Marginal (aka: Cultural Nuances and Frustration )

I recently threw a birthday party for one of my kids. It was great fun – a house filled with the noisy, gleeful laughter of little boys, floating balloons made to look like owls, and a punch bowl of frothing, bubbling green “potion” to drink. And candy. Lots and lots of candy.

“Why didn’t you invite me?” one of my older sisters asked in a hurt tone.

I was stunned. “Invite you? But it was a children’s birthday party!”

Apparently, this is a thing in some families; a cultural expectation which eluded me, as cultural expectations often do. And so, I hurt the feelings of my sister by not inviting her to a birthday party full of candy and noisy kids whom she doesn’t even know. Just as I hurt the feelings of my mother by having my child send a lovely, written thank-you card instead of calling her on the telephone.

Black family culture churchYou see, that is what culture is. Many people think that it is about the big things – the language, the foods, and the music shared by a cultural group. But really, culture is a patchwork quilt of hundreds of tiny nuances that can translate into huge misunderstandings.

Sometimes, I am frustrated when people from other ethnic groups expect me to fit into some narrow mold which, in their minds, defines Black American culture. I am equally frustrated when people within my own family hold the same expectation. “But this is how black people think. This is what black people do,” they say.

individualism-vs-collectivismI just grit my teeth. I have never subscribed to the idea that, just because one’s ancestors originated from a particularly geographical location, one is obliged to identify with the subculture of that ethnic group. Of course, voicing such thoughts aloud among those of my family’s ethnic group has the tendency to spark wildfires.

It is not an easy thing when you only identify marginally with your family’s subculture. No matter how hard you try to be kind and accepting of their ideas, lifestyles, and worldview, the differences always separate you. My relatives see me as an outsider. A snob. “Whitewashed.”

I only see me as being who I am.

I wonder sometimes how my own culture diverged so much from my culture of origin.  Perhaps it was due to my constant diet of books from a very young age – the never-ending exposure to new ideas, and new ways of thinking. Through literature, I learned the history behind many of the customs and practices of various American ethnic subculture groups, including that of my family. And in learning the history, I also learned to evaluate the need to continue such a custom.

And maybe that is the problem. I have never been able to simply sit back and accept. There is always that urge to analyze, evaluate, and throw out that which seems unnecessary or unfruitful. Perhaps for most people who fit comfortably within the cultural norms of their family’s demographic group, that urge doesn’t exist. Or the volume is turned down low. In a way, I envy that. I imagine that with simple acceptance comes a certain sense of peace and safety among the herd. And a lot fewer misunderstandings.

But still, there are a few things which perhaps transcend cultural construct, such as consideration, tolerance, and family   . Regardless of how silly and pointless the expectations may appear to me, the fact is that I inadvertently hurt my family members’ feelings. And really, it would not take much to avoid such a thing in the future. Offer an invitation. Make a phone call instead of putting the sentiment in writing. I guess it is no different than in a business environment, where one cultural group creates stronger goodwill by respecting the other group’s foreign cultural practices. Bow instead of shaking hands. Avoid or make direct eye contact. Use formal or informal language.  cross-cultural-communication

Cultural nuances can be a tricky, tricky thing. Especially within a family, where emotions can be heightened and judgments can be sharp and punishing. But when it comes to maintaining relationships, one must practice tolerance and strive for common ground in order to construct those large bridges made up of “little things.”

practice tolerance quote

Beans and Cornbread (aka: Food for the Soul)

Soul Food

Sunday night is a trip to the south

Journey for the soul by way of the mouth

Come round!

Come round!

Have a steaming plate of collard greens

Crispy meat and simmered beans

Bowls of gumbo, fiery spice

Taste it – ain’t that nice?

Grandma’s cornbread, bless her soul

Come round hungry, leave here full.

