the Composition
for Honours Class,
Howard University,

  Authors & Artists


Faces & Voices 4
Faces & Voices 5

It's Time to Get Your Knots Fried
Erika Rollins-Tappin
Wayne, Pennsylvania - English

        Being able to fit into my mother’s shoes (or pretending I could) was an indication that I was one step closer to womanhood. Little girls often emulate their mothers by dressing up in their clothes; a sign of love and admiration and the desire to be like the woman who gave them life. My cousin Jackie and I loved to explore our mothers’ closets as children, dressing up and wearing our mothers’ high heels and old prom dresses, pretending we were very important and beautiful ladies. We wore shirts over our heads, pretending we had long, soft waving hair. Anyone who was pretty, like those blonde shampoo models on television, had straight, soft hair, not the tight kinks that made us cry when time came to get our hair done. If our hair wasn’t straight, it was ugly. Not until I was older did I realize, why, as little girls we hated our tight curls and braids, why we wanted straight hair like our white friends at school. When did the line become blurred? Somehow we wanted to be beautiful like our black mothers, yet wanted features that separated us from that part of ourselves. From an early age, American society impresses upon the minds of black females what beauty is. The absence of black women in many intelligent and positive roles, as well as the deluge of beauty products that eradicate black features, emblazoned in the media, send out a negative image of blackness through its widespread influence. For centuries, black women in America have had to struggle with a disapproving representation of the characteristics that add to their natural beauty in light of the dominant Europeanized conception of “true” beauty.
        Beauty products for black women, even today, are often aimed at “whitening” the black female appearance, especially hair. Advertisements for relaxers such as Dark&Lovely and Just for Me, that chemically straighten (and damage) hair, pop up almost without fail on the commercial breaks between Moesha and Martin reruns. Many females, at one time or another, can relate horror stories of hot comb trauma, or a curling iron disaster with their Gold ‘n Hot. I would cringe as a young girl when my aunt would pull out my reserved seat next to the stove ready to run the hot, fine-toothed come through my hair. My palms grew sweaty at the thought of that comb even slightly tapping my sensitive scalp. I mentally shook my head, as my aunt would tell me how pretty I would be once she “fried my knots.” Note that we often brainwash our children into believing that what is being done is for their own good.
        Regarding other beauty products, only recently have cosmetic producers like L’Oreal begun creating foundation for black women of all shades. Bleaching creams similar to those made by Clinique, have undergone a change in name only, known as “blemish removers.” Sometimes, there seems to be a confusing double standard, especially with white women who purposely get dark tans and collagen injections for fuller lips. Why can’t we appreciate the women who have these features naturally? I went to a predominately white school where the girls, and some boys my age would go to tanning booths in the winter and return to school darker than I. The thing that continually amazed me was that the majority of people who did this did not have any black friends, and barely acknowledged me, even though they saw me in their classes everyday. I was continually appalled with this double standard of almost looking black, but not wanting to have anything to do with black people. Hip-hop music artist L’il Kim, with her bleach-blonde hair and blue contact lenses seems to be one of the many black females in America who has fallen victim to the negative view of ethnically black features. Society has conditioned us to believe that darker skin and thicker lips make us unattractive if we are of the wrong race.
        Black women who choose to retain a natural look (afros, braids, twists, dredlocks) often face discrimination and suffer from confusion, anger, and even depression. As Lorraine Hansberry stated, “I love being black…but sometimes it can be so complicated.” Women in the corporate world are hard pressed to choose between heritage and job opportunities when deciding on their appearance. I watched a 1999 report on 20/20 about a flight attendant who was told to lose her braids, or lose her job. I was extremely surprised that ABC decided to report on an issue that for many African-American women is a part of daily life, but remains misunderstood by many. In our supposedly “free” and “equal” society, these things should not happen. Attitudes such as these lead to the confusion, self-hatred, and even disgust black women have of the very ethnic features that make them beautiful. In her essay, “Excuse Me Your Race is Showing,” Karen Grigsby Bates laments the superficiality of a movement that was supposed to change not only laws, but attitudes as well. Bates states, “It’s ironic and painful that having won the major battles of the first civil rights movement…a mental apartheid pigeonholes us in this decade almost as effectively as de jure segregation did our predecessors three decades ago.” The attitudes that make so many black women lack the confidence and self-love they deserve are perpetuated by the idea of non-beauty.
        Black women and men have a responsibility to promote a positive image of the beautiful black woman. Why is this important, one may ask? For one, before we can solve many of the other problems the African-American community faces, we have to be emotionally secure within ourselves. It is not possible to truly love others when we do not love ourselves. From her self-titled album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Hill proclaims in her song Everything is Everything, “Let’s love ourselves then we can’t fail to make a better situation. Tomorrow, our seeds will grow, all we need is dedication.” As mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and most importantly, the support of the African-American community, black women must have a positive self-image to promote the well being of their community and command the respect they deserve. Very importantly, the love we have for ourselves is passed down to our children. As for the future, we have a responsibility to instill in children the importance of realizing how naturally beautiful they are and the uniqueness of the features that make them who they are.
        The centuries of denigration black women have experienced has had an effect that cannot be easily remedied. The definition of beauty is something that is changed gradually with the realization of who possesses it, not just on a superficial level, but internally as well. As black women continue to learn to love themselves, despite discrimination and misconceptions, their true strength and inner beauty will shine through.

© 2002 Howard University
(First Published in limited print edition, An Anthology of Verse, Prose & Art, by the Composition for Honours Class, Howard University, Spring 2002. Professor E.R. Braithwaite)
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