Thursday, June 29, 2006

(Thank God) I Am Not My Hair

After waiting for months, going to numerous retailers and watching my friend have a good old fashioned, Piscean Princess trademark "your customer service STINKS and somebody is gonna hear from me, just as soon as I get back to my desk to pen a strongly worded letter!" moment, I have obtained India Arie's latest album, "Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship". As always, the new album digestion process has been slow and methodical. So far, I think my favorite is "Good Morning", but by the time this weekend is over, I'll know for sure.

As I pulled into the parking lot at my job yesterday, volume at level 22, track 11 began...

little girl with a press n curl
age eight i got a jheri curl
thirteen i got a relaxer
i was the source of so much laughter
fifteen when it all broke off
eighteen and i went all natural
february two thousand and two
i went and did what i had to do
cause it was time to change my life
to become the woman that i am inside
ninety seven dreadlocks all gone
looked in the mirror for the first time and saw that

i am not my hair
i am not this skin
i am not your expectations
i am not my hair
i am not this skin
i am a soul that lives within

Yeah, India, I am so feeling you girl! The chronology and the ages are a little different, but all in all, my story is the same.

My mommy has never known how to do hair. She has never done anything to her own and she was pretty much incapable of making mine look decent. Several thousand miles away from her nearest family member, she was left to her own miserably incompetent devices. So for the first six years of my life, I had an afro. Sometimes that afro was teeny-weeny. Other times it was fluffy and unkempt with a ribbon attached to a bobby pin jammed into it's side.

Suddenly, things changed...and more capable family members were close at hand. Let the braiding begin! At first, there were cornrows in creative and elaborate styles. I couldn't have been happier! Until the cornrow-er went out of business and was replaced with a single braid-er. Now don't get me wrong, I realize that singles can be attractive and stylish. Back in 1980, a $2 package of colored plastic beads was all it took to take a head full of individual, slave-style plaits to the next level.

Unfortunately my braider thought those plastic beads looked cheap and tacky, so instead, I got some antique wooden beads. (Yes, they were wood. Like from trees.) They were gold and there was one on each 3 inch braid. With aluminum foil on the bottom to keep them on. Needless to say, I wasn't off to a good start in my new city at my new school with my new hair. Second graders are mean!

Before long, St. Jerry, the patron saint of little brown girls with major hair issues, heard my cry. Yes, dear reader, the Jheri Curl was born! Even though the bearer of the wooden beads would not even entertain the idea, once I was deposited into my father's hot little hands for the summer, it was a done deal. Finally! Not only did I have hair that moved, but I had hair like all the other girls. Of course mine was significantly shorter than most (think Easy-E, circa 1988) but it was a step in the right direction, regardless.

Anybody who was a child of divorce can probably remember that there was one thing that your estranged parents used as a tool to get at one another. For my mother, it was my hair. Upon my return after the summer of Jheri Curl #1, she promptly cut off all of my hair. It was back to the teeny weeny afro look, once again. The next summer, my teeny weeny afro had once again evolved into plantation plaits and I was off to visit daddy again. And he marched me right over to the local beauty shop and paid for more of those silky (aka greasy) curls. And when I got back home my mother cut off all my hair again. By the time the summer rolled around, I had cycled through the now familiar stages of hair regrowth. I even graduated from the Medusa look to the popular but impractical press and curl. Hot combs are indeed hot, rollers are pretty uncomfortable and not being able to swim was torture. I looked forward to Curl #3.

In a devastating turn of events, my mother wised up and cut my hair pre-visit!

Well, not to be outdone, my daddy waited patiently for my hair to get just long enough to wrap around one of those little rods.....and just like that, I was cool again! And this time, my exhausted & battle weary mother surrendered. The curl stayed.

Fast forward to 1988. Unless you were a gangsta rapper, the curl was no longer the style of the stylish. And I still had mine. By now I had experienced not only the original Jheri Curl, but the California Curl and the Wave Nouveau. And I was trying desperately to convince my mother to let me get a relaxer. Nope. Not happening. So here I was again, same city, new school, same bad hair. Tenth graders are mean!

