Tag Archives: Athletics

take a load off family: black women, hair and the olympic stage

7 Aug

The author on the move in Harlem.

I am no athlete. I have not won an individual sports competition since maybe the second grade. I recall Usaining all comers in the 40-yard dash but, as Kasi Lemmons learned us, “memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others indelibly imprinted on the brain” and I might have photoshopped that one.

My middle school basketball team dominated the Seattle Catholic Youth Organization league but that was due to the AAU players on my team: Megan, petite with Chris Paul’s smarts and speed; and June, a Russell Westbrook-esque scorer.

With high school came the freshman basketball team, aka junior varsity cuts. Public school competition and talent defections resulted in us losing every game of the season. Each timeout we, headstrong and skill-poor, loudly militated against the directives of our sweet coach Leo. My dad, a brief overseas basketball pro and former international basketball coach, spent most of my games in laughter and, quite possibly, shame on the loftiest bleacher next to his rugged white bud who my older sister and I affectionately called Mountain Mike. The other Mike, a black Chicagoan, was my dad’s barefoot running friend.

These days, I too am something of a minimalist runner. I have been marathon training since my birthday two years ago and my lightweight racing flats have propelled me to eight and half minute splits on 30 plus miles a week although if 702 shuffles into rotation, I can break seven minutes. Of course, this feeble athleticism does not compare to the kinesthetic genius we are witnessing at the London 2012 Olympiad, particularly in track & field, which commenced Friday, and showcases athletes of the African diaspora. This heightened visibility has called my attention to the hairstyle choices of black women competitors. I know full well that the firestorm that has surrounded teen Gold-medal gymnast Gabby Douglas’ hair makes this a sore subject but know that my distress is rooted in love. I’m confused as to how heat-retaining, scalp-suffocating and often weighty weaves lend themselves to peak performance.

My thick hair is hot on a warm day, let alone during a workout, and I can’t imagine sewing in more. I’ve never worn a weave, nor do I desire to, and, excepting about three years of my life, my hair has been relaxer-free. As a result, I have been able to vigorously c-walk (s/o Serena) to my heart’s content with little concern for root reversion. Madame C.J. Walker does occasionally call and on those occasions, I can’t front, I abstain from exertion for a week. You know how it is.

Beyond my skepticism about the practicality of a skull saddled with multiple packages of Indian Remy in elite competition (and a testament to our excellence is that we still slay), I am concerned about the witness it offers of our esteem, the invidiousness of European beauty standards and the message our adaptations to them send young black girls interested in sport. I am saddened that so many of us equate looking our best with extension-assisted styles. Must we weave, wig, braid in extensions before we hit the pitch, track, mat, slough? I don’t buy that the ubiquity of yaki is about convenience. Show me the receipts. Only thing that accounts for our epidemic edge-sacrifice is history. We been making our way up the rough side of the mountain since the middle passage. Let’s have an honest conversation about what we do not because the world is watching but because we are, would-be Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryces and Sanya Richards Rosses. I’m not proposing a ban on sew-ins but having a conversation about our wholescale investment in them even in the most illogical of circumstances.

Tomorrow I’ll greet the sun with my pillow-dented ‘fro. If I’m feeling vain, I’ll spray bottle my hair with water to define the curl, but most mornings I’m not about that life. I’m about the thrill of coming on the Hudson from my Harlem home, arms pumping, legs kicking, neon lime kicks pounding the pavement to the sounds of Lloyd, Azealia Banks and yes, 702. Sweat beads on my scalp and dots my forehead. It feels good to go hard. The wind blowing through my hair feels even better and, as a bonus, gives lionesque body. By mile five, it’s right voluminous.

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