Previously published at the Black Commentator.com
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, "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 guywas 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 I'm living my parents, I come 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 are "new" to each othershe, like my father, fled Arkansas. What did I know of Jim Crow? Of lynching? Of s inged 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, siting 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 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.
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