For the Love of Our Hair

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My day begins supervising fourth-grade recess. It’s a nice way to ease into being in the school building, where I often cringe at how we insist that small children stay tethered to their chairs for so many hours in a row.

I love the 10-second conversations that occur between bursts of running, yelling and cracking up. And even more, I love being an audience to the group of students that uses recess to practice harmonizing on pop songs. 

I love fourth-graders for their innocence. Recently I heard a fourth-grader tell another, “You’re pretty.”  “I know,” she responded matter-of-factly. “I get it from my auntie.”

So it makes me sad whenever one of them combs their fingers through my hair and says something like, “Ms. Craven, you got such nice hair. It’s so soft.” 

Because nearly all of my students are black and I am white. I want to go on a rant about the imposition of a European style of beauty. I want to rail against the idea that hair should be smooth and straight rather than curly and coarse. I want to tell them about the sociological symbolism of hair. I want to urge them to resist conforming and especially conforming to a norm established by a group that has been historically oppressive of the group to which they belong.

But then I remember they are fourth-graders. And I remember that they are just giving me a compliment, even if it is potentially loaded (unbeknownst to them) with an internalized belief that Caucasian hair is somehow better than their own. 

So I say thank you and tell them I think their hair is beautiful. I encourage the positive things they say they like about their hair, and about themselves. Because a small interaction that’s superficially about hair has big potential; it can be used to encourage self-confidence and a belief in beauty’s many unique forms. And that’s part of my job too. 

Craven is a middle school English teacher in Louisiana.

Comments

This is another wonderful

Submitted by Cheryl Whittier on 9 August 2012 - 10:29am.

This is another wonderful example of how everything, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, can be a wonderful and life-changing teaching moment.

I am an African-American

Submitted by Sharonda on 26 March 2012 - 12:09pm.

I am an African-American middle school teacher in the South who for many years relaxed her hair to give it the manageability, length, and straightness I desired. Two years ago I did the "Big Chop" and decided to stop putting chemicals in my hair in order for it to grow in its natural state. This has been one of the most empowering decisions I have ever made. I must admit that at first people did not know what to make of my change including some of my own family members. My decision to go natural was not only for myself, but I wanted to let young women who looked like me know the straightness or length of their hair does not determine their worth. Main stream media has a way of encouraging young people to conform to its definition of beauty, but beauty for me has always been what lies within a person. It does my heart great joy when my students of all races inquire about my hair especially now since on most days I wear an Afro. Also to hear young women of color say they love my hair and are planning to go natural too does my heart great joy. Yes, how a woman wears her hair should always be her preference, but to see a group of women who have for so long frowned upon wearing kinky/curly hair now accept it shows they are becoming more accepting of their definition of beauty. My style is BEAUTIFUL!

P.S. My hair in its natural state provides me with an opportunity to wear my hair in more hairstyles than I could when I was relaxing it.

I think your response was

Submitted by Heidi on 19 March 2012 - 7:47pm.

I think your response was perfect; I was so hoping that that was what you would say.

I was reminded of the story of how this Sesame Street video, "I Love My Hair," was made:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enpFde5rgmw

Here's a link to one author's interview with the songwriter:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jenee-darden/sesame-street-writer-pens_b_767353.html

I actually used this video in a high school classroom as part of a Facing History lesson in which we read this article: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2007/01/14/i-freed-myself-when-i-embraced-my-locks.html

It's a great topic for starting the discussion on diversity.

Thanks for sharing your story!

An excerpt of Sandra

Submitted by Paula on 19 March 2012 - 7:32pm.

An excerpt of Sandra Cisneros' book House on Mango Street has been made into a children's book called Pelitos--it is in Spanish and English and it is a brief but wonderfully worded description of all different kinds of hair present in one family...

When I began teaching

Submitted by Brenda on 19 March 2012 - 2:39pm.

When I began teaching elementary school in 1974 I had a class of special needs girls, all of whom were black. I was a 21-year old white woman with long blond hair. My hair was the first thing about me that they ever commented upon, and in the same breath they told me that they wanted to braid it for me. I thought it was cute, but told them that we needed to have class and that perhaps "one day" we could take time for braiding. I assumed they'd forget or move on to some new interest, but that was my mistake. 179 days later on the last day of school, they reminded me of what I'd told them, and I had no real argument to make. Down I sat, and these precious girls went to work on me. I had corn rows in every direction -- some larger and some smaller, some well-braided and others loose and wispy. One girl took off her hair ribbons and gave them to me. I had the admiration of every child in the class when the job was completed. "You look beautiful," they said to me in their language-impaired ways. And all I could think was, "So do you, girls." It may have been the best lesson of the year.