Every now and then, my kids and I decide to go on a cultural food kick. We pick a type of cuisine – say French food, or Thai, or Chinese, and we research recipes and cook and sample all sorts of dishes. It is great fun, and we often end up adding a few new dishes to our usual repertoire. So this summer, I got a bright idea. “Hey kids…maybe we should try cooking some soul food.”

“Soul food?” asked my kids (who are, I should point out, half black American). “What’s soul food?”

Oops. Guess I accidentally left that out of their upbringing.

I’m not going to lie. I was never a fan of soul food. I mean, some of it is okay. I actually love simple dishes like beans and rice, cornbread, and sweet potato pie. But there are a few soul food dishes that even I haven’t worked up the courage to try; like chitlins (aka: chitterlings), for example. I’m just kind of thinking that there are some parts of the pig that maybe are okay to go to waste, you know?

So we went to work researching. We read about the history of soul food, which has its roots in the south, during the period of U.S. slavery. (“So soul food is poor peoples’ food?” asked my teen. “Well, technically it’s southern food,” I explained.). We called up a few relatives to get their input on the correct way to cook gumbo or collard greens, which apparently are supposed to be simmered with meat for several hours. I cheated and steamed ours in the microwave.

For my kids, the results were mixed. Thumbs up: Cornbread, hush puppies, fried fish, biscuits and gravy. Thumbs down: collard greens, red beans and rice, hot links, and grits.

“But the important thing is, did it feed your soul?” I asked, at the end of our culinary journey to the south.

Meh. My kids were indifferent. Apparently, it is pizza that feeds their souls, and not beans and cornbread. Oh well. Maybe our next culinary journey will be to Italy.

A Truly Phenomenal Woman (aka: The Poetry of Maya Angelou)

Maya Angelou African American poetMaya Angelou (1928—2014) was one of the most celebrated poets in American history. Her poems, filled with the universal light and darkness, hope and despair, triumphs and tragedies of the human spirit, are embraced by people around the globe. I first learned of Ms. Angelou, not through her poetry, but through her autobiographical series, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I came to “know” her as a young girl who suffered the unimaginable, but rose beyond the pain to become a truly phenomenal woman whose life and words were an inspiration to so many. Her poetry, which is often so honest and raw as to make me gasp aloud, is like a beacon of light to someone like me, and a reminder that one can fall, one can suffer, one can wallow through the worst pits of despair and darkness, but no matter how deep the pain, no matter how low the humiliation, the spirit of a person can overcome. The coldest heart can be restored to love. And we can learn to rise and live again.

Phenomenal Woman

By Maya Angelou (1928–2014)

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size

But when I start to tell them,

They think I’m telling lies.

I say,

It’s in the reach of my arms,

The span of my hips,

The stride of my step,

The curl of my lips.

I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

I walk into a room

Just as cool as you please,

And to a man,

The fellows stand or

Fall down on their knees.

Then they swarm around me,

A hive of honey bees.

I say,

It’s the fire in my eyes,

And the flash of my teeth,

The swing in my waist,

And the joy in my feet.

I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

 

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

Men themselves have wondered

What they see in me.

They try so much

But they can’t touch

My inner mystery.

When I try to show them,

They say they still can’t see.

I say,

It’s in the arch of my back,

The sun of my smile,

The ride of my breasts,

The grace of my style.

I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

Now you understand

Just why my head’s not bowed.

I don’t shout or jump about

Or have to talk real loud.

When you see me passing,

It ought to make you proud.

I say,

It’s in the click of my heels,

The bend of my hair,

the palm of my hand,

The need for my care.

’Cause I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

Our Grandmothers

By Maya Angelou (1928–2014)

She lay, skin down in the moist dirt,
the canebrake rustling
with the whispers of leaves, and
loud longing of hounds and
the ransack of hunters crackling the near
branches.
She muttered, lifting her head a nod toward
freedom,

I shall not, I shall not be moved.

