EVERY TWO WEEKS our mothers washed our hair. We little girls, who just wanted to play, didn’t care that our kinky hair was dirty. We didn’t notice that it was tangled and matted from sweating in the sun and sleeping with cousins who wet the bed. Our mothers would have washed it more often, but it was just too much trouble, for one thing, and they thought it would make our hair dry up and fall out, for another. We had dry hair and they feared it would turn to straw.
On Saturday mornings, they lined us up at the bathroom and kitchen sinks, where they shampooed, then rinsed, and shampooed again. I hated it. Bending over so long with shampoo burning my eyes was bad enough, but this was only the beginning of the torture.
Our mothers hated the ritual, too. They complained while they pulled and jerked the combs through our tangled hair, threatening us if we didn’t sit still. It seemed like hours that they combed and braided, but it had to be done. The consequences were dire if this wasn’t done right.
To our mothers, this was serious work. There were unseen forces that guided our lives, and their powers affected everything, even the combing of hair. It was 1947, and the hills and forests around Baldwin, Arkansas, where the women grew up, had not prepared us for life in town, but we did our best to adjust to the demands of white people while quietly honoring the demands of a darker world, much more powerful and punishing.
My relatives grew up in the Ozark Mountains, walked on rocky soil that barely concealed the unmarked graves of bodies left by vigilantes. To walk on a grave is bad luck. The spirits of the dead will visit you at night. They had climbed trees in thick forests that moaned at night when haunted winds blew, and they listened to their grandmothers, who rocked on porches on summer evenings, looking out at the woods, mourning long-dead relatives who had been caught by white men patrolling the Ozarks for niggers.
Our mothers caught the mournful spirits of the elders longing for peace as they told of selling one’s soul to the devil, the rattling of chains and the smell of brimstone. The mothers packed those memories and their few belongings in the croker sacks they had used for storing potatoes and headed down the mountain to settle in Fort Smith. The spirits came, too.
Sorcery and witchcraft were everywhere, and our mothers’ job was not only to teach us how to survive around white people, but to protect us from powers we could not see. There was no making sense of white rules, but witchcraft was predictable. Every spell had an intended consequence. Every sign pointed to something specific.
The loose hair that collected in the combs was dangerous. That hair, thrown on the ground, could end up being picked up by a bird. That bird might use it in the building of a nest. If that happened, the girl to whom the hair had belonged would go crazy.
The final rinse ended with towels being wrapped around our heads, and we four girls—my sister, two cousins and me—were sent outside to sit on the ground in the front yard if the weather was warm, or in front of the stove in winter. There we sat between the legs of our mothers and grandmother while they sat on chairs behind us and began to jerk the combs through our tangled hair and complain.
“This nappy hair!” they moaned as they jerked and pulled. They parted it off in sections, oiling the scalp, untangling the hair, then braiding it up. This all had to be done while the hair was still wet, because if they let it dry, it would be impossible to get the tangles out.
The women also had the job of making sure we did not look pretty. Looking pretty was what we longed for. We knew we would never have long silky blonde hair that we could flip over our shoulders nonchalantly, like white girls do. That was what the world defined as pretty, and white girls could be pretty because they were members of the race who owned the world. Looking pretty was a prerequisite for a girl to be happy, and those who were not were destined to a life of misery.
But the closer we came to pretty, the more attractive we were to boys, and that, too, our mothers had to protect against. Being pretty was OK until we were 5 or 6, but beyond that age, a pretty girl was fast or up to no good.
We would never have that hair, but on special days, like Easter and Christmas, we could have a reasonable facsimile. On those occasions, my mother woke me up early. She had done the job of combing, oiling and braiding the day before, and now the job of straightening and curling lay ahead.
I had mixed feelings about this great gift of white-girl hair because of the cost. I would sit in the kitchen next to the stove while my mother heated the straightening comb on a flaming burner. When she thought it was just right, she lifted it off the burner and tested it on a thick cotton cloth, and if it did not scorch the cloth, she ran it through my hair, small sections at a time, changing the tight kinks to silky straightness. I would be burned when the comb got too close to my scalp or the oil got too hot and ran down my face. It was hard to sit still, and sometimes I yelled a loud “Ow!”—but not often, because then I would be hit on the head with the back of the brush or the comb.
