The following is an excerpt from Meeting Faith: An Inward Journey, by Faith Adiele. W. W. Norton & Company, 2005
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I should have told [my Tibetan Buddhist teacher] the truth when he’d first asked; should have blurted out that I suffered; that I was often frustrated and angry; that slavery and its legacy of racism had taken their tolls on me; that I had come seeking help in coping with feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness, and shame.
—Jan Willis, Dreaming Me: An African American Woman’s Spiritual Journey
… My mother wouldn’t let Barbie in the house. It wasn’t just that she wouldn’t be caught dead spending money on a Barbie doll—no gift Barbies were permitted either. “Horrible, sexist creatures,” she would shudder when questioned. “Lord knows it’s hard enough to raise a healthy girl without constant propaganda from the toy box!” Barbie’s blondeness didn’t help.
Eventually I did get a Skipper, chest flat as a board, with a cloud of blonde hair and dusting of brown freckles across her pert nose. I suspect this semi-shift in policy was due to Skipper’s size—perfect for the log cabin my uncle built me. Someone had to stoke the wrought iron stove, after all, and sleep in the painted Dutch bed. Besides, she resembled Cousin Heidi on the Swedish side.
When I was five and Diahann Carroll became the first Black American woman to star in her own television show, my mother broke down—wasp waist, torpedo breasts and permanently high-heeled feet be damned—and got me a Julia doll. It didn’t escape me that Julia was just Barbie with milk chocolate skin, a white nurse’s uniform and a short cap of straightened hair. Instead of learning to love myself, I suspect that I learned a complicated equation: Flat Chest (Skipper) > Blonde (Barbie); Brown Skin (Julia) > Unrealistic Body Type (Barbie).
Mornings I waited for the school bus at my grandparents’ house, and if she had time, Mummi sat me down before her large, round vanity mirror, surrounded by tubs of blue and pink Dippity-Do, and set my hair in ringlets à la Cindy Brady or Buffy from Family Affair. I quivered with anticipation as she wrapped my soft black curls into large spiky rollers set vertically around my head like shells in an ammo belt. The resulting cylinders were wispy and short-lived.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” I heard my mother whisper one morning on her way to work.
“She begged,” my grandmother whispered back, her blue eyes soft, pink plastic hairpins poking out the side of her mouth. “She’s just a little girl.”
My mother sighed and hugged me good-bye. Her hair, long then, fell in a curtain around us. “Who’s my beautiful, beautiful pun’kin?” she said, peppering my nose with kisses. She liked to tell the story of how all the nurses oohed and aahed when I was born. I had such big brown eyes, such a perfect rosebud mouth, a full head of curls! Then there were the strangers who stopped us on the streets whenever we went out and plied me with gifts—shiny coins and candy. Biracial babies were rare in 1960s Seattle. Everyone wanted to touch me!
Junior high society in Sunnyside, however, required the impossible: Farah Fawcett hair, a tousled mane of blonde highlights, and a curling iron. My grandfather bought me the iron—a sleek, lavender rod that I heated up lovingly and snapped in anticipation—but there wasn’t much we could do with it until my mother (after much pleading on everyone’s part) finally relented and let me straighten my hair, just this once! Racial self-loathing surely couldn’t take root in a single incident.
Instead of falling to my shoulders in bone-straight, shining tresses (as the photo on the box had led us to believe!), my hair poofed around me, thick and unruly as shrubbery. I looked like the biracial kids I would later hear black students talking about at college:
“You can always tell who has a white mother,” a girl bemoaned freshman year, as an interracial graduate student couple and their two kids entered the dining room. The little boy had a close natural, but the girl’s hair billowed out in a wiry, chaotic cloud caught at the end with a rubber band. “They have no idea what to do with their black children’s hair.”
The table mmm-hmmed its agreement, and a second girl protested, “You think they’d ask someone! Even they must notice that you don’t see kids with black parents running around all wild and bushy-haired like that.”
A third girl sounded mournful. “It hurts. I just want to go over there and say, ‘Please, can I just braid your poor child’s hair?’”
In the Freshman dining hall, I’d been overcome with shame and rage. Shame that I still didn’t know how to work my hair, that my own body was foreign to me, and rage to learn that as a black baby, I had indeed come with an instruction manual—only it was missing! And let us not forget pain, of course, pain for the little girl about to tread in some very painful shoes with the protection of a mother less vigilant than mine.
No one in my family, no one in the entire town knew what to do with my straightened hair. My uncle’s girlfriend spent hours shaping and curling, but each time I turned to see my uncle’s face, his pursed, painted smile, I started to cry.
Later, in Middle School, when I negotiated full authority over my body from my mother, when haircuts and make-up and clothes came entirely within my jurisdiction, I shaved an inverted V into my forehead and fired up the curling iron, creating two little wings above my brows like fat black caterpillar larvae.
Despite the fact that every single black woman straightened (or, as they called it, permed) her hair—all of which seemed to end up in slicked-back buns fastened with scrunchies, bobby pins and barrettes, a veritable ammo belt of accessories—college turned out to be less about looks and more about class, along with academic or extracurricular specialization. And so I scraped by. I was the traveler, the cultural chameleon, the adventuress, the empath. I could advocate on behalf of Southeast refugees and homeless Americans, interview Latino immigrants, teach English to the illiterate. I could pass through the inner city unscathed, dress for black-tie affairs, scrap from Burma to the tip of Singapore, crossing borders with a single bag and no reservations. I passed, I passed.
This excerpt from Meeting Faith, which won the 2005 PEN Beyond Margins Award for Best Memoir, was reposted with kind permission.
- Watch clips from , a PBS documentary featuring Faith Adiele.