To Go Natural is To Be Nappy,
to Assimilate is To Be Happy.
“I am going to strongly encourage you to consider the school’s request and at least shape or have her hair cut. That I believe would resolve the issue,” said Pastor Carl Stephens in an email to the parents of the victim, Vanessa VanDyke (CNN).
Vanessa VanDyke of Orlando, Florida is a private school student at Faith Christian Academy and was constantly bullied by many of the other students for her ‘natural hair.’ The only solution that was brought to VanDyke to fix the problem of the teasing from the other students was for her to compromise herself to satisfy the student body, instead of the students being apprehended for their discriminatory prejudice behavior.
The issue lies in the fact that the first reaction of the school was for the student to fix her “flaw,” not for the bullies to neither refrain nor learn from their prejudice behavior. Because VanDyke is presented as not assimilating to the white American culture, her image comes into question instead of the gazers eyes that have been placed upon her. According to CNN, the school’s student handbook says that students’ hair must be a natural color and must not be a distraction. The mother of VanDyke, Sabrina Kent said, “A distraction to one person is not a distraction to another…you can get a kid come in with pimples on his face. Are you going to call that a distraction?”
The consequences of the victimized child was that she was given one week to either make the decision to “tame” her hair and remain at the school, or keep the hair and leave the private school. Then several days later, due to the attention of the issue and backlash of the surrounding black community, the school took back their ultimatum of expulsion however VanDyke was still presented with the option to keep her hair under the consequences of having to relocate to a different school. However, according to a statement sent from the school, “ We are not asking her to put products in her hair or cut her hair. We are asking her to style her hair within the guidelines according to the school handbook.”
America is teaching the child ways of non-verbal required assimilation. The question then becomes; is it really a melting pot, or is the melting pot just not hot enough for right now? The truth is, more often than not this kind of incident occurs. Thus, to question if this is a normal behavior by society is out of the question. There has always been a yearning for assimilation to the white culture within every “American” culture. It’s more common to hear an employer tell their employee that they must cut their hair or “tame” it, especially among those of Afro-decent in order to work for a certain company because the hair doesn’t “look” professional.
Though VanDyke disrupts the hegemonic norms of race and class, the school continues to perpetuate against her decision. As a young black scholar, VanDyke is teased by her own student body because of her refusal to assimilate to white “culture” and is then forced into an unfair standard. What the hegemonic social structure is telling this adolescent is that there will be a clear distinction between what is acceptable, white standards, and what is unacceptable, any tradition of culture, and that if there is any attempt to disrupt this hegemonic socio-cultural economic classist custom then a right to a paid education is put in jeopardy.
The issue is bigger than a fixin’ to the child’s head or a simple comb and gel to the back. It becomes an issue of hierarchy and why the white population is so uncomfortable with this innocent young girl embracing her natural hair. So, because her natural flares out and is of abundance, she is penalized. However, a white person can wear their natural hair and it’s fine. Because straight is pure and anything other than that is not okay! Yet white people want to tease their hair and use multiple products to try to get their hair thick like that of the Afro-decent and let’s not forget the pretty girls who tan to try to be shades and shades darker and wear bronzer in order to “glow” because a white person’s “brown” is beautiful and black is not. We see this everyday, the need for white women to have larger breasts, buttocks, slim waists and large plump lips killing themselves in the gym and using the knife to acquire what blacks already naturally have. The “white” Sara Baartman is praised in modern day culture but the natural black is not. Because blackness on every other race is okay but not for blacks themselves, because anytime blacks have anything to be proud of it’s turned into a joke and twisted by media. Because that’s just how it is and has always been, so why bother to disrupt what seems so “normal.”
What then comes into question is, what is normal and who establishes that? Why does black have to always be in such a negative context? The direst question of all is, who established this one static form of blackness? Truth is, blackness is fluid and multifaceted, there is no cookie cut of blackness because each black person defines it for him/her self. Why does acting black have to consist of acting ignorant, being loud and having the latest pair of…fill in the blank? Then acting white is being intelligent, accepting nothing but excellence and wanting quality. Why does blackness have to be defined by the murderers and robbers that get reported on the news, not to mention that most white crime doesn’t even get covered by the news networks? Because it’s more realistic to think that a white woman was violated by a black man than it is to believe that a black woman has ever been violated by white men, as history proves this to be true looking at Emmett Till’s experiences and how black women throughout history have been stripped of their rights, choices and sexuality in and out of slavery. Because sometimes the lenses that history is told through needs to be cleaned and reevaluated, as it is a grotesque gaze that has always been appropriated, enabling the hegemonic social structure to stay intact. Until the real predators are seen as the people at the top of this social structure and are silenced and the victims are recognized as everyone who falls under them and are uplifted, then a proactive move forward to social justice won’t be possible.
