A book about the first African-American female astronaut, it seemed an appropriate and timely story for our usual reading hour for a group of African-American schoolchildren.
It would turn out to be an unplanned teachable moment on black love and self-hate — and proof of how far we’ve come as a people and yet, how far we still need to go.
I held up the book recently as the children sat on the carpet. I flashed the cover, emblazoned with a smiling Mae Jemison. I was ready to launch into my hearty fatherly reading voice. Then it happened.
A boy suddenly burst into uproarious laughter.
Huh? “What’s funny,” I asked, completely clueless.
“Her hair…” he said, laughing. “It’s short… like mine.”
“What’s wrong with her hair being short?”
Basically, he said Jemison’s hair looked funny. That women’s hair is not supposed to be short and coarse like his.
“Her hair is beautiful,” I said. “That’s not funny…”
“OK…” I continued, leaving the book shut. “I hope I’m able to read the book this morning. But let me talk to you about this…”
I could have chosen to say nothing, to ignore the elephant in the room — the same elephant that for so many of us black folks won’t go away.
That elephant? The glaring painful truth? We still don’t love us.
We look at kinky or short hair, or at skin in the darker shades of brown and too often see something we think is worth laughing at. Still. Too many of us remain slaves to our collective color consciousness. To our abhorrence of, or embarrassment over, Afrocentric features.
Anecdotally, there is evidence of a wider embrace of Lupita Nyong’o’s black dark-skinned exquisiteness. Of an appreciation for a Luke Cage/Idris Elba shade of pure deep chocolate handsomeness.
And yet, there exists a sea of proof that so many of us are wed to a Eurocentric standard of beauty that stands diametrically opposed to the features assigned by our DNA. It runs deeper than skin tone, which in the same black family can run from light-bright-almost-white to blue-black.
It runs to the bone. To that inherited gene passed through centuries of American-bred hate that causes even full-grown black folk to look in the mirror and despise what we see: noses too broad; skin too black; lips too thick; hair too nappy, too African, too short.
It runs to the gazillion dollars sisters spend each year on hair weaves and hair straighteners. To the prism of hate through which far too many brothers see other brothers as dispensable creatures whose lives have no value and therefore can be maimed, murdered and dumped in the street like yesterday’s trash.
I didn’t say this to the children. Instead I asked, “What’s wrong with your hair the way it grows from your head?”
I told them that it was rude to laugh at people. That to laugh at someone who looks like you is like laughing at yourself.
I explained that some black women have long hair and some have short hair. That Harriet Tubman likely was too busy leading slaves to freedom to worry about her hair.
I showed them a picture of Lupita and told them that she is a model and actress — one of the most beautiful women in the world. And I explained that when Mae Jemison applied to be an astronaut that NASA was more concerned about what was in her head than what was on her head.
I told them that they were black and beautiful. Then I read them the story of the first African American female astronaut who looks just like them.
And they applauded.
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