Good hair in the melting pot

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

During the cultural rebellion of the sixties, like many white kids, I tried to reach across the racial divide by emulating black slang and embracing soul music. My dark brown hair grew longer, and by the time I returned home from the University of Wisconsin that first summer of 1966 it had curled into a tangle that looked vaguely like an Afro. My great-uncle Ben, with whom I had always got along, said “I didn’t know we had anything like that in the family.” We never spoke civilly to each other again. In Madison, Wisconsin the following year, some boys drove to campus to beat up kids who looked like me. They jumped out of their car, threw me to the ground and kicked me for a while to let me know that long hair was against the American way.

A memoir by Henry Louis Gates called “Colored People” made me think more about that incident. After all, this is the Melting Pot. We’re supposed to be able to absorb all kinds of people — the northern Europeans with their blond hair, Irish with their red hair, Mediterraneans, with their jet black hair. My own ancestors, eastern European Jews, inherited dark curly hair from our Semitic ancestors. Blending hasn’t always been easy. As each group arrived, a cry went throughout the land “We already know who we are and you are not us.” After a couple of generations, the children lost their accents and adopted clothes and customs that helped us blend. We intermarried. Voila. We’re in the mix.

But the resistance to blacks has persisted longer than for most other groups. I’ve thought about the reasons and the problems of that lack of mixture my whole life, but I’ve never thought about it as clearly as I did when I read Gates’ memoir, in which he explains what it was like growing up in the segregated south. As I listen to Gates, the magic of story reading takes over and I’m with him in the 1950’s and 60’s. At home he saw people of one color, and on television he saw another. As he ponders this contrast, and tries to sort out his place in the mix, one of the most revealing insights is the chapter on hair.

As a child, Gates’ barber complimented him on having a “good grade of hair,” or “good hair” meaning it wasn’t too curly. His good grade came with his genes, while others had to work for the desired straightness by greasing hair down and flattening it with a tight stocking cap. They ironed their hair. They used home chemical concoctions of potatoes and lye to defeat the curls. Or they spent big money on a chemical procedure call “processing.”

Through Gates’ story, I begin to see that hair has deep significance, and the more I think about how it fits into our emotional lives, the more of its power I see. Absence of hair is important to men who lose it at middle age, and the loss of hair during chemotherapy is one of the demoralizing marks of cancer. Prison camp inmates and new military recruits often have their hair shaved to reduce their individuality. Older people hide their gray to look young, while young people enhance sexual charisma by primping, extending, dying, or spiking.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that black people, to improve their image, would like to manage the impression their hair conveys. Working in my dad’s drugstore in the early 60’s I often saw black guys wearing these tight caps, or “do rags” as they were called. And my dad stocked a whole section of specialized hair products. Looking at it from the outside it seemed mysterious. Now I see they were trying to do the same thing Americans had been doing for centuries, trying to achieve entry into the Melting Pot, so they could participate in the American dream.

Hair defines the group a person is in. That simple, yet profound observation sends me searching. Surely something so important must insinuate itself in other aspects of my life. As I look for more evidence of the importance of hair I spot another crucial period.

Before I turned forty, my prematurely gray hair made me look like an old guy, an outsider among the young people I walked past every day at the university where I worked. I decided to dye it back to its original color, to reclaim my membership in the younger generation. The first time I went to visit my friends Larry and Ivy for lunch, their eyes opened wide. “It’s like instant youth.” My membership restored, I have been dying my hair ever since, despite research that suggested prolonged hair dying might cause a deadly form of cancer. When I was knocked down and kicked because my hair was too long, it never occurred to me to cut it. Now, I am once again placing my acceptance into a group above my own safety. With my dark hair, I’ll signal my membership in the youthful American Melting pot, even if it kills me.

Writing Prompt
Write a story about times in your life when you liked your hair, or didn’t like your hair. What message was your hair broadcasting?

When have you changed your hair to try to redefine or accentuate your acceptance into a group?

When has some one else’s hair sent you a message you had a hard time accepting?

Have you ever had the experience of being an outsider because of your hair, like the time I came home with long hair and was outside my family’s comfort zone, or like the way my friend’s blond daughter provoked cat calls in Egypt, where she stuck out like a… blond in Egypt.

Note

It turns out that my college hair style now has a name. It wasn’t really an Afro. It was a Jewfro.

To learn more about the African American attitude towards hair in the melting pot, see the documentary called “Good Hair” by producer and performer Chris Rock.

