Tag Archives: hair

Claressa Explains It All

24 Aug

Claressa Shields wins Gold as the ref holds up her hand in victory!

I’ve always been ambivalent and maybe even a little skittish about sports. They seem violent and remind me of The Hunger Games, particularly with the amount of POC presence and the injuries athletes incur. I wasn’t invested in the Olympics until my tumblr friends started pointing out the racism, sexism and nationalism in NBC’s coverage and Cruntastic’s two pieces about the ill treatment of Gabby Douglas.

Now the games are over and Gabby’s on a cereal box, a mural in VA beach and has appearances on fancy shows. I’m super excited for her but as I got caught up in the Olympic fever, there were other athletes who I want to see on TV. In particular, I wonder why there hasn’t been the same level of love and adoration for Claressa Shields.

Her story is ultra compelling, a hard knock life, a survivor, just 17 and she’d only been defeated once in her entire boxing career before the Olympics! She won gold, defeating someone much older than her! She even got in trouble for repeatedly sticking her tongue out at her opponents (na na, na na na). In her own words, “she’s bad!” But how come Claressa can’t be in the spotlight with or like Gabby?

First, Gabby and Claressa’s sports are different. Gymnastics is elite and elegant. It’s appropriately feminine too. People have a different idea about boxing, and women’s boxing at that. Claressa is already de-feminized by the sport she plays. The way that the sports are classed also maps on to the way both Gabby and Claressa speak. Claressa’s Flint inflects her every word.

For all the talk of Gabby’s hair, Claressa’s showed the wear of the work she put into getting her gold. Gabby can be a black girl hero, someone to aspire to, someone whose hair matters in sub plots of black respectability and heteronormative desirability. Claressa gets a pat on the head and a good job. She’s not a credit to the race or gender, not someone we want our daughters to look up to and emulate.

No shade to Gabby, but damn it, Claressa is my hero. She don’t take no stuff and chose boxing because she was tired of people seeing black girls as an easy target. Everyone knows a good defense starts with a good offense and she’s got a killer left-handed jab (I know, I’m mixing sports metaphors). Claressa’s prowess can not be understated. Her physical, mental and emotional commitment to her sport have inspired me and have me looking for boxing gyms in my area. Who’s with me?

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.

Beauty Parlor Politics

7 May

The first time I “got my hair done” beyond school nights sitting between my mother’s cocoa butter legs while she combed through my hair with grease soaked fingertips, or  Saturday morning hot comb rituals in front of the stove, was in the house kitchen of a church lady who did hair on the side.  She was not professionally trained or licensed but her clientele graced her threshold every other Saturday and she worked from sun up ‘til sundown, frying, dying, twisting and curling our hair into beautiful masterpieces on our head.  I felt grown up and welcome when I “got my hair done.”  The sweet smelling shampoo and used utensils made me feel special and grown up, I felt like one of the girls which was all I had ever wanted.

Women of all sizes, colors, backgrounds and religions gathered together at the salon, waiting patiently, all day if needbe, for their two week fix.  In between appointments they would talk in hushed tones, cross their legs, flip through black hair magazines and shoot the breeze.  It was the only time in my childhood when I was not banished from the room full of grown folk talk. The all-woman space, smelling like Jean Naté and scorched hair, made me feel empowered.  It was nothing for women to share secrets, give advice, get into friendly debates, laugh, and listen to each other while offering a bite from their plate or a drag of a cigarette while we all sat around, watching the transformations from new growth to relaxer, split ends to goddess braids, or bald spots to hair pieces.  “At the shop” we were sisters, even when we were strangers, because being without a done ‘do was like being naked in public.  But between our sing alongs and gossip, no one noticed.  The salon was a meeting place, the great equalizer—like church, but without the judgment.

