Tiana Parker And Our Black Hair

TianaSomeone once said that men invented makeup and fashion so that women would spend all their time thinking about what was on top of their heads and not what was inside them. While I think that trivializes the hard work and artistic creativity involved in these two design fields, I get the point.

When Tiana Parker, a straight-A student, put her hair in her usual tiny, cute short twists topped with a pink bow, officials at Deborah Browne Community School said that she could not wear her hair that way, and 7-year-old Tiana was forced to enroll elsewhere. The school claimed that dreads were a “fad hairstyle” not tolerated on campus.

You could argue Tiana’s right to wear her hair many ways—from freedom of speech to freedom of religion. But all I want to focus on is the hurt and sadness a little girl feels after being shot down for celebrating her culture and beauty. (And dreads are not a “fad.” They have been a part of black culture in America and in Africa for centuries.)

When I put my hair in dreads, it was because I loved the style and the connection to my blackness and black heroes who had worn them. I also thought they were practical. I was a junior in college and wanted to focus on school—studying, working on film shoots and holding down two jobs—instead of my hair and appearance. I had been wearing my hair in braids for years before this and was tired of them. I was, as any woman can understand, ready for a new hairdo and a new attitude on life to go with it. And, as an African American woman who has tightly curled African hair, to wear my hair pressed or relaxed would require a half-hour commitment each morning,  avoidance of water and a weekly trip to the hair salon to shell out $50 to $150 and spend five hours—money and time I didn’t have. All to get massive amounts of heat and chemicals poured onto my head, as Chris Rock documented so wonderfully in his film Good Hair. 

I did not want radioactive toxins used to build atomic weaponry to seep through my scalp to my brain. This was why I had always resisted a relaxer in the past. It was enough that I already had severe nerve damage from having my hair straightened every day from the time I was a baby until high school, when my aunt got too busy to do four girls every morning and my mother and father said, Fine, put them in braids once every three months, and that was that.

Unlike Sheryl Underwood, who last week said “nappy hair is nasty,” I liked my hair. I liked how it curled, I liked its texture. I liked how soft it was. I liked that it was the hair all the women in my family had. I did not want to make it straight. But everyone was telling me I had to—that this was what I would have to do to be socially acceptable and accepted by corporate America.

But back then, junior year in college, I thought I would let corporate American wait until graduation. For the moment, I’d have dreads because, to be honest, I was needing some strength. As the only black girl in my major at my elite Ivy League college and as one of the handful of black students at my college, period, I was needing something to remind me at all times that black is beautiful.

You see, I was a nerd; school was my favorite thing, and my first English teacher in college had told me that no one would want to read my stories because I was not white like my favorite writer, William Shakespeare, but brown like poop. He said, in front of the class, that because I was black I could not understand and connect to Shakespeare the way someone of Shakespeare’s culture would, and my blackness would make me a terrible writer. He said I should give up—and other teachers and peers echoed this idea, either overtly in their statements and actions or more subtly through the absence of anyone who looked like me in their chosen texts, in art projects or on the crews used to create them. And this—coming after having been beaten up, teased, called ugly or ostracized because of being the only black kid at my school from kindergarten to high school—had begun to take its toll.

I had begun to doubt myself and my voice. I turned to Lauryn Hill and even a little bit of Bob Marley. I went back to my friends in print who had inspired me to get to where I was—Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker. Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks. I read their books and lined the walls of my tiny dorm room with their pictures, as if these fierce warriors could guard me from the hostility of people who did not want me to be there, with their constant jokes and stereotypes about black people, their bullying and assaults. I wanted the strength of my warriors on my walls. I wanted their unshakeable belief in self to get me through this. I wanted, when I noticed the hairstyle most shared in common, their dreads.

Perhaps this is what Tiana Parker felt as one of the few black students at her school, when she was told that she could not wear her very short, very cute, pink-bow-tied tiny twists to school—a hairstyle so many little African American girls are familiar with and love. As I watched the tape of the little girl crying about having to leave her school because they “didn’t like her dreads,” my heart hurt for her. And I remembered how my father, too, had called my dreads “ugly” and had made me take them out after I graduated from college or he would disown me and I would no longer be his daughter. So l cut them off, crying the whole time … and felt that I was cutting out, too, the strength of all those brave warriors who had carried me my whole life. After cutting off my dreads to please my father, I carried only shame and weakness: I felt bad, rather than good about my hair. I worried only about how to make it “better” and “straighter,” how to make it “not black.” And how I carried that for so long—that feeling of shame, of hurt and by extension my blackness, whether or not I would admit that to myself. How, for so long afterwards, I lived the life of expensive weaves, presses and relaxers  just to please my father and other people, just because these hairstyles were deemed the only “professional” standard.

