Growing up, my sister and I sometimes spent the weekend with my paternal grandparents in Queens. My mother’s parents died fairly young, so these were the only grandparents we knew. They lived in a huge public housing project where my grandfather worked first as a janitor and then as superintendent. When we arrived, the first thing my grandmother did was wash our sneakers and dry them on the windowsill; they had to be clean. Then, she’d tackle our hair. Like a lot of white women with Black or biracial children, my mother didn’t really understand our hair, and my grandmother would take one look and get to work.
We’d sit down between her knees, and she’d comb, pull, grease and braid for hours. It was a painstaking process, but we emerged freshly coiffed with tiny braids and pink, green, and yellow barrettes. Then she’d lotion our skin and put on the latest things she had sown for us: new outfits, perfectly pressed and matching. Only then could we go downstairs and play in the playground attached to the building. It was the same thing every time: hours of combing, new clothes, and then finally permission to go outside.
I didn’t understand it then, but I understand now why hair is so highly valued by Black people. The first Black millionaire, Madam CJ Walker, became wealthy by creating and selling beauty products first for Black women, and then for Black men, at the turn of the twentieth century. At the time, the idea that a Black woman could be beautiful and take pride in her appearance was revolutionary. For centuries, and still in part today, whiteness was the standard of beauty. White hair, white body types, white skin, white features: these made you beautiful, and if you didn’t have them, you couldn’t be beautiful. Black women were property, maids, nannies: not women who could be feminine or lovely. Beauty and blackness were oxymorons. Walker became wealthy by selling the idea to Black women that they too could be pretty, that Black hair and Black skin were worthy of primping. Just like white women, Black women could stand in front of a mirror and be pleased with what they saw.
Taking pride in their appearance, going out in public looking their best, became ways of rejecting the idea of ugliness and inferiority. Black women and Black men could be proud of who they were. They could be beautiful, too.
This is one of the reasons Muhammad Ali used to boast, “I’m handsome, I’m fast, I’m pretty and I can’t possibly be beat.” At a time when Black men were routinely called monkeys and apes, Ali stood in proud defiance and declared otherwise.
Today I see the look of pride on my sons’ faces when they return from the Black barbershop freshly coiffed. My husband brings them on this biweekly pilgrimage and there they watch the barber place finishing touches on the customer before them; he pays careful attention to every facial hair: perfect sideburns, perfect edging, a perfect beard. Then that customer leaves with a satisfied smile and my sons take turns in the chair. At the end, they eagerly snatch the mirror and inspect the perfect work from every angle. They leave, grateful, with a grin and freshly squared shoulders.
Dignity is important to Black people and hair and clothes are part of that. African Americans bore the shame of poverty for so many generations that when a family was not poor, it was very important for everyone to know that they had left poverty behind. My grandfather, for example, grew up having no shoes, and by the time he died, he owned over a hundred pair. They were carefully chosen to go with the dozens of suits he wore with pride.
Being formally addressed is also part of dignity. An old video of Maya Angelou is currently going viral. In it, she corrects a young woman for calling her by the first name: “I’m not ‘Maya.’ I’m 62 years old. I have lived so long and tried so hard that a young woman like you, or any other, you have no license to come up to me and call me by my first name.” When I saw it, I said a hearty “Amen,” but reading over some of the comments was a fascinating study of cultural difference. One hundred percent of Black folks who commented appreciated her response, and almost all of the white folks who commented thought she was rude.
I recall the day, when I was about ten years old, that I committed the same faux pas as the young lady in the video: I addressed one of the Black moms in our apartment building by her first name. “Hi Loretta!” I chirped. She looked at me as if I had spat at her. I still remember her tone, “I am Mrs. Jones.” I never made that mistake again, as her dress down stung for weeks. Like Dr. Angelou, Mrs. Jones’s had grown up at a time and in a place where Black people had to glance down and step off the sidewalk to let white people pass; they could expect to be respected by no one but their kin. Honor was a precious commodity, and these women decided that they would never willingly do without it again.
Hair, clothing, formally addressing elders: these are all marks of dignity, and those who were denied dignity are often the most determined to have it.