The Fascination with the American Negro (Episode 1)

I have spent much of my life being the first, the only, or the youngest. It comes with the territory as a black person in the academy and as a woman in ministry. When I began my current position at a historically black seminary three years ago, it was the first time since elementary school that I had been in an academic setting (either as a student or professor) that wasn’t dominated by whites (although my high school was predominantly black, the AP classes in which I was enrolled were decidedly not, but that’s another story).
My husband’s experience is similar, albeit in reverse. The day that he graduated from college was his last time that he spent his days in a majority black setting. Over the past 15 years as an engineer, he has always been one of a small handful of people of color at the firms at which he’s worked.

So it’s not surprising that by virtue of our socioeconomic status (as well as our commitment to racial reconciliation), we spend a lot of time in places populated mainly by whites. In our home city of Durham, we’re part of the granola crowd. We shop at Whole Foods, are members of the NC Museum of Life and Science, and take our son to classes at the Little Gym.

Herein lies the challenge. Because we are usually the only African Americans (or among a small minority) in the contexts that we inhabit, so is our 18-month-old son. As a result, he’s become something of a celebrity. Being the “only” makes you highly noticeable and recognizable. When you play the go-around-the-circle-and-introduce-your-child game, everybody remembers the name and face of the solitary black child. It’s not uncommon for my husband to have unfamiliar white women greet our son by name at the grocery store or museum. We’ve gotten used to it.

But it makes for some very strange moments at times. Take this week’s gym class, for instance. There was one little girl who had apparently never seen a black person. Or at least black hair. Or at least a 1″ Type 4B Afro that had been packed under a winter cap (I admit it, the boy looked like who shot john). For the bulk of the 50-minute class session, this little girl followed my child around the room, pointing to and patting his head. He seemed oblivious to it and kept playing. But his mother, who has some major hang-ups around race and hair, was not.

“Oh here we go,” I thought, “It’s time for another ‘fascination with the American Negro’ moment.” Since the majority of African American women do not wear their hair in its natural texture, when we do, it is often a source of heightened attention and discussion by folks of all races. But with whites, there is an added element (especially if you have locs, which I did until two years ago) – morbid curiosity:

“How did you get your hair like that?”

“I didn’t. This is what God gave me.”

“I’ve never seen hair like that.”

“That’s because it’s usually hidden under relaxers and weaves.”

“Ooh, can I touch it?”

Hell no.

Sorry, that was a flashback. Post-traumatic hair syndrome, I guess. But having absolute strangers or casual acquaintances try to turn you into a hands-on museum exhibit is beyond maddening.

I once spent a week at a retreat for black women. Toward the end, after days of spending every waking moment together, one of the women said to me, “Your locs are so beautiful. Can I gather them?” I could tell her motives were pure, so I said yes. My spine tingled as she stroked my locks from crown to nape, pulling the wandering strands – in the most gentle way possible – into a single stream flowing down my back. In that space, surrounded by women trying to love ourselves and one another, that was an act of love.

Of course, none of that – the dehumanizing-museum exhibit moments or the intimate acts of sister-love – means anything to a blond 18-month-old who thinks the fact that her new friend’s hair looks and feels like a cotton swab is cool. Her mother was clearly embarrassed, trying unsuccessfully to make her stop. “Don’t worry about it,” I told her, “he doesn’t even seem to notice.”

Meanwhile, I thought to myself, “Okay, this is really the last straw. He won’t sit still long enough for us to pick it out, it gets messed up anyway, we have to get soy nut butter and applesauce out of it twice a day, and now he’s getting harassed by little white girls.”

He was in the barber’s chair three days later.
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