By La Vonda R. Staples
Saturday, September 15, 2012
In the racial landscape of America it should be a pre-requisite for all citizens to sit, stare into space, and commit more than a simple introspection – it should be an autopsy via vivisection, on the impact of race in their lives. It is in our air. I remember studying the end of slavery for the British Empire and the court case with the famous line, “the air is too free.” The air in America has never been free from the stench of racialized thoughts, behaviours,
speech (let alone laws). We are a race born of race.
I’ve read so many books. Hundreds of articles trying to plumb the depths of this unlit sea in hopes of finding a solution for a people. I was left with one task and it finding a solution for myself. I’m the mother of four children. My oldest daughter’s father was a Black man of the normal mix (African, European and Native American) and my first husband who is the father of my sons is a
bi-racial man (Black father and White mother). My second husband is the son of a White man indigenous to America (you know what I mean, the family has been round here a long time) and a first generation German immigrant. My youngest daughter is bi-racial. I never gave any of these relationships or outcomes a second thought until I was given a view to race from scholars
outside of America.
I read Fanon’s, “Black Skin, White Mask (Frantz Fanon, 1952).” I read “Decolonising the Mind” by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1986). I would never ever watch a movie or a television show
with the same eyes again. As a child I loved Shirley Temple movies.
My grandma loved them as well. We would watch these movies together but our favourites were the quarter which featured William “Bojangles” Robinson as her servant. The life imitated the art in areas of my life which were not taken down from the shelf and examined until I became a graduate student more than three decades later. The thing that I remember most about these
movies is the torture I would endure on religious holidays. I had
long, thick hair which was a marvelous combination of colors.
Shades of auburn, chocolate, and deep ebony as well. My hair hung down my shoulders and draped across my back. Life became art, for me, in the form of the child actor’s famous barrel curls. Yes. The woman who shaves her head spent every Christmas and Easter holiday, really the day before, sitting in Miss Archie’s beauty shop being tortured with a pressing comb, burning hot lava grease, and a smoking blue-black metal barrel of a curling ironed aimed,
over and over, at my 4, 5, 6 and 7 year old head. No braids. No
African aesthetic would appear in my life until the aforementioned three decades had taken their toll.
I never questioned those curls. Until reading Fanon and Thiong’o; I told the story with pride. The memories are still wrapped in love for my grandma but not for that hair. I don’t feel the same way, if you must know, about Mr. Robinson either. A man who made millions of dollars in his lifetime and dying with friends but no money. How does this happen? I don’t mean to castigate him. I’ve never walked in his shoes having never been a Black man at the turn of the 20th century. I am not making statement on either side of any argument. I’m simply discussing a view. A Eurocentric view or an Afrocentric view (Molefi Kete Asante) are both valid and deserve discussion.
Bojangles is a hero in the Eurocentric view but in the Afrocentric view he is as tragic as Amos Tutuola’s “Palm Wine Drunkard (1952).” The way he danced with Miss Temple brought him money and fame, that fact is indisputable. But when fame comes, or not even fame, let’s say ‘attention.’ When attention is gained from embodying a negative stereotype for Black Americans and that image is frozen, for all time, in cinema? A thinking individual
must experience a deleterious effect on mind and body.
So I examined myself.
Did I actively seek to have children who would be lighter and therefore better than me? Did I do this on purpose? Or is intra-racial skin color preference so ingrained in my mind that it is almost a genetic and primal directive? I loved both of my husbands; when I married them (things changed over time). I love all four of my children (time cannot change what we have. It might get beaten up a little bit but the love is always there) but is there appearance the result of my total lack of appreciation for self?
The result of my self-interrogation has been a year, now turned to over three years, of me getting used to me. In my natural form. I have to tell you that it’s hard to not put on some hair. It’s hard to stop staying someone has “good” hair. It’s hard to not look at a dark-skinned man and think, “he’s fine for a…” I still think these things on occasion. I confess that I will look at a photo of a beautiful dark skinned brother or sister and say tomyself, “ooh, he so black.”
On the other hand, I havenever had so much trouble with casual relationships as when I discovered and stopped acting the way a Black woman is supposed to act around Whites. I had more trouble when I stopped following the self-imposed script Black womanforce other Black women to follow. I’ve started to find the most intimate thing, my mother tongue the most natural way of speaking. No. My grandma didn’t teach me a foreign language. She did give me a remnant of her rural Mississippi accent of which I would sit and imitate other voices, White voices, until all of that beautiful Delta music was the faintest refrain.
I took myself apart and Idon’t know why. It was as if there was something buried way deep and recessed within me. I didn’t go out, after the study, and show some sign by buying “African” clothes and saying “hotep” and listening to Bob Marley. I still love a nice, well-tailored suit. You can still hear me call out a good ol’ “hey.” And I am more in love than ever with the sounds of
Beethoven, Coltrane, Miles, and Pavarotti.
I took some things out. I kept some things. I, for lack of a better word, “recombinated” myself. After all, the mask is necessary, if for nothing more but to gain one’s daily bread.
La Vonda Staples is an adjunct professor of African American history. She has taught children and adults alike. She blogs at www.lavondastaples.com