I lay the flat iron down next to the sink, and when I lean in close, I see the gray is creeping up again. I wonder if I should do something about it, thinking of all the ways I’ve worn my hair through the years, how my hair tells the story of my life.
My earliest memories include collard greens and thick cut bacon and sitting on the floor between my mother’s legs — or my cousin’s or aunt’s legs — as she sat on the couch or on the glider on my grandmother’s porch and worked the comb through my hair.
Whoever got the honor of trying to get me to sit still that day would spread a glob of hair grease on the back of her hand. She’d part my hair and with her index finger, run a line of hair grease down that part, pulling my hair tight into cornrows, or just three braids. Or four. It was years before I knew the white girls didn’t use hair grease and that it was best to keep that information to myself.
Eventually, I started getting my hair pressed. I don’t know how that started or why, but I’d sit in a kitchen chair while my mom heated up the comb on the red-hot eye of the stove. At least an hour passed getting my hair to go from natural to straight while hair grease sizzled and smoke rose up to meet the ceiling before slipping out the window into the air outside. The first time I told a White girl I don’t wash my hair every day — or even every week, for that matter — I thought she’d fall right over. So I stopped telling people that, too.
One year on summer break from elementary school, I let my hair go. Wore it just the way God made it. And when my mother took me with her to visit at a nursing home, the woman in the corner asked my mother about her son. My mother doesn’t have a son. And my hair was soon forced back into compliance.
In middle school, my mother took me to Mrs. Spicer’s house, where a hair salon was set up in the basement. I guess Mom decided it would be easier on everyone to pay someone else to press my hair instead of fighting with the hot comb in the kitchen on a Saturday afternoon. So, twice a month after school, I’d get dropped off for the washing and the drying and the combing out and the pressing, and I was lucky if I got out of there without having my scalp burned at least once.
Eventually, we caved in to the chemicals that mark the point of almost-no-return, and relaxers became the order of the day. I would keep my hands away from my scalp on the day I knew I’d be getting a touch-up, a necessary precaution to keep the lye from burning my scalp. For years, I treated my hair this way because it was easier to wear my hair straight than to deal with the people who wanted to know things like, “Can I touch it?” or “Do you use a pick for that?” or “Does your hair even get wet when it’s like that?” or “Can you hide things in there?”
In my thirties, I let my hair go again. And it was good. It was very good, and I wore it like that for years. When I finally changed it, it was because I wanted to and not because of the questions or the fears. I just wanted Halle Berry’s haircut for a change.
I keep staring at my reflection and the gray that’s creeping back, and I think it might be time to let it go again and wear it just the way God made it.
This essay originally appeared at The High Calling, an online magazine about work, life, and God. It is reprinted here by permission.
BRIGHTER DAYS: Whitney Houston onstage in 1986. (Photo: Peter Mazel/Newscom)
A friend of mine and I secretly joke about people’s dramatic, gushing proclamations after a celebrity death. We often wondered how someone could be honestly “devastated” by the passing of an individual whose music/voice/personality we’ve only digested through a middleman such as the radio, a Letterman interview, or a blockbuster film.
I wondered this until Saturday, February 11, 2012. I was in Baltimore doing community outreach when MSNBC released a breaking news text that Whitney Houston had passed in her hotel room. My immediate reaction was disbelief. And then the calls came in from my family and friends, checking to see if I knew yet and asking if I was okay. Every call seemed like a damning confirmation and I thought, “Maybe if people stop saying it, it won’t have really happened.” So I got into my car for the long drive home, too numb to really display any emotion. I started the engine and before I could stop it, I heard the pure, clear voice often called “America’s Voice” lean into the gospel classic “I Love the Lord.”
Then it hit me.
This was the voice of a woman who was no longer with us.
