Click to go to the Subscriber Log In Page
Go to menu with buttons for all pages on BC
Click here to go to the Home Page
Donate with PayPal button
Est. April 5, 2002

Bookmark and Share

When I Feel Her Jump Up and Dance

I Hear the Music, My God

I’m Talking About My Nappy Hair!

Lucille 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.

My 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 hair textures.

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 office, 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 living room was for such visitors. But for the family, the center of home was the kitchen.

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 Mouseketeer.

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.

Afterward, 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.”

I’m reminded 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, I 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 anti-Black backlash.

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.

Ethiopian 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 street.

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. Once in the “woods and mountains,” the maroons (men and women) let their hair grow naturally. Their hair “locked,” and the look 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 the colony.”

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!

The natural 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 unnaturally straightened!

In our culture, the crown is a good dose of “whiteness”! Straight hair 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 norm. 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 days!

Capturing hearts and minds at home precedes the capturing of hearts and minds aboard.

It’s not 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 women!

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!

We’re not 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!

Thanks to MSNBC host, Joy Reid, (TheREIDOUT), for featuring this story on December 4, 2020.

Additional information cited from

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 chapter.

Second, 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.

Third, 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.” Editorial Board member and Columnist, Dr. Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels and BC.

Bookmark and Share




is published Thursday
Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Peter Gamble

Get On The
Email List

Ferguson is America: Roots of Rebellion by Jamala Rogers