Like most black women who I know, I was really upset this weekend when I saw the news coverage of beautiful, 7-year old Tiana Parker, a straight A student, as she shed tears when her school officials castigated her hair/locs!! If you ever thought black hair could be politically neutral in our social world, then you may never truly understand these kinds of tears. After being continually harassed, Tiana’s father was forced to enroll her in a new school because her charter school banned all dreadlocks as inappropriate, calling Tiana’s locs a distraction from learning/thinking.
I talk/write/think a lot about the white violence and terror that black girls face in school and this example rocks me to my core. I find myself remembering what E.M. Monroe wrote about her son’s (Miles) first day of kindergarten this fall in the post, “Models Monday: Black Boys, Trayvon Martin, and the Politics of Comfort.” In the post, Monroe talks about the humanity of Ms. Malcolm, a teacher who can see Miles’s humanity:
I tell you, it was a damn good surprise to have someone who sees your black child as having a life worth preserving temporarily responsible for their keeping. She’s a model for how a person might demonstrate their liberal views: You want to prove to me that you aren’t racist, well then how about you showing me that you Always choose to be an Aide and not an Assassin.
Monroe captures brilliantly the kind of teacher and school that I think black children like Tiana so rarely experience. It is clear to me that the adults at Tiana’s school belong to a kind of violent trajectory that Monroe discusses in this post that she relates to the murder of Trayvon Martin. Make no mistake about it: this demonization of Tiana’s hair— a part of black bodies— belongs to the same ideology that demonized Trayvon Martin’s black body.
Like what Ms. Malcolm offered Miles, Dr. Yaba Blay offered Tiana and black women a similar kind of witnessing. Dr. Blay’s response has been the most brilliant with her focus on Tiana’s spirit. She created what she calls “A care package of sorts. A digital book of photos and messages from 111 women and girls from all over the country and all over the world, all of whom wear their hair in locs, all of whom want Tiana to know that she and her hair are PERFECT.” The result is simply stunning (followed by a new facebook community). Click on the digital booklet below that Dr. Blay left open for embedding and sharing across multiple platforms:
It’s an important reminder about the political power of healing and loving black children and the role of always offering them visual images for staking out who we are. This digital care package also offers black communities a way to inhabit digital spaces outside of the white norms of collecting images and videos to showcase family consumption and bourgeois achievements— after all, that is the same kind of whiteness that left Tiana in tears. E.M. Monroe and Dr. Blay offer us real images and processes of what it looks like to show and love black children in a digital age. These are the only kinds of AfroVisual/AfroDigital spaces that can recognize our humanity.
I learned to wrap my hair with a scarf with age-cousins to protect my braids and beads as a little girl. Today, each evening, on a night when I have to go to work/school the next day, I twist my hair and still tie my hair with a silk scarf. Now spring is ending, summer vacation is here, work is over, and the incentive for my time-consuming semi-daily twist-outs and intense moisturizing are long gone (check out HIMAY10NENCE for the most exquisite description of how time-consuming and difficult this process is!) Couple all that with the fact that now is the best time to purchase scarves and what you have is a new fashion/hair moment: the head scarf as fashion, not just sleepwear. At this time of year, I can find $10 silk scarves and $3 faux silk scarves all because capitalist clothing machinery imagines women’s scarves as fall and winter apparel for white women’s necks rather than the superfly and protective cover for black women’s heads.
I have gone to youtube for headscarf tutorials as much as for natural hair care regiments. It is not a coincidence that at precisely the moment when black women are exploiting social media to educate and communicate with one another about natural hair that headscarf fashions are also taking full bloom. Yes, the headscarf is connected to natural haircare and protection, but there is also a whole other public discourse happening here, one that is re-tooling and re-vocabularizing black women’s beauty and heads away from a white media cartel that has quite purposefully desexualized, criminalized, and uglified black women in headwraps.
I think a lot about what possessed white media monopolies to craft historical images of blackwomen in headscarves as the epitome of unattraction, care of white children/families, desexualization, enslaved domesticity, self-hatred, and backwardness. Here, of course, I am talking about Pancake-Making Aunt Jemima, the most obvious visual marker and stereotype (cartoons were also subsumed with such images). I won’t go into the history of Aunt Jemima and its ideological purpose in creating white nationhood (that will happen later this summer), but suffice it to say that derogatory and racist images of Aunt Jemima always depicted her in a headscarf, pretty much up until 1989 when she got a perm and pearls (of course, it was not JUST the headscarf that was mocked but the FULL body and skin). The question for me is: why did white women and white men need so desperately to take the cultural image of the black woman’s headwrap and negate it so fiercely?