I could tell you how the tollbooth guy seemed genuinely concerned by my tear-streaked face during our transaction, but I’d rather share something more useful. Whitney’s life and music taught me a few things:
1. Sexy doesn’t have to mean blond and blue-eyed or skimpy and short. Whitney burst on the scene in the ’80s with big hair, leg warmers, and off-the-shoulder tanks. With her mother Cissy Houston’s guidance and her cousin Dionne Warwick’s backing, Whitney Houston became the face of the All-American Girl, and she didn’t even have to writhe around the stage or downplay her “Blackness.” The world hasn’t been the same since, and it isn’t a good karaoke night until someone sings “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”
2. Love is a contact sport. As the child of a minister, there were few secular artists whose music made it into our house, but there was no avoiding the big, powerful and family-friendly sound of Whitney Houston. Furthermore, my military elementary school in Texas followed the National Anthem with “One Moment In Time” as a form of civic inspiration, every single morning. Before I got to find out for myself, I learned that sometimes love hurts so bad, love is timeless (“I Will Always Love You”), and that anxious, nervous feeling I got whenever I saw that boy from my class was normal (“How Will I Know”). She even taught us a little healthy self-love with “The Greatest Love of All.”
3. Women are multidimensional. These days, filmmakers anxious to sell tickets give acting gigs to anyone with a recognizable face, making the “singer slash actress” role almost assumed. Whitney, though … she did it right. Whitney not only headlined the soundtracks for The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, and The Preacher’s Wife … but she acted in them. Let me say that again, she ACTED in them. Whitney was more than a pretty face who could sing; she was a mother, a wife, a philanthropist, an actress, and a producer. She truly epitomized “I’m Every Woman” and taught me from an early age that I could be too.
4. Everyone makes mistakes. For four years straight, I was Whitney Houston for Halloween. And not just because it was a relatively cheap costume, but because she was gorgeous, well spoken, had an amazing talent, and seemed like such fun to be around. She wasn’t human to me; she was larger than life. But while Whitney’s voice inspired and brought joy to millions, her life was often spotted with rough times. Unlike you and me, Whitney didn’t have the luxury of enduring these trials with a finite spotlight cast by her family and friends; Whitney went through it all publicly. While this glaring spotlight may have laid bare her pain, it served to remind us that everyone has problems and everyone stumbles.
The woman that I most wanted to be like growing up has died at 48, leaving her 18-year-old daughter motherless. Her well-known battles with addiction offer cautionary lessons of their own, but they don’t tell us anything about her private struggle to overcome them. That is now between Whitney and her Creator. I won’t speculate about the cause of her death, because big picture-wise it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we recognize the very human quality of the entertainers that enrich our lives.
Whitney’s voice made her unique. But Whitney’s troubles made her one of us. And for that, I am grateful.
I haven’t stopped missing Whitney since I got the news. But while I’m sorry she’s left us, I’m thankful that her music itself provides a salve to help heal the wound in our hearts.
HOTLANTA MESS: "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" is one of the Bravo networks top reality shows. The cast (from left) Kim Zolciak, NeNe Leakes, Phaedra Parks, Sheree Whitfield, Cynthia Bailey, Kandi Burruss. (Photo: Bravo)
Sex, scandal, soap operas, and reality TV …
Those were my thoughts while reading through the book of Samuel over the past few weeks. Samuel is a book filled with murder, rape, and incest. In it, we observe power plays, betrayal, and unceasing war.
The injustices against women are evident. Throughout the book, women are tossed around like property to be used and abused in whatever manner the men of power see fit. Consider King Saul’s daughter, Michal, for example. Saul gave her away to David, which was a good selection for her since the Bible reveals that she was in love with David. Saul, on the other hand, simply used her as a pawn in his endless pursuit to capture and kill David. (She was actually the second daughter Saul tried to pass off to David. Read 1 Samuel 18.)
Nevertheless, Michal married David and proved herself faithful to him. David was forced to flee from the hands of a jealous Saul. Saul takes David’s absence as an opportunity to marry Michal off to someone else (1 Sam 25:44). By this time, David had married two other women. Are the reality show themes setting in yet?
