An American Hair Story by Stephanie J. Gates

Come meet my college girlfriend from National Louis University, Stephanie J. Gates.   She is an educator, freelance writer and blogger in the gorgeous city of Chicago.

I learned a lot from Stephanie about hair.  I thought I had trouble trying to tame my bushy red waves at a time when everyone else had straight-as-a-pin-down-to-there-hair.  Stephanie even came up with a grading system for hair texture that ranks hair just like in school, A-F.  Neither of us fair very well using that system.  I like her new grading system so much better.  I guess we all must come to terms with our own special brand of beauty.

Stephanie’s essays, articles and commentary pieces have appeared in online and print publications such as Being Single Magazine, Mahogany, N’DIGO magapaper, Pen and Prosper, and several popular anthologies.

Stephanie blogs at http://stephaniesepiphanies.blogspot.com/  Please hop on over and check out what she has to say.  Her blog is a full of beauty as she is.

Here is Stephanie’s Little Girl Story:

Once when I was a little girl, I defied the cultural norm and in the process met my authentic self. I lost her, but I have since reclaimed her. This is my little girl story.

Now

Standing in the food court in Evergreen Plaza, I hear a woman talking on her phone, but because cell phones are the white noise of the new millennium she quickly fades into the background as I concentrate on something really important—what to eat. Then I hear her say, “Excuse me. You are beautiful! That looks good on you. I just wanted to tell you that,” she says with a nod and a smile. I thank her and feel myself grow as her comment reaches inside and soothes my soul.  Here is a Black woman complimenting another Black woman on the way she wears her hair—short and natural. I am full and I haven’t eaten.

I love my hair! (or lack of it) and I believe people respond to my closely cropped natural hair because of the energy I send to the universe. Even though my hair has been the same length for more than a decade, and many people have only known me with it short, it is still a topic of conversation no matter where I go. In the airport, a man asks, “Can I rub your head?” He is bald and says that women always ask to rub his head, so he wants to know what it feels like to rub someone else’s. I laugh and oblige him even though I don’t normally like for people to touch my hair—one of my idiosyncrasies.

It amazes people who in a long-hair obsessed culture, I choose to wear mine short. It is especially an oddity in the African-American community where women are forever chasing the elusive White Girl Toss-and-Swing.  Some say it takes confidence to do what I’ve done,  and maybe it does.  I’ve found what works for me and I’m happy.

Then

I remember as a child in my community, those blacks with European features and physical characteristics were favored. So, like many little girls of color I wanted to be light, bright and damned near white with long, “good” hair and “pretty” eyes. My complexion is caramel, my eyes are light brown, and my hair at the time was shoulder length, so the only thing “wrong” with me was my hair texture. It needed to be Grade “A” or better, but without Indian or mixed-raced blood in my family, the best I could hope was “B” with a little help from a hot comb. I couldn’t have good hair in real life, so I made up for it in my fantasy life. All the women in my drawings at school had hair cascading down their backs.

When the Black is Beautiful wave hit, I was swept up in the momentum of the moment. It was one of the happiest periods in my life. I was beautiful just the way I was because my seven year-old self got a full taste of blackness. At the height of the Black Power movement black folks were sporting dashikis and afros, and the sound of James Brown “Say it Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud” reverberated in the air. The annual Easter ritual of the wash, press and curl was replaced with the afro, and I wanted to convert. My forever-press-and-curl mother relented and let me wear a ‘fro. There I was Easter Sunday in a white dress with navy blue trim on the sleeves, a thin patent leather matching belt, and black patented leather shoes all set off by an afro that was bigger than me.

Look at that beautiful, confident girl.

At school I began drawing men and women with huge afros and platform shoes. I accessorized the women with big hoop earrings and the men with sideburns. My teacher prohibited me from drawing people with afros, but after a conference with my sister, my teacher said I could draw people with afros as long as I made their naturals smaller. It didn’t matter much because my afro fascination was short-lived, and I soon returned to the “real” world of long, straight hair, but the little girl with the big fro lived in my heart.

Now

I am sitting in the airport in Denver dipping my overcooked chicken strips in some honey mustard sauce. I really don’t like airport food, I am thinking to myself. An older white woman with a bleached blonde flip and false eyelash sits on the stool at the counter next to me. She begins slicing and eating the polish sausage, but leaving the bread. That’s smart, a good way to cut down on carb consumption, I mentally note to myself. She turns and tells me, “That haircut looks good on you.”

“Thank you,” I reply

“It’s a good cut for the summer.”

I nod my agreement, and continue eating.

I am full.

10 thoughts on “An American Hair Story by Stephanie J. Gates

  1. This is absolutely gorgeous! I’m all for natural. It makes me just as sad to see bleach blonde and fake eyelashes, enormous fake boobs and goggle-eyed spray tans. Unnatural expectations know no ethnic boundaries. We are beautiful, just the way God made us!

  2. Thanks Kim and Adela for the wonderful compliments. It’s sometimes challenging to claim your beauty when society tells you otherwise what ever that “other” might be. We must learn to be comfortable in this skin we live in.

  3. Great article: engaging, and the hook was that introduction. Excellent! I don’t have the energy to address self-hatred in the Black community except to say it is a direct result of slavery and oppression thereafter.

  4. I read an interesting article that analyzed the whole Gabby Hair Debate. It said that the story was more media hype than anything else because there weren’t than many negative comments about Gabby’s hair. But I think it was still unfortunate because Gabby actually felt the need to respond to the story.

    • I thank you for opening my eyes about the energy devoted to hair in the Black community. As for Gabby, I’m glad this was mostly media hype. I cannot fathom what is wrong with her hair. It’s in a neat pony-tail, just like every other gymnast.

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