In a totally spontaneous act of teenage defiance, I freed myself. Yes, I took matters into my own hands and got rid of that stankin' curl once and for all. Unfortunately, like most spontaneous acts of teenage defiance, mine lacked proper planning & regard for long term consequences. I won't take you through all of the ugly details, but I will tell you there was a blow dryer and a pressing comb involved. During the 5 days that it took for all of my hair to fall completely out, my mother employed one of her most memorable vigilante parenting tactics - she did nothing. She wouldn't take me to the beauty shop for services of any kind. I had to go to my new school with my new adolescent hormones with my new look (think Tina Turner, circa 1986). Tenth graders are still mean!

So the updated version of the hair re-growth process includes a relaxer (finally), finger waves (brown gel and all), finger waves and pineapple waves (yes, at the same time) and the Nefertiti cut (I swear it was in style for a few weeks!). And then I discovered weave. (It was around this time that I removed my mother from the hair care process. Her work was done.)

Fast forward 16 years to right now. My hair issues are not nearly as dramatic. Thanks to my standing weekly appointment at Styling Divas, I really don't have to think about my hair much at all. Until summer rolls around (don't worry, y'all, I really am over the jheri curl) and I want to enjoy swimming and other water related fun. Like now, I'm preparing to drive 7 hours to the most romantic place on earth (by myself, thanks for asking) to frolic in Lake Michigan. So I get braids. Not the crappy, individual braids of yesteryear, but the sleek, stylish cornrow of the millennium.

As I pulled into the parking lot at my job yesterday, I chuckled to myself in anticipation of my co-workers' awkward compliments and the questions of the bolder ones...

"now, can you wash that?"

"what happened to your other hair?"

"can I touch it?"

And just like in the movies, right when I was imagining these upcoming scenes, Track 11 came on. How poetic!

(I Am Not My Hair, the video)

Friday, June 23, 2006

Imagine That

Those of you who know me personally probably know that I have a very active imagination. Whether I'm inventing personalities for people, describing the songs & sound effects that serve as the backdrop for my everyday life, or just generally exaggerating, my mind is constantly working toward it's own amusement. But my hands down favorite of all the make-believe activities is the imaginary boyfriend.

For the first time since 1998, I am single. I have been single since February of last year. I've been on approximately 4 dates in that 16 months. Despite several honest attempts & attitude adjustments, my romantic life is pretty pitiful.

I've never been one to wallow in my own sadness/loneliness/boring-ness. Instead I find other things to do. I cook, I read, I watch movies, I sample the Cabernet Sauvignon of numerous wineries (sometimes in lieu of dinner). And when I need to feel that giggly feeling that can only come from being noticed by a cutie pie, I invent one.

Please don't be alarmed. I am not spending my days talking to & making out with people who don't exist. No, no, no...these are real people who I have at least had some minor chit-chat with, during which they all instantly fall hopelessly in love with me. (Don't ask me how I know this...I just know.)

Trust me, it happens all the time. But I'd be an imaginary hoe if I let all of them be my boyfriend at the same time. So here are some of the categories that I use to keep them all organized.

While I'm in the process of creating a personality for my flavor of the week, he is usually in the "he wants to be my boyfriend (smile)" category. This usually involves some lite flirting by both parties and not much else. After said flirting, I usually remind my friends that "he wants to be my boyfriend", I giggle, they groan and that is that.

Once the personality has been created (or revealed), if I don't want to continue the lite flirting, he ends up in the "he wants to be my boyfriend (Yuck!), talk to me/hide me/let's go the other way so he won't come over here" category. This person's phone calls or text messages or emails don't get returned in a timely fashion. Instead of the usual big-normous smile that I typically greet people with, he gets the closed mouth let's-keep-this-at-hello grin. This unfortunate group of fellas may have organized a support group for their Post-Princess Traumatic Stress Disorder.

There are some cases, however, when no personality (real or manufactured) is necessary. Examples include any cashier or waiter who wants to give me a hook up of any kind and the guys at the gas station who put the air in my tire the other day. In these cases, temporary boyfriend passes are issued whenever I need something.