She gathered her babies,
their tears slick as oil on black faces,
their young eyes canvassing mornings of madness.
Momma, is Master going to sell you
from us tomorrow?
Yes.
Unless you keep walking more
and talking less.
Yes.
Unless the keeper of our lives
releases me from all commandments.
Yes.
And your lives,
never mine to live,
will be executed upon the killing floor of
innocents.
Unless you match my heart and words,
saying with me,

I shall not be moved.

In Virginia tobacco fields,
leaning into the curve
of Steinway
pianos, along Arkansas roads,
in the red hills of Georgia,
into the palms of her chained hands, she
cried against calamity,
You have tried to destroy me
and though I perish daily,

I shall not be moved.

Her universe, often
summarized into one black body
falling finally from the tree to her feet,
made her cry each time into a new voice.
All my past hastens to defeat,
and strangers claim the glory of my love,
Iniquity has bound me to his bed.

yet, I must not be moved.

She heard the names,
swirling ribbons in the wind of history:
nigger, nigger bitch, heifer,
mammy, property, creature, ape, baboon,
whore, hot tail, thing, it.
She said, But my description cannot
fit your tongue, for
I have a certain way of being in this world,

and I shall not, I shall not be moved.

No angel stretched protecting wings
above the heads of her children,
fluttering and urging the winds of reason
into the confusions of their lives.
The sprouted like young weeds,
but she could not shield their growth
from the grinding blades of ignorance, nor
shape them into symbolic topiaries.
She sent them away,
underground, overland, in coaches and
shoeless.

When you learn, teach.
When you get, give.
As for me,

I shall not be moved.

She stood in midocean, seeking dry land.
She searched God’s face.
Assured,
she placed her fire of service
on the altar, and though
clothed in the finery of faith,
when she appeared at the temple door,
no sign welcomed
Black Grandmother, Enter here.
Into the crashing sound,
into wickedness, she cried,
No one, no, nor no one million
ones dare deny me God, I go forth
along, and stand as ten thousand.

The Divine upon my right
impels me to pull forever
at the latch on Freedom’s gate.

The Holy Spirit upon my left leads my
feet without ceasing into the camp of the
righteous and into the tents of the free.

These momma faces, lemon-yellow, plum-purple,
honey-brown, have grimaced and twisted
down a pyramid for years.
She is Sheba the Sojourner,
Harriet and Zora,
Mary Bethune and Angela,
Annie to Zenobia.

She stands
before the abortion clinic,
confounded by the lack of choices.
In the Welfare line,
reduced to the pity of handouts.
Ordained in the pulpit, shielded
by the mysteries.
In the operating room,
husbanding life.
In the choir loft,
holding God in her throat.
On lonely street corners,
hawking her body.
In the classroom, loving the
children to understanding.

Centered on the world’s stage,
she sings to her loves and beloveds,
to her foes and detractors:
However I am perceived and deceived,
however my ignorance and conceits,
lay aside your fears that I will be undone,

for I shall not be moved.

 

Dancing Around the Rink (aka: Black People Roller Skate)

black people skate In my family, like in many other Black families, at least when I was growing up, there were two things that every child was expected to learn without question: how to dance, and how to roller skate. Yes, roller skate. That’s what came from being born in the 1970s, during the height of disco roller-dancing in rinks across the nation. That’s also what came from having two teenaged big sisters who dragged us younger kids to the rink weekend after weekend. The roller rink, with its shiny, polished floor, flashing colored lights, and giant mural painted on the far wall, was almost like a second home. For years, my siblings, friends and I whizzed around to popular songs (including my all-time favorite skate song, Pour Some Sugar on Me). We watched in awe as the jamskaters danced around the circuit, boogying and bouncing and swaying their hips to the rhythm like the skates were just an extension of their bodies. We did wheelbarrow races and the Hokey Pokey and Shoot the Duck contests. Occasionally, the DJ would turn on a slow jam, which meant hand-in-hand skating for couples, and a Slurpee and popcorn break for us wallflowers.skating was part of my childhood

 

My own kids, by contrast, have rarely been to the roller rink. So a few days ago, thanks to some coupons and a surge of parental guilt, I decided to correct that mistake.

