Thursday, August 27, 2009

Natural Hair Can Go Straight Sometimes Too

I did the hot comb thing this week. This may seem ironic given my previous post about natural hairstyles, but no chemicals or permanent reversals took place. I got out the ol' flat iron, clips, curling iron, and fine-tooth comb and in about 3 hours turned into a straight-haired girl. First time since probably 2003. The reason I did it was because we did a session with the adoption/foster teen group about appearances and judging and what we do to fit in. I figured I could be a real-life extreme case of the adopted child going chameleon to fit into her surroundings. Because this is what I did as an adolescent, with chemical relaxers and bleach as well as flat irons.

At first I tried to find a salon to do it for me. My regular salon, The Natural Choice, was booked. And it was about the only spot open on Monday. (I've been out of the salon-hunting world so long I forgot that most salons close on Sundays and Mondays.) So alas I had to do it myself. I was afraid I'd hate it, that the act would make me sad remembering how many times I'd painstakingly steamed my hair into straightness in order to squash this most-obvious "racialized" trait.

The interesting thing is that it did not make me sad/angry/upset. In fact, the physical act of the process--curls transforming into flat paths behind slow-moving gold ceramic clamps, leaving behind rising pockets of steam and hair too hot to touch--was actually fun. Curls, especially the kinky kind, betray length, and I didn't realize how long my hair actually was. I had forgotten what it felt like to have a soft curtain graze my shoulders and back.

And I forgot how dramatic the change in my appearance would be for people who've never seen me like this. When I uploaded photos onto my Facebook page, no fewer than 19 people commented within a couple hours.

Many people said they liked it, compliments I had a twinge of mixed feelings about. Some of my friends reacted violently, namely my roommate Adri and my friend Marcela. Adri said I looked "suddenly Aryan," and that night she proceeded to dream about scalping Nazis. Marcela said she hated it and literally screamed when I came to her house with my hair straight. "You have to change it back," she said. "I cannot do this." Cottrell said I could now pass for "massa's wife."

Oh, people. Obviously my hair pathology is not solely my own making!

The adopted kids noticed immediately, of course, and the 2 black girls in the group were the first to call it out. (This was not a surprise.) One of them told me I should do my hair like that all the time. I told her it takes too long, and it's not so easy now that I don't use chemical relaxers anymore.

"You should use them!" she said cheerily.


I have such concerns for this girl already, because I believe she has some deeply internalized racism going on, but that's another post. Maybe hair is just hair to her. Maybe it's just easier for her to use the relaxers. Maybe her white foster family and her predominantly white high school and her preference for dating white boys has nothing to do with any of it.

Somehow I doubt it.

The thing is, it's fun to change your appearance sometimes--try new makeup, new clothes, new hairstyles. It's something a woman can have control over. But when you have ethnic hair it can be a burden, as Solange Knowles said (see previous post), because it's still quite tangled up with politics. In fact, an excellent article by Catherine Saint Louis in the NYTimes yesterday details the many still-prominent implications of black women's natural vs. chemically altered hair.

At any rate, my temporary hair alteration is over. Only 2.5 seconds in the shower and those curls turned back ferociously like I knew they would! I'm back to being me, the real me. It was a good experience--much healthier than the straightenings of yore.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Celebrities Embrace Real Hair

Tyra Banks says that in conjunction with this season's start of The Tyra Banks Show she's going all-natural, as in no more weaves/extensions--only real hair. She has declared the date of her season premier, September 8, a National Real Hair Day, and is calling all black women to join in. Check out an article about it here.

To promote her new initiative, last Monday she and her mob stood in the streets of NYC, stripped down to nude underwear, and chucked their weaves. This smacks of grassroots feminism like the burning of bras. Be rid of false standards of beauty!

I'm glad for this new attention on going natural. Solange Knowles recently cut her hair super short and chucked her wigs. The world was a bit up in arms. Check out 40 pages of heated comments about it on Some said she looked "ugly" or "like a man." People can be so mean! In response to all the negative commentary, she responded via Twitter: "I just wanted to be free from the bondage that black women sometimes put on themselves with hair this phase of my life." She was seen soon after the big cut with a wig on again, but has since returned to the natural.

Hooray for Solange! Some are criticizing Tyra for only reserving one day for natural hair (I too thought at first she would do it for the entire show season), but still I say Hooray for Tyra! Hooray for natural hair! Let's all participate in National Real Hair Day (that means you too, Ronni! :) )

Hair like Alaska's Former Governor

You said you wanted hair like Sarah Palin, right? Well, here you go. For a mere $700, you can get a wig of 100% human hair with length/shape similar to Palin's in shades such as walnut brown, hazelnut, or spring honey from

Halloween, anyone?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Nancy Giles One-Woman Hair Show

Check out this interview with political comedian Nancy Giles about her one-woman hair show called "Things My Afro Taught Me" in the Village Voice.

Can someone upload a clip to YouTube? I'm sad that I didn't get to see this...looks hilarious!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

LOST Pandering to Racial Stereotypes?

Last year, actor Harold Perrineau from the hit show LOST said that he felt the elimination of his character on the show was a racially motivated move on the directors' part.

"Listen, if I’m being really candid, there are all these questions about how they respond to black people on the show,” he told TV Guide. “Sayid gets to meet Nadia again, and Desmond and Penny hook up again, but a little black boy and his father hooking up, that wasn’t interesting? Instead, Walt just winds up being another fatherless child. It plays into a really big, weird stereotype and, being a black person myself, that wasn’t so interesting." (The Insider)
Race is such a sensitive topic, and I know there's the idea that some people are overly reactive or paranoid about race, that they "make everything about race." There are ideas from the other side that racism is so ingrained and internalized by all of us that we absolutely must call it out to eliminate it. But how do you know when something is racially motivated? It's impossible to actually know--we can only infer based on what we see as evidence.

