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.
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.
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
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