Hairitage by Rev. Marti Keller & Kim Green
Rev. Marti Keller
From the writings of Alice Walker, author, among many works, of The Color Purple:
What does it mean to self-eradicate? I engage this question every time I play with my hair, which is turning gray. I like the gray and yet there are times I feel bored by it. As I experiment with various colorations, wanting to honor my gray and yet wanting to honor my passion for variety and change, I feel concern for my own integrity. Some of my friends laugh at me: it doesn’t matter at all what you do with your hair, they say. Wear it blond, wear it red. Who cares?
But we are a people who have had to suffer for the right to wear our hair as it grows, a prerequisite for loving it, and ourselves, as we are; the struggle for hair liberation does not, I fear, stop at nappiness. What about salt and pepper? What about gray? What about white? And yet, my friends are right to honor the freedom of spirit implicit in choosing red or blond hair. If indeed it if it is a freedom of spirit and not the sad response of the briefly free to the siren call of modern colonial advertising. If it is a freedom of choice uncontaminated by fear.
Dreadlocks. What kept me away from them so long? The voices: You’ll never get a job. You’ll never get a man. You’ll never be respected. You’ll never fit in.
After a tsunami of personal growth, I craved liberty more than any of those things.
But, I’ve had to stop watching the news.
There are too many young black men with dreadlocks who monopolize air time. I sense their tangled locks are perhaps the only strands of freedom that they have left.
But, I worry that in some minds, our images are interchangeable. In me you see them and in them you see me. But, I’m not the guy who wants to harm you, steal from you, violate you in any way.
I am just a woman who also has a deep need to be free from the pressure of having to look like…you. Perhaps those young men came to be who they are, because they too want to be seen. Maybe they are choked by their absence of words. And,
I’m the “voice” they never had.
Me and those young men on the news are not the same, but we are connected …they are the “struggle” part of me.
Rev. Marti Keller
There’s a poem I wrote as an adult about a memory, real or otherwise, of a party I attended, or perhaps it was just an accidental gathering at a noon hour on my high school quad. The other girls were weaving daisy chains. I was weaving daydreams. Their chain of talk, I wrote, was linked by insults, their hair the color those yellow daisies, straight and long. In my words from that poem, which is one of the readings in the appendix of the most recent multi-cultural adult curriculum from our UU association—Building the World We Dream About-
“I huddled by them…sallow-skinned, darkly curled that would not iron blond.”
As writer Leah Berkenwal wrote in her online essay “ What is Jewish Hair?” it is tricky to define, since Judaism can include people from any racial or ethnic background. She observed that while Jewish people are known to have a variety of hair colors, as well as levels of curliness, “Jewish hair” seems to refer to dark, curly and often frizzy hair.
Leah pointed out that while the politics of Black Hair and Jewish Hair are not comparable, it is, she wrote, safe to say that Jewish women have felt a pressure to look like the mainstream images we see in magazines, which reinforces the idea that one must look white to look beautiful. Many curly-haired Jewish women straighten their hair, and some use chemical treatments for more permanent results. She recalled that the only time she had seen her older cousin’s naturally curly hair was in her Bat Mitzvah photos from 1988.
I look at the photos from my own childhood—the curly topped toddler in a beach shot; the eight year old in her school picture, curls contained, barely, in two messy braids; and the junior high school one, of a miserable looking 12 year old, with a bad haircut, curls tight.
And then somewhere between the darkly curled memory of me in a sea of straight blond tresses, my hair is also straight and long—though not blond . I have somehow tamed it, made it, and me fit in, a little anyway. I have taken myself with babysitting or waitressing money from the senior citizen tower, to the salon at Joseph Magnin’s in the fancy shopping center a few miles away. Whatever they did to my hair, whatever product they applied, or how much heat, it is not Jewish hair anymore. In my graduation portrait, in my first passport application at age 21, the thick eyebrows are there and the maybe somewhat pronounced nose, but the hair is shiny, it is pin straight. It is controlled.
How will we ever connect to each other without connecting to ourselves? We’ve morphed into a bland mess of domestic xenophobia? Our peace will come only when we embrace all of ourselves, taking the gifts that are ours uniquely and giving them to others. I don’t want to leave any parts of myself in the dust. A traitor I am not. Authentic I shall be.
