Today a few friends and I took a field trip to the local mall. Our destination? The new American Girl store, two stories of little girl heaven. We planned to get there early on a weekday in order to avoid the lines that are common in the evenings and on weekends. Since we are all students, ten a.m. worked well.
I bought along the American Girl doll my daughter received for Christmas. Yes, we, her parents, were the folks who bought it for her. It wasn’t an easy purchase, mainly due to the price. For the doll, a stand, and a brush, the total came to about $160. That was the only gift she received for Christmas from us.
I never had an American Girl doll growing up. Honestly, I had no idea what they were until about a year ago when my little girl started talking about them. After doing a little research, I see they were big in the 1990s, but perhaps I was a little too old for them by then. In any case, I was totally in the dark about the dolls and likely when I was a preteen I wouldn’t of even shaped my mouth to ask for such a thing. Not at $100.
But I did it for my little girl. Living where we live, and where a lot of black girls live, there are no positive images of little black girls. No book series for the young reader. No engineering sets. A whole lot of nothing. And her talk about her white dolls being more adorable than her blacks ones was breaking my heart (I’d never bought her a white doll, but other people had.) And many of her friends already had at least one of the dolls. I’m not usually one to do what everyone else does, but I recognized the cultural capital inherent in the dolls. Just like Bey Blades and Pokemon are today’s popular toys for the kids in my son’s circle, American Girl is the “it” toy for my girl and her friends. And given it was her only Christmas grift due to the cost, I didn’t feel like I was spoiling her.
I don’t know if it rises to the level of an epidemic, but lately I’ve seen a number of little girls – as in, girls under the age of 12 – wearing hair weaves, wigs and lacefronts.
As black women, our hair issues begin at birth. We black mothers study our girls’ hair texture, waiting to see if those fine baby curls are going to “nap up.” Some of us start putting that baby hair into plaits, cornrows and ponytails as soon as our baby girls are able to sit up. If there’s not enough hair to comb, we brush it as best we can and put a headband on our girls’ heads, so everyone will know the baby is a girl and not a boy (strangers still get it confused, though).
I didn’t really know how to take care of a girl’s hair when my daughter was born. My mother did my hair until I graduated from high school. Although I didn’t relax my hair until law school, I wore it pressed from age 12. I had decided my girl’s hair would stay natural, but I had no idea how to style natural hair.
I was lucky to find a wonderful babysitter, a Mexican woman who taught herself how to care for my daughter’s hair. She styled my daughter’s hair in elaborate beaded cornrows and two-strand twists. Even after my daughter started school and we no longer needed her babysitting services, our former nanny still styled my daughter’s hair.
It never occurred to me to consider letting my daughter wear her hair out, loose, free. I was brought up that only white girls and girls with a certain hair texture – what we used to call “good hair” – could wear their hair out all the time. I shunned the term “good hair” but was still trapped in its mindset. I believed not combing my daughter’s hair would result in it getting tangled, matted, and eventually falling out.
I said complimentary things to my girl about her hair. I told her how wonderfully thick and curly her hair was and how much she should admire it. I bought all the right books and said all the right things to combat my girl’s jealous feelings towards classmates whose blonde and brunette locks swung down their backs. But my actions spoke to a different belief – that her hair wasn’t the right texture.
My daughter and I began having hair battles. I kept her hair washed, conditioned, combed and braided, but I could no longer fit trips to the nanny into our schedule, and I didn’t know enough cute natural hairstyles.
I gave up and took her to the African braiding shop. I thought I’d found the answer to all my prayers. Their cornrows were so perfect! Even without extension hair braided in, the style would last at least two weeks. With extension hair braided in, they would last even longer.
And so we continued down that steep, slippery slope of “your hair isn’t good enough.”
“I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did.”
There is not a black mother on Earth who has not said those words to her daughter. They are said in anger, resignation, frustration and guilt. We, like any and all mothers, want the very best for our daughters. We want them to explore every possibility and to experience things that were beyond our reach. We also want them to avoid the pitfalls, the traps and the trick doors that we befell us. Instead of imparting to our daughters wisdom, we often give to them our shame and regrets. We tell them if only we had listened to so-and-so, not gone to that place, stayed there, or hung out with those people, our lives would be radically different. We are so quick and so sure that the blame lies entirely with us despite many of us being aware of our unique position at the intersections of gender, race and class. If we had turned left instead of right or had looked up instead of down, life as we know would not be so hard.