The problem with media, Reverend Al Sharpton, civil rights leader, does a great job of explaining it in his interview with Oprah Winfrey on her series “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” is that media makes fun, creates a character and highlights the black physical presence instead of listening to the voice seeking to be heard. This caricature disables the advocate from creating an effective public space and venue for their community’s issues. For instance, ‘Saturday Night Live’ made fun of Reverend Sharpton in his younger days for being overweight, his permed hair, the way he dressed, often seen in a colorful jogging suit and a chain around his neck, and always being well projected. More often than not the white population thinks it’s humorous to make fun of a race that they have historically oppressed because since they weren’t victims of their own oppression and time has passed, thus blacks are supposed to be “over it”. But what is often not understood is that it is not easy to just “get over” heavy issues nor will he oppressor be granted the opportunity to create that venue of comedic relief because no matter the intelligence, expression of black culture through a white medium openly and freely without being judged and gazed upon by white society is nearly impossible.
Another notable and most often sought out woman; especially during the Black Panther movement is Doctor, whose Ph.D. is most often forgotten by media, Angela Davis. She argued for the communist party during the 70s and is the genius scholar behind the Prison Industrial Complex. What most fail to realize is that she received her Ph.D. and is therefore a producer of knowledge and not just “another uneducated political prisoner.” All people see is the Afro and couple of ideas and assume she is pro-black, stubborn and just another loud obnoxious woman. She rocked the unassimilated Afro and embraced her hair in comparison to what the ‘typical’ American is supposed to look like in opposition to the typical white person.
One may ask what Reverend Al Sharpton, Angela Davis and a young private school student Vanessa VanDyke have in common and it’s the constant pressure of assimilation and who keeps determining what’s appropriate and what’s not. There are many levels of blackness and it seems as though the closest to white that the blackness lies is the closest to acceptance one shall ever receive. Is this okay? No, but that’s how the social structure is set up and like Dr. Beverly Tatum explains in her book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?,” racism is rapid and it takes twice the amount of work to get rid of it and to continuously be proactive. What many don’t realize is that even when no action is taking place, it is feeding into the hegemonic social structures not disrupting needed change. In order to create something anew, a common realization amongst the oppressed is needed.
There is power in numbers and throughout history; it is shown time and time again through actively protecting oneself, as did Malcolm X and by gathering rallies, boycotting and refusing services, as did Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What society has to do is be willing to make the majority uncomfortable in the midst of fighting for the minority social justice and stop accepting that, “that’s just the way it is.”
“Girl Faces School Expulsion over Natural Hair – FOX Carolina 21.” Girl Faces School Expulsion over Natural Hair – FOX Carolina 21. Fox Carolina, 26 Nov. 2013. Web. 02 Dec. 2013. <http://www.foxcarolina.com/story/24078361/girl-faces-school-expulsion-over-natural-hair>.
Nelson, Sara C. “Girl, 12, No Longer Risking Expulsion Over Afro Hair – But Warned She Must Restyle It.” The Huffington Post UK. The Huffington Post United Kingdom, 27 Nov. 2013. Web. 02 Dec. 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/11/27/girl-12-no-longer-risking-expulsion-afro-hair–must-restyle-it_n_4348858.html>.
WKMG. “School Gives Student Ultimatum over Hair.” CNN. Cable News Network, 27 Nov. 2013. Web. 02 Dec. 2013. <http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/us/2013/11/27/dnt-school-hair-controversy.wkmg.html>.
As I sit here and graduation approaches I think….
Where am I going to be this time next year? Where is my mindset going to be? What struggles will I face? Who will be on my journey who was not there before and who flew with the winds?
This morning I woke up at 6am worried about my best friends and all of the trials and tribulations they face. I prayed for them and their families but most of all I prayed for myself to be the strength for them in their season of frailness.