This all done, my hair straight and shiny, I was still not free to go. Now it had to be curled. Out came the curling iron, which replaced the hot comb on the burner, and each section of hair was parted off and curled. Now I had the much-cherished white-girl hair.
Maybe it was worth the struggle to have this longed-for hair because I hated my own. Each complaint from a disgruntled adult spoke to me about the awfulness of my hair and I was ashamed of it. I learned to hate it as much as they did.
The less obvious price was that now I could not play outside. The hair had to be protected. No running, and no playing hard—sweating would make it “go back.” It would lose its straightness and become nappy again. Getting it dirty was out of the question, after my mom had worked so hard on it (no one noticed the price I had just paid to have this magnificent hair).
Rain was as feared as resurrection day, when all the dead people would walk the Earth. If my hair got wet, the whole job was a waste of time. The hair returned to its natural state, kinky and tangled, and it seemed to always rain on Easter.
Easter was the day we celebrated someone rising from the grave and coming back to life. That was scary enough for me. I already knew that these things happened a lot. When the rocking chair in our living room rocked by itself, I knew what that meant. Mom, grandmother and the aunts sat in the kitchen and commented over their cups of coffee that a ghost was in the house.
Death was always present. It walked beside us on the left, its finger arched, ready to tap us on the shoulder. Any one of us could disappear at any time, and anyone could return when we least expected it. But we always expected it.
My mother told us that one of her children was born with a veil, second sight, and they could see ghosts. She wouldn’t say which one of us it was, and as a result, we all saw ghosts. A death in the house meant the women had to cover the mirrors with bed sheets to prevent the spirit of the dead from entering the mirrors and being trapped there. There was evidence of this on mirrors in the house that had turned silver and crackled around the edges.
Often, in the evenings, the grown folk sat around the living room and talked about the moments when the White World collided with our own. A friend had been assaulted by a white taxi driver because the friend refused to pay more than the regular price for the ride. When he called the police to report the abuse, the policemen castrated him.
They talked about hangings. These were sometimes strategizing sessions. How could one avoid an unintended consequence? Who knew when an innocent gesture might be interpreted as a threat? Sometimes these sessions were moments of mourning.
When evening fell, the lightness of day with its many distractions gave way to the fear that came with darkness. When I turned 6, I began closing all the blinds and window shades at night. No one noticed, so I never had to explain that I was afraid the White World would see into our house and shoot at us through the windows.
Our protection came from witchcraft and superstition, which was predictable and understandable. If a bird flew into the house, we knew a death was on the way. Sunshine during a rain was a bad omen as well. It was during those times that the devil was beating his wife, and the door was opened for a major catastrophe to occur. If anyone was unsure about this sign, they had only to take a table knife, stick it into the soil, then put an ear to the ground. They would clearly hear the devil beating her.
NO ONE cares anymore about my hair. In fact, it’s rather stylish now. It covers a head overflowing with memories of how we got from there to here. Mornings, in my bathroom, I stare at my image in the mirror and remember the steps that got us here. I was 19 when our neighbor, Janice, returned home from Los Angeles. We had grown up on the same block of 14th Street, played together and fought over persimmons in Miss Whitmore’s yard next door. Janice was a couple of years older than me and left after high school in search of softer rules and greater opportunities.
She rang our doorbell, and mom peeked out as she cracked the door to see who was there. “Oh good Lord, it’s Janice!” she said as she opened the door wide to welcome her in.
“Hey, Mrs. Dodson. Hi, you guys!” She had dropped her Southern “y’all.” She hugged us each in turn, exclaiming about how tall we’d gotten, how different we looked. Janice looked different, too, but the thing that shocked me was her hair. She had an “Afro,” a “Natural.” I had never before seen a black woman brave enough to walk out into the world proudly with nappy hair. So that’s what they’re doing in California! The mixture of thoughts and feelings in me was overwhelming. How could she go outside like that? She should be ashamed! I was ashamed for her.
