Perhaps one of the worst kept secrets in the United States is the amount of money black women spend on their hair. I was once a slave to that multi-billion dollar industry, so I can testify how people have literally built fortunes on a societal construct that caused black women to do whatever it took to get their hair ‘right’. I started perming my hair at the age of 13 because I was tired of getting my ears singed by the family straightening comb. It would never do to walk around with the natural hair God gave you…..”nappiness” was the equivalent of four letter words that were not allowed in my household, neighborhood or the world in general.
We had all bought into the Madison Avenue version of what beautiful hair looked like. It was long, flowing, straight, unkinky, ‘manageable’ locks that men could run their fingers through with ease. To have anything less meant that you weren’t beautiful….of course, none of this was spoken. It didn’t need to be. All one needed to do was to visit the neighborhood beauty salons, check out the neighborhood beauty supply stores and they would have their irrefutable answer.
Even black men were not immune to this reality. Before the depression, black men began to chemically alter their hair using something called congolene. In order to ‘conk’ your hair, this chemical had to be quickly applied to the hair with protective gloves and rinsed out immediately because it was made of LYE. To this day, you will find some who use texturizers to straighten and give their hair a wavy texture.READ MORE
I usually try to post on Sundays, but I was hesitant to share a story….my story with the rest of the readers of this blog. However, after some thought, I feel that in order to understand someone; you must know where they came from. A few years ago, I wrote a piece about a lifelong struggle and I feel that it’s appropriate to share here because I want to convey the lesson of acceptance and gratitude. Sometimes, we get so bogged down in our everyday life that we forget to take a step back and take inventory of what we are blessed to have whether that be friends, family, careers, money to do things we love like traveling, or simply life itself.
Some times we make the mistake of living as if we alone made our successes possible; we forget that more often than not, there has been someone along the way who extended the hand of friendship and love to get us to that place. So, this post is a call to action. Whatever challenges you may be going through, remember that someone else may be carrying a larger burden. What are you doing to reach out to someone else? How are you giving back? Whether it’s giving your time, money or attention to someone less fortunate, do something. The best medicine for what ails you is to give back to others. Whenever you find yourself wallowing in self-pity, go out and help someone else. Pay it forward in whatever way that you can.
I share this story not to elicit sympathy, but to remind others that we are more fortunate than we realize. My story is long, but the lesson is valuable. I hope it affects the life of someone who is reading it.
“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” — Albert Schweitzer
I was six when I first learned that I was different. None of my classmates seemed to want to talk to me much or play with me during recess. I didn’t exactly understand the giggles and the pointing. My innocence made me believe that the pointing meant that they were choosing me; that I was special and being singled out to be their very best friend. I learned that I was wrong when the pointing abruptly ended with howling laughter and my new ‘friends’ turning away to continue their schoolyard games.
At home, I had lots of playmates; nine siblings who played hide and go seek, dodge ball, London Bridge and other rough and tumble games on our rather large lot that surrounded our roomy brick house. As we grew older, it became more difficult to find a willing partner because those siblings didn’t want to be around me as much as they began to hear the same giggles from their friends. As I grew old enough to understand my differences as explained by the plastic surgeon that operated on my six week old body for the first time, I became ashamed of what I perceived God had allowed me to be.
I was born with a cleft palate, hare lip and my nose has a flattened appearance that some would say rendered me unattractive. My mother, ever so helpful, would always take her thumb and forefinger and run it down the bridge of my nose, as if by doing that she would will it to straighten or extend its length. I know that she meant well, now. But it hurt deeply as it was happening, but I didn’t dare ask her to stop because it would shatter her dream of having six beautiful daughters instead of five. As you can imagine, the surgery that I had in 1958, wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, but I was told it was pretty exceptional work given the time.
