The Power of Hair Explained.

Picture Day has got to be one of the most hectic times of a child’s life. You have to choose a background (blue, grey, or the classic bookshelf. But if your school hired a fancy company, you had the option for an outdoor backdrop), pick out nice clothes, practice your smile, and most importantly… your hair has to be fabulous. Things worked out well for me, except for 2nd grade. Oh how I hated my hair during that time!

A couple of days before Picture Day, my mom brought me to the salon to get a haircut. I remember specifically telling my mom to let the hair stylist know I just wanted a trim. NOTHING DRASTIC. Now, I know that lady understood English because she agreed. But she was also Asian, so she was going to whatever she wanted (Relax, I’m Asian too. And I know how we get all sensitive about jokes on our people. So if that offended you, I’m kinda sorry.) So as the length of my hair got shorter and shorter, my eyes only got wider. Then, she whipped out the razor. I swear to you, the buzzing sound still rings in my ears. My soul was shaking. Slowly, I feel it hit closer to my neck and cut higher to my head. After the damage was done she told me, “See, it’s even better than you asked for.” I got into the car and cried my eyes out. I looked like Dora the Explorer, un-casted edition. It was mortifying.

But I was not the only one who experienced this pain. In Zitkala-sa’s novel American Indian Stories, she recalls the day the “paleface woman” cut her hair and how much it affected her.

I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit. Since the day I was taken from my mother I had suffered extreme indignities. People had stared at me. I had been tossed about in the air like a wooden puppet. And now my long hair was shingled like a coward’s! In my anguish I moaned for my mother, but no one came to comfort me. Not a soul reasoned quietly with me, as my own mother used to do; for now I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder.

(School Days of An Indian Girl, Section II)

After leaving her homeland and moving East with the missionaries for school, she realized her expectations of what life would be were different. She was a foreigner. But this particular scene is so important to discuss in Zitkala-sa’s story. She says, “Our mothers had taught us that only unskilled warriors who were captured had their hair shingled by the enemy. Among our people, short hair was worn by mourners, and shingled hair by cowards!” Her long hair is a symbol of strength. It was part of her identity and a direct connection to her roots. As the “paleface woman” cut off her hair, she felt that she had also “lost [her] spirit,” her sole reason of being. The woman did not only change the girl’s physical appearance, but altered her inner self as well. AGAINST HER WILL.

Hair will always grow back. We know this. But it is part of our body, and no one should control our body but ourselves. Whether you want to shave it all off or grow it long, it is your choice. That was why I was so angered by the lady who had cut my hair when I was younger. I chose the kind of way I wanted my hair to look, I trusted that she would respect that, but instead she did what she thought was good for me. No one gave her that right. Not her certificate, not her employer, not my mother, and definitely not me. As a girl, I am attached to my hair. It sounds so silly to say hair gives someone some kind of identity, but it does. Because (on good hair days) I control it and I style it the way I am comfortable with.

Zitkala-sa shows that after all the struggles she went through up to the time she had arrived at the school, her hair being cut off was the final straw. Expectations, rules, and culture was pushed onto her like she had no choice. She was being made into someone who she is not, but didn’t know how to escape it because “[she] was only one of many little animals driven by a herder.”  She ended up being one of the warriors captured by the enemy and had their hair shingled. She was made into a “coward.” They broke her.

I cried, just like her. I knew I became different. But I knew it wasn’t natural. To be stripped of choice, especially at a young age, makes you feel so powerless. For someone to take away something you hold so close to your being, makes you feel robbed. As I pass by the little salon and see it now made into a shop, I feel a bit better. It’s like I got my revenge. I might make my experience sound so dramatic, but my emotions were as real as I recall it. That lady left me with a bad hair cut and a picture to always remember it by. But it will still be a memory that is instilled in my mind forever, no matter now much my hair grows now.

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Slavery and Childhood Explained.