Rev. Marti Keller
What does it mean to self-eradicate? Alice Walker asks us, each time she plays with her hair, changes it out, not by slathering it with toxic chemicals, but by—at one time in her life anyway–coloring it up. Are these experimentations an act of freedom of choice, she wonders out loud, or from the perspective of African American comedian Chris Rock, listening to the plaintive question of his young daughter about whether she had “good hair,” do black women spend countless hours and hundreds of dollars in hair salons to make their hair straighter and silkier because they want to look white?
How about me and other Jewish women, other ethnic women, who in years past, perhaps even now have been considered, or have come to view themselves also as not really white, or at least not quite white, by the standards of beauty, of acceptable looks, of fitting in, they see around them? And in at least that arena, needing to find a way to rectify this.
Just this past week, there was a style section article in the New York Times written by an Italian American, Tricia Romano, who recalled that when she was six years old she begged her mother to get what was called a wedge- cut Dorothy Hamill, ridding herself of her short curly hair, that in her words was never going to look stick straight and orderly, at least not without a lot of work.
She reported that in Los Angeles, a new salon called Drybar has been so successful since it opened last winter that five more are scheduled to open in the next six months. In August, the store sold nearly 3,000 $20 blowouts in a single day, and as she noted, that’s an awful lot of sometimes painful yanks of a bristly round brush and time under a hot, menacing hair dryer.
Historically, we are told, a straight sleek hair texture has been regarded as more feminine and attractive. Look at the blunt cut Flapper cuts of the 1920’s, the Breck Girls, the long parted look of the sixties favored by hippies and mods alike, achieved in many cases by substituting large orange juice cans for rollers, like my best friend Janis.
Open up any magazine, said the owner of the Drybar salon, profiting mightily from this preference, and see the professional, sleek, put together straight hair. I mean gosh, she says, look at Barbie- she had great hair.
Let’s do look at Barbie, blogger Leah Koenig, urges, listing some of this iconic doll’s personas: model, ballerina, fashionista, astronaut, rockstar…Jew?
Pointing out for many of us that did not know, that Barbie was created in l959 by Ruth Handler, a Jewish woman. The doll was named after Handler’s daughter Barbara, but with her blond-bombshell image and perfect nose did not particularly resemble her namesake. Did the doll’s creator, we are asked, bruised by a history of anti-Semitism and marginalization, and living in a world before cultural specificity was, in the words of Leah Koenig—cool—give her daughter and the rest of us young girls who were not Jewish yet another completely assimilated model of what was beautiful, what was OK, what was good. My childhood, the America I grew up in and took my identity cues from.
But what about today’s generation, she asks? Are we free, truly free, to reclaim the Jewish identity that was so stifled in previous generations, to be, as one writer put it, “pro-choice”, in our identity? Not acting out of fear, or shame, or coercion, but out of unfettered liberation?
Using what might seem to be an over-simplistic, over-analyzed example: exchanging trademark (or what might be viewed as trademark) frizzy hair for straighter hair. One woman said that even now when she decided to go for a Brazilian straightening, she was accused of “letting her people down.”
This at a time when controversy or at least conversation erupted in the Jewish community when the first Jewish American Girl doll, was added to this popular line a year or so ago. Some were upset that the doll looked stereotypically Jewish, while others thought it didn’t look Jewish enough. Like other minorities, one woman commented, we are still stuck between our desire to embrace our ethnicism and embrace our diversity as a community. According to the official website description of Rebecca Rubin, the character of the doll, who is said to be a 9 year old who moved to the Lower East Side with her Russian-Jewish parents, siblings and her grand-bubies, unlike her Hispanic peer Josefina or Addy, the African-American doll, we are reassured she does not have distinct ethnic features. Rather long , only slightly wavy reddish brown hair.
Or a less popular contemporary 2010 counterpart, the Gali Girl doll, who, while representing “Jewish” values such modesty, kindness, respect and charity, has uniformly straight hair, in fact , we are told, beautiful, brushable, styleable hair.
All of this came up for me several decades after my last round of relaxing, of riding that bike to Stanford Shopping Center, in a school and a town full of Smiths and Prestons and Hamiltons and Martins and taming one obvious indicator that I was not of their tribe. No longer adolescent, a much more than middle-aged adult— I chose to do it again. I underwent that expensive Brazilian Keratin treatment, which has been touted as more natural, cheaper, and less labor intensive than some of the other options.