“But Mo-ooom!” whined my two youngest kids. “I don’t know how to roller skate!”

“Look,” I said, “You are half Black. And Black people skate. So you’re going.” Like my sisters before me, I dragged my kids to the rink and taught them how to lace up their skates. They hobbled after me to the floor, where I pretty much wished them good luck and whizzed off. My two oldest kids quickly remembered their skills and were soon coasting around the floor with me, having fun. My 9yo, however, turned out to be a wall-hugger, barely budging from his spot. He refused to let me guide him around until at last, I transformed into Meanie Mom and threatened to take away his computer game time for the rest of the day if he didn’t spend the next hour trying to skate. I know, I know – probably not a move that would win me Mommy of the Year Award. But hey – it worked. And by the end of our skate session, he was edging forward without clutching the wall. Reluctant Skater

For the most part, though, we all had a terrific time. And I was so surprised by how little the rink has changed over the years, from the flashing lights to the mural to the music. Of course, now they are playing One Direction instead of Def Leppard, but still. My only complaint was that I had to really work to control my speed with so many little kids on the floor. Once, I actually managed to run over a little boy who cut in front of me. Eek! Luckily, he wasn’t injured. Perhaps one day soon, I will venture out to one of the adult-only skate nights, which are filled with other people like me who remember those early days of disco skate and jamskating, and who still dance their way around the circuit, bouncing and swaying to the music. roller disco

 

What’s in a Name? (aka: African-American Naming Conventions)

A relative of mine recently announced the birth of her daughter. The baby’s name? Kalayshia. That’s Kuh-LAY-zhah. Rhymes with Malaysia. Now I know what you’re thinking, because I thought the same things. Why is there an H? Does it mean anything? Can I call her Kallie? Why can’t you give your baby a nice, “normal” name, like Sophia or Emily, so that she can succeed in life? That’s what you’re thinking, because that’s what everyone wants to ask, but of course, out of respect for the new mother, and perhaps out of fear of being labeled culturally insensitive or racist, most people just smile and say, “Oh. That’s a nice name.” You Named Her What

It’s the right thing to say. But still, the questions are there. Many non-black people are perplexed by the naming traditions of many black Americans. To be fair, there are quite a few black Americans who are puzzled by recent trends of unconventional naming, too. For decades after the abolition of slavery in the U.S., black families often gave their children traditional names like Mary, John, Richard, or Katherine; names inspired by the mainstream culture, family heritage, or the Bible. Around the early 1970’s, the civil rights movement and the rise of Afrocentrism and ethnic pride resulted in a shift toward African or African-inspired names for black children, such as Keisha, Aliyah, Khalil, and Malik. As more parents caught on to the trend and embraced the idea of expressing their cultural pride through the naming of their children, more unique names began to emerge. Parents strove to create interesting names that sounded pleasing to the ear, often by taking African, English, or French names and adding their own twists.

Today, it is not unusual to see black children with less conventional names, such as Shyreese, Jayvon, Ki’ani, or Marquel. At times, the attempts to be unique seem a little overboard, with such inventive spelling and phonetic rules that it is not easy for others to pronounce the child’s name. For example, I once met a child named Dyonjena (Pronounced Dee-ahn-gen-AY). And while I applaud these parents’ efforts to embrace the black subculture and give their children unique names, a part of me cringes. I cringe in part because of the at times outlandish spelling and the stray from phonetic rules — what may seem unique and pleasing to the ear of the parents may be seen as uneducated and laughable to the rest of society. I also cringe in part because of the research indicating that people with more African-American sounding names are less likely to be hired than people with more mainstream names. I cringe, because as if we black Americans did not already have such a strong current to swim against (the standard of beauty, the culture of poverty, mainstream language barriers), we still insist on giving our children something that may give them an additional disadvantage — an additional barrier to future success. Successful Black Woman

