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Today is a day off from the A to Z Challenge. Too bad, as I’m chock full of “T” things to pile into this day: Tardy, Time, Tired, Training, Testing, Truth-telling …

Instead, today I’ll reflect on another challenge, the #52essays2017 challenge. I’m still determined to write 52 essays this year, despite being well off the essay-a-week goal. I have several sizable drafts waiting for completion, but my brain just can’t quite seem to get there. Yes, part of that is the fact that I haven’t given myself much time to sit with any of those drafts and work. Part of it is also that I wonder if their moments have passed, if they are too specific to events that are no longer current.

On my way home from a workshop today, I thought about a couple of those unfinished essays in particular. The one I started to write in response to some of the casually violent and oppressive comments I heard and read from people after the women’s march in January. The one about what I really mean when I keep telling white folks they need to come get their people. Thinking about these and the other unfinished pieces, I could feel the stubborn, obnoxious me fussing, saying I should just finish and publish them, even if their subjects feel out of date. I did throw the Dolezal piece up, after all, why not these. And I kind of, maybe, sorta agree?

I need to think about it a bit more. I had some good anger in there. I hate to see it wasted, cast off to the Island of Misfit Blogposts.

__________

Meanwhile, today’s chōka — inspired by a moment on the A train this afternoon, a moment I have had so many times in my life, but especially since I started wearing my hair natural … which was in 1989, so we’re talking a ridiculously long time and people should know better by now.

What My Hair Says

Did you see me? I
look like a goddess today
… at least, my hair does.
Today I have hair
that makes strangers’ hands reach out
as their eyes light up
and they ask, “Can I touch it?”
Today my hair says,
“Get the fuck away from me,”
as I duck my head,
bob and weave, avoid contact.
Woman on the A
looked offended when I moved,
reached her arm again
as if I’d made a mistake.
“Do not touch my hair,”
I said it calmly, clearly —
nary a stutter.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said,
her hand in mid air.
I took a step back, said … “Yes.”
Nothing more to say.
My hair is quite beautiful.
But this is the A —
subway car, not petting zoo.
Do not touch my hair.
You can ask … but you
ask while already reaching,
already so sure
you can of course have your way.
You can ask … but I
don’t have to agree. And won’t.
Today my hair says,
“Get the fuck away from me.”
Tomorrow, that’ll be me.

My first long chōka … and of course it’s angry. Of course.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.



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Ode to My Hair

Every kinky curl,
every twist and bantu knot,
every minute of
co-washing or detangling,
every hour tucked
in heat cap or satin wrap,
every braid-out and up-do,
every afro-puff,
every pack of Marley hair,
every wide-tooth comb,
every faux tortoise shell pin,
every bad hair day
that looked good on the outside,
every long, long night
with a head of curlformers,
every month’s length check,
discovering cleansing clay,
that first successful
twist and curl — HALLELUJAH! —
first henna treatment,
and YouTube tutorial.

My excellent mane,
most glorious crown of curls,
gives me daily strength,
earns smiles, nods, compliments —
wraps tight coils ’round my heart.

(Obviously, I pronounce “every” like “ev’ry” … I don’t know if that’s actually standard or just “Stacie standard,” but there it is. Hmm … and “coil” is a 2-syllable word in my head. Funny the things you notice about how you say things when you have to pay attention to syllable counts!)

Not an “ode” exactly, but maybe “ode-adjacent.” And silly.

Last night’s bad news has already been turned upside down, so I’m glad I didn’t spend over-long fussing and fuming about it. On to the next!

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.



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Found this on YT last night:

Years ago, I was in a writing workshop discussing a story written by an older, fierce white woman.  We were all working toward Masters degrees in Creative Writing, but she had a lot of disdain for such things.  She told me early in the class that she was already published widely and just wanted the piece of paper to improve her employability.  In her story, the son of the older, fierce white woman narrator was dating a black woman.  The black woman didn’t play a big part in the story, but was on scene long enough for the narrator to describe her skin as looking like hot chocolate and her hair as feeling like steel wool.

I read these kinds of descriptions of black people all the time.  I might be used to seeing them, but that doesn’t make me any less annoyed by them.  Seeing people of color’s skin described in terms of food rankles because it seems part and parcel of the oh-you’re-so-exotic nonsense that continues to prevail.  I am not Hershey-bar brown, or toasted honey almond, or dark caramel or any other sugary-sweet item you can think of.  And if that girl in the story was really the color of hot chocolate, there was something wrong with her skin (or maybe I need to stop thinking Swiss Miss and start thinking Jacques Torres … still)!