I had regular appointments with my Plastic surgeon, an absolutely gorgeous man that I had a crush on since forever, who said that they would have to wait until I reached majority to complete my battery of surgeries. I spent years waiting for the day when I would reach the age of eighteen. Finally, I walked into his office to get the details of the surgery when I was told that I must have misunderstood. There were to be no further surgeries, there was nothing more that could be done. I walked out dejected; but happy that mother wasn’t there with me to hear those words. I wasn’t sure who would be the most let down. But that day, I am certain that I would have won that battle. I believe that they had hoped new technologies would exist in 1976, but they were wrong. My doctor has since passed and after googling his name, I’ve learned that his son has followed his footsteps, but in the Palo Alto area. I wish that I could tell him that his father meant a lot to me, and that I know that he did what he could and I appreciated it.
As painful as it was, it was a relief to know that I didn’t have to keep on hoping for something that was destined to never come. It kept me living in a parallel world where I convinced myself whenever someone laughed right in my face, that one day, they would fall at my feet and worship the ground that I walked on. I had lots of plans for that new face that Dr. Marzoni would give me, I had picked out lipstick colors and bronze foundations that would be laughable on the face that I currently owned, but so gorgeous on the face that would be crafted for me. I wasn’t living in the ‘now’, I was living in the ‘what may be’. It kept me from living an authentic life, so I exhaled when I left that office and I never looked back. It was time to begin my life with the cards that I was dealt. I felt free.
Over the next thirty years, I eventually learned to stop apologizing for existing. I learned to not turn my head away in shame whenever people looked at me. I learned to stop questioning a man’s motives for taking an interest in me. Most of the time, they did truly like me. There were no ulterior motives or hidden agendas. Still, I became more empathetic, helpful, generous and kind….maybe to a fault. Because I felt that in order for me to be loved and accepted I had to go above and beyond to first of all, not be laughed at and secondly to be befriended. Over time, I learned that I did have a good heart and that did not happen merely as a result of my insecurity. I loved people despite everything and I love helping because I believe that is my calling.
Perhaps, it’s because I can identify with rejection, it allows me to reach out to others in similar pain. I have become more forgiving because that is where the healing begins. I remember my brother who is one year younger crying to me that he was so glad when I graduated elementary school and started high school because finally the kids would stop making fun of him because of me. I know that he was hurting….so I forgive him because it was his pain that was talking, not him.
I had considered going back to see if technology had caught up with my lifelong dreams, but decided in the end not to pursue it. Maybe for the same reasons that Barbra Streisand chose not to have rhinoplasty or Jewel chooses not to fix her front teeth……maybe it’s ok to just BE and if others choose to catch up…then good for them.
As difficult as it was for me to walk downtown and pass people who stood against the storefronts waiting for their respective buses, to force myself to look down so that they wouldn’t notice me….God gave me a revelation that helped me to get over my fear. One day, as I stood against those same storefronts, a young girl exited the bus. I didn’t notice at first until I heard the audible gasps coming from the bystanders. She was quite possibly the bravest girl that I had ever seen in my life. Her facial features were so distorted that she resembled a cross between the elephant man and a kaleidoscopic view. The most beautifully ironic thing about that countenance was a bright, gleaming smile radiating from somewhere deep down inside. I was stunned. I was ashamed. I thought about how I could have the gall to question God when this wonderful spirit who scared so many, bounced gleefully down the sidewalk, oblivious to those who thought themselves superior.
I think, sometimes, God puts us right where we need to be at a particular time in our lives. That scene is forever etched in my memory. I think back to that time so long ago, when a girl who in most people’s eyes should be banished to the dark recesses of the family basement, helped me to realize that old saying “God made me and God does not make junk!” I will never be what some call beautiful, but I believe that I am beautiful where it counts, when all of the superficial physical beautiful is a distant memory; I know that my life has more meaning because I believe that the beauty lies within my soul.
I am reminded of a song by of one of my favorite gospel groups, The Clark Sisters….led by Karen Clark Sheard. This song is called “Simply Yes”….the lyrics in the middle of the song means so much to me and is appropriate here: “my circumstance allowed a second chance for me to find love, or was it that love found me?”