Perhaps I cringe for nothing. Perhaps eventually, society will fully embrace the unique naming patterns of African Americans (as well as other ethnic subcultures with non-mainstream names). Perhaps the key is not to shrug our shoulders assimilate, but to boldly push forward and force the mainstream culture to include us — kinky hair, inventive names, and all. It only took a generation of Marys, Johns, Martins, and Rubys to change the culture and end an era of legal discrimination and separation. Perhaps it will take a generation of Shyreeses, Dyonjenas, and Kalayshias to force open the remaining closed doors.

President Barack Obama success

Can Black Americans with unusual names become successful? Maybe we should ask Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, or Condoleeza Rice.

No Black Brady Bunch (aka: Evolution of Black Family Sitcoms in the 80s)

Diff'rent Strokes sitcom 1978-1986

The only affluent black kids on TV in the early 1980s were the ones rescued from the ghetto by wealthy white people.

Quick! Can you name that black kid from that sitcom around the 70’s and 80’s? No, not the tall skinny ghetto kid who went, “Dy-no-miiiite!” No, not the short, black kid adopted by the rich white family, who always said, “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” No, not the other short, black kid adopted by a white family, either. Come on – who was the good-looking black teen boy from the nice, intact family who lived in an affluent neighborhood? Still don’t know?

Silver Spoons mansion

White kids on TV sitcoms in the early 80s were often privileged and affluent.

It is far easier to name white, affluent teens from the same era of television: Mike Seaver, from Growing Pains; Alex Keaton from Family Ties; Ricky Stratton from Silver Spoons; and, of course, all six Brady kids. Like many black kids across the USA, I grew up watching shows such as these, starring these happy, smiling white families with clean, sparkly homes. Their almost-perfect lives were only occasionally marred by white people problems such as teen pimples, first boyfriends, and naughty little sisters who steal your favorite sweater. By the end of each episode, their problems were wrapped up in some simple, cheesy, happily-ever-after way.

In contrast, most of the kids in the predominantly Black television shows lived in run-down homes in the ghetto. Well, with the exception of Webster, and Willis and Arnold, who were rescued from ghetto life by kind, wealthy white folks (Whatcu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?). Black kids from these shows didn’t care about pimples – they were often too busy trying to help their parents find a way to make the rent that month. The themes were heavy by comparison, as black characters dealt with topics such as venereal diseases, sexual abuse, and wrongful accusations of shoplifting. By the end of each episode, these problems were both solved and unsolved, often leaving deep questions hanging in the air for the viewer to ponder.

And I don’t know – maybe I even learned something about social justice and black culture by watching those predominantly black shows. But mostly, I remember feeling a sense of shame, even at a very young age, that the people on the screen who looked the most like me came from such dreadful circumstances. Where was the Black Brady Bunch, with happy smiling kids and nice, educated parents who helped them solve their problems?

The Huxtables

The Cosby Show was like a breath of fresh air for black and white families alike.

Well thank goodness, when I was nine years old, Bill Cosby changed America’s perception of the Black TV sitcom family. At last, we had a family to represent us on-screen who neither lived in the ghetto, nor was “movin’ on up” out of a ghetto. The Huxtables were a respectable and affluent black family with five children. The mother, Clair, was a hard-working and successful lawyer, while the father, Cliff, was an obstetrician with his own private practice.  The Cosby Show dealt with both the lighthearted and the more serious issues of family life with intelligence, sensitivity, and humor. Not only Black families crowded around their televisions to tune in, as it quickly became the most successful television sitcom of the 1980’s.