The steel wool description annoys me even more.  To those who hold tight to this descriptor, I have to ask:  Have you actually touched a black person’s hair?  Have you ever touched steel wool?   Are you missing nerve endings in your fingers or the proper synaptic sensors leading from them to your brain?  Please.  This ridiculousness obviously comes from the deeply-ingrained notion that kinky hair is coarse and hard and could never be in any way appealing, certainly not like the silky-smooth business that grows out on non-kinky heads.  Stand corrected, people.  Yes, there are some people of color who have totally un-touchable hair … just as there are white people with hair that you’d never want to get your hands in.  That’s about hair care, friends, not about the hair itself.  Don’t misunderstand: I am not suggesting you start asking black people if you can touch their hair.  The answer will almost always be negative and you will lose all kinds of cool points for asking.  My cartoon friend above isn’t wrong when she says it’s a violation of her personal space  I have, on rare occasion, let people touch my hair, but don’t ask me, either.

So no hair touching, but you can observe.  Look at women with natural hair.   Many of us spend a lot of time touching it.  Are we worried that it’s out of place? Probably not.  More likely, we are just enjoying its excellent softness and texture.  Yes, that’s right: we get to play with our hair, you don’t.¹

I’m amused by this video, and by the others that accompany it.  I don’t love that she makes the comment about being able to comb her hair “especially when it’s wet with leave-in conditioner in it.”  That seems like a give-back to the steel wool people.   But she actually helps make sense of something  I ran into a lot during my dating experiment.  Men who said I looked like a real “soul sister” or “roots sister” (no, I’m serious), also seemed to think there was no need to take me anywhere nice … or anywhere at all in one case, and always seemed surprised when I didn’t reach for my wallet at the end of the evening.  Just to clarify: if I ask you out, I expect to pay.  If you ask me out, I expect you to pay.  If you ask me out and take me to a place where you can only afford your own dinner, that makes you an idiot.  If you want me to split the check with you, you need to be upfront about it when we make plans.  Calling me a “roots sister” makes you sound silly, but shouldn’t be code for anything.

I decided to add my own public service announcement to the mix:

__________

¹  And we especially get to play with our hair today, on National Afro Day!    Happy 4th, everybody!

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$175.  Cheap at half the price.

When I first heard about the teacher in Milwaukee who cut a student’s hair and mocked her in front of her class, I didn’t believe it was real, thought it was maybe something like the balloon boy foolishness.  But no, it seems to be real.

The idea that a first grade teacher would behave in this way is almost impossible for my brain to process.  The part of the story that is truly freakish, however, is that every news report I’ve seen focuses on how teachers are under so much pressure these days, how teachers are all stressed out, how budget cuts are making times really hard for teachers.

Yes?  … and?  I don’t deny that any of those things are true.  Teachers are under all kinds of due and undue pressure these days.  Budget cuts are making teachers’ work lives more difficult.  No argument from me.

But if you are sufficiently stressed that you see abusing a 7-year-old child as a viable outlet for your stress, you shouldn’t be in the classroom.  You shouldn’t be anywhere near anyone’s child, not even your own. 

Some basic rules that I would have thought could go without saying:
– Teachers shouldn’t assault students — verbally, physically, any-kind-of-ly.
– No adult should come at a child in anger … with scissors.

Set aside for a moment how painfully charged hair is.  It’s charged for most people, but certainly for black girls, and the victim in this story was a black girl.  So much of our self esteem / self image / identity gets wrapped into our twists, braids, weaves, perms, waves, fros and locks.  That’s heavy enough for this act to be more than a $175 fine’s worth of bad teacher behavior.

That she called the child up to the front of the room and encouraged the class to watch as she cut her hair, that she taunted the crying child after cutting her hair … these things are so ugly, so wrong as to indicate something more than ‘stress’ going on with that teacher.

When I first read this story, the one thing that repeated in my head about a thousand times was, “Oh hell no!”  The mother of the little girl is angry.  The little girl is lucky that woman is her mother.  If I were her mother, she’d be dealing with the trauma of her teacher’s actions and with the loss of her mother to the criminal justice system because I just don’t see me using my words in this situation.

A commenter on one write-up of this story said: “Well, maybe this will teach her to listen to what the teacher says.”

Really?  Really?  That’s your response?  You think this story was about teaching a child a lesson?  And what is that lesson, exactly?  If you unconsciously flick your braids adults have the right to frighten you, make fun of you, turn your classmates against you and put their hands on you?  As another commenter said, if the little girl had been making a vocal noise, would it have been ok for the teacher to cut her throat?

And what’s the lesson that the other students in the class are learning?  The child with the cut hair was transferred to a different teacher, but her former classmates are still in the room with a woman they know is capable of doing them harm … and who has done harm and received no. punishment. from. the. school.  How safe do they feel in that classroom today?