We say these words to our daughters knowing that both black and white spaces endanger a black girls’ journey to self-fulfillment. We know we are judged by a different set of rules. Our actions, whether positive or negative, acquire a supernatural ability to exalt or demote the entire black race. We are also keenly aware of the pervasive double standard that still in full effect in our own communities regarding the actions of black men/boys and black women/girls. Black respectability politics have placed black women as the gate keepers of our culture although many of us resent it. While teaching our daughters how to navigate a world that has a morbid fascination with our degradation, we seem to follow one of two paths; hanging our heads in shame or distancing ourselves from our pasts.
“I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did.”
What are those mistakes? More often than not, they are sexual in nature. We feel that we gave it up too soon, too easily, to the wrong person at the wrong time. We tell our daughters’ we were hard headed, naïve, foolish, stupid and spiteful. We found ourselves in a position where our private vulnerabilities became public shame. We are so quick to assume and claim responsibility; we ignore the other very real circumstances that lead to make those choices in the first place. It is painful to even remember that we had to have sex for survival, that those were in positions of power and authority took advantage of our lesser position. If we had just listened, we never would have been in that car, in that room, at that party, with that boy, with those men. If we had just listened, everything would have been ok.
If we are not using our shame to deter our daughters, then we are holding up as an admonition to our daughters those who seem to shamelessly embody the loose morals and decay of our culture. The baby mamas, poor women, junkies, and the sex workers are plentiful and disposable warnings to keep our girls on the straight and narrow. We point to them to illustrate what will happen if they don’t heed our warnings. We may have pity, arrogance, condensation, disgust in our voice but the end result is that for our daughters these women and girls cease to be complex and complicated people and become caricatures. Their “mess” highlights our accomplishments, refinements, education and position.
It is tempting to believe that if you just follow the rules, somehow you will be protected or at the very least buffered from the sexualized racism that is so omnipresent now. We see the billboards stating that we are a danger to our children, read the “studies” that declare with authority that we are not desirable, hear at any given time “hoe” and “bitch” out of thumping cars, while walking down the street, or as a “joke”. We feel the pain, hurt, confusion, and helplessness though we do our best to be as dignified as possible. We have to be dignified because we know that we are always being watched. We look into our daughters’ eyes and see sweetness, innocence, intelligence and curiosity. We watch them as they run and laugh impervious at the moment to the harsh realities of the world. We as mothers want nothing more than to let our daughters have those moments but we also know the world will not allow such frivolity. We don’t mean come off as harsh. We don’t mean to be so judgmental or to suck our teeth at the girls who we determine to be “ghetto”. We really don’t mean to hiss that “she” is a “fast ass” and predict she’ll end up in “trouble”. When communications between ourselves and our daughters is at its worst, we yell out in frustration “You want to end up like her?!”
The reality is that no matter what we do or don’t do, black women and girls will continue to be under attack. Although Mrs. Obama is accomplished in her own right, she continues to be exposed to some of the most vicious racist and sexist attacks. A maid who was recently sexually assaulted in New York by one of the most powerful men in the world, bravely reported the attack, and underwent an invasive exam afterward has had her honesty questioned, her identity and that of her daughter exposed in French media and her role as the victim questioned. Even where she resides has been tarnished as an AIDS building. Even in death, black women and girls have to prove our worth to have justice served.
Our daughters will be the next generation that will be under attack. They will be the ones who march, speak, protest, write, dance, paint, sing, and pray in creative protest. They will have at their disposal their own talents that will enable future generations of black women to reclaim their narrative. What will not help is shame or separation from their sisters. When we insist that the fault was all ours, they internalize our shame. When we use those who are the most vulnerable to as a deterrent, we make those girls the other. What our daughters need is for us to be tender with ourselves. When we look at our past with soft eyes, we do the same to others. Our daughters will see that and not accept debts that they did not incur. When our daughters are witnesses to our healing, they in turn will learn to do the same for themselves and others.
Although class is conducted in front of a mirrored wall, my eyes are usually steadily trained on my instructor, not only because I am trying desperately to mimic her dancing, but also because I don’t want to see how awkward I look trying the new movements. After initial timidity, I embraced the mid-section baring “Is Your Belly in Motion?” T-shirt I had purchased for class. But it’s still hard to watch.
