Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Girl

Some how it escaped my notice that a part of being a mom is setting an image, a model, for my daughter to follow. The first tip-off came when Julia insisted on having a wipe-up cloth of her very own. Once free from her high chair she’d hover over the wooden floor dapping and mopping up imaginary spills, and at times, real puddles of milk, oatmeal, and mashed veggies.

The next example was even more enlightening.

After a long day at work, as I fed Julia dinner at the table, I sighed hard, like a tired bull moose. Julia looked up, her eyes locked on mine, then she mimicked the moan, exactly. “Heeeeeeeeeeeee,” she said as her small shoulders drooped in synch with her expired exhale.

Tiny “private eyes” as Hall and Oates claimed, “do see your every move.” And the events of the last week made that fact even more clear.

The first focus came from a New York Times article on a new Disney show, Doc McStuffins that has earned rave reviews from online groups and parents alike for it’s portrayal of African-Americans. “Doc” mimics the ways of her working mom, a doctor, tending to her stuffed animals with great care. One mom in the article became emotionally overwhelmed at the sight of her daughter connecting to the character:

Doc McStuffin’s at work

Admittedly, I didn’t hold great hope from the folks that have supplied the world with a steady stream of princesses for more than fifty years. The first Disney B.A.P., Tiana,came in 2009, with the release of “The Princess and the Frog.” While I thought a princess of color was long over due, I didn’t wanted her  showing up at Casa Holmes. Sure, Grandma ships endless sippy cups ringed with images of Princess T dressed in a bouncing ball gown, and Angie, Julia’s nanny, frequently greets my daughter with the morning salute of, “Good Morning my Princess!” Still, I hope against logic to avoid the princess affair with Julia. But Peggy Orenstein’s book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter confirms I have an ice cube’s chance in the Sahara. But a mom can dream.

She must dream.

I wasn’t a girly girl. In fact I was a raging tomboy that conceded to trading in her baseball mitt for a pair of track cleats, electing to run 220 low hurdles in high school to keep my sports connection after I entered the world of clothes and boys and hair and such. And it all came back Thursday night, August 4th, when Gabby Douglas the extraordinary talented sixteen-year-old gymnast catapulted and flipped and vaulted her way into a gold medal for all around performance and into the hearts of Americans, along with the citizens of the world, at the 2012 London Olympics. Gabby, the first African-American woman to do so. Really, she’s just a teen.

But what has been burning up the blogspere? Not just Gabby’s achievement. Nor that Gabby’s mom is holding the household together with three jobs, alone.  Not even the white host family in Iowa that supplied stability for Gabby while away from her Virginia based family as she trained with an esteemed coach, a host family that became a second support to the medalist. No. The first 48 hours came with a flood of Twitter comments regarding Gabby’s hair. That’s right, her hair. hair?ft=1&f=1001&sc=tw&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

Many black women—other than those who wear their hair in dread locks or afro styles or don’t buy into the hype—have been enslaved to our hair. Generations of African-American women don’t know how to swim simply because they honor their hair more than the enjoyment of the water. There are thousands of women of color who avoid the gym or any physical activity for fear it will wreck their Saturday set. In fact the comedian Bernie Mac had an entire monologue about the importance of not touching a black woman’s hair during love making. This logic has always boggled my mind, and the heart of a woman that still houses a tomboy’s spirt. Sure, almost every time Julia and I hit Central Park I’m one a few women of color jogging, and virtually the only one manning a jogging stroll. But still it’s 2012.

Most anyone would agree we are hardest on our own kind. It seems some psychological tick every race shares but this level of criticism, this measure of insensitivity against a young woman from her own race, just knocked me on my runner’s butt. Let’s face it: if this hair critique of a young black girl had been leveled by Savannah Guthrie or Matt Lauer of The Today Show, or any white person in the media, Al Sharpton would be pounding the pavement outside their office with a picket line in place faster than you could say O.J Simpson.

A woman’s hair is her crown but many of us have turned it into a shackle. It isn’t the first time, and sadly, it won’t be the last.

In the 21st century when everything is open for sport, when some morning chat shows start the 7:30 segment giving more time to keeping up with The Kardashians than the conflict in Syria, spending more minutes on the study of red carpet hemlines than the S&P 500 then it isn’t just African-Americans who spend too much time soaking up and sharing useless information.

A few weeks back, when asked by LearnVest Moms what old school lessons I wanted Julia to have, I chose the gift of reading real books, three-dimensional books. And that I keep up my end up by reading to her daily.

But if asked today I would have written that I want a new run at an old problem for black women. Just as the poet Wallace Stevens wrote that there are “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” there should be a thousand times more ways for a black girl to show herself with pride to the world. I want Julia to know her beauty comes from within, not from the outer praise of others. I want her to know other girls are not the enemy, that there is more than enough talent and good looks to go around, and that she needs to work to her own standards to please herself.

That play is healthy, that hobbies are good, and passion is grand. And that there are girls who lead a life worthy of example. And some of them are flesh and blood, not made of drawings and flashes of light from flat screen TVs and computer monitors. And that some of them, because of their gold medal performances at the Olympics, make the history books. And right next to their shinning achievement, in bold print beside their name is their score, and perhaps their age. But not one mention of her hair style.

2 thoughts on “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Girl”

  1. I feel your disappointment!!! Will we ever arrive? Will we ever believe that black is indeed beautiful? Continue to build self confidence and worth in your daughter. If anyone can, it’s you, an accomplished black woman. I often wonder what we would talk about if we were all BALD!!!

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