Tuesday, March 22, 2011

History and Hair

I didn't do any laundry yesterday- or any exercising either.  Dinner was on the table by 6:30, but the kitchen wasn't all that clean; and I didn't go to bed until long past my normal schedule.  But I did read a book- start to finish in one day- and sometimes, that counts as a successful day for me.
On the recommendation of a few friends of mine (and NPR), I read The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.  (and no, Mom, I didn't "borrow" your copy- I got mine from the library.  

Now, I didn't think this was the greatest book ever written, and it wasn't necessarily one of those books that you just can't put down, but it was definitely a good read and I do recommend it.  What got me about this book was that it delved into a social relationship that I'd never fully considered- that of female black help and their female white bosses.  Sure, we all know about Civil Rights and racism, but this book went beyond that to show the less overt factors that influenced a black woman's ability to feel proud of herself and her position as a black woman.  And I can't say I would have liked it as much had I not constantly envisioned my children's grandparents and great-grandparents in those scenarios.  

JMahl's family is from the South.  His grandmother still lives in Memphis where my Mother-in-law was born and raised; his father is from Birmingham.  JMahl will tell me stories of visiting his relatives in the projects of Memphis, but he never came from that world himself.  His parents met in Baltimore, where they had both moved to give themselves a new start and a new life.  JMahl was raised in Columbia, Maryland, which is often considered to be one of the most affluent, educated, and diverse areas in the United States.  As a result, he is as much like me in that we don't 'really' know what it was like to be poor and black in the South-- much less in the 1960's south.  

I've asked my Mother-in-law about her life, but most of what I get in response is "I could write a book".  But she doesn't ever go into that much detail.  I do know she was one of the first black females to enroll in the University of Memphis, which should tell you something about the courage and fortitude of my Mother-in-Law.  I also know that it was so difficult on her that she chose not to stay there.  I know she was one of ten children and that her father was a truck driver who always expected the house to be spotless (JMahl doesn't fall far from that tree), and that she spent some time working in San Fransisco in the 60's.   But I don't know much else about her life prior to moving to Baltimore, completing a Masters degree, meeting her husband, giving birth to JMahl, and spending the next thirty years teaching in the Baltimore Public School System.  

It wasn't until I read "The Help" yesterday that I began to wonder if maybe her reluctance to talk to me openly about her past isn't that she doesn't want to recall it, but maybe she doesn't think that I, a white woman, can understand it.  

We like to believe that racism is dead, and yet we know that it is not.  This is a frequent discussion in my home, actually.  (Yes, discussion could be code for argument.)  When I mention the amount of racism that I believe still exists in the United States, JMahl is typically quick to argue that most places are not like the small town in which I was raised in which there was, during my childhood, a clear color line; although, when I discuss my desire to move away from Columbia (I get bored), he quickly switches positions and argues that Columbia is the best place to raise an interracial family.  And maybe both factors are true.  Maybe there is a lot of room in between for not-quite acceptance, but not quite-racist. The post-civil rights era seems to demonstrate that... but we're in 2011 now.  Can this still be true?  Or are we afraid that yes, it is still true, and maybe that's why we don't really want to talk much about it?  I went to a small all-white high school, which I'm sure influenced my belief in the color line, even if others did not see it as such, and the one black friend I had as a teenager didn't discuss the issue of race much with me either.  I don't know if we felt it was taboo to talk about it, or what.  Maybe discussing color would make it real, while ignoring the differences would make them unapparent?  

Even with my own children, I sometimes find it very difficult to discuss race with them.  Do I want to refer to my husband and my children as "black"?  That term seems so--- labeling.  And as Kayton was always quick to point out to me (and now Kolbie does the same)- "Daddy's not black, he's brown!"  Oddly enough, my light coffee colored children (except for Micah who is pretty much coffee with a gallon of milk poured in) all tend to relate more to JMahl in regards to their looks.  Whenever someone tells Kayton she looks just like me (which she does), she quickly responds with a No I don't!  I have Daddy's hair and Daddy's eyes and Daddy's skin!  I don't look like my Mom at all!  

And if this is how they see themselves now-- will this change?  Will they recognize that they don't have to choose one race over another on their census forms (like Obama did.  Yes, that bothered me, as the mother of bi-racial children.)  But really, who am I to discuss with them their race when I have no insight into what it's like to be black?  Their father may provide some "black" insight, but he also grew up in a pretty color-free zone.  So it falls on their grandparents, then, to teach them about what it was like... then... before...  

I'd like to think that our history doesn't affect this generation.  And maybe it doesn't matter at all.  Maybe their racial history is as unimportant to them as mine.  Or maybe the fact that they are both white and black will balance itself out and they will feel comfortable with the history they read in books and not feel the need to understand their personal history-- how their grandmother was treated as she attempted to desegregate a state college.  How their grandfather was treated as a Black in the Air Force.  Or maybe they'll be stuck in limbo land... like their hair.  

The hair on the heads of my children could easily become a metaphor for what it's like to be bi-racial.  Each of my kids was born with an entirely different texture, color, curl to their hair.  Kayton's is dark brown, thick and long with nice round curls- but frizzes within minutes of a bath.  Mason has coarser, darker black hair.  When we grow it out in the winter it becomes the perfect replica of a 1960's afro.. with maybe a little less bounce.  Kolbie got a headful of golden tinted light brown spirals that stick straight off her head in all directions.  No need to push her hair out of her face or raise it off her neck--it's already there-- sticking straight six inches into the air.  It defies gravity, that hair.  And Micah, soft, large, black curls.

But as to the metaphor-- many times I have asked my mother-in-law for advice on what to do with their hair.  Here am I, a white girl who hardly knows how to use a hair dryer on myself, forced to deal with four heads of unruly "biracial" hair.  And yet my mother-in-law's response is the same as mine.  "I don't know-- that's not black hair."  Not black hair, not white hair.  Stuck somewhere in limbo.  And sure, they sell products for such hair-- but it doesn't work on all kids-- or any of mine for longer than four minutes.  And do I really want to cake product after chemical on my little girls beautiful heads simply so there can be some "normalcy", controllability to their hair?  Or do I let it go free, wild- this is your hair, love it as it is-- because that's the way for them to understand that they are who they are- a mix of both, and perfect as they are.  

Maybe it's not about solving a problem, fixing their hair;  maybe it's not about educating them on what their ancestors went through to get them to where they are; and how we are the same- which implies there are ways in which we different.  Maybe it's not something that I can ever understand.  Maybe it's not something that any white person can ever understand.  Or any thing any person born after 1980 can understand.  

But I know that if my Mother-in-Law ever sits me down and says "I want to tell you how it was.  I want to tell you what I went through-- so that you will know.  So that you will be able to tell my grandchildren one day".  If that day comes I do want to try to understand to the best of my ability. Because  while it may not be a part of my history, it is a part of my children's.  And even though their hair may not be "black hair" and it may not be "white hair", it is still their hair. 

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