Not all black women feel the way I do. For some, these pressed and relaxed styles are an expression of their beauty and pride, and I applaud them. But for me, I was a different bird singing a song not my own. As Kenyan model Ajuna Nasenyana says in The Daily Nation, ““It seems that the world is conspiring in preaching that there is something wrong with Kenyan ladies’ kinky hair and dark skin,” adding that European companies hawk “skin lightening” products which do “good business in Kenya. But it’s not OK for a Caucasian to tell us to lighten our skin.”

Like so many other black women who overspend trying to fit into a white Western standard of beauty, I wasted too much money, time and effort processing my hair. I also seriously injured my health due to toxic damage by the chemicals in the relaxer products. But most dangerously, like so many little black girls who just want to learn and go to school, I gave into the pressure of other people trying to define who I was. I gave into the shame of feeling bad about my  black hair rather than taking pride in my black heritage.

But unlike me,  Tiana, supported by her father, never stopped fighting. With her father’s advocacy, she successfully switched schools and is now happily learning, her beautiful dreads and spirit intact. She is still getting straight As. And it is so wonderful that we have her as an inspiration for other black girls when they are told that their hair—their blackness—is not good enough. Because it is. And we are.

Photo from Flickr user stevendepolo under license from Creative Commons 2.0

aslan and mommy at the beach edited

Hope Wabuke runs a communications company called The WriteSmiths and is director of media & communications for the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction. She is currently at work on a poetry collection about her family’s escape from Idi Amin’s Ugandan genocide. She blogs at hope after yoga and you can follow her on Twitter@HopeWabuke.


Comments

  1. Mary Bishop says:

    It’s certainly good to read the perspective of a strong black woman who has faced similar pressure to make her hair what it isn’t, but I must set the record straight on one point. The author says: “Perhaps this is what Tiana Parker felt as one of the few black students at her school …” The Deborah Brown Community School is by far predominantly black. Deborah Brown herself is black. The school’s board members are all black. This policy was set by black people. Since hearing the national and international outcry over this policy, the board voted to change it this week.

    • BS Friedson says:

      As a white woman, I have to ask: if the school is predominantly black, why did it have a policy that would not let girls wear their hair in ‘dreads’? Was it meant for boys also?

  2. Eileen Wilkinson says:

    I found this article both heartbreaking and inspiring. The “community” school Tiana was attending is hopelessly clueless! The pain and suffering Hope Wabuke went through becuase of her hair makes me sad and angry! Whatever Ivy League college she attended should be publicly shamed for the attitudes they communicated to her – too bad she didn’t name it. As the mother of 2 daughters with “black hair”, I am grateful that they attended school in a community where their natural hair was accepted as it was. (Springfield, MA). If anyone tried to tell them otherwise, I would have been right there to defend their rights.

  3. Rachel Kiernan says:

    You are a beautiful woman, inside and out. Thank you for sharing your story and being an advocate for the acceptance of natural beauty, especially when that flies in the face of a dominant culture. No person should tell black women, or any woman, that she needs to endanger her health or buy dangerous products because she isn’t beautiful as she is. I’m grateful to you for being an inspiration.

  4. Martha Mattes says:

    Ironically, Deborah Brown Community School (in Tulsa, OK) has a predominantly black student body. Which makes the treatment of Tiana Parker even worse. The Board of Deborah Brown did vote to revise their dress code to allow dreads, but Tiana’s not going back. She’s happy at Anderson Elementary School (part of the Tulsa Public Schools system), where she was welcomed with open arms (and the principal told her her hair was beautiful). Meanwhile, members of Tulsa’s African-American community have called on Langston University (a historically African-American school) to reconsider its sponsorship of Deborah Brown (which is a charter school sponsored by Langston). Word is Langston is, indeed, looking into this matter.