And speaking of lessons, what lesson is the teacher learning here?  That it’s ok for her to assault a child and say, “I was frustrated,” when that child’s parent complains?  Or maybe the lesson is I can abuse my students and the school won’t take action against me.  Sure, I’ll have to pony up the $175 disorderly conduct fine the police will slap on me, but that’s no problem.  So it’s ok, then, for me to cut a child’s hair and humiliate her.  What other ways can I express my frustration without getting in trouble?  Can I spank a child?  Would that be ok, too?  Can I smack a child?  Call a child names?  What if I just encourage the rest of the class to shun the troublemaker?  That would surely be ok, right?

I’m sick.  My brain really hurts with this one.  I can’t imagine what that casual cruelty has done to the little girl who was set on by her teacher, can’t imagine how the school administration isn’t taking this any more seriously.

I hate to always go in the same direction, but I can’t help but imagine that, had a silky little blond braid been cut off a child’s head, this story would be getting a lot more press.  I want to be wrong about this, want to believe that we can all see the harm in this incident whether that braid is kinky or not.

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Not too long ago Mopsy and I were shopping and, as we headed for the store’s exit, someone called me.  I turned around and saw an older black woman sitting on a bench in the shoe section.  She waved me over.

“I just wanted to ask you — ” she looked around.  There were people near enough to hear, but no one seemed to be paying attention.  She seemed concerned about them, however, waved me a little closer.

“Yes?”

“I just wanted to ask you — ” another quick glance around, “I don’t want to say it too loud, just in case.  Is that a piece?”

“A piece?  Oh, you mean my hair?  No, it’s all mine.”  I was wearing my ‘Everybody Loves a Black Girl’ hair that day (just as I am today … alas, still no twists … ).

A piece?  Really now, I ask you: does anyone seriously wear a fake afro?  Yes, there are the stupid afros people put on at Halloween and all, but my hair isn’t rainbow-colored or made of yarn like the fake locks that come attached to Rasta tams.  Who wears fake natural hair not as a joke?

And how cute was she to want to be all confidential with her question?  Not asking loud … you know, just in case.  In case of what?  Meddlesome kids being inspired to run past and rip off said ‘piece’?  The cashier pointing out my fake hair to a room full of women half of whom were sporting some fake hair of their own?

No, no ‘piece’ here.  Just me in my happy nappiness out and about.  She just kept staring at my hair.  “How do you comb it?” she asked.

Yes, this is the standard next question.  How can I possibly comb this mass of kinks?  Because that’s supposed to be the reason women ‘need’ to straighten their hair, hair as unabashedly kinky as mine is ‘impossible’ to comb.

[sigh] There is so much to say about kinky hair and black people and, and, and … and it’s much too much, like trying to cram a whole pie into this one little Slice Of Life story.

How do I comb it?  “Slowly,” I said, as Mopsy and I continued on our way.

_____

Check out the other slices at Two Writing Teachers

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Day 7: WE LEARN

SOLSC Logo 

Oh, didn’t I mention that I’m hip-deep in this thing?  On the planning committee, responsible for getting a mayoral proclamation naming today New York City Women’s Literacy Day (cool beans!), panelist in the opening conference session, co-facilitator of a workshop, moderator of tomorrow’s town hall discussion.  Yeah.  A little involved.

One of the things I love best about this conference is that it isn’t out-of-control big.  I went to a conference for math teachers a few years ago and was totally overwhelmed: 25,000 math teachers … and me.  Twenty-five thousand.  And me.  And that was a low-enrollment year!  WE LEARN is much more manageable.  Our numbers are small enough that you can actually get to know people.  And women in literacy is a specialized enough field that many of the ‘bright lights’ in adult ed come to the conferences … and are just regular folk sitting next to you in a workshop.  At these conferences I’ve been afforded the opportunity to meet and talk with some of the women whose work I’ve been devoted to since I taught my first adult ed class!  It’s really a special, special thing.

Today, in honor of my ‘black girl’ bag, my nervousness about having to be on stage and my not-so-secret desire to be a total diva, I wore a big Cleopatra Jones afro.  Standing on the subway platform with that hair and that bag was a funny thing.  (I continue to be amazed by the way people react to my hair.  Today, of course, reactions were to more than my hair.  That bag is kind of the girlie, too-cute-for-you version of a fist in the air and James Brown singing, Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud.) 

The hair and the bag were good choices.  On the panel, I talked about some of the more uncomfortable situations that have arisen for me as a black woman running an education program in a community where there are almost no black people and the majority of residents are from other countries.  Having the hair and bag helped difuse some of the sad or frustrating bits … and it certainly didn’t hurt to get compliment after compliment on my totally gorgeous hair!

Time to sleep so I can get up and be ready to moderate tomorrow’s discussion!

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