Every January, as I read and listen to the tributes to Martin Luther King Jr., I think not only of what Dr. King gave to the world, but also what he gave to me personally.
While visiting Cleveland in 1963, Dr. King spoke from the back of a flatbed truck in a park not far from our neighborhood. My mother, who had grown up in Alabama during the reign of Jim Crow, took me, then 9 years old, with her to see her hero.
She made sure to arrive early enough to claim a spot near the front of the crowd. And when Dr. King leaned down to shake hands, my mother picked me up and pushed me forward, delighted to see the civil rights icon shaking her daughter’s outstretched little hand. My mother was delighted. I was too young to understand the din, but for a moment I felt like I had encountered a deity.
Honestly, I don’t remember much of what Dr. King said. Its lilting cadence captivated me, but I was then too young and ignorant of history for the full measure of its message to sink in.
But there was one line he uttered that stopped me in my tracks; a catchy statement that probably won’t appear in holiday tributes, but still speaks volumes to me:
“I don’t care what people say, I have beautiful hair!”
His speech was emphatic and the crowd burst into laughter. I stood there, completely confused, studying his face. Her close-cropped hair looked to me like a tuft of tightly coiled black beads, glistening with sweat.
I thought I knew what “great hair” meant. It was a comment often directed at me, as in “You are so lucky to have beautiful hair”. But her hair had nothing to do with mine.
“Good hair” in our vernacular then meant that it didn’t require a hot comb. My curls were frizzy and I mostly hated them, like a lot of young black girls did at the time, but they were loose enough that I could wear my hair in bouncy ponytails. It was something other black people seemed to care about.
Yet even then I understood the implications of the “good hair” label. He accepted “white hair” as the standard by which all hair should be judged. The closer your facial features, skin color and hair texture were to white, the higher you were in the Negro hierarchy.
Yet there was this dark-skinned, frizzy-haired man who insisted his hair was “good.” Was my hair still good? Was he going to end up like his one day? I was curious to know what he meant, but more than that, I was moved by his audacity, his self-respect.
As I listened to his speech, a curtain in my mind began to lift. He spoke of justice and sacrifice; on the resilience of our people and the dignity of our claims; about our bond with each other.
Her hair started to look good to me. As well as all the hair of the hundreds of people around us.
I realized Dr. King didn’t comment on the quality or texture of his hair. His hair was good because it was HIS hair; it was a black man’s hair, and its value was not based on some arbitrary standard dictated by people who didn’t appreciate it.
It was then that I realized that I was part of something bigger than my family. I was linked to all these people by a story that both shaped our strengths and sowed our physical differences.
It may seem like a small thing now, but his statement was groundbreaking to me then – at a time when calling someone black was an insult. We had all been socialized to value straight hair and fair skin.
It will be years before “Black” stops being offensive and becomes our chosen descriptor; a sign of unity. And, in my lifetime, it will always be part of Dr. King’s legacy.
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