Rosanne Family

After the Cosby Show’s wild success, new sitcom families, such as the Conners from Roseanne, began to represent a wider variety of American families

The Cosby Show signified a change in American family sitcoms. Not only was there a wider variety of shows featuring black families, but there was also an increase in the number of blue-collar, not-so-sparkly white family shows, such as Roseanne, which became the number one sitcom in the country from 1989 to 1990, and dealt with heavier topics than most white family sitcoms had tackled in the past. Just as many Black families cheered with the arrival of the The Cosby Show, many white families also cheered at the arrival of a family who perhaps better represented them, too. At last, American television  was veering away from the archetypes that had ruled the airwaves for so many years, and opening the door to diverse families and new ideas. And to that, I just have say, “Dy-no-miiite!”

(How’s that for a cheesy ending?)

My Zodiac Playlist

12 Signs of the Zodiac People in my extended family take astrology very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that I remember being punished as a child for being too noisy while the daily horoscopes were being read on the radio. Many of my relatives, including my mother and sisters, believe that there exists a very real and powerful connection between the alignment of the stars and occurrences in the real world. They also believe that the time of year in which a person is born affects that person’s personality and character.

“Oh how sweet – a little Sagittarius! They are so much fun!” my sisters cooed when one of my sons was born near December. And then, “Uh-oh, look out! Cancer babies are moody,” they warned when my third child was born one July. I just rolled my eyes. Really, even though my Sagittarius son is actually the happy-go-lucky playful type, and even if my little Cancer is the moody male version of a drama queen, I still think that star signs and horoscopes are a bunch of superstitious hooey.

“That’s because you’re a Virgo,” my mother and siblings tell me whenever I dismiss the zodiac as ridiculous pseudoscience.

Is it?

Apparently we Virgos like fields of wheat, because we are so natural and earthy.

Apparently we Virgos like fields of wheat, because we are so natural and earthy.

Well, according to the internet, Virgos are critical, fussy, down-to-earth, sensible, reasonable, practical, analytical, creative, distant, nature-lovers, aloof, shy, intelligent, prudish, earthy, perfectionists, organized, imaginative, insightful, and shrewd. See? That doesn’t describe me at all. Okay fine – it describes me to a tee (except, perhaps, for the organized part). But still, I find the whole thing silly, especially when people feel compelled to check their horoscopes before making decisions about who to love or where to go or whether to leave the house that day.

Maybe I am not being very kind, looking down on the beliefs of my extended family, and of so many people around the world. This is something that I have observed: people just need something to believe in. Whether they turn their beliefs toward God, toward humanity, or toward the alignment of the stars, I suppose it is not up to me to judge them for that faith, no matter how unbelievable I may find it. Isn’t that so Virgo of me?

virgo14

My Zodiac Playlist

Capricorn (Dec 22 – Jan 19) Money (Pink Floyd)

Aquarius  (January 20 – Feb 18) – Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine in (Hair by James Rado & Gerome Ragni)

Pisces (Feb 19 – March 20) – The Joker (Steve Miller Band)

Aries (March 21 – April 19) – We Are Young (Fun. ft. Janelle Moráe)

Taurus (April 20 – May 20) – Our House (Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young)

Gemini (May 21 – June 20) – I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (U2)

Cancer (June 21 – July 20) – Bitch (Meredith Brooks)

Leo (July 23 – Aug 22) – All Star (Smash Mouth)

Virgo (August 23 – Sept. 22) Down to Earth (Peter Gabriel)

Libra (Sept 23 – Oct. 22) Peaceful Easy Feeling (The Eagles)

Scorpio (Oct 23 – Nov 21) Superman (It’s Not Easy) – (Five for Fighting)

Sagittarius (Nov 22 – Dec  21) Pocketful of Sunshine (Natasha Bedingfield)

Good Hair? (Nature vs. Beauty Among Black Women)

“I hate my hair,” my 11 year-old daughter says, frowning at her reflection in the mirror. “I wish my hair were longer/straighter/lighter/less frizzy.” I am stunned whenever she complains. My daughter’s hair is a shiny, chestnut-brown mass of bouncy, shoulder-length curls. A little water and a squirt of styling mousse, and her hair is absolutely gorgeous. I am crazy about her hair. How in the world can she not like it? She has such good hair.