It was a place where you would hear “girrrrrrrrrrrrrl” and “honey chile” between sweet smiles and heartfelt compliments.  “Girrrrrrrrrrrrrrrl, you’re so pretty,” or “Honey chile, your hair sho’ look good like that.”  These (unsolicited compliments from one black woman to another) were things you would rarely hear between black woman strangers out in public.  But in the salon we saw each other as beautiful and said so—out loud and proud like.  I think that was part of what drew me to it, and still does.  For me, hair salons are not places for competition between women, but rather bonding.  Salons have, over the course of my life, served as safe spaces for talking through everything from heartache to home remedies, recipes to religion.  It is a safe space for social critique and casual conversation, a place where women gather together in one place unseparated by their difference (i.e., education, class, orientation, ability, age, relationship status, religion, etc.).  These public-private spaces, almost exclusively occupied by black folk (this is equally true for barber shops) transform strangers to sister-girls, if only for a few hours, every two weeks.

So imagine my surprise when I realized, after a recent visit to the hair salon, that upon my exit I was verbally assaulted by another black woman.  A black woman who I did not know and who did not know me, and whose shared presence in the room may have lasted all of five minutes.  If I noticed her I would have smiled, because that is what I do to every black woman I see in the salon, but I didn’t notice her, but evidently she noticed me.  In the brief time period that we shared space she walked in on an ongoing conversation I was having with another black woman in the salon.  Granted, I do not remember what we were talking about, but I routinely initiate and/or participate in provocative hot topic discussions in the salon. The stylists and I, along with various other patrons ranging in age from mid-twenties to mid-seventies, have shared laughs and wisdom about topics ranging from politics and sex to interracial relationships and popular culture.  While I don’t remember the specifics of the conversation I know two things for sure about any and everything that I ever say publicly: 1) it was truthful (at least my truth); and 2) it was not (intentionally) offensive (I am very intentional with my words, and mindful of correcting myself, immediately, if I feel I have spoken out of turn, or inappropriately).  I am also a communication professor who has had years of training in public and professional speaking so I imagine that despite codeswitching and my country drawl (which comes out when I am especially comfortable) I am easily outted as an academician.

I was warned, when I returned to the salon a few weeks ago, that this unnamed black woman (who I had never seen before) had announced her intention to “get me in trouble” on my job for the things I said in the salon.  Her assertion was, in addition to being ludicrous, absolutely inaccurate.  What, I wonder, could I have said in the hair salon that would warrant some kind of reprimand at work (especially when I work at a public institution where I study, research and teach on taboo topics, and as an auto/ethnographer, part of my job is to write about and critique social encounters)?  My stylist was apologetic and concerned as she explained what happened.  I was grateful to know that in my absence, the beautiful black women with whom I spoke stood up for me and defended my right to say whatever I wanted to say.  I assured her, with a full heart of gratitude (that these women are indeed my friends, and have my back when I am absent) that my job was not in jeopardy, and that any clout that this person pretended to have could not affect me.  Still, I was bothered, albeit temporarily, by the audacity and nerve, and even the seeming need, for this woman to try to reduce me, an educated, progressive, empathic and down-to-earth black woman to the status of a child who can be chastised into conservatism or at the very least punished (hence, getting me in trouble) for having an opinion (or look or voice or intellect, etc.) that she may have found distasteful.  She disrupted my narrative of support and jeopardized the ethic of care I had come to expect (and need) in the hair salon.

Unfortunately, I have had dozens of such experiences with black women in my lifetime, and most especially in my professional life.  I have had black women roll their eyes at me, disconfirm and ignore me, refer to me as “that girl,” or “that bitch,” and stare at me without speaking.  When I first moved to Alabama a black woman professor who sat across from me at a welcome dinner refused to even shake my hand.  Many of these slights occur with perfect strangers who, like the unnamed black woman at the salon, decide, immediately that I am _______. (I don’t know what the blank represents, perhaps different things to different people).

I have learned, though, that in small towns, like the one I live in currently (and the one I grew up in) I relish in the precious moments I have in the beauty salon being around and among beautiful black women who just let me be.  There is no jealousy or competition, no nuance of attitude and resentment, just us having magic blackgirl moments and seeing each other beautiful.  And smart.  And glorious.  And enough.  It is one of the few places/spaces where I feel at home with my non-academic-no makeup-thick glasses wearing–no need to be politically correct- hair all over my head-chipped toenail polish-wearing yesterday’s clothes and flip flops- self.  A space where I can bounce ideas off of other women and ask them about their experiences compared to mine. A space where I fit in without trying.  A place where instead of feeling ganged up on, I feel supported and understood.

