This photo taken in 1973 by Joseph Crachiola of 5 children playing in a Detroit suburb went viral in early 2013.
I have always wanted an afro–curls, the kind that only God could make, so confident they stand straight up and demand to be noticed. My mother owned a hair salon and I spent so much of my childhood there chatting with the little ladies who had come for their weekly shampoo and set that hair became a very real part of my consciousness.
My own hair was red. And straight. And usually a tangled mess. I garnered plenty of attention myself, but it was not the kind I appreciated. I heard “look at that red hair” so often that it took on an accusatory tone in my ears. The trendy term “ginger” was decades away and the only other redhead I knew was my grandmother, and she wore a blond wig anytime she left the house. By the time I was four I had resorted to denying the color altogether. Before anyone could get the words out “look at that” I quickly responded with “it’s green!” This earned me the nickname of “Green Hair’ from more than a few in my small town, and although I didn’t really like that either, it was at least preferable to the alternative.
My world as a child was narrow, but it was broadened somewhat by cable tv. In the late ‘70s, when The Wiz finally made it to television, I remember seeing Diana Ross as Dorothy — so different from the Judy Garland version of 40 years before, and not without controversy. She wore white pearl earrings, and lavender eyeshadow that perfectly matched her silk blouse. And she had an afro. Its short, smart shape crowned her head with sophistication and was the exact definition of natural beauty. I was captivated.
In high school, my curiosity got the best of me and, in an environment of love and trust, I asked my friend to tell me just exactly what she did to her hair. I had seen the special products in stores and wondered what could be so different. Why did we need our own sections in the shampoo aisle? Her friendship was true and she told me all about her hair’s special quality and needs. Then she described how she and her sisters spent hours each week smoothing and flattening each other’s hair with a hot comb, then twisting it in cloth rollers each night before bed. I could just see all of them in the kitchen, doing each other’s hair, sharing secrets and talking about plans for the week. It was exactly the same with my sister and me down at our mother’s salon. The social aspect of hair is universal, it seemed, even if the products and techniques are not.
Soon after Diana’s version of Dorothy, the afro fell out of fashion for a while. So years later, when Lauryn Hill came on the scene killing us all so softly with Roberta Flack’s song, I was arrested by the site of her. Yes! I almost yelled. There’s that fantastic hair again! I stared at her, mesmerized by the bass and powerful tone of the song, inspiring us all to be authentic. That vision of her lives in my mind still.
When our son was about five years old, we were fortunate enough to have a little girl of mixed race live with us for a little while. She was messy and happy and always tripping everywhere she went. We never had a daughter of our own, so taking care of her was so much fun, and I simply adored styling her hair. I would wash it, comb it out, let the curls dry natural and free, then pull it back into huge pigtails on the sides of her head. The two playful poofs waved and bobbed and laughed right along with her. They seemed to announce her personality even before she entered the room. We didn’t have her long, and she now lives with a relative of hers somewhere in the Dallas area, but I think about her sometimes and wonder how things have turned out for her. Something tells me she is still tripping, but landing squarely on her feet, and I hope she still has those pigtails.
I was not born into an elite class, and the privilege I know is more of the covert kind, but I’ve never been refused service or followed suspiciously. I’ve never had to talk with my son about the safest way to respond if questioned by a policeman, and I’ve never had a hairstyle banned for its political position. And although my grandmother was the hired help, I’m pretty sure she was paid a decent wage and would never have been asked to use a separate bathroom. So I’ll never wear an afro. I could never earn that right. But what I can do is stand confidently beneath the covering of my own uniqueness and admire them afar.