsin state line
to teach for the University of Wisconsin system. In a month’s time,
I felt as if I had entered the twilight zone: 1930s! The Jim Crow
South. U. S. A.! I was in need of stating, loud and clear, that this
1960s Black woman didn’t recognize being Black and proud as a straw
back. An obstacle to progress is what presents itself as an
Almost two years later, in the hair
salon in Addis Ababa, my dreads, longer now, were shoulder-length
then and an amusement to even those Ethiopian stylists who twisted my
hair. I sat in those salon seats in Ethiopia, in silence, but knowing
that the woman attending me and the others in the shop were
struggling to refrain from laughing out loud.
women didn’t wear dreads - the men did - particularly priests!
Orthodox Christian priests, at that, and rarely seen by women. (Women
enter and sit in the back of the church). The priests are, however,
heard over loud speakers chanting in Ge’ez, daily throughout the
city. Women wear braids or cornrows, for the most part. Plenty of
younger generations of women relax their hair. To my Ethiopian women
colleagues, I wasn’t a model modern American woman! To Ethiopian
men, my dreads provided comic relief to the men who passed me on the
To wear my dreads in “peace,” it
was necessary for me to cover my head with a white linen scarf, as
did many older Christian women in Ethiopia. And when I did that, I
would hear the men call out, “Rasta”! “Jamaica”!
They were close!
In the 18th
Century, Africans and their descendants with, as C. L. R James writes
in The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution,
“boldness of spirit,” escaped the plantations of in San Domingo
and Jamaica to form independent communities of maroons.
in the “woods and mountains,” the maroons (men and women) let
their hair grow naturally. Their hair “locked,” and the
of these resisters to terror, ironically “struck terror into the
hearts of the colonists by their raids on the plantations and the
strength and determination of the resistance they organized against
attempts to exterminate them.”
These maroons were thought and then
labeled, “the dreaded ones.”
More than a matter of “hair,”
dreadlocks recall a proud history of resistance in Jamaica and in San
Domingo (Haiti). Think of these communities of maroons, writes James,
conceiving of bold designs to unite “all the Negroes” and drive
white slaveholders from Spain, Britain, and mainly France “out of
In 1803, finally, San Domingo
constitutes itself as Haiti, the first Black nation to win its
independence. Haiti, along with Black people throughout the Diaspora,
still struggles to secure its freedom from cultural and economic
tyranny of US and European supremacy.
So here we are, in the year of the
COVID pandemic and we are talking about hair texture and styles.
Black hair texture and styles. In the year Breonna Taylor is murdered
in her home and George Floyd is murdered on the street. Driving while
Black is bad, eating candy while Black is bad, playing with a toy
gun, bad. Hair that is “nappy” is also bad.
In January of
this year, 2020, thanks to the work of the CROWN Coalition (based in
California), it’s members introduced to the House of
Representatives the CROWN ACT (Creating a Respectful and Open
Workplace for Natural Hair) in an effort to end discrimination
against the natural
hair of Black women, particularly in the workplace. Employer
“grooming” policies ban certain hairstyles from the workplace;
consequently, Black women have been refused employment or even an
interview at a place of employment for displaying natural
hair in various “styles” crowning their heads!
curly hair, say, of the Mouseketeer, Annette Funicello, isn’t
unnatural in American culture while it has become acceptable behavior
for Black women to make it their business, come hook or crook, to
invest in market products to flattened or straighten unnatural hair.
Acceptable behavior on the part of Black women means spending $200 or
more at a salon having their hair “done.” To have natural hair
culture, the crown is a good dose of “whiteness”! Straight
isn’t banned. On the contrary, it’s naturally straight hair, in
turn, that is natural, indeed, universally accepted. Little girls of
whatever race learn that straight hair is the
The adoption of whiteness is made to seem as if individuals decide
freely, without the benefit of corporate advertising and social
media, how to groom their hair: Oh, just look at how many women
globally desire to see themselves crowned with straight hair! Look at
the little Black girls who dream of looking like some of our Black
female celebrities these days!
Who needs Annette Funicello these
Capturing hearts and minds at home
precedes the capturing of hearts and minds aboard.
surprising then that these workplace grooming polices cite the
wearing of twists, cornrows, dreadlocks, braids as prohibited. Think
of what Black girls and women hear when these policies are
internalized: You are not good enough, with your natural or “nappy”
hair, to work among the straight hair-wearing women, the civilized
Fortunately, the CROWN ACT calls out
this discrimination of hair that has long been characterized as
unnatural, “unkempt,” and “matted.”
In September, the US House passed
the CROWN ACT, but the CROWN ACT has yet to pass the senate where it
sits, and, unfortunately, so does Mitch McConnell, the Turtle! No
offense to turtles!
waiting for a Republican- or Democratic-lead senate. Aretha Franklin
sang about “respect” decades ago and James Brown said to say it
loud, I’m Black and I’m proud! Discrimination in this culture
against Black women can only end with Black women and allies saying,
enough! We are beautiful women!
MSNBC host, Joy Reid, (TheREIDOUT),
for featuring this story on December 4, 2020.
information cited from BlackEnterprise.com:
“The CROWN Coalition, which has
been working diligently to get the CROWN Act made into law in
multiple states, also recommends that people who feel like they have
been a victim of hair discrimination contact their local ACLU
employees should keep good documentation of the discrimination that
they feel they are experiencing - noting dates, times, locations, and
the content of the discriminatory behavior. These notes can be hugely
helpful in case of an eventual lawsuit or visit with an ACLU lawyer.
employees should fully research what their options are for when they
feel they have been discriminated against because of their natural
hair. In some jurisdictions, a person doesn’t even have to hire a
lawyer to voice their concerns about the discrimination they have
received - a complaint can be filed with city or state Human Rights
Commissions to seek justice.”