In two weeks I will gather together the money I put aside to pamper myself and make my way back to the salon.  When I open the door I will be greeted with the warmth and welcome that radiates from the women who are there and who are not looking to judge or scold, but to listen, be heard, and to just be.  There is no guarantee that there will not be another interloper who resents my presence or my hair style, but I refuse to give up the very necessary experience.  It’s blackwomanlove at it’s finest!

‘Dos and Don’ts

5 Mar

The summer of 2000 I went to my hairdresser and said, “I want you to cut all of this off,” pointing emphatically to my badly-damaged permed hair.  She asked me if I was sure and I told her I was–and off went four or five inches of angst onto her linoleum floor. What was left was less than an inch of cottony soft dark brown hair.

I was both relieved and scared. I didn’t even remember what my natural hair looked like and I’d never had my hair cut so short. That very day I went to the mall and bought a whole bunch of big hoop earrings so that I “wouldn’t look like a man or a lesbian,” as my mother suggested I would and as I secretly feared. Oh, the internalized patriarchy.

It didn’t take long, though, for me to enjoy waking up every day and looking cute, taking just a few minutes to get ready, and generally having healthy hair. The stylistic change also helped to bolster my already burgeoning crunkness around gender representation. After I got my mind (and my hair) right, I never looked back.

So, when I saw Viola Davis rocking a natural ‘do on the red carpet at the Oscars’ last week, I thought, “She looks great. And she’s working that dress out.” Now, I was still giving her the side eye about The Help and her conversation with Tavis Smiley, but I hoped the sister would get an Academy Award for her trouble.

 I was also pleasantly, but warily, surprised at the generally positive review of her ‘do in the mainstream media. Giuliana Rancic over on E! News positively gushed about Davis’ hair and I read more than a few articles praising Davis’ “bravery” for wearing her natural hair. Now, I know better than to think that the status quo regarding “good hair” had been changed overnight or anything, but I did appreciate the seemingly expanded range of what is being discussed as “beautiful.” That being said, it’s a hot mess when someone is considered brave for wearing their hair pretty much as it grows out of their head.

There’s always a hater though, isn’t there? So, after all of this gushing, television personality and self-declared wig connoisseur Wendy Williams went on record saying that Viola Davis’ look was not formal enough, in addition to some other disparaging remarks.

Really, Wendy?

Now, ain’t nobody really studying Wendy like that and I’m pretty sure Viola Davis isn’t crying into her soup about this either. However, just thinking about all the crap women of color, and black women in particular, get about our hair, Wendy gets the supreme side eye for this. The thing is, all that Wendy has said is what you hear in barber shops, beauty salons, and on the streets.  Her ill-informed opinion is, all too often, not the exception, but the rule.

When I googled "Viola Davis hair" this medley of wigged out hairstyles appeared under the label "Viola's Best Hair." I'm sort of digging numbers 2 and 9.

And before the chorus of “It’s just hair!” rings out, as Britni Danielle over at Clutch recently suggested, “For centuries, our bodies, our hair, and our being have been up for public discussion and display and we cannot deny the fact that sometimes hair is political.” Let’s not get it twisted.

Between the weather running amok, Republicans trying to get all up in folks’ vaginas, and other general shamtastery, we have big fish to fry. Still, that is not to say that the politics around hair don’t matter or can’t hurt. I know I’ve seen the pendulum swing in the other direction, with folks with naturals questioning the politics of progressive folk with straightened or chemically relaxed hair, wigs, and weaves.  Really? Does the revolution have a dress code? At the end of the day, the choices around hair and representations of feminine beauty are complicated–indeed, as complicated as the folks who rock the hairstyles. If we could remember that, along with remembering that folks just want respect, we can help shift the conversations at beauty salons, among our friends, and in our families. So, with the abundance of foolishness going on I just want to send out some love to sistas rocking wigs, weaves, blow outs, tiny afros, kinky twists, locs, baldies, and any other manifestation of crowning glory. With so much surveillance over bodies (and our minds), seemingly simple acts like confidently rocking a fro or skipping down the street in a lacefront take on all types of social significance.  I’m not suggesting that we forget that, but I am saying ‘do you, boo.


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