Down South, this summer, at a family reunion for the first time in a decade, I sat with my younger cousin by the pool. Her black cherry skin danced in the sunlight.
They say I look like another of her mother’s daughters. But her eyes are much more almond. She doesn’t mind telling you her great grandmother was Korean or that her great grandfather was one of the founders of the NAACP. A heritage I don’t share; he was on her dad’s side. Still, I’m proud to have African American royalty in the family, so to speak.
Finally ready for the pool, although I showered like the sign says, I leave a thin film of shea butter on top of the water when I get out. It’s ok; I’m sure there’s still some more in my hair. Like a little kid, I have to cannonball. None of that gradual, sexy, lowering by ladder, the South Carolina sun hasn’t sufficiently warmed the water, yet. The shit is cold.
Even now, my fear of water is deeper than my fear of drowning.
And although I’m holding my nose I still almost choke to death going in. I can’t swim. As usual, my bathing suit top is too big and my titties pop out. The other “unsexy” thing about me in the pool is how my 6 inch blow out pulls in on itself until it is just centimeters from my skull. This isn’t something I normally trip about. I’ve had natural hair for almost 20 years. But having a short fro again, an unstretched one still challenges beauty norms. Even after all these years, the water’s effect on my hair causes me a tinge of anxiety. Even though many Black women wear their hair natural today, most of us still use products or grooming techniques to texturize, tame, lengthen, shine or somehow ameliorate our hair. Very few of us wear what I call “the under the wig hair.”
I have heard that water has a memory. Does it remember when I got a whooping with a jelly shoe for burning off my ponytail with a hot comb? It was summer and my mama said not to get wet because I had just gotten my hair straightened. I was scared I’d get in trouble for getting it nappy again.
Does the water remember how hard I prayed for it not to rain so that my hair could stay straight for the school dance? I’ll admit it. Even now, my fear of water is deeper than my fear of drowning. I’m a little self-conscious when unstretched and ungroomed.
I sit on the side of the pool again soaking up the sun. Feet kicking, fingers trailing through the aquamarine bleach smelling water. And holy shit. There’s hair in the pool!
They may not want us here but, thanks to Dr. King’s protest, and others like them, they can’t do a damned thing about it.
I’m at the Residence Inn in South Carolina and there’s nappy hair in the fucking pool! And not just my hair. There’s a teeny tiny curl, a wavy coiled one and that z pattern they call a 4c. Many of my aunties and cousins have natural hair now. There’s a melange of nappy hair floating in the got damned pool. I laugh. I laugh so hard. I’m reminded of a movie I saw in the 90s. The Craft. Remember when the white girl picked up the sista’s brush in the bathroom?
“There’s a pubic hair on my brush? Oh no. It’s just one of Raquel’s little nappy hairs!”
I wanted to throw the television out the window. I bet they wouldn’t try that shit today.
I look around the pool. There are white people out here but we clearly outnumber them. Just my family alone is about 50 Black folk. There are about 10 white people around the pool. But, there’s a conspicuous absence of white people in the pool. Could it be racism keeping them on the sidelines? Hilarious. Silent protest. A sit out.
They steal glances from behind shades. The disapproving white gazes. My family? We play dominoes, we play cards, we laugh and talk loud, oblivious. Racism isn’t funny though you say? Well, you’re right. It isn’t. Until it is. Until laughter breaks the tension you feel. Crying and laughing end up being the same thing sometimes. It’s funny, to me, because I can see that these white people don’t like my hair or my skin.
50 or 60 years ago it wouldn’t have been so funny. In 1964, Martin Luther King planned a protest at a Jim Crow motel pool. When both black and white young people in Florida jumped into that whites only pool, the motel’s owner poured acid into the water. But now I sit alone by the pool with my toes wiggling in the water. These crusty toes I know aren’t as cute as Dorothy Dandridge’s, but they drained a pool in Las Vegas, in the 1950s, just because the Black movie star stuck her big toe in the water. Today I’m putting my whole ass in the water, leaving nappy hair and shea butter in the pool. They may not want us here but, thanks to Dr. King’s protest, and others like them, they can’t do a damned thing about it. I laugh till tears roll.
Back in the room, in a late night session, my cousin shows me a bruise on her neck.
“They almost killed me, cousin.”
She tells me the story of how, just last week, an Asian store clerk and his wife, locked the door, and beat her after she disagreed with how they were treating another customer.
“When he pulled out his gun, I thought my life was over.” she told me.
So no, racism isn’t always funny. In fact, I’m angry about it a lot. But expressing that anger could cost me my life. My cousin’s story reminds me of that. Black women are often seen as irrational; perceived as a threat. As I write this memory there is a story trending on CNN about a study suggesting that the public sees Black girls as less innocent, deserving and needing of nurturing and protection.
Rebecca Epstein, Executive Director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality and author of the study remarked, “Many experts have observed that stereotypes of black women, especially the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman,’ are projected onto black girls.”
My younger cousin and I, both small women a little over 5ft tall, know that outside the protection of family circles Black women’s lives are not particularly valued. I don’t need CNN reports to tell me. Learning to groom my hair without fuss, with full shrinkage on vacation, is a small but vain victory of self-love in a world where Black women’s lives are so thoroughly undervalued. Nappy hair in the pool is a small joy.
My cousin reminds me to drive the speed limit on the way back to Pennsylvania and I will take her advice. Right now I’m not so angry as relieved and grateful to have my beautiful family around me.
We walk back to join the others, outside at the gazebo, near the pool. My male cousin asks,
“You cut your hair cuz? It was longer this morning.”
His mom is white, but if I remember our childhoods correctly, his hair was kind of nappy too. Clearly, though, he doesn’t remember that shrinkage can be nearly 90%. He won’t take my word that I haven’t cut my hair.
The moon is a waxing crescent. There is the faint smell of pine in the air, the faint smell of other kinds of trees and laughter. We’ll be congregated way past midnight and the white patrons will probably complain again like they did last night.