My daughter's hair

My daughter’s hair

“I hate my hair,” I have always said, frowning at my own reflection in the mirror. “I wish it were longer/less curly/thicker/prettier.”

My mother and sisters were always stunned when I said this. “But you have such pretty natural curls,” they told me. “You have good hair.”

Good hair. It is perhaps the most emotionally charged and difficult issue for many African Americans; especially girls and women. What is “Good Hair?” It means tresses that are long, straight, light, shiny, bouncy, or wavy. It means hair that you can wash and go without spending much time and energy styling it to look nice. It means hair that swings from side to side when you walk, hair that you can flip over your shoulder, hair that you can slide your fingers through. It means not short, not kinky, not nappy or frizzy or poofy. Good hair means not African hair.

“You need to get that boy’s haircut,” one of my family members told me recently when I allowed my youngest son to let his thick, curly hair grow out for several months.“I am trying to give him the freedom to wear his hair how he likes it,” I said. “He wants big, poofy curls.”“He looks ridiculous,” said another relative. “It looks low-class when he wears his hair like that.” (Yesterday, I finally caved in and took my son to the barber shop. He was not a happy camper).

“You need to get that boy’s haircut,” one of my family members told me recently when I allowed my youngest son to let his thick, curly hair grow out for several months.
“I am trying to give him the freedom to wear his hair how he likes it,” I said. “He wants big, poofy curls.”
“He looks ridiculous,” said another relative. “It looks low-class when he wears his hair like that.” (Yesterday, I finally caved in and took my son to the barber shop. He was not a happy camper).

From an outsider’s perspective, it may be difficult to fully understand the depth of the struggles Black people have with hair. The pressure to conform to a particular standard of beauty has existed within the Black community since the days of slavery. There are external pressures to conform in order to obtain employment, to find a mate, or to fit in socially. There are internal pressures to conform in order to please or represent one’s family in an acceptable manner.

Many Black women spend hundreds of dollars each year in order to obtain what they consider to be good hair, although it often involves harsh chemical relaxers or costly hair weaves. Many feel that it is worth it, in order to have hair that is socially accepted, easy to manage, and makes them feel beautiful.

I have never turned to chemical straighteners to style my hair (unless you count one unfortunate Jheri Curl in the fall of 1988, which was a complete waste of money, since my own natural curls already resemble that once-popular hairstyle). However, at the age of 37, I still do not know how to style my own hair well. Since I prefer to be natural, I usually switch back and forth between wearing it curly and straightening it with a flat iron. Black women say that I have “Good hair.” But compared to other Black women, who usually choose the more expensive, non-natural methods, my hair usually looks messy, thin, and boring. Last summer, I nearly did not attend my 20-yr. high school reunion, because I could not figure out what to do with my hair and was in desperate tears before the mirror. When I finally gave up, shoved my so-called good hair into a messy ponytail, and attended the event, all of the other black women had intricate, fancy, beautiful hairstyles which I could never hope to do with my natural hair.

Good hair. Is it good because of the texture, the length, the color? Is it good because of how closely it resembles the current beauty trends of the mainstream culture? Is it good because it helps us to get the right job, or the right mate, or the right friends? Is it good because our families or communities tell us that it is good? Is it bad for the same reasons? How do we keep our children from internalizing the same sense of self-hatred for their natural beauty? How do I teach my own daughter to love her beautiful hair when I myself carry such negative feelings toward my own hair? It is such a tangled issue (pardon the pun), with such a web of deep emotions for many women of African heritage.