Sometimes while dancing, my mind wanders. I think back to the first time I ever wore a bodysuit, those ridiculous snap-at-the-crotch shirts that my friends and I started wearing in the eighth grade. My first bodysuit was purple, and although I had been excited to wear it to school that morning, I lost my confidence when I walked through the doors of my middle school. I made a bee-line for my best friend’s locker and said, “do I look like a slut in this?,” suddenly uncomfortable with the small breasts that the top was made to show off. “No!,” she answered; “you look really nice.” I was relieved, although it was several class periods until I was comfortable enough to take my jacket off. For many girls at that age, there is both a sense of shame and pride at burgeoning sexuality; you’re proud that you (finally) have breasts, but you’re also ashamed at the attention they attract.
In contrast, I’ve been more comfortable with my body in athletic settings. When my high school volleyball team moved to the short, tight, spandex shorts that had become popular for the sport, I didn’t bat an eyelash, even as my teammates bemoaned the way the pants molded to their hips, thighs, and butts. I was proud of my body on the court. I was not a natural athlete, but I had long legs and arms that made me a valuable team member despite my difficulty learning new skills. When I did master a skill, I felt powerful. There was no shame because the attention I attracted was on account of something I had learned to do, unlike my sexuality, the development of and attraction to which seemed largely out of my control.
This love-hate relationship with my body has continued into adulthood. I’m not embarrassed to wear tiny tanks and shorts when playing sports; the activity is less about what my body looks like, and more about what my body can do. In other parts of my life, I’m more conservative. It’s unlikely that I’ll play up my breasts with a low-cleavage shirt, or highlight my behind with a tight dress. My preferred skirt length is right at the knee. A large part of this is just maturity: at my age, I know that some things are best left to the imagination; that classy and sexy are not mutually exclusive. Admittedly, though, a part of it is still a lingering discomfort with this aspect of my sexuality. When my shirt is low-cut, or my skirt a little tight, I become that 13-year old girl again, wondering if I “look like a slut,” proud of my figure, but unable to shake the feeling that my sexuality is on display for others and out of my control. I realize that these conflicting feelings are the result of growing up in a society where women are taught that their bodies normatively belong to men, and the shaming that results when women either fail to perform as expected or choose to control and enjoy their sexuality for themselves.
Bellydancing, however, has been a different experience. Although it is undeniable that the movements celebrate female sexuality, the performance is not necessarily for men. Rather, bellydancing is a folk dance passed down from mothers to daughters, learned in the company of women, and often performed for other women. Bellydancing teaches that a woman’s strength is in her stomach and hips, not because these are the areas that are most attractive to men, but because these are the areas that house miraculous child-bearing abilities possessed only by women. In learning the dance, I am encouraged to embrace my body in a place other than an athletic court. Yes, I am baring my stomach, moving my hips, and rolling my body in ways that connote sexuality. And, people passing by may enjoy it, as the young men who often stop to peer into the classroom on their way to the bathroom do. But I dance for me, and for the women around me. I control this display of sexuality, and for the first time, I like it.
The words of my instructor snap me out of my reverie, and my focus returns to the studio. I steal furtive glances at myself in the mirror, and actually think, “not too bad.” For a second I see that 13-year old girl in the mirror as she confidently smiles at me, totally at ease with her body. Right before my eyes dart back to my instructor, I smile back.
When rocking my daughter to sleep, I often spend time delighting in the patterns her hair makes on her head. Like many people, her curl pattern is not uniform; it’s looser in the front and top, creating a soft crown of hair that I love to touch. The hair in the back is more tightly wound, creating beautiful coils that dot her scalp. The hair on the sides gently fan out in little waves, framing her tiny ears.
When I take her out in public, however, I sometimes forget to see the beauty of her hair, scanning as I am for the disapproval of others. I find myself apologizing for the lint that her curls tend to trap. If she’s just come from her father’s care, I interrogate him: “did you brush it before you left?!?” In response to suggestions that her hair is short, I tensely explain, “it is growing; it’s just curly, so you can’t tell.” The well-intentioned offers by relatives to “cornrow it so that it can grow” do not help. In response, my back stiffens, and I plaster a smile on my face: “oh no; she’ll never sit for that.”
And, she won’t sit for it. My 15-month old doesn’t like to be restrained, and since learning to walk and run, she doesn’t have to be. But the truth is, I don’t want her hair braided or corn-rowed, because I like her poofy little afro. Her short hair isn’t bothering her none, and it certainly doesn’t bother me. My daughter is beautiful every day, whether her hair is long or short, lint-speckled or fresh from a washing, curled tight or billowed around her head like a halo.