    Thank you for your heartfelt and informative response to this whole debacle. You have done a great job in putting everything into perspective.

  5. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard of kids kicked out of school, shamed, suspended, whatever because some adult didn’t like their hair. Little boys told they can’t wear their hair long, even a kid who was growing his so that it could be made into a wig for a child with cancer. A girl near where I live who was expelled for dyeing her hair purple (or maybe it was pink, I may be remembering wrong). It’s bad enough– very bad indeed– to shame kids for doing something artificial with their hair, but to abuse them just for having their own, natural hair the way it grew, the way it’s supposed to be, is beyond comprehension. Adults, GET OVER IT! Every ethnic type of hair has its issues, and we should all be free to do what makes us feel comfortable and beautiful, and what allows us to go on with more important parts of our lives and avoid pouring toxic goop on ourselves. Hope and Tiana, my heart goes out to you! Keep up the great work!

  6. Cheryl Baulding says:

    I am so surprised by the experience that you faced at your college. I went to a seven-sisters college and I know that I am older than you are. It still surprises me when I hear that a faculty person made such comments.

    I really was offended by the articles of how this little girl was getting such negativity about her hair. I had my hair chemically straightened and because I wasn’t a “hair ” person. I just pulled it back and put enough bobby pins in it that a strong magnet could lift me from my feet if pointed at my head. Since then, I have tried many other styles but as of last Monday, I am wearing a style that I like and looks good on me. It is also easy to care for. I am sporting a very short, pre-maturely gray natural and I love it! I should say that I went to a local salon where I used to go to the one African American stylist. She retired earlier this year. My hair was a mess and I was desperate. I had my hair cut by the only person who was available and who could do it. A very petite white woman with an Eastern European accent. She did a very good job! Oh, Eileen, I am from Chicopee, :)

  7. i think that hope is a beautiful, smart lady! her story is an inspiration to all of us to stay strong and stay true to ourselves. i think that however a woman (or a man, for that matter) chooses to wear their hair is just their business, and not ours. so hope …. you go girl and many thanks for your article!

  8. radical-dyke says:

    That is a disgusting thing you professor said to you and a reversal. He is shit. All men are shit, literally genetic shit their Y chromosome is decayed, testosterone gives them rage and brain damage, their organs are literally falling out of their body (testes) and they still have an abe like brow ridge.

    I would say Shakespeare’s culture is not really relatable to anyone anymore even the language is incomprehensible to the modern English speaker. It would still be better to study writers of all backgrounds but I have little faith in the institutions men of men changing.

    Your father making your cut out your dreads, dictating your choices is literally the essence of patriarchy. The word patriarchy means rule of father. It was cruel of him to demean a part of your natural appearance and call it ugly. I have my dad’s pointed nose luckily he never called me ugly or said I should change it.
    Such a shame your changing for others and very common sadly to all the women who suffer under patriarchal rule. Fuckability mandates also contribute to regressive gender roles and the gender wage gap that exists because women have to spend more money on female specific things like contraception, abortion, menstrual products and of course beauty products to paint on a face because our own natural face is never good enough and our body hair is disgusting…except not on men.
    Your story is touching. Thank you for giving a little insight on what its like as a black woman growing up being put into a racist little box of how it is acceptable to look. I think all women can empathize in some way because the beauty industry will always create flaws in women. If we aren’t too dark they are too pasty, the standard of beauty in S.Korea is a V shaped face when genetically most have developed chins and jaw so plastic surgeons literally shave down bone, high heels that can cause disability etc…

  9. Arlene Zimmerman says:

    By having stood up yourself, by writing so eloquently and publicly about it, and by having validated and strengthened yourself in such positive ways, you have really helped & inspired so many people and the fight/cause; not only Black women (and men) but all women. I thank you so very much, Hope Wabuke, for every detail of this article that you have written. I also agree with the comments written by Rachel Kiernan. I wish you the best of health, peace & prosperity & success for your business while continuing to write articles as great as this one!

  10. I just saw the story about Tiana Parker from a related story. Tiana’s story made me so sad. She is gorgeous, but much more, she is strong and smart. She obviously was so hurt by this and yet she never caved. Her father was right to support her. You too are beautiful and so are your dreadlocks. Like Tiana, you are also so bright. I enjoyed your article very much. Your college professor was a moron.

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