January 17, 2011

Today We Remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1980, Stevie Wonder released Hotter than July, arguably his best album ever, and in it, his first platinum-selling single - "Happy Birthday."  The single, "Happy Birthday," a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, became the catalyst for Stevie Wonder's nationwide campaign for a national holiday commemorating the life and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King.  But more than commemorating King's life, the holiday would commemorate and historicize an American movement - a human rights movement that would forever change the fabric of American culture.

In 1980, I was a girl of just ten years old, yet I was so deeply moved and immutably changed by this nationwide movement.  In retrospect, my school - Castle Heights Elementary in Culver City, CA - was extremely progressive for its time.  The school administration and faculty was a part of the movement, so that even before 1986 (the year that President Reagan finally signed the holiday into law), my school was already dedicating January 17th to a school-wide celebration and commemoration of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement.  Our Social Studies classes became discussions and lessons about King, the American Civil Rights movement, and comparative studies of Mohandas Gandhi and his movement to end Imperialism in India. I was a student of the philosophy of civil disobedience, and at ten years old, I became radicalized.

I was chosen that first year, 1980, to recite the "I Have a Dream" speech at the school-wide assembly for parents, faculty, and students.  As I invoked King, I felt so honored and so empowered.  I remembered thinking that no greater human being ever lived than he, and that I must have lived in the greatest country in the world - a country that would acknowledge the error of its dark past and usher in the light of freedom, justice, and equality.  I was proud to be Black, and I was proud to be an American.

Today, we must all pause and remember what this day truly means for all Americans, lest we sink into the mire of complacency and amnesia.  The King holiday is not simply an African American holiday.  King's Dream is the American Dream.  And thanks to King and the Movement, all Americans have access to the Dream.

January 02, 2011

The Big Chop New Year!

I did it! (again)  "The Big Chop", as we have come to know it, is a phenomenon in Black culture when African American women cut off their chemically straightened hair.  This is the third time I have done the "big chop."  Once in 1993 and once in 1999, I cut off my my chemically straightened hair.  This time, I cut off locked (dreadlocked) hair that I had been cultivating and growing for eight years.

Non-Black readers as well as Black ones may be asking:  why is this hair thing so important in the Black community?

The discourse about Black folks' hair is one that has less to do with hair and more to do with American identity.  Some will argue this point to infinitude, but there really is no way to account for the persistence of the Black hair issue permeating cultural discourse since the transatlantic slave trade without concluding that we are talking about far more than hair.

Every decade or so since the end of the Civil Rights movement when Black folks decided to embrace all things black (nappy hair and afros, black art, black literature, and afrocentrism as a whole), the issue of Black women's hair and its nappiness has surfaced.  As most of us know, the early twentieth-century sense of the term "nappy" refers to the frizziness or tightly coiled feature indicative of African hair patterns.  What most of us do not know or refuse to admit is that we tend to view the term "nappy" as yet another N word.  Remember Imus's "nappy-headed hoes" comment?  The American identity is predicated on social constructions of whiteness, as Toni Morrison, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., bell hooks, and countless other Black scholars have noted.  And as Morrison so famously states, "American means white, and everyone else has to hyphenate."  Well, yes, but what does this have to do with hair?

Embedded within the American identity is the American female identity.  And as many of us are already aware, in most patriarchal societies, women are valued for their "beauty" and their ability to bear children (preferably male children).  I placed quotations around the word "beauty" because here is where we get into trouble (at least we nappy-headed Black women).  If American means white, then American beauty means "white beauty."  Those in power get to define and decide.  And what is "white beauty"?  The white paradigm of beauty so pervades our society that it has become invisible.  In short, the white paradigm of beauty includes straight hair (usually long), white skin, narrow noses, light colored eyes, and thin bodies.  Until fairly recently, thin lips and flat butts were apart of this paradigm; however, pop-culture, specifically hip hop culture, has changed this (a few cool points for pop culture).

As we can see, nappy hair is the binary opposite of straight hair; therefore, it does not fit the white paradigm of beauty.  And if nappy is the binary opposite of straight (beauty), then nappy must be by default - ugly.  Many critics say that Black culture has its own standards of beauty outside of the mainstream (white) culture.  I say that Black culture is still a microcosm of mainstream culture (a sub-culture as it were).  As such, Blacks still continue to see themselves through white eyes.  Hence the insidious and persistent predilection in the Black community for hair straighteners, hair weaves, and extensions.  In fact, many Black men have rendered any Black woman invisible who does not have long straight (or straightish) hair.  Therefore, hair straighteners, hair weaves, and hair extensions remain at the top of the Black woman's shopping list between soap and toilet paper.

Of course, there are women who change wigs and weaves like they change shoes.  This is a woman who sees hair as a fashion accessory.  There's nothing pathological about that.  Hopefully, this analogy will add some clarity.  Most women wear make up.  However, the casual make up wearer is far different from the woman who sets her alarm at 5:00, rushes into the bathroom, puts on a full mask of make-up, and returns to bed before her husband awakes.

At any rate, I dropped out of this hair game on March 21, 1999 (the date I got my last hair relaxer).  It may sound pop-psychologyish, but I made the decision to love the "real" me - the Black me - the nappy-headed me, irrespective of what Black men thought.  However, there were many who thought the Black woman with the wild nappy hair was hot (I met and married my husband while wearing nappy hair).  And on June 2, 2002 I locked my nappy hair because I fell in love with locked hair.  At the time, this was not a popular choice.  In 2002, Lil Wayne and hip hop culture had yet to put their stamp on dreadlocks.  I have an entire post about demystifying locked hair.  In that post, I also explain my pain and pleasure about natural hair.  So I will not elaborate here.

Now, I have returned to my short nappy hair with great pleasure.  Just as I knew when it was time to lock my hair in 2002 after three years of growing, styling, and enjoying my natural hair, I knew when it was time to make a break with my locks.

I am not my hair, but my hair is me.