I eventually adjusted to her hair, but it was years before I found the courage to wear my own hair that way. One day, I even moved on to dreadlocks. Now with relaxers, hair extensions, weaves and wigs, defining a person by her hair has become close to impossible.
Today, I live in a world of shopping malls, and every discount store markets “ethnic” products. Our Ben Franklins, back in the day, sold very few products tailored to black folk. There was Dixie Peach hair pomade, Red Fox nylons and Blue Flame lipstick. That was it. Now, almost everyone can look the same, cleaned up and normalized. The illusion of sameness blankets and softens what remains of harsher days.
I have a car now, a nice one at that. My parents never dreamed of the life I have, which isn’t all that fancy, but much more than they could visualize. Each morning, I awaken in a warm bed with clean sheets, one that I don’t have to share with anyone, and I think about them and what they endured so that I could move past the world they navigated.
Outside my bedroom window are the irises I planted last spring. Drinking in their deep purple and savoring how it contrasts with the pink azaleas below my window, I wonder whose dream this is. Am I living my mother’s dream or my own? It gets confusing. Those women who raised me would have settled right here, accepted this comfort and felt fulfilled. Sometimes I do, too. I let myself believe the fantasy, the idea that all is well. We have had a black president, racism is no more, humanity has become equalized. I hear the daily ups and downs in the news, but look around me and notice that I am OK.
Several times a week, I make the 10-minute drive to the nearest Walmart and see someone on every corner with a cardboard sign: Homeless Vet – Stranded – Will work for food. Every one of them is white. What has shifted? The world has turned upside down! Poverty is in my face, but it becomes hard to focus on it when surrounded by the abundance in the store, where we can all shop for bargain prices and come out looking prosperous.
I’m thinking about all this as I pull out of my parking space. The space in front of mine is empty, and I can pull forward, rather than backing up, then head toward the street. I slowly inch into that space too late to notice a pale blue Toyota headed for the spot I’m occupying for a brief few seconds. Her driver-side window is down, and she flips me off. Right away, I am angry. A hot electric energy surges from my toes to the top of my head. At the same moment, I notice some other things. The driver is white, she is female and middle-aged, and her face is contorted into an ugly grimace.
Without much thought, I lower my window (noticing I have only to push a button and not maneuver a crank to lower it—such privilege!) I’m ready for her! I didn’t have time to bring to consciousness that she symbolized all the middle-class white women I spent my high school and college years cleaning for, being humble around to get myself to where I am now. At that instance, I felt the humiliation of being talked down to, ordered around, slighted and underpaid. The words ready to come out of my mouth didn’t require much thought. “You … ”
But I saw my mother, my grandmother, my aunts who played that same role before me, washer women, cooks and maids who held in that anger and frustration, medicating it with witchcraft and sorcery, and that stopped me. This moment of rage was not what they suffered to give me. They did not struggle to continue the huge divide between us women, black and white. They wanted more for me. They didn’t know how to be gentle and encouraging and supportive. They learned to push and cajole and punish. It was what was handed to them and what they paid forward, but their intention was full of love and hope.
I finished that sentence with “… have a better day!” The tone was still harsh. I couldn’t shift it quickly enough, but the words were kind. She looked at me in shock. It stopped us both.
“I think I will!” she said. I think we both had a better day. I doubt that she extended that moment to the idea that we were sisters, both having been subjected to a world of Jim Crow that tormented those on both sides of it. But I did get it, knowing that those who seem to profit from oppression have a harder time examining it. I continue every day to reach across that divide, yet at home, I am careful about disposing of that hair in the comb. When a breeze unsettles a rocking chair, I make an effort to stop its rocking. Sunshine on a rainy day still concerns me. I have not yet given up on our security in an off-kilter world.
A native of Fort Smith, Dorothy Marcy now resides in Fayetteville where she operates a mental health counseling practice and writes in her spare time.
Photo courtesy of Dorothy Marcy