By June Alexander
When you asked us about our roots the first thing in my mind was my hair. Instantly, the smell of heat and grease came to mind. Roots conjured up images of a child’s straw bottomed chair and family voices.
When I was young my hair was long and my mother washed it every Saturday night to ready for Sunday and the school week to come. In some strange adult way this was entertainment to my daddy. He would come into the kitchen and tease me. It hurt to have my mother comb out my hair. “Sit still,” mamma yelled. “Hold your ear so I don’t burn it!” All this and Daddy’s teasing made me cry harder. He didn’t have to go through this girl torture!
“Stop it!” I screamed!” That only lead my grandmother to chime in, “Make sure you get deep down to her roots! Make sure those roots are good and straight!
Years later Black Pride, Dr. King, power signs and our roots personified by the Afro.. Unfortunately the afro was not meant for me. The afro became another symbol of my “roots” awakening. The afro was proud like the black power sign. It stood high, which was more than I could say for my hair. It just curled up or fell back down to my shoulders. On a good day I managed to look like an electrocuted porcupine. Of course, well- meaning elders explained, “You can’t do that. You got good hair.”
Many years later I was in college away from my mother’s hot combs, so I decided to have a relaxer put into my hair. Against wise counsel, I went to a beauty parlor and got me a relaxer. After all I was paying for it with my own money. And it was with more of my money I had to pay a doctor to tell me why my hair fell out.
My roots landed me at the white beauty shop. In her deep southern accent the hairdresser asked carefully, “Baby, who your people…who your folks…” At first I didn’t understand; or better yet, I suddenly developed that great American disease…denial!
She made a shield with her body against the other patrons and held my face in her hands. As discreetly and as compassionately as she could she asked, “Baby, how much white people in you?” All I could do was laugh. I replied, “ According to my great-great aunts our family didn’t get black until 1952.”
She mellowed and continued to treat my scalp and left-over hair. All the while she keep talking about how I couldn’t do my hair like other black girls and it ain’t how light the skin is that always tells the mixture, it’s other things…and so on and so forth. Her account of black and white mixing and back in the day when people were passing faded into another awakening. It turn in to my grandfather who looked like an old version of Sean Connery and my grandmother’s dark skin. My granddaddy’s pain of not being neither here nor there; his pain of knowing his white cousins lived just across the street and it couldn’t be acknowledged until after death tornadoed into his painful discovery about his brother being taken from the family because his brother’s skin was too dark.
My grandmother’s constant battle with self-image because she came from slaves and field hands with dark skin and coarse hair. My grandmother’s every moment trying to prove she was just as good as the more educated, light skinned upper class relatives on my grandfather’s side of the family. My grandmother's self-hatred turned into poison. Watching a once loving woman become evil and bitter because she looked and loved more like Hattie McDaniels than Halle Berry break my granddaddy’s heart knowing there was nothing he could do to change the world—gave me pain.
Roots!? How dare you ask me about my roots. Is this your idea of some cruel and twisted joke? You know about my roots. You took them from us. Just like that hot comb, your heated disdain and hatred for us burned and destroyed my roots. My soul, my light, and my compass-- you took from me.
My aunts and my mothers tried to hide me because we were witches and healers like our ancestors. Just like the torture of straighten my hair was to make me more comfortable to white people. Straightened out or white out my roots. You took our art, music, and even our religion away from us. And if that way enslaving enough you lied about Egypt, the Bible, classical music even art. We were all there. From the very beginning, we were there!
You took my soul. You took our souls and then you want to know why we act the way we do. What did you expect? We would all become black Ken and Barbies?
And integration, the same lie you sold the Native Americans and the Aborigines. You didn’t want to integrate you wanted to annihilate. But it didn’t take. It can’t take…and so here we are all living in niggerdom. You striped us of everything that made us human. Our healers, our teachers, our witches, our religions, and our earth. And you wonder why we are living in niggerdom.
But the joke is on you, look at your own children killing themselves to achieve an unnatural standard of beauty, life and success. All the while killing your own with a religion filled with hate and bigotry. Deciding who can love and who is worthy to pursue happiness. No! The joke is on you because now your children are all living in niggerdom.
We are all wondering around with addictions, medications, and gentrification. With no hope of being human or humane again we are all now living in niggerdom.
I’m not the only one whose roots have been straightened.