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Check out the programs and resources at the National Association of Memoir Writers


14 thoughts on “Good hair in the melting pot

  1. Read the “Hair” story and it really took me right back to Philly in the 60’s. What we saw in the mirror, other people didn’t see. I was a teen working in my father’s store, and trying hard to grow a beatnik beard/goatee for a week or so. My Dad never noticed until one day a customer came into the store and said, “Hey man, cool beard!” Dad turned, stared, and his face grew red with rage. “Get rid of that, NOW!” I knew then that he looked at me, but sometimes just didn’t “see”.

  2. Hi Ron,

    Thanks for sharing your story. This brief incident, so many years ago comes alive. Now, thanks to your hair memories, I know something about you and your relationship to your dad. Fascinating.

    Jerry

  3. Excellent post, Jerry. And some very nice memoir! Your prompts got me thinking about the time I added some highlights to my hair. I have always had really black hair, and I wanted to, well, do something new. No real pressure to be like anyone else. Also, on the morning of wedding, I had longer hair than my wife. Before the ceremony, I snuck off and had a friend cut it all off. She was shocked!

    Now, I wear hats . . .

  4. As always, you have another great prompt. I love it. Most of my life, I’ve had long hair. Today it is still just past my shoulders. But for about two years, during my Junior High years, I cut it really short (and feathered). Why? Because I wanted to know who I was. Long, blonde hair was my security blanket. Thinking about it now, I think it’s fascinating I was that introspective. Oh, and now I HATE the pictures of myself during that time, but smile remembering it. Oh and one more thing; you’ve been tagged. Go to my blog for more information on it. I bet it’s something you haven’t thought of for a prompt; I hope that is the case anyway. ~Karen

  5. I’m ahead of you on this one Jerry. A couple of years ago I wrote a piece with the title “Honest Hair” about my decision to go back to my natural near-white hair. This was my second time for this transition. I was not quite forty the first time, and my mother was horrified. “You are too young to have gray hair!” Translation: “I’m too young to have a daughter with gray hair.”

    When I went back to color, it was at my daughter’s urging. I rode along with her as she moved out to Seattle after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh. One night we stopped relatively early in a small town in Idaho. There was nothing else to do, so she suggested we color our hair. “You can wash it out if you don’t like it.” (Not true, as I later learned.) We had a great time rubbing goo into each other’s scalps and trashing the white Motel Six towels. The initial color was awful, but I found one that worked better and kept it up for a dozen years.

    Finally this same daughter came home for a visit and declared, “Mom, I think you’d look better if you let your hair go natural.” I didn’t tell her then, but the process was already underway.

    I love my natural “honest” hair. I love the way it looks, the ease of caring for it, its healthy feel, and the money I save on coloring and premium hair care products. I love that the color is the same every day, month in, month out. The roots are the same color as the tips. The way I see things now, my dark brown hair was my beginner hair. This is my real color, and I will never go back. This whole issue reminds me of a comment by Linda Ellerbee in her latest memoir, TAKE BIG BITES: those who most need makeup are the least likely to benefit from it. Ah so, and perhaps also true of hair color.

    But hey, if the rest of you want to continue smooshing goo into your hair every few weeks, or forking over the dough to pay someone to do it for you, I’m cool with that. After all, it’s a great responsibility having naturally frosty hair.

  6. Thanks for the story, Ritergal. And I love that you bring your mother and daughter’s reaction into it. Hair binds us to each other in more ways than we realize until we start telling our stories.

  7. P.S. to Ritergal

    Your story about your mother and daughter reminded me that my mother colored her hair to the very end of her life at 89. Mom loved to swim for exercise, but she always had to arrange her swims around trips to the beauty parlor because the swimming would mess up her hair.

    Jerry

  8. Well written and clearly evocative! I went from brownish to blonde to red highlights, etc. Long hair never suited my round face, but I kept trying. My high school senior picture was taken the day after the prom. Now that hairdo looks as if one could keep a big flock of bees in it….

    Funny story in our family: when I had my out of town guardians meet my fiance, some thirty years ago, we all met in a restaurant in our small town. Just as we settled in, a loud-mouthed kooky gal barreled in and shouted across the deli: “Oh, Michael! What happened to your pony tail?!”

    That would be the tail he’d shed the day before to look more conservatively presentable to my aunt and uncle.

    Now we say “Your pony tail is showing” when anyone in our circle of friends lets loose a comment that dates them, or reveals a liberal status.