I did it, or so I told myself, to make my life easier—so much frizz, some much hair weight in this endlessly hot summer was making me even crankier , and after all we were traveling abroad carry-one this time, without hair diffusers and my usual assortment of mousses and conditioners.
With some amount of guilt, as soon as I saw myself in the salon mirror, I felt relieved for another reason, and freer, that past sense of inching closer to acceptability, to ethnic anonymity returning. And then learning that this supposedly benign process is, like the types of chemical used on the hair of black women, potentially dangerous, even life-threatening. That the formaldehyde, the embalming fluid, which hastens the transformation from frizzy and kinky to smooth has killed at least one woman and endangered the health of the beauticians who perform the procedure.
Did I “fix” my hair in the service of cosmetic freedom—or in service of the persistent identity conversion, hiding and covering that those “differing” experience in an effort to literally survive or help ease the societal pressures that still haunt and oppress?
In what has been called a remarkable and elegant work Covering :The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights ,Yale law professor Kenji Yoshino, a gay Asian American, argues that while we have as a society come to some consensus against penalizing people for differences based on race, sex, sexual orientation, religion and disability, we still routinely deny equal treatment to people who refuse to downplay differences along these lines.
He proposes that in the developmental stages of identity-claiming, from denying and then hiding to embracing, we first are asked to convert to another way of being in the world, as my most likely distant Sephardic Jewish relatives did in 1492 when Ferninand and Isabella gave the Jews of Spain the choice of conversion to Christianity or expulsion.
Or, as Yoshino points out, when gays were forced to or have chosen to try to “convert” to heterosexuality. In his case, as a graduate student at Oxford University, attending chapel services regularly seeking to, in his words, kill his gay self. This phase—and all the phases he has identified, happen in groups as well as for individuals, with many gays routinely asked to convert to straight identity through lobotomies, electroshock therapy, and psychoanalysis.
In the second phase, we accept our identity but are forced to hide it from others, attempting to pass as someone other than we are– as when Jewish people and others changed their names and other identity markers in World War 11 , especially those of children who were adopted, the blonder and more Aryan-looking being the most likely to succeed in surviving.
Or in more benign, but still repressive times not so long ago in this country, changing names and even noses to avoid restrictive quotas in colleges and job and housing discrimination. Or don’t ask, don’t tell, as in the official policy of the US military, which up to this point was not considered a civil rights violation, but has now been judged at least in one court as violating the First Amendment rights of gays and lesbians.
And then identity covering, as Yoshino defines it, concealing what is or what we still perceive as a disfavored identity—for Jews. Gays, and others, the question shifting, we are told, from whether they should convert or pass, but how to tone it down: dress white, smooth your hair, abandon street talk, play like men, hide paraphernalia used to manage your disabilities, drop your veils, not be too Jewish or too gay. Because it is still unacceptable and even unsafe to do otherwise.
We all cover in some way- Yoshino believes: in appearance, how we present ourselves to the world; in affiliation; in activism—how we politicize our identities; and in association: who we pick to be our fellow travelers, lovers, friends and colleagues. Ways in which we mute our identities.
How then shall we, in the spirit of unity, assimilate to each other? How shall we cultivate the opposite of covering? How, as Kenji Yoshino, asks us, shall we unearth the selves we have buried, or at least overlooked so we can share the many gifts they bring . The stories, the songs and dances, the world views, the wisdom, the authenticity.
Her name was Amy. I remember that Amy was short, loud, from Long Island and Jewish. Amy had shiny straight black hair and a Long Island accent that I will never forget. She was one of the cool ones. Amy was bold, which is what made her so cool. She was so bold that she came right out and said to me, “you’re biracial right?”
And at that moment before answering her, I had options. I had been accused of being white before. Not due to my physical appearance, clearly. But for Amy, there was something about me that she could relate to. The way I dressed, my manner, my speech, that made it possible, that perhaps…, maybe, I might not, could not be totally black…
But I am.
Suddenly, I needed Amy to know that. She needed to know that someone totally black could be as cool as her; could fathom her jokes; could make her laugh, long and hard…Could even be her first black friend.
That was the first day that I clung. I clung to this war-torn identity that had been bestowed upon me. I clung to this crown of Blackness that had been etched in my soul. Amy needed to know that although I am a daughter of oppression, with a history that is as tragic as it is magnificent, in my wholeness, I am her equal.