Then there are the times where the boundaries of my imaginary relationship are tested. Like last night when Big Bad Brother Coolstein & I had an actual conversation that ended with a phone number exchange and the possibility of taking a 7 and a half hour road trip to the most romantic place in the world next weekend. So now I've spent the whole day imagining all the possible ways that he & I can make chocolate and vanilla babies. But now it's not all that imaginary anymore. I mean, that flirting wasn't the "lite" kind, both parties were giggling, the innuendos were far more suggestive...THIS IS REAL! (Not real like he's gonna be my real live boyfriend real, but way real-er than it was 24 hours ago.) That fine line between fantasy & reality has been breached (sort of). This is the part where I have to start being responsible for my (real) actions and for other (real) people's feelings.

Well, I guess I'll have to deal with it if it comes to that. But in the meantime, I'm on cloud 9 knowing that B.B.B. Coolstein (and several other people) thinks I'm cute and sexy and interesting and funny and smart and all that good stuff. (Again, no one has actually said these things, but I know that's how they feel. I just know it.) Don't laugh. This whole single thing is tough. I have been in several(real) consecutive, with no down-time in between relationships since I was 14 (except for "The Year I Fell In Love With Me", otherwise known as 1998). This imagination thing is the best I know how to pass the time. It's fun and effective.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Colored Contradictions

My power is in my madness, and my colored contradictions.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of being cast in George C. Wolfe's classic play, "The Colored Museum" at the oldest African American Cultural Arts Institution in the country (much love to The Mu!). Each of the 11 vignettes spoke to me in a different way and for different reasons. But the one that has inspired the most soul searching is "The Party".

If you're not paying attention, this scene is about a name-dropping, party girl who likes to dance. But upon closer review...

"Have y'all ever been to a party where there was one fool in the middle of the room, dancing harder and yelling louder than everybody in the entire place? Well honey, that fool was me! Yes, child, my name is Topsy Washington and I love to party!"

Well "anyone who knows anything about" Harriet Beecher Stowe or Uncle Tom (or La La L'Amazing Grace) knows that naming this character Topsy was sure to ruffle some feathers. Why, George? Why? You know we have a hard time coming to terms with those images!

She was one of the blackest of her race; and her round, shining eyes, glittering as glass beads, moved with quick and restless glances over everything in the room. Her mouth half open with astonishment at the wonders of the new Mas'r's parlor, displayed a white and brilliant set of teeth. Her woolly hair was braided in sundry little tails, which stuck out in every direction. The expression of her face was an odd mixture of shrewdness and cunning, over which was oddly drawn, like a veil, an expression of the most doleful gravity and solemnity. She was dressed in a single filthy, ragged garment, made of bagging; and stood with her hands demurely folded in front of her. Altogether, there was something odd and goblin-like about her appearance -- something as Miss Ophelia afterwards said, "so heathenish..."

~ Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe

I could go on and on about this Topsy thing, but there's so much more to the piece, I just can't waste time on the child's name!

" let me tell you 'bout this function I went to the other night, way uptown. And baby, when I say way uptown, I mean way-way-way-way-way-way-way-way uptown. Somewhere between 125th Street and infinity.

Inside was the largest gathering of black/Negro/colored Americans you'd ever want to see. Over in one corner you got Nat Turner sippin champagne out of Eartha Kitt's slipper. And over in another corner, Bert Williams and Malcom X was discussing existentialism as it relates to the shuffle-ball-change. Girl, Aunt Jemima and Angela Davis was in the kitchen sharing a plate of greens and just going off about South Africa.

And then Fats sat down and started to work them 88's. And the Stevie joined in. And then Miles and Duke and Ella and Jimi and Charlie and Sly and Lightnin' and Count and Louie! And then everybody joined in. I tell you all the children was just all up in there,

dancing to the rhythm of one beat.

Dancing to the rhythm of their own definition.

Celebrating in their cultural madness

So, hold up George, you tryin' to tell me that I can identify with Malcom & Angela's politics and still have love for mammies and minstrels? At the same time?? Are you sure? Shouldn't I be mad & fly into a rage any time anybody even mentions blackface or pickaninnies?

How on earth is a modern day black woman supposed to embrace these "embarrassing" images in our history?