    Drop on by my blog to see more elderstories and pictures if you wish.

    Cheers, ~Kathi
    http://mysisterwasastbernard.blogspot.com

  9. Hi Kathi,

    You’ve offered a lot of yourself in this tiny story. Thanks! I visited your blog and find it lovely. I’m so glad you stopped by and connected your world with ours.

    Jerry

  10. Thank you! What a nice way to state that. I’m an old English major by original trade, but my interests are a lot broader now, a bit of hands-on with art and gardening. There’s a Buddhist monastery in our very small town, and the orange-robed gentle folk who live and retreat there are of both sexes. Their shaved heads match their serene smiles, it seems to me.

    Once in the late 70’s when I was briefly editor of a small town press, I got to interview their Roshi, an enormous British woman with a white bulldog to match. Quite a sight with their leader, the happy dog and a row of smiling monks against the background of our Mt. Shasta!

    Cheers, ~Kathi

  11. Hi Kathi,

    Another great comment. Look at how your little stories of you make you so knowable and accessible. This is one of the many things I love about the whole project of memoir writing. Now that we have this magical internet, we can “meet” each other across miles, in an instant. But how do we “know” each other? The answer, I believe, is through stories. I love your line “English major by original trade.” Isn’t it amazing how life extends our capabilities, meandering across places, people, and skills we never imagined possible when we started? Thanks so much for sharing the Roshi story. It evokes a scene. I couldn’t be there then, but you’ve transported me back into your memory to join you now.

    Jerry

  12. Good morning, Jerry et al:

    Wow, you sure do an ego good, sir! I’ve just been catching up on the emails which were still inadvertantly going to my husband’s email box, because I didn’t realize I had to confirm that I was unsubscribing to that mailbox, and I certainly enjoyed all the recent comments about “voice” in that they also stimulated me to think of voice objectively.

    A couple of quick thoughts on the topic (which I should hold until I now get properly re-subscribed into your daily digest, but better catch them as they fly here, if you’ll permit):

    1) I can easily ‘hear’ my own voice and what’s true or not to it, by reading my own work AS I WRITE to myself, whether subvocally or actually outloud. Things that cause a “bump” or discord need reexamination. Sometimes, that only comes with hindsight and reading after it’s posted or written, of course, but after decades as an English major, and avid reader, I guess I’ve developed an internal mechanism, largely subconscious, as to what’s me and what’s not. After decades also of post secondary work, I have an ‘academic’ voice that can churn out term papers like crazy, and a subset of more personal stances, one for most poetry I try, one for articles, etc. (Hmmm….must think a bit more about how many classifications I have already…)

    2) The specific vocabulary words I choose, the ‘color’ of my adjectives;setting scenes with a very sparse set of possibilities, etc. depend I think on the tone I’m trying to achieve—serious,ironic,revelatory, sad, etc. A false word, like a false step, just feels wrong or bumpy or ajar to my ear and head.

    3) I often go away, literally or figuratively, from the material for a bit, to let it cook or congeal, probably in another compartment of my brain, left or right sided or both, I’ll have to think on some more. Probably both, though

    Well, I can see I need to think on these things some more, but feel free to make these clickable to the group in the main thread if you like, and I’ll try to trundle along in a short time! Thanks very much again for the comments, which I consider very complimentary!!

    Cheers,

    ~Kathi, from a nice cool morning in the many-treed woods where we live, though it will heat up close to 100 before the day has flowed along to a fire-smokey sunset….

  13. PS, Jerry and friends:

    In rereading my post just now, I spotted something. Check my last paragraph where I say, “Well I can SEE I need to THINK…” If we as writers remember to consider our primary learning style, we might have another clue to our processing.

    Even though I emphasized my auditory side in sharing how I process my sentences and paragraphs, I concluded (unconsciously) with the visual sense which predominates for me. I am a very visual learner and processor, seeing pictures in my head and imagination, but I also use my secondary style, auditory, to check the overall tone or feeling or effect of my written words.

    The third major style we can use, other than a combination of any of the main three, is kinesthetic, or tactile. “I can really get my arms around that,” or “That remark really touched me” alerts us to the preference (often unconscious) we are using (or hearing or seeing or touching)!

    Paying attention to thoughts, our cogntive realm, or feelings, our emotional one, is of course another point of differing focus we should be consciously using and creating.

    Cheers, ~KWW

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