At 7am the sun beams in my room against my disco ball …I open the blinds to allow the light to take me over and in this instant I realize how beautiful life is. Then I think of John Legend’s song “All of Me” but the version I was listening to was featuring violinist Lindsey Stirling. There is just something about an instrument singing that made my heart tremble. I broke down crying because I’m 22 and I realized, I’m BLESSED. The way my life is set up I can fail over and over again but I’ve met some of the greatest people and truest friends in college that I can lean on whenever I please. My Grandfather once told me, “If you can meet at least two good friends in life then you are blessed” and I must say God gives in abundance; when you ask you shall receive.
As the song plays and my mind goes everywhere, I realize that the sun makes everything look soo beautiful but there is much scrutiny placed on darkness. Is darkness bad? I beg to differ….the light allows one to see, whereas the darkness allows you to feel . That’s why when we kiss we close our eyes, because in that moment you seeing what’s in front of you doesn’t matter, it’s about how that person makes you feel in that instant, whether it’s a female or male. Not only is darkness beautiful but the rainy days is what makes the sunny days worth it…if there was no rain how could things grow and blossom? And just like our lives there will be rainy days but how will you take care of yourself? The family I used to nanny for once told me that the way a person takes care of their car and cleanliness of it tells a lot about a person. Me being young at the time I didn’t really understand it. But I’ve recently started really taking care of my car and spending more “me” time and I realized the way invest in my car is the way I invest in myself.
But after the car theory, I realized how beautiful I was despite what people have said in my past and even in my present. While in college my friend participated in a pageant called Miss Black and Gold hosted by the men of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated. She could not find anyone to help her and at the time we weren’t really friends, more of associates. I knew how to do hair, make-up and knew I was a great cheerleader, so I told her to look no longer, not knowing her from Adam or Eve, and I would be her pageant mom. I helped her study, helped her with her speech and calmed her down during times of doubt. Needless to say she won 3rd place, receiving the title Miss 1906. The next year flew by and she wanted me to participate in the pageant and I kept saying “NO,” I was not beautiful enough to participate in a pageant, I can’t walk in heels and I was pledging for Delta Phi Omega Sorority, Incorporated in the Fall so I didn’t have time to participate in her shenanigans. So once again time passed and I gained confidence in speech, spitting out facts and being intellectually confident whether I was right or wrong. Time continued to pass and here I am senior year and this same friend tried to recruit me to do the pageant and I gave her the same excuses of why I would not participate. I believed pageants were anti-feminist, placing women on a stage allowing men to see their bodies and judge an “outer” beauty that has been euro-centralized. And there was a bathing suit scene? Oh helllllll NOOOOOO, I am not participating in that.
Somehow she convinced me to do the 2013 Miss Black and Gold pageant that I originally said no to and the 1st day I walked into that room with the other girls…I went home crying. I walked in the room full of beautiful, physically appealing and gorgeous young women. None of them were really plus-sized, most of them were in modeling troupes, slim and pretty. I knew I was losing, so from that point I told myself I lost. As weeks passed I became very close with two of the girls, who were drop dead gorgeous. We would sit and talk about boys and girls and just got to genuinely know one another and I realized something….these women have the same insecurities I do. Yea they may not be considered “plus-sized” but they definitely had some negative experiences in life that took away their ability to be fully confident in themselves. We continued to dance, which I sucked at and I vented to my friend, who convinced me to do this in the 1st place and told her I wanted to quit. She told me not to and to stop focusing on my weaknesses, she said “it’s too late in the game to focus on your weaknesses, your strengths are going to be what wins the pageant. You’re a broadcast Journalism major, which means you need to focus on your speech and your talent is amazing, original and different. Your strengths are what is scored the heaviest so believe in yourself, you got this.” This is when I knew good Karma existed. Because the once stranger was now encouraging me in the same way I had encouraged her. My best friend would listen to me vent and tell me, “ You didn’t pledge for nothin’, diamonds are made under pressure, now go out there and shine bright like the diamond you are!” Oh how blessed I was to have such encouragement.
