Lisa Jones, Village Voice staffer, is the daughter of two pretty famous people: black nationalist Amiri Baraka and white Jew Hettie Jones. The following is excerpted from her new book, bulletproof diva: tales of race, sex, and hair [Doubleday, 1994].
How I invented multiculturalism . It was easier than you think. First I arrived, fatter than an A&P;chicken, just another black child in New York City born to a Jewish woman and Negro man. At the wee age of three I followed my sister to the church of All Nations school on the lower East Side For many years I thought the entire world was a band of Latin, black, and Chinese children dancing around the maypole and singing “Que Bonita Bandera” and the few Ukrainians who serves us lunch.
Endured my first Toni home permanent at Age six to have an Afro like Angela Davis. This continued for four years, then thanks to chemical overland or natural progression, my hair napped up enough to make a “from on its own.
Ate potato kugel and boiled chicken with Aunt Fannie, the only Jewish relative who didn’t disown my mother for marrying a black man. Eighty-year-old Aunt Fannie stayed in Flatbush through the Caribbean migration and was known to have made only one comment about her niece’s interracial marriage:” How do you wash that hair?” she said, leaning over her grandnieces, still in grade school, and their enormous globes of nappiness
hair always forever. We ate lunch, the tape recorder was rolling, and now the legendary Jazz singer would tell me her life story. This was her preface: “When I was a little girl and 13 or so, they told me thata woman’s pride and glory was her hair. Then they told me mine wasn’t any good. I guess I went to war to absolve myself of this grief.”
Not, “Back when I used to gig at Five spot…”or” Coleman Hawkins sure could blow…” but, everything I’ve done with my hair explains everything I’ve done my life and my art. This wasn’t an epiphany for me as much as confirmation of something I’ve believed for a while. Hair is the be-all and end-all. Everything I know about American history I learned from looking at black people’s hair it’s perfect metaphor for the African experiment here: the price of the ticket (for a journey no one elected to take), the toll of slavery, and the cost of remaining. It’s all in the hair.
Which is how I happened upon Charlene’s place where women can go 24 hours a day to get their hair done. The idea titillates me to no end: a place where you can go just any time of day or night if your hair “turns back” in the house unless she got rid of the “Afro beads” on her neck.
Charlene’s is empty at 2:00 a.m. Hours have gone by listening to Jerome. He’s talking now about being “called” to do hair and why: to save his Mama and her girlfriend, Miss Orphelia, from being bald-headed (The two burned each other’s scalps regularly with head-over-the sink perms.) This is where I belong forever in Charlene’s 24-hour hair joint, listening to Jerome’s war stories. Bury me under a hair dryer, Jerome can deliver the eulogy: “Here she rests¬ –– fried, dyed, and laid to the side.”
hair again. Hair issues are among us. We must tease them out, hold them up to the light, and coax them into art.
And thanks once again to modern technology, which brought us no-lye relaxers and such chemically altering your tresses is now a process somewhat removed from antiquated notions like self-mutilation and disfigurement, and is just as innocent as a five- dollar nail job. Jewish women iron, Asian women perm, WASPs highlight. So what if black women burn and fry? After all, isn’t it impossible to tell where society’s force-feeding leaves off and we begin?