The images in the slideshow below are taken from black women’s online sites (click here for a sample website). I think the slideshow makes it clear that it took an INORDINATE amount of calculation, time, and visual sorcery/dishonesty for media monopolies to make such women and their adornments ugly. Was the distinctiveness of this beauty and style politics THAT threatening to the maintenance of white male dominance and white femininity?
We know from the oral histories of former slaves collected by the Federal Writers Project that black women during slavery used headwraps for utilitarian, symbolic, and ornamental reasons. Even those interviewers, considered young “progressive” whites for their time, talked about their black female interviewees in headwraps as typical, old “mammies” in head rags so you have to read the descriptive details about the ways the scarves were wrapped very closely. In the objective descriptions of intricate scarf wrappings and patterns, you can hear that these were not women who considered themselves ugly or their headwraps as marking an informal, mammy time.
In even this famed photo of some of the slaves who built the White House, you can witness the range of headwrap styles.
Black women’s headwraps protected their hair and scalp from heat and sun as well as kept their hair clean. But these wraps were also symbols and adornment. There are records of slaveowners, particularly white female slave mistresses, who commented in disgust at how bright black women’s headwraps were, seen a mile away. When I try to imagine what that scene must have looked like in reality, I envision something quite splendid! While other whites would have understood these white women’s responses as a commentary on black women’s subhuman status, I see it as proof that black women in slavery used headscarves as ornaments that marked their beauty and themselves in community with other black women. We also know from the historical record that black women wore different kinds of headscarves for formal events (funerals and the like) and also tied them differently for different occasions. In photos before AND after emancipation, you can see groups of black women in headscarves where no two headscarves look the same: the patterns and the wrappings are endlessly varied, working as a kind of improvisational performance reminiscent of a Jazz Quartet…. an elaborate individuality alongside community rhythm at the same time.
Other aesthetic philosophies are also operating here. European-descended women, of course, wore headscarves too, usually called kerchiefs, but they were styled in a different way. Headwraps tied at the front of the crown rather than at the nape of the neck is an aesthetic invention of West African women solely. For the West/subsaharan African-inspired headwrap, facial features are intentionally highlighted with a scarf that wraps upward to draw your eyes up rather than allowing you to look down on a woman. Since black women under slavery were the ones who did ALL of the sewing and weaving, black women obviously had access to a range of fabric remnants to create headwraps (they even used sailcloths when necessary); they also carried memories of African patterns and design (you can clearly see this in slave women’s quilts), cloth dying techniques, and alternative philosophies of women’s ornamentation. So these headwraps carried heavy meanings that black women both understood and actively manipulated. While whites used headwraps to mark black women as different from and inferior to white women (there are records of laws in Louisiana, for instance, that made women of African descent wear their headwraps in specific ways to better recognize them, especially significant for those who could pass for white as mulattoes), black women had their own meanings. Headwraps were particular to black women and represented radical ideas about hair, face, and beauty: defiant, self-empowered, communal, individual, resistant. Was the distinctiveness of this beauty and style politics THAT threatening to the maintenance of white male dominance and white femininity? Yes, indeed. Nothing else adequately explains how something so seemingly benign as a headscarf had to be so demonized and mocked.
Page 28 of the June 2013 Issue of Essence Magazine
These are not just the scarves that all black women have come to know— those wraps either we ourselves or women around us wear to bed at night. No, these wraps by young women on youtube are used as the centerpiece of outfits or as THE accessory which sets off the rest, just like what their predecessors did. My time in classrooms is also a good litmus test: I have seen more and more young black female college students wearing fabulous, intricate headwraps in the past five years than EVER before.
I hear a lot of people say that today’s black women are taking back the headwrap from the negative, racist stereotype of white media’s invention of Aunt Jemima. But I don’t see us as taking anything back... I think we are holding on to what we have always had.
As soon as we left the early Civil Rights Movement and entered the 1970s, the videos and documentaries of historical footage as well as current speeches and lectures given by black women increased 100-fold.
So my class now begins to draw more and more from multimedia sources rather than just print sources. This is much bigger than whether or not we have students read digital texts or print texts in our classes, a simplistic conversation that many teachers seem to think is some kind of hallmark of new, critical-digital pedagogies. My class is not about reading for reading’s sake, but about (re)hearing black women by examining their multiple rhetrics. If the text is online, good; if it’s in print, that’ll work too. Who cares? My job is to make multiple texts accessible to my working class undergraduate students in financially accessible ways. The fact remains that when you are dealing with historical black women, YOU READ WHATEVER YOU CAN FIND WHEREVER YOU CAN FIND IT! Who publishes and who gets a voice is still controlled by a white dominant culture, whether that be digital or print, so you can still count on black women not being equally or respectfully represented in any space.