Well, like with anything else - getting educated on the subject. So like any actor, I spend a good deal of my pre-performance time doing research. Making sure that my character (or anyone else in the play) is not saying anything that I don't understand 100%. Becoming familiar with the period during which the play's action takes place, as well as the cultural & political climate during which it was written. And my process preceding "The Colored Museum" certainly helped me reconcile with my colored contradictions.

All I knew about Aunt Jemima before was that I didn't want to leave the house looking like her, or else I would shame the family & by extension, the entire race. But there was a real person behind those pancakes. Her name was Nancy Green and she was born a slave. We look at her and feel shame, but she is the face of our immediate ancestry. And in the late 1800's I can't imagine that she looked much different than any other 59 year old former slave. Neither Ms. Green nor her contemporaries were trying to be America's Next Top Model, they weren't climbing or integrating the corporate ladder and my guess is that their day-to-day concerns had more to do with survival than future generations' embarrassment over the scarf on her head. And how embarrassed can we really be? Don't you cover your head with something from time to time? I sure do - when I cook, when I sleep, when it rains.

Knowing a little more about Nancy Green and the 6 women who subsequently represented the pancake giant, I still resist the urge to wear my bonnet outside my house (except for the occasional quick drive to my mother's house). But I respect the fact that she represented the product marketing & fashion trends of her time. And she paved the way for Tyson Beckford (Polo, Ralph Lauren) & Paul Williams, Fred Thomas, Charles Stone III and Scott Brooks (Budweiser / Whassup!).

Now that that's been cleared up & put in perspective, what about this minstrel thing? White folks + burnt cork = OFFENSIVE, no question, right? But what about Williams & Walker (a.k.a. The Two Real Coons)? Do they go into the same box I put the Wayans family in?

After getting a bit more below the surface, I have concluded that White folks + burnt cork = cultural appropriation at it's stereotypical worst. And it still doesn't give me a warm & fuzzy feeling. But when someone steals something from you, what better revenge than to steal it back!

Bert Williams was a natural entertainer, who earned his early living mimicking "the humble, shiftless, slouch Negro who could neither read nor write but who had a certain hard, and not altogether inaccurate, philosophy of life." I guess he figured, if they can do it, I can too. After partnering with George Walker, Williams went on to become internationally famous for his vaudeville shows. White audiences came out in droves, considering Blacks in blackface somehow more authentic. The Black performers in this time used their time on stage to alter long held stereotypes. In the early 1900's the torch was passed to Stepin Fetchit, who brought the coon to the motion picture screen and became the first Black actor to become a millionaire. Often, while making movies in which he found the lines offensive, he would skip or mumble lines he did not like, pretending to be too stupid to comprehend the script.

So these men and women were performers. They cashed in on an artform that made a mockery of their very existence. They became world renowned actors, songwriters and filmmakers. They put on "a show" so that 100 years later I wouldn't have to. Make no mistake, these were not necessarily the most glamorous or respected trailblazers in our history. But they certainly represent a part of our history that we need to pass on to generations to come. Otherwise, we'll have entire genres of entertainment that pander to the foolish stereotypes that the mainstream is comfortable with.

(Oh, wait, that's already happening.)

It's hard work, coming to terms with the contradictions. But I think that our culture suffers when we ignore the parts of our past that we don't like. They are all a part of us and they're not going away.

"Everything I need to get over in this world, is inside here, connecting me to everybody and everything that's ever been. So, honey, don't waste your time trying to label or define me, 'cause

I'm not what I was ten years ago

or ten minutes ago.

I'm all of that and then some.

And whereas I can't live inside yesterday's pain,

I can't live without it!"

Thursday, June 08, 2006

"Politics wedded to hypocrisy"

By Sam Fulwood III, Plain Dealer Columnist
Thursday, June 08, 2006

"God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve"
~punch line to an anti-gay joke

Dear President Bush:

I was outraged to hear your speech earlier this week endorsing a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and woman.
I write you because I suspect you don't know many men like me, who are secure enough in their masculinity to say they love other men.

Hold on, sir, before you toss this note in your executive wastebasket. Let me explain that when I say love, I don't mean the "hooking up" or "having sex" sense of that word.
It's a common notion, but misguided. I'm angered when I hear love defined exclusively in sexual terms. That's an incomplete, limiting and gross way of thinking about something as glorious as love - even when applied to heterosexual relationships.
My understanding of love has nothing to do with sex, but everything to do with caring about other human beings. It applies especially to women, but it's elastic enough to cover men, too.

