After an otherwise dynamic weekend where I spoke at the Brown University “Black Hair in White Spaces” event (write up, pics and video coming soon!) and helped facilitate the first “All Sisters Evolving Together ASOMGirls Program Mentoring Day” (yes, this write up is coming too!), I was in my Black Girl Element and was feeling empowered and hopeful about my community.
Then…I saw this meme featuring yours truly:
And I was reminded that our work is so not yet done.
Because once again, my picture was being used as part of a meme to represent the type of natural Black hair that is undesirable. Even for natural Black women.
A Picture Is Worth 1000 Words
I have to be honest with you. Considering the history of this photo, I’m used to getting random emails and social media notices where people let me know that this picture is featured in some ad or on some website or another. But it’s still jarring to be reminded that an image of your hair (let alone an image that you actually like) can be used as a valid symbol of what our community has been taught to despise.
It is an especially prickly moment when the people sending the image around also happen to be Black.
The ass-hat “brotha” who was pushing this particular image has a twitter stream full of some of the most diabolical things one can say about Black people in general and Black women in particular. So it makes sense that this is the type of person who would send around a meme using pictures of Black women this way.
And even though dude was trying to be mean, what’s sad is that his sentiments are really just a more extreme version of the way that many of us were taught to feel about our hair (and skin color, and noses, and lips, etc.). As pathetic as he was, at least he was bold enough to publicly state how he really feels.
Conversely, many of us secretly agree with these concepts and pray that our type 7G kinky, nappy, coily hair will somehow transcend the pulls of Mother Africa. More than a few of us long for the day we can find a way to make our “natural” hair cascade down our back as opposed to standing up on our heads…and still get to claim it is “natural.”
None of this is our fault. But family, we have to remember: Black hair grows up and out towards the sun. Not down. And that is ok.
Been There, Thought That
As I discussed in my book Afro State of Mind: Memories of a Nappy Headed Black Girl, when that picture first began circulating, I read a lot of social media comments that went something like this:
She has the face for natural hair, so going natural probably wasn’t an issue for her.
I would go natural, but only if my hair could look like that.
I love her hair on her. But I could never wear my hair to work in that style.
I would wear my hair natural, but no Black man is ever going to marry a woman with hair that looks like that.
These types of comments surprised me because as much as I viscerally rejected them, I also understood exactly where they were coming from. Yes, I was happy to be nappy, now, but there was a time in my own life when I felt those very sentiments and had the exact same critiques of other women who wore natural hair. It was a surprising reminder that no matter our hair texture or political affiliation as Black women our hair is still vitally central to how we see ourselves. It was also clear that collectively, we lack a framework for understanding how our hair and society’s response to it, shapes a significant part of Black identity.
When I wrote about Sheryl Underwood’s (a Black woman comedian) crass statements about Black hair being “nasty,” I noted that:
Even though my story is personal to me, my experiences as a Black girl aren’t unique. We are all—Black, White and otherwise—bombarded on a daily basis with messages that tell us that being Black is the least valuable. We are surrounded by a 24/7 message machine that pumps out a consistent message: “Black skin/culture/hair/features/life are less than.”
Now, I too grew up in a household that instilled Black pride. Like Underwood I had parents, aunts and uncles who did their best to present a different message about Blackness. I was given books, exposed to history and taught to see myself as descendant of a strong and beautiful people.
But I still wanted “good” hair and I still thought light skin and light eyes were more valuable. I could rattle off facts about Black history…but that did not necessarily translate into believing that my own very kinky/coily/nappy hair and skin were pretty.
Meme’s like this are a stark reminder of what we’re up against as a community. It’s a reminder of the strength of the White supremacy and Black inferiority marketing campaign.
You Are the Result of What You Think About
When my company provides workshops on culturally responsive teaching we often say that one of the worst things about slavery is not how other people see us or treat us, but how we as Black people have been taught to see ourselves and treat each other. The success of slavery depended on convincing White people that they were superior and that Blacks were inferior.
But what we don’t often focus on is that slavery also had to convince Black people of the same thing.
“As uncomfortable as it is to believe, slavery didn’t just turn White people into White supremacists. It essentially created a cultural value system that turned me into one too. My indoctrination had turned me into someone who valued Whiteness above all else. As a result of actually believing the negative messages about Blackness and the positive messages about Whiteness I had essentially turned into a high functioning Black White supremacist…”
The more I travel and speak out about these issues the more I realize that this is true for people of African descent throughout the Diaspora. We have to remember that:
The messages that galvanized the White community around the idea that they were superior had a powerful influence on Black thought. Black culture was (and still is) targeted with the messages that proclaimed Black inferiority. Black culture became susceptible to the programming that declared Whiteness was more valuable. How could it not? What cultural tools were there that the masses of Black people could have used that would have prevented buying into this concept, en masse?
What books could enslaved Africans turn to for lessons about the legacy of their historic greatness—a history that belies any notion of Black inferiority? None, since getting caught with a book could literally cost you your eyes if not your life.
What houses of worship could they attend where they saw their own reflection in the image of the deity? None, since most states regulated what type of sermons could be preached to Black people … and required oversight of Black preachers by White overseers who had to pre-approve the substance of the message.
What stories could enslaved Africans tell themselves that would counter the lies that said they were inferior? None, since slave masters made sure Africans stopped speaking their languages and severed their connections with the stories and belief systems that said they too were a reflection of God. Blacks were stripped of all of the cultural tools and rituals that healthy people and societies normally use to help them cope in times of trauma.”
Without the protection of culture, and facing some of the most extreme brutality known to man, enslaved Africans—and today their descendants—were not able to collectively reject the messages of Black inferiority that saturated the air around them.
How to Make Slavery “Successful”
Every time I see Harriet Tubman’s quote “I feed a 1000 slaves. I could have freed a thousand more had they known they were slaves,” I’m reminded of this phenomenon. Harriet, aka the Moses of Her People, was limited in her ability to help free her people because too many of them had been forced to accept that “slave” was their appropriate status.
Far too many Black people—and particularly men like the “brotha” who posted that meme—struggle with feelings of inadequacy because of messages first formed during slavery and colonization.
Far too many Black people believe that “inferior” is the appropriate designation for natural Black hair.
Far too many Black people believe that “inferior” is the appropriate classification of dark Brown skin.
Far too many of us bemoan the fact that neither our bodies, our hair, nor our skin color can possibly fit within the paradigms of a beauty standard that doesn’t include us.
What most of us fail to realize is that this “beauty standard” was explicitly designed to exclude non-White people. The European “beauty standard” was one of the many weapons used by White people in order to keep the justification for slavery going.
But, as I’ve said before on these pages: the hardest thing to do is to love a people taught to hate themselves. Which means that being fierce in our embrace of Black community love is one of the most important things we can do.
Let me say that again this way: When your people were taught to hate who they are, because of who they are and how they look, then you must expect that they will hate you too. And you must know that and choose to love them anyway.
We must choose to love Black White supremacists harder then we were taught to hate Blackness. Because it is pervasive anti-Blackness—both from outside and from inside our community—that is at the root of our pain.
Pro-Black love is at the root of our healing.
This is the only way that we can hope to create enough space for people like the creator of this meme to grow. Loving our people is the only way that we can tap into the humanity that White supremacy, slavery and colonization tried to beat out of us.
We have a lot of work to do.