After Saul’s death on the battlefield, David demands that his wife, Michal, be returned to him. Therefore, his wife is taken and returned to David, as her second husband goes weeping behind her. Finally, her second husband is forced to return home to grieve his lost (2 Sam. 3:13-16). Don’t believe me? It’s in the book, and this is just one of many scandals recorded. The poor guy was probably Young and Restless; David was suffering through the Days of Our Lives, and Michal was probably no longer Bold and Beautiful.
Which made me think … King Solomon, David’s son, was right when he wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). Look how far we have fallen.
Then I wondered, “What is the difference between the life stories recorded in Samuel and those shown in our current reality series, say The Kardashians franchise shows, The Real Housewives of … wherever (though most of them aren’t even wives), or The Basketball Wives shows?”
Seriously, people watch these shows for their entertainment value, and Christians read the Bible for a much deeper purpose. But is that all there is to say? We could tie a nice theological bow on this, but that would not promote dialogue, would it?
This question is an important one concerning culture and the church, and maybe how we can reconcile the two. It may also lead to questions as to why it’s important to read the Old Testament. Why did God choose to include this historical book in the sacred text that is the Bible? What does he want us to learn? There are history lessons of course, worthy of the notable phrase “Those who do not know their history are destined to repeat it.” But what are the other purposes to consider? Finally, we must ask the “So what?” question.
Is our reading of the Bible too restrictive? Do we consign the Old Testament to the static role of exotic history book without considering its instructive aspects for today? Are there insights in the text to be found about responding to the hot messes in our own families and communities? What do these messes reveal about God? What do they teach us about ourselves?
Here’s to seeing God’s Word in a new light, and taking it at least as seriously as we do NeNe’s latest outburst or Kim K.’s 72-day nuptials.
So I’m going to say (write) what I’m not supposed to admit (at least publicly) as a black person. I have paid more attention to GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain because he is black. There I said (wrote) it! Pardon me that as a black person in this country, I still find it fascinating when black people rise to certain heights that would have been impossible not that long ago. So now that I have gotten that admission out of the way, let me proceed with the business of this commentary …
If you were to ask me to give you a blow-by-blow account of what high jinks other GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and others have been up to over recent weeks, I would pause and then hopefully distract you with my knowledge of what is becoming the spectacle of the Republican presidential campaign: Herman Cain.
Actually Cain, who lives in Atlanta as I do, has been on my radar even before he entered the presidential race. From time to time, I listened to him on his radio show because he was the lone black conservative on the local radio station, and when I looked up his bio, I must also admit that I was impressed. So when he decided to join the Republican race for the presidency, I felt that he was at least owed my attention as a hometown candidate.
And paying attention to Cain has not failed to disappoint me yet! From his admission that while he was a student at Morehouse College, he chose not to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement (even though Atlanta is arguably the capital of the movement) to his membership and ministry at the liberal megachurch Antioch Baptist Church to his 9-9-9 plan, Cain is a journalist’s dream. His life and choices yield a plethora of stories which brings me to why I’m paying attention to Cain this week.
On Monday, Cain was backed into a corner, forced to defend himself before the National Press Club after Politico revealed that Cain was accused of sexually harassing two women while he was the president of the National Restaurant Association. He denied the allegations and attempted to downplay them by stating he was unaware of any settlement the women may have received. Apparently, after denying the allegations, the president of the National Press Club asked Cain, who is known as a singer as well, to bless the audience with a song. Cain agreed, choosing to belt out the gospel song “He Looked Beyond My Faults (And Saw My Need)” by Dottie Rambo.
“Amazing Grace will always be my song of praise.
For it was grace, that brought me liberty,
I do not know, just why He came to love me so.
He looked beyond my faults and saw my need.”
This incident disturbed me on so many levels. First of all, let me tackle the obvious. With his choice of song, was Cain not-so-subtlety admitting his guilt? Was the conviction of the Holy Spirit so strong that he was led to seek forgiveness through song? But then again, as a politician he wouldn’t be that obvious, would he? If that wasn’t what he was doing, was it some sort of Jedi mind trick — a ploy to mesmerize the audience, making them forget what they were there for? And, quite honestly, I also was disturbed that Cain’s singing in that particular situation reminded me of the Happy Negro singing on the plantation. It just wasn’t a good look.
