“They didn’t like my dreads,” Tiana Parker, a 7-year-old black girl said. “They” are her former school, Deborah Brown Community School. Officials told Parker’s dad, Terrence, that she wasn’t presentable because of her hair.
According to the community school, “hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, mohawks, and other faddish styles are unacceptable.” And chastising little girls to the point of tears about their immutable characteristics is?
I don’t know a 7-year-old white girl experience. But, I remember being a 7-year-old black one and confronting people’s ignorance and distaste for anything that rendered me blacker or highlighted my parents’ conscious choice to let people know who I am. But, they taught me first.
What do I mean? If Imani Jackson shows up as a resume or application, you might not know exactly who I am, but you have a pretty good idea of who I’m not. First, it’s dope that Tiana is brave and bold enough to wear her natural hair at seven. That her father, a barber, champions his princess’ natural mane? Doper. People want their loved ones to love themselves and to present in ways that cause them the least amount of resistance.
But, it’s bigger than individuals, y’all. When I was seven, my mom finally acquiesced. The relaxer I begged, prayed and hoped for finally morphed my midnight mass into long, straight hair. I wore it relaxed for about four years until it broke, fried and drowned in a pool of split ends and spritz.
I experimented with natural styles, and unfortunately blonde hair dye, for a while until at age 17 I saw a picture of Goapele, thought about Lauryn Hill, and decided to quit playing. I began locks at 10 years old than Tiana. It taught me patience, persistence and self-love. Some days I had to go on with life, when my head looked like Coolio and a Chia pet’s Bill Nye experiment.
Gradually, the nappy, curly and coiled collision locked, grew, and became something I’m proud of. But, it was painful to get there. At Tiana’s age, I attended a multicultural magnet elementary school, as in mostly white, with kids of color and military families sprinkled in.
The teachers were generally competent, although some needed to venture beyond their backyards if they wanted to connect with more students. My hair, which my mother braided, pressed and styled in awe-inspiring black-girl styles, reminded everyone that I was different. I was tired of being different.
Always in the back of the class photos, taller than most of the boys, and having a “foreign” first name in a city that just missed being in South Georgia, my differences felt burdensome.
Why hadn’t my mom named me Brenda? That is her name. It was my late grandmother’s name. Teachers wouldn’t mispronounce Brenda. I wouldn’t be forced into awkward conversations with adults who didn’t know Kwanzaa existed, Swahili isn’t a place, and while Iman was hot stuff, her name is Spanish and I was not named after her.
Teachers barreled through Brittanys, Ashleys and Brandons with reckless abandon. That weird I-word lodged in the middle of the roll was an impediment from quickly assessing which students came to school that day. I learned to raise my hand when anything remotely “Ih”-sounding preceded Jackson.
The long and short of it is that I evolved with family support and love. The kind of love that Tiana has, as her dad, Terrence, went to bat in the media and against that school for her. That’s the same love my father showed when he reprimanded a high school boy who sought to impress his high school friends at the expense of middle school me by shoving a dirty, discarded pick in my Afro at the bus stop.
In many settings I was the only non-mixed black girl who were wore her natural hair. I was nappy and trying to be happy before curling puddings, big time bloggers and a bourgeoning beauty industry would explode into follicular fiestas for women who sat on the sidelines because they didn’t want drama regarding the hair from their mamas.
Today my hair is a big part of my identity. It’s proof that I survived. I was bullied, ostracized, thought suspect and ridiculed for being me in a world that mistreats the other. My hair gets checked by TSA. I force them to discuss the additional searches. I am stereotyped about how I spend my recreational time.
I’m automatically West Indian, even though I’m not. My mom, who has a big, curly fro, is apparently black Latina. Why our ethnicities don’t match is beyond me. I become de facto hair teacher for people of all backgrounds who don’t know how follicular diversity works.
White people tell me about their friends with sketchy showering habits and dreads. Sometimes they share the (BIG!) secret that all of their hair isn’t naturally straight. Rasta men greet me in ways I don’t fully understand. Older blacks tell me that I beat the odds and look nice with “those dreads.” Somehow my dreads inspire conversations about how black men with dreads must disprove ideas that they’re thugs.
Mostly now, I’m embraced. My hair is healthy. It’s strong. It’s long. It’s a lot like me. It’s accepted and acceptable because I accept it, love it, treat it well, and remove myself from situations where I won’t be valued because of what it represents. Life is too short to hang out in hate spaces.