If only I could have been who I am today in Amy’s presence, she might have been the real Amy for me; the Amy with the black curls, not a false sheet of hair that had been burned, maimed and flat-ironed. Imagine Amy and me dancing under the light of our truths. Instead we both were hiding from ourselves; covering, bogged down by fear and insecurity…needing to fit in as best we could. Becoming traitors.
Perhaps Amy assumed that I was biracial because she needed to make sense of her connection with me. Maybe it was my punk rock attire or my New York sarcasm. Perhaps it was my chemically straightened hair; brittle and petrified by chemical overload. That perpetrating hair of mine had gained me entrée into the white world, with the least resistance. I was young. I hadn’t yet learned the significance of the term least resistance.
Isn’t it intriguing how we all protect ourselves from our truths and our fears? We do this while secretly tugging at our tattered cultural threads, trying to make them flatter, tidier and more invisible. Isn’t it bizarre how we change our names to make them more pronounceable, burn our hair to make it go limp; how we deny our roots by choosing to be bland, or should I say, more mainstream? Who do we do all of this for? And, why? Our threads sewn together create the fabric of who we are and what we are made of.
At that crucial moment with Amy, I wanted my threads to show.
Both of my parents were fully Black. However, I admit, my environment messed with my core. One’s environment can be an insidious thing, if you’re not careful. Environment can change you, flatten you, and make you dull. You see, I was raised by books and burdened by questions. I learned the ways of blue bloods and was embraced by white girls who called themselves my sisters. What kind of sister was I, not being true about whom I was? I was being a copycat. Luckily, I had the influence of my bitter, Black father who tried to balance out my naiveté. He hammered me with the facts of our history and our victories, but I was often too busy, hiding my threads; blending in with my white sisters.
In 1993, 5 years after Amy, I wrote an essay that appeared in Essence Magazine that struck a nerve with my real sisters, who approached me for years after it appeared, praising my courage to call it like it is. It was a formal lamentation about hair. The essay was entitled, “Living the Lye” the Lye, L-Y-E, was a reference to Sodium Hydroxide, the noxious chemical that burns through black people’s scalps in order to tame their unruly hair. It works well, while simultaneously killing our self-esteem. I know. The Lye did it to me.
My essay began: “This is a story of rage, shame and rain. Or better yet, fear, loathing and ignorance. This is the story of my hair the most disruptive part of my life.” The essay continued, I quote, “I suffered the grueling embarrassment of being the only black child in a sea of blondes, helpless and unable to answer the gaping questions and comments of those who wanted to touch and understand my ever-changing hair.”
If only I could have been born into a world that doesn’t blow with the constant wind of whiteness as if it were fresh air. If only I lived in a world where color and curl did not mean pollution. If only I was born with the sense that I was OK just as I was, I would not be standing here today with Reverend Marti Keller baring our souls’ discontent as curly-haired women in a silky smooth world.
But what a blessing opposition has been. Without adversity, I would have never been as strong or as committed to resisting that which does not fit. I would have never gained the X-Ray vision to see through things that can destroy my spirit. Without being outside the mainstream, I could have never found a comfortable place for myself inside.
The essay ended on a somewhat prophetic note, I quote: “There will come a day when I will cancel the last “retouch” appointment and I will let my hair grow thick with life and dance wildly atop my head, with the electric energy and confident control that only ours can.”
That was 17 years ago. Only 7 years ago, I decided to walk my talk. I let my hair dance wildly atop my head with electric energy. As my tiny natural twists grew and stood up for themselves, all over my head, my elders disapproved. My friends worried that I would be unemployable. For educated black men, suddenly I was no longer their “type.” The beauty industry collectively shook their heads at my foolish decision to go natural. But with the gift of patience, I knew whom I would be, if I just held my ground. As I expected, my twists grew and grew; taming themselves…calmly lining up next to their own kind, together weaving themselves into a mane; my crown.
I now enter the world, with a sigh of relief, as the woman I envisioned myself to be; as strong and healthy as my natural locks. My spirit resists. When the visual cues of the world beg me to go straight: to straighten out myself and my hair…when the world begs me to look more like Amy, who is trying to look like Mary Anne…I can see through the layers of duplicity and I walk the other way.
This constant itch of my threads, reminds me who I am. Any suggestion that encourages me to lose myself, I must ignore. My threads are all I have.