Whatever his tactic, I’m still paying attention to Cain. It has been said that all publicity is good publicity, but I’m not sure as Cain is still being pressed about the sexual harassment issue. Since the press conference, Cain’s story has changed, and on Friday night his wife, Gloria Cain may be appearing on the On the Record with Greta Van Susteren on Fox to address the allegations. As I said (wrote) before, “Mr. Cain, it’s not looking too good this week, but I’m still looking at you …”
Yes, Cain initially got my attention because he is a black man in the GOP race, but that is not why he has kept my attention. Regardless of race, he’s the man you would want to talk to at any party, Republican or otherwise. He’s accomplished, controversial, maybe even a bit “coo coo for cocoa puffs” — and a gospel singer to boot!
The truth of the matter is that I’m an anxious person, and my anxiety manifests itself in various ways — some comical and others not as much.
For example, I’m a bit of a hypochondriac. If I happen to be in front of my computer when someone on Good Morning America is describing the disease du jour — from West Nile virus to celiac disease, I always fire up Google to make sure I’m not exhibiting any of the symptoms. I haven’t slept in complete darkness since I was in the fourth grade (unless I’m not the only person in the room), which is when I discovered scary movies. And I am an avoidance perfectionist, which essentially means that I sometimes avoid starting on a task because I’m scared that the end result won’t be all that good. (Some call this procrastination, but I like to keep it complex.) Deep, huh?
As I’ve gotten older, though, my anxiety seems to be loosening its grip on me. So far a random mosquito bite or a bite of bread, for instance, hasn’t killed me. The bogeyman hasn’t scooped up me from my bed as I slept. And slowly but surely, I’m discovering that “not perfect” is sometimes just fine.
But no matter how I spin it, the truth of the matter is breast cancer is a scary disease, and not just in and of itself. It’s also scary that, according to recent studies, one in eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. This is not a random condition that fits into a singular episode of a morning news program. It is not some phantom that disappears in the light of day. Breast cancer cannot be avoided, even if you try. It’s a bomb whose blast will eventually be felt in our lives, or in the lives of people we know.
In the course of my 38 years, I can recall many brave women who have had to battle with this ugly disease. I recall a woman at my church who was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was a little girl. I remember her saying she just wanted to live long enough to raise her children, who were close to my age. Her breast cancer eventually went into remission. I found it courageous yet tragic that this woman was able to raise her children before ultimately succumbing to the cancer after her kids reached adulthood.
I remember the editor of a small community newspaper I worked for after college. A former member of the U.S. Army, this tall woman intimidated me with her “take no stuff” orders and her “colorful” language. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she took it on in the same way she managed the newsroom: with courage and a determination to do it her way in spite of what others thought or said. She shunned traditional cancer treatments for a while because of the side effects and searched for alternative options. Although she eventually lost her battle with the disease years later, I was encouraged when I learned at her funeral that my former, irreverent editor had become a Christian. Before her death, she had faithfully attended and became an active member of a little Baptist church in the country.
Despite knowing these women, the prevalence of breast cancer did not truly enter my consciousness until I discovered that one of my Delta Sigma Theta Sorority line sisters was diagnosed with breast cancer when we were in our late 20s. I mistakenly thought only older women got breast cancer. I was shocked when the disease took her life in 2005.
I cannot pretend to know why God allowed these and other women who have suffered from breast cancer to die. But I am determined, particularly as this month is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, to remember these and other brave souls who passed away and honor those who are surviving.
Another one of my Delta Sigma Theta Sorority line sisters, Lola Brown, is one of those survivors. She is a two-time breast cancer survivor, though she is not even 40 years old yet. She says battling breast cancer has enabled her to develop a personal relationship with God that might not have happened otherwise. Her testimony is featured in my upcoming book, After the Altar Call: The Sisters’ Guide to Developing a Personal Relationship With God. For me, Lola’s experience puts a human face on another troubling statistic: black women have a higher incidence rate of breast cancer before age 40 and are more likely to die from the disease at every age, according to the American Cancer Society.