I wish I could tell people this. Tell white folks who have no experience with black hair that her coils are near perfect in their uniformity; that although more complicated to handle, black hair is the most versatile in the world. Tell black folks who should know better that black hair needs moisture, not grease; gentle detangling, not too-tight cornrows; that every kink, standing for itself, does not have to be brushed out. I’d like to tell everyone to abandon their obsession with long locks for my girl; stop teaching her at such an early age that she is less beautiful with tightly coiled hair.
But mostly I just smile and nod; it seems like such an uphill battle, and at this point in my life, I’m used to it. After having worn locs for 2 years, a cousin asked me before I got married, “you’re gonna perm your hair for the wedding, right???” When I go to the salon to get my hair re-tightened, the other stylists insist on standing near my chair, staring at my hair, and asking inane questions like “how does it stay???” Just yesterday, I thumbed through the pages of Essence magazine, and found not one article on natural hair care. There was no end, however, of articles offering maintenance tips for chemically straightened hair.
I don’t begrudge other women the opportunity to make hair choices that are right for them. But it saddens me that my family and friends don’t always appreciate the beauty of textured hair. I don’t understand how you can be a licensed hair stylist but have absolutely no understanding of the basic mechanics of dreadlocs. It’d be nice if acknowledgment and celebration of natural hair on black women went beyond a superficial pop-culture fixation on larger-than-life afros and perfectly groomed locs.
Until that day comes, I continue trying to shield my daughter from an onslaught of messages that undervalue her beauty, while navigating an aesthetic landmine of my own. I’ve been talking about cutting off my locs and rockin’ a short afro for 2 years now, but I can’t work up the courage to do it; it seems I, too, am invested in a white beauty standard that prizes long hair. Taking scissors to it all, however, just might be what liberates me from all this hair oppression, finally freeing me to delight in my child’s hair–and my own–whether we’re inside the house or out.
“Billy, what are you doing?” She says this to her son as he gets dressed in the morning. His four-year-old body is naked, but instead of putting on the clothes right next to him on the couch, he is instead enthralled with that extra-special body part that it seems all little boys are enthralled with – his penis.
Again she asks, “Billy, what are you doing?” She’s trying to be patient, but this is a daily occurrence, and she’s getting tired of it. She’s trying to bring it to his attention instead of saying something directly to him. “Billy!” He finally lifts his head, looking at her with a questioning, and frankly annoyed, expression. “Yes, mama?”
“What are you doing? Didn’t we talk about only touching your penis when you are alone, in your room? Don’t you remember that your penis is private?” Silence. “Well, do you remember?”
Billy gives a long sigh. “Yes, I remember.” He turns and begins to put on his clothes in his particular way, inspecting each item to make sure the sizes are correct (only 4 or 4T) and the tags are in the back. As he works, he speaks: “But when I’m in my room, I can touch my penis, right mama? I can do it then, right mama?”
“Yes, Billy. Now please finish getting dressed.” She tells his three-year-old sister, Bonnie, who has been dressed for hours, to sit on the potty. As Bonnie does so, she joins in the chorus. “Billy can touch his penis in his room, right mama? And mama? I have a vagina like you, right mama? And I can touch my vagina in my room, right? Mama? MAMA!”
She starts to feel a little dizzy in all this talk of penises and vaginas. She knows it was a good idea to teach them the real names of their parts, to not make the words or their actions negative or taboo, to supplement that talk with the notion of privacy, to let them know that no one was to touch their private parts but themselves, mommy and daddy, and the doctor, and even then, only with permission. But she can’t shake…
“Come on in here and let me see. I’m your auntie, just like your mother. You can show me.” She didn’t want to show Aunt Mo. She didn’t want to show Aunt Mo the breasts that were just beginning to appear, she didn’t understand why she had to. Her auntie made her take off the blouse she was wearing, the training bra too, and her auntie touched her chest, feeling the new growths. Her hand traveled downward. For the second time in her young life, she felt like not just her body was naked, but her soul too.
“Yes, children, you can touch your private parts, your penis and your vagina, when you are in your rooms, by yourselves. But remember, no one else is to touch your penis or your vagina, you understand? Not mommy or daddy or anyone, unless you say it’s okay. And no one should even be asking to touch you unless mommy or daddy is there, like when we go to the doctor, you understand? And if someone does, you yell and say NO as loud as you can, you hear me? And you come and tell mommy or daddy, okay?”
What kind of talks do you have with your children about their penises and vaginas?