But that does bring me to youtube, where, arguably, I spend too much of my time. Let’s face it: by 2010, the amount of videos being uploaded to youtube was the equivalent of 180,000 feature-length movies per week. In less than a week, youtube generates more video content than Hollywood has done in its entire lifetime. Now I won’t act like that is cause for celebration; it just means I have some greater odds to find some black women on youtube than in Hollywood (which won’t require an avalanche of material for that comparative statement to be true). I have seen more than my fair share of videos on youtube of black men who pontificate that black women are just copying white women, that white feminism has corrupted black feminist souls and minds with arbitrary discussions of patriarchy, that black women are not as worthy of attention/love/partnership as other more domesticated women of color (who are, of course, lighter in hue), that black women emasculate black men in the ways they treat the fathers of their children, that black women are actually white men in disguise when they boss black men around too much, that black women can be casually/publicly named bitches and hoes (words used as regularly by online “talk show” hosts as rappers). I could go on and on with these examples. I stopped reading video comments a long time ago so that I wouldn’t be continually insulted by outright, deliberate misogynistic slurs (i.e., which songs compliment “bedroom mixes” and other sexual encounters). Needless to say, if I just watched youtube, I would think that most black men who talk about black women sound ABSOLUTELY NO different than white-racist Daniel Moynhan who, in his 1965 Moynihan Report, blamed all economic “failures” of black communities on the nature of overly-aggressive black women. I place these kinda folk in a special youtube category: DAMN FOOLS WITH A VIDEO CAMERA…UPLOADED. I mean, really, the kind of stuff these folk say makes me wonder if they really get that people can hear them?
So yeah you hafta wade though some realllll dumb bullshit on youtube (I just don’t have a more polite way to say that, sorry). But then… yes, but then…. you can find the footage from the documentary on Shirley Chisholm that got lost on the chopping block, that one sentence that means the world, like this jewel:
“I want history to remember me… as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself!”
There is the ability to watch Barbara Jordan’s speech on Nixon’s impeachment, play it back over and over and over, for free, so you and your students can hear those pauses and annunciations that she makes, see the photo where Jordan is sitting right next to Shirley Chisholm, and marvel at how, at 2 o’clock in the morning, Jordan opens her statement to Congress by letting them know she has an unwavering commitment to the U.S. Constitution (and seems to know it better than anyone else in the room) even though she was never included in its original framing!! Yesterday, in class, I could hear my students take on the rhythmic pronunciation patterns, pauses, and accents on words like SUS-PEC-TED in their own language to talk about Jordan’s language. And as a class, we could all hear how Jordan takes the words of the Constitution and almost takes you to church (her father is a minister so this is not simply a misapplied, figurative expression here but a description of the format in which Jordan recites text to an audience) while, at the same time, offers a closing statement in what feels like the kind of trial where you’d hope Jordan was the lawyer on YOUR side (Jordan is a lawyer so this is not an accident either though these hearings are not a trial.)
Today, I am watching and selecting lectures by and documentaries about Angela Davis (there isn’t much available on youtube spanning her 1990s lectures but I suspect that will change soon enough.) This gives me the chance to move students’ images of Davis past her iconic figure in the 70s with an Afro, mouth always wide open, on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and show her as a full intellectual-activist, now and back then. I have just finished the second part of her lecture (click here for first part) at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta on March 24, 2009 for the keynote address of Emory University’s Women’s History Month.
What I am struck by at this moment is the importance of (re)hearing feminist discourse because, in this second part of the video, Davis talks about the ways in which we must challenge many of Obama’s policies. What strikes me here is how differently she does this, while still maintaining a kind of class/imperialism analysis. Davis mobilizes her critiques without the stain of the anti-black subtext that I feel and hear from the White Left/non-Black Left, folk who I have never seen or heard think deeply about the racial apartheid in which we live and that they benefit from. I just don’t trust them when they launch their mouth-grenades on black folk and neither should anyone else. Davis also mobilizes her critiques without the kind of ego-driven, look-at-me-look-at-me, spotlight-mongering tendencies of people like Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, though she is clearly as iconic and famous as they are. While I have agreed with many of these critiques from these camps, there has always been something amiss for me, a real kind of disrespect that cannot be removed from the fact that Obama is a black man, just in the way that these activists frame their rhetoric. Davis reminds just how differently Black Feminist Rhetoric operates and why her critique is one that I can hear and see as transformative. I need to make sure that I hear this kind of Black Feminist Rhetoric more— I especially now see the ways youtube can drown out the other voices once I find the right spaces where black women are being heard.