The next day I walked into the room, made a flawless speech in practice and killed my talent. “I commanded attention,” as some of them would say. I became truly confident in myself and I knew the physical beauty would come easy. After all, if drag queens can look like flawless gorgeous women, I knew a little make-up could do the trick. I focused on my confidence and was reassuring myself of the inner beauty I have been blessed with. I knew my inner beauty was a light and when I opened my mouth it would exude to everyone listening. There was one day in practice when my attitude was all the way off, I doubt myself…I couldn’t get my speech right, talent was off tune, the dance looked like I never practiced a day in my life and I had a corn on my pinky toe that hurt because I wasn’t used to wearing heels. I had exams and quizzes that week and practice lasted past my bedtime and I just felt like nothing was going the way it was supposed to. I guess the past queens could see it in my face. She asked me what was wrong and pulled me outside. I just broke down crying, expressing to her how I wasn’t beautiful enough for this, my feet hurt, my walk looked like shit and I couldn’t even remember anything. She gave me a hug and the other queen came in and they both consoled me, telling me that no matter what size or how beautiful you are you have to believe it and other people will see it. They began teaching me how to walk in heels and I stumbled, even fell on my face in practice. But I laughed, it was God’s way of slowing me down and not take things so serious, and I knew this! We all laughed in the room and kept practicing. Doing the show over and over again…
Pageant day approached and everyone knew who was going to win! The flawless dancer, how tight her body was and how beautiful she danced. I looked at her and I said, “Sisi, I’m not letting you win this title easy, though I know you got it.” She looked at me and said, “ToeToe, I’m not letting you have this easy either.” We smiled, laughed, hugged one another and wished each other the best of luck despite us being “competition.”
I had my hair swingin’, had my best friend come from Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk because I knew I needed emotional support, who better than my friend I knew since 9th grade? My line sister did my makeup so flawlessly.
We did the opening dance, which we all messed up on…but the show had to go on. I rushed to the back with the other ladies and did the wardrobe change, tucking and scrambling to put on clothes to prepare for the speech that rolled off my tongue without thinking now. “Contestant number five, LaToria Todd” they announced and off I went to the 1st round, the business speech. “Good evening ladies, gentlemen and the most noble men of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated, my name is LaToria Yvonne Todd….” In that instant something divine happened! A voice I never knew existed came out, it wasn’t my radio voice but it wasn’t my news reporter voice either, oh my goshh, it was my speech voice. I found it, it was finally given to me. I stood up there and paused ….because I realized how beautiful this day was and how much EVERY INSECURITY I EVER HAD IN MY LIFE WAS CHALLENGED IN THIS PAGEANT.
I was fat, I was ugly, I was loud, I was never good enough but this was my day! I was not skinny but I was gorgeous head to toe, I was intellectual, I was gifted with grace from God, but greatest of all, I WAS ME! The next round came; it was the swimsuit scene. Oh the cellulite on my thighs could not have looked anymore flawless. I went out there with no props and played with the audience, throwing up my sorority sign, did the “dougie” that took me 8 years to learn, and stood in the center flaunting my body making the hourglass shape figure with my hands, confidently walking off on the wrong side of the stage.
Talent came and I had my pianist and beautiful saxophone player play a rendition of “love is you” by Chrisette Michele and “Lullaby of Birdland” by Ella Fitzgerald. I scatted and the audience went wild. It was the next round, evening gown then question and answer. It was the first time I had ever been escorted, so I was super nervous, making sure I didn’t fall again and flawlessly I walked with heels on, slowly as John Legend’s “All of Me” played in the background before it was even a hit on the radio. All I heard was,”…Lovin all your curves and and your edges, all your perfect imperfections, give your all to me, I’ll give my all to you,, You’re my end and my beginning, even when I lose I’m winning…” And as the song played I smiled because this WAS MY MOMENT. THIS WAS THE MOMENT I WAITED FOR MY ENTIRE LIFE; TO BE ME AND FOR PEOPLE TO SEE THAT BEAUTY CAME IN EVERY SHAPE, SIZE, VERNACULAR, STRUGGLE, PAIN and HAPPINESS. I presented what GOD can make, because WHO I BECOME IS MY GREATEST GIFT TO GOD, my mother, my sister, my friends and my foes. …..
Needless to say that night I won Miss Talent, Miss Congeniality and Miss Black and Gold. And because I was the winner for my pageant, I went onto the next round months later and won Miss Talent, Miss Scholarship and 1st Runner up for the Theta Rho chapter of APhiA. But see my point here is not that I won, because that’s just the reward, it’s that my journey was not easy but I had to be confident in myself and God to know that all was going to go as it was supposed to. I went from not wanting to do a pageant, to not believing in them, to winning trophies and respect. I could care less about winning a trophy as long as I made a difference and present how beauty IS NOT IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER, IT IS IN ME and I’m going to be the light that makes you see it! It’s not always about the end goal, it’s about the experience and what you learn. Try something you never thought you could or would do; who comes out will surprise you. Because I had already defeated myself prior to even participating, there was only good that could happen. God bless.