So apparently there is a lot of “outrage” surrounding this video, which features 7 and 8 year old girls performing in a dance competition, dancing to Beyonce’s Single Ladies. If you haven’t seen it, here it is:
And while I have my own personal views on whether little girls should be doing such dances, I am more than a little annoyed at the national press this “story” is getting. For I cannot help but notice the color of these little girls. Or more to the point, the color they are not. Because of course they are White.
My thing is this: Where was the national outrage when Drake and Lil Wayne had little girls – including Wayne’s daughter – on the stage at the BET awards while they sang about wanting to f*ck every girl in the world?? Do y’all remember the Juvenile video for Back That Ass Up when you knew it was 13 year old girls up in this video? Where was the national outrage when this was a summertime hit across the country, when it was OUR girls dancing inappropriately for their age?
How many times have you been at a talent show or dance competition and seen Black little girls doing all kinds of dances that you feel like you want to cover your eyes cause it just don’t seem right? Where is the national outrage any time OUR girls are treated like little women, instead of the children they are? Why does it take little White girls to gyrate for someone to say that there is a problem? There has BEEN a problem. It just must not have been the right color.
But of course, the media hasn’t even identified the problem correctly. They are blaming the parents – what’s wrong with these parents, they are asking. And perhaps some blame belongs there, perhaps. But like one of the parents said, this is an extremely popular song, with an extremely popular video. And Beyonce has every right to make it – she’s a grown ass woman.
But has anyone asked, why is this video on in the middle of the day? Is it appropriate for children? And the answer that is clear, judging by the media coverage, is that its okay for OUR kids, for OUR girls. As long as they thought only our girls were mimicking these videos, dressing like prostitutes and shaking what they mamas gave ’em, everything was all good. But as soon as it soils the lily-white purity of THEIR girls – oh no, we have a problem. A national problem worthy of morning news while two wars are being fought, bombs are being set, the economy is being tripped by computer glitches, and so on.
This is some bull-ish. But who am I to complain – we got a black President. Hallelujah.
I had already heard some of the criticisms, feminist and otherwise. “Why does the princess have to turn into a frog?,” “Why do the character’s sound like that?,” and my personal favorite, “Where is her magical kingdom?” If any little black girls deserve their own hometown princess, Post-Katrina New Orleans black girls do.
I know, I know, I know . . . this is the moment of the black girl. Indicated first and foremost by the “hope,” and eventual realization, of a black First Lady and two black First Daughters, and followed by several Vogue covers with black women, including the controversial Vogue Italia . . . hell, even Pottery Barn Kids had more varieties of black dolls in Holliday 2009than I could find at my local Target. However, I went to see the movie anyway, with my little princess in tow.
Two and a half-decades and running/supposedly ending? Oprah, voices Tiana’s mother in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. Is this our mother’s fairy tale? She wants her daughter to marry, give her some grandkids, stop “dreaming” and start courting. Tiana solely desires to open her own swanky New Orleans restaurant instead. She starts off the movie with savings (as well as a penchant for her profession)! This is not a Cinderella story.
All the men in the movie, at least those survived by Tiana’s late father, are uninspiring. Dr. Facilier, the villain, is a capitalist conjurer who wants to run the city. The Prince himself is “lazy,” as Tiana rightfully admonishes. Even Bruford, Tiana’s dayshift co-worker riffs, “You have about as much chance of getting that restaurant as I do of winning the Kentucky Derby.” However, Tiana puts on her superwoman cape and keeps truckin’, believing firmly, “the only way to get what you want in this world is through hard work.”
Is Tiana truckin’ or trickin’? After all, she only kisses the frog because she wants him to turn human, marry someone else with money and share the wealth. Though she does wish upon a Disney star, she also digs into some deep pockets. Her mother is a seamstress, her daddy is dead. According to Mark Henn, supervising animator, “A lot of times in fairy tales the leading character is a little more reactive, things happen to them, with Tiana, and some of our other leading ladies, they were more proactive.”
The “problem” with Tiana is that she wasn’t loving, as her fairy godmother, Mama Odie, instructs. If she can find it in herself to follow in the footsteps of her father, who was both a dreamer (however unrealized) and a devoted father/husband, then she can live happily ever after. Of course she gets married at the end of the movie. However, her running her own restaurant is the final scene.
Legend has it that actressAnika Noni Rose, voice of Princess Tiana, asked the animators for her character to be left-handed like her. Let’s here it for “left-brained” learners/creatives! This may very well be my daughter’s feminism, a little to the left.