I leave you with this video clip from an episode of the Tyra Banks Show, in which she interviews mothers and their young daughters about their hair and issues they face. The responses from the little girls made me cry. The harmful self-images and which are so deeply set by the time we are adults begin so early in our lives. Will there ever come a day when the beauty of Black women will be as accepted and embraced as the beauty of women from other parts of the globe? For the sake of my daughter, and many other little girls who worry that their hair is not “good,” I certainly hope so.

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After years of thinking my natural curls were “bad,” I am trying to embrace them by going curly at least a few days each month. I no longer think they look terrible, but I would like it a lot better if they were much longer. I still hate having short hair. 😦

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I Do Not Celebrate Kwanzaa! (And Neither Does Anyone Else)

Kwanzaa Candles “Happy Kwanzaa,” a white cashier greeted me as I was returning unwanted Christmas gifts last year.

I couldn’t help it. I scowled at her. “Um…I don’t celebrate Kwanzaa.” The cashier muttered an embarrassed apology and quickly finished my transaction. I felt bad for ruining her multicultural moment, her chance to display her tolerance and understanding of my culture. But the thing is, Kwanzaa is most certainly not a part of my culture. I do not celebrate Kwanzaa, and neither does anyone else.

Well okay, fine, I’m sure that somewhere in this country, someone actually celebrates Kwanzaa. Though there are no official statistics to indicate how many people actually embrace the holiday, I am reasonably certain that at least a few families out there are lighting the candles of their kinaras, dressing in African clothing, and eating whichever foods symbolize the holiday for them. But here’s the deal – although I am Black, and have numerous Black relatives, I do not know a single person who observes Kwanzaa. Not one.

“That’s a racist holiday,” one of my sisters remarked long ago when I asked her why no one in our family celebrates. It’s true. It doesn’t take much research to figure that out. Kwanzaa was invented in the turbulent, racially-charged 1960s by Maurana Ron Kulanga, a black separatist (who was, at the time, sitting in prison for brutally torturing two women). He created Kwanzaa as an alternative to the “White” holiday, Christmas. “…Kwanzaa is not an imitation, but an alternative, in fact, and oppositional alternative to the spookism, mysticism and non-earth based practices which plague us as a people . . . ” (pg 14, Kwanzaa: origin, concepts, practice. 1977). Kwanzaa was intended to be a separatist, secular holiday in which Black people can celebrate being black. Is that racist? Well let’s see…if an imprisoned  Neo-nazi leader were to create a holiday just for white people in order to celebrate being white, and to shun the cultural and religious practices of non-whites, would we consider such a holiday to be racist?What the Hell

I say yes.

Two years ago, when my youngest child brought home a Kwanzaa kinara craft from school, I considered making a complaint to his teacher. It bothers me intensely that children are being taught to accept Kwanzaa as the “African American winter holiday,” as though it is a normal, widespread part of Black American history and tradition. Well, it is not. Many of us see no need to celebrate a so-called harvest festival in the middle of winter. Many of us see no need to symbolize our heritage with corn, a Kwanzaa “First Fruits” tradition. (Corn is not even an indigenous crop to Africa, but was brought over from the New World by white people. Ironic, isn’t it?). Many of us see no need to embrace the Swahili language, which most likely was not even spoken by our ancestors, who were ripped away from West Africa and probably spoke Yoruba or Fula or something. And I personally feel insulted that anyone would assume that, because of my ethnic heritage, I would choose to celebrate such a separatist, radical holiday created by a violent criminal.

Okay, enough ranting for now. Just keep this in mind: most Black Americans do NOT observe Kwanzaa. In fact, most of us just wish it would curl up and disappear. Yes, there are a few people who see it as important, just as there are probably a few people who were happily airing their grievances and showing their feats of strength in honor of Festivus. But seriously…unless a black person walks into your store after Christmas wearing kente cloth to purchase a kinara, please do not wish us a Happy Kwanzaa. Not sure what to say? Try “Happy New Year.” It’s pretty-much non-offensive.