So let me tell you about two men - Adam and Steve -I love. Forgive me for not using proper names. I know them both well enough to be assured they wouldn't appreciate my sharing these locker-room tales with you.

My friend Adam is heterosexual. He's what you might call a manly man, the sort of best-buddy type who is willing to sit in front of a television, drink beers back to back and watch ball games. We actually did that some years ago in a male-bonding orgy that lasted an entire weekend. (If it makes you feel any better, sir, we were fully dressed the entire time.)
Adam is a complicated friend. He would give me or one of his male buddies the shirt off his back. But he doesn't respect women, including his wife. Truth be told, he's never been a faithful husband. He had a tryst with one of the bridesmaids at his wedding.

I wonder, Mr. President, if Adam is the sort of person you had in mind when you said families "pass along values and shape character" and marriage "is also critical to the health of society."
Or were you speaking about my friend Steve, who is gay? He's been in a committed relationship with his partner for nearly as long as Adam has been unhappily married.
I met Steve years ago as we shared a brief flight and talked about sports, movies and God. We became good friends almost instantly. I've introduced him to my family and friends. He's invited me to worship at his church, where we prayed for tolerance, respect and dignity for all mankind.
Mr. President, you used those words - "tolerance and respect and dignity" - as you summarized your opposition to gay marriage. If I may be completely frank, sir, I think your comments were despicable.
You knew the amendment wasn't going to pass Congress. Still, you lent the dignity of your office to this election-year diversion to appease your conservative political base and to prop up your sagging popularity.

And, sir, that clearly demonstrates it's politics - not people -you love.

P.S. Mr. President, let me also mention that later this year I will celebrate my 22nd anniversary with the same lovely person. In case you are worried, my spouse is a woman.

And by the way, neither Adam's troubled marriage nor Steve's successful partnership poses the slightest threat to my happy, monogamous marriage.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Who Will Sing For Lena?

I did!

From what I understand, it lasted for 70 minutes. I wouldn't know; I don't remember saying much of anything, except the few lines I was trying to choke out at the end, trying to hold back the tears before I "walked real slow up the stairs to the chair. Then I prayed. Then I got quiet." ...and strapped myself to the electric chair, covered my head with the black hood and...

"What I done, I done in self defense or I'd have been killed myself...I'm ready to go. I am one in the number and I am ready to meet my God."

She sang her song and she sang it loud. I was but a vessel through which she could sing.

"Maybe I should start closer to the beginning."

After almost 12 hours of sleep, I woke up at around 6:15 Saturday morning, saying lines, going over my prop list, saying lines, you know, just generally being a nervous nelly. My weekly hair appointment was over in less than an hour & I went back home to finish obsessing. I showed up at the and all hell broke loose. In my most melodramatic, obsessive-compulsive, slightly neurotic daydreams, I could not have imagined the drama that would unfold between noon and 1:15pm. There was a flooded basement, about 12 loud, hi-tech, moisture removing fans & dehumidifiers, a put upon maintenance dude and an "assertive" Coolstein (is that what we're calling it these days??).

Fortunatly, the fireworks died down long enough for me to rehearse & go enjoy some of C. Coolstein's birthday dinner. (Girl, I'm so glad you were born! And not just because of the yummy chicken & cake.) There was blog checking, email sending, phone call ignoring, yogic breathing and calming meditation. Then there was five minutes to places.

It all comes down to this.

*deep breath*

*strong voice*

"Mama's twin cousin was lynched almost a year ago to the day I was born. For stealing a horse, the white folks finally said. It was 2 counties over and nobody could tell how he got so far from home."

Honest to goodness, I don't remember saying those words. I do remember pointing out people I knew in the audience. But I don't remember saying the lines. I do remember reacting to being raped. But I don't remember describing it. I remember the people laughing at the funny stuff. But I don't remember what I was physically doing that was so amusing. I remember seeing necks craning to get a better look when the electric chair was brought onstage. But I don't remember strapping myself down to it.

This inability to recall the performance means that I accomplished my goal. I got out of my own way & let Lena do the talking.