When I think back on my childhood, I remember putting a quarter into the little horse ride in front of our local shoe shop; begging for another turn. I remember Arts & Crafts and Story-time in Mrs. Frances’ class. I remember my brother and I running around in our backyard and falling off my bike. I remember holiday parties with family and receiving more gifts than my little arms could hold.  I remember the first time ever crushing on a boy, all because he made me a card using green construction paper and lots of glitter. I’d like to think he knew me pretty well. But the most invigorating thing about childhood was my freedom and belief that I was truly free… because I was.

And that’s what childhood should look like: a picture of freedom and happiness. But the sad reality is some are not as fortunate as I was growing up.

In Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, we can see how slavery strips one of their childhood. Linda Brent was cared for and sheltered by her parents since the age of six, able to live a pretty normal life, free of being identified as a slave. However, when they died, the shadow of her slave identity creeped in faster than she could blink. Under Dr. Flint’s household, Linda was subjected to the same mistreatment we read about in previous novels. She was ordered, abused, and deprived of her basic human rights. Let us remember, she is still a young girl. Can you imagine? Growing up feeling privileged and having some sense of self-worth because you had parents that nurtured you, then being forced under such brutality by Dr. Flint?

This caused Linda to grow up quicker than most. She needed to learn her duties, express respect for those who hurt her, and endure the pain and agony of slavery. Linda was not seen as a child by her owners. She was a slave, a piece of property, and nothing else. Jacobs’ novel show readers that in slavery, a child’s innocence is taken from them. That at their young age, their life is predetermined to be subjected to their masters, unable to dream or live as they pleased without suffering consequences. Linda’s story of two young sisters captured the effects of slavery on children and their childhood:

I once saw two beautiful children playing together. One was a fair white child; the other was her slave, and also her sister. When I saw them embracing each other, and heard their joyous laughter, I turned sadly away from the lovely sight. I foresaw the inevitable blight that would fall on the little slave’s heart. I knew how soon her laughter would be changed to sighs. The fair child grew up to be a still fairer woman. From childhood to womanhood her pathway was blooming with flowers, and overarched by a sunny sky. Scarcely one day of her life had been clouded when the sun rose on her happy bridal morning.

How had those years dealt with her slave sister, the little playmate of her childhood? She, also, was very beautiful; but the flowers and sunshine of love were not for her. She drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink. (Chapter 5)

Both children are seen as innocent, full of laughter and happiness. They are oblivious to the fact that they come from different worlds and one of them will suffer. However, as readers, and like Linda, we know that this happiness will not last forever. The white sister will have a better fate than that of her slave sister because their skin-tone is different. The white child will be privileged and continue to experience the joys of her childhood; whereas the slave girl will be deprived of such happiness. As well as in adulthood, their fates are on opposite ends. Even though both girls are of kin and beautiful, their potential is pushed in two different directions because of slavery. And the fate of the slave girl is not full of sunshine and flowers. There is no sign of love. There is only “sin and shame, and misery.”

After reading that, how can we believe in happy endings? As a child, I’ve lived off of fairy-tales. I’ve been told stories of princesses, happy families, and adventures. My parents told me that the world was mine for the taking and with hard work and determination anything was possible. Even in my adulthood, I believe in all of that… just in different contexts. But those stories, the endless possibilities they hold, were what got me by. I saw love in my parents, loyalty in my friends, and empowerment in my education. For Linda it was the complete opposite. She saw the world differently because the convention of slavery taught her to see it that way. Growing up, my view on the world and how things work are definitely different. But to imagine myself stripped of possibilities, forced into labor, separated from family, abused, and reminded I am nothing but property every day of my life? I don’t know if I could ever live. And as Linda expressed, she didn’t want to either.

Every child should have the right to dream. They have a right to happiness. They have a right to exercise what it means to be free. However slavery deflates the air of that happy balloon and one just watches it spin-off to a far away place. Children should roam wild and free, and if they want to fly, then they should be told it’s possible. If they want to be happy, show them its real.