There are only 2 or 3 black characters that play a significant role in LOST. I don't think the fact that they are a minority means anything--it reflects reality (blacks make up approx. 13% of the U.S. population). Though I haven't watched the show religiously and instead am watching marathons in order to catch up before Season 6 starts, I haven't noticed much negative stereotyping going on with the black characters. I didn't think Rose was written as a "mammie" or any of the other tropes. Also, I love that she and her husband are an interracial couple! And, my immediate thought at the end of Season 4 was not that Michael and Walt's story line was a tired cliche. Yes, Walt is a fatherless child, but then again so are several of the other characters (in fact, there are lots of orphan/adoption themes, which I plan to post about soon!). But I also appreciated that Walt was not raised by a poor single black mother. Instead it's his father, who is very present and involved. That right there works against the biggest negative cultural stereotype (that, unfortunately, does have truth to it) that I absolutely HATE.

I could be missing lots of problematic racial stuff, though, as I've just started watching the show. Feel free to chime in.

Are producers/writers obligated to blatantly work against stereotypes whenever they create characters of any ethnicity other than white? Should they write rich and interesting characters that just happen to be of color, or would that be ignoring the reality that identity is so deeply tied to ethnic heritage? How reflective are the characters about themselves as people of color? Maybe that could be played up instead of asking the audience to do the interpreting...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Lunch with adoption author Kate St. Vincent Vogl

Yesterday I had lunch with Marianne Novy (left, adoption guru of the universe and my advisor--I'm so lucky!) and Kate St. Vincent Vogl (right, writer/teacher/editor from MN). Kate is in town reading from her recent memoir, Lost and Found, about her experience as an adoptee whose birth mother found her through her mother's obituary. Quite a unique way enter reunion!

Kate is a warm, welcoming person, and she shared with us her experiences reconnecting with birth family, writing the memoir, navigating the delicate process of writing about loved ones (how to do it, when/if to show them your words), finding an agent, finding a publishing house, and going on book tour. She's had success going with a small-ish press (North Star Press), and was able to get printed books within a few weeks of signing a contract so she could sell copies at the AAC conference this year. Impressive. It just goes to show there's not one way to get a book out there...

It sounds like Kate's reunion experience was a positive one, and that she's maintained a strong connection with her mother. No doubt she's still gone through the same tumultuous emotions as the rest of us--the attachment, the loss, the grief. Looking through the book initially, I see a weaving of themes--an anecdote of Vogl's father getting engaged weaved into her own engagement story, ruminations on daughterhood weaved into stories of motherhood. This is the way we encounter life, is it not? Relating our stories to others', finding the connections that lie beneath the surface. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this story!

Males and Adoption

Since I began formally studying adoption as an institution and the stories of people involved in adoption, I've noticed the dominance of female voices and perspectives--especially in the narratives written by adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents. The thing is, it's not a totally woman-centered experience. There are thousands of male adoptees, adoptive parents, and of course for there to even be a birth mother there has to be a birth father. Yet the majority of what I've seen written is by females.

There are exceptions to this, of course. One example is Darryl "DMC" McDaniels of the legendary rap group Run DMC. (I know, I know--I keep writing about him, but I just find his story about discovering his adoption at age 35 so fascinating!), who has written about his experience, done several interviews about it, made a VH1 documentary on his search, and recently released a song about the open records issue.

There's Joe Eszterhas, well-known Hollywood scriptwriter who is also a birthfather and gave a touching presentation at the AAC conference this year about reuniting with his daughter.

There's also John Raible, a TRA who has been writing and researching and educating about adoption and cultural sensitivity for decades.

But, on the whole, it's mostly women. Why? Is it because of the intense emotions surrounding almost anything to do with adoption? I asked Gregory Keck of the Attachment and Bonding Center of Ohio at the AAC conference. He looked at me and said, "Men are simple." Huh? I've heard theories elsewhere that men are excellent at compartmentalizing, so perhaps they are better able to place the trappings of adoption--good and bad--within their lives without the need for communal expression? I don't know.

I thought of this again last night, when I was teaching a mini creative-writing workshop to local adopted/foster kids. It was based on George Ella Lyons' poem "Where I'm From," in which the writer describes where she's from using sensory details and specific details of memories (such as "I am from clothespins, from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride"). I thought it would be interesting to do with adopted kids, as we can sometimes feel like we're from nowhere, that we have no items of memory except blankness and unknowns. Also I thought it might be a cool way to enter into memories.

All of the girls loved it. All of the boys hated it. I asked one, Frankie, why he hated it. "I don't like thinking about my mom," he said, and I almost crumbled. Another kid said, "I don't like thinking about memories and emotions." Another: "I just hate poetry. It's girl stuff."

The boys seem okay with the idea of writing a rap song together, so I'll try that next time.

Men are wired differently, we all know that. They communicate and express themselves differently. Perhaps there's our answer, simple as that. Anyone else want to weigh in about this?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Why so many Adoption Records are Closed

Some insightful and engaged readers of my last post have posed questions about why so many adoption records have been closed in the first place. When did it begin?

Actually, U.S. adoptions were open until second half of the nineteenth century, when in the 40s and 50s states started closing records. It’s said that birth mothers were promised confidentiality and anonymity, but as they come forward with their stories they say what they wanted was privacy from the public stigma of being a young unwed mother—not from their child. You talk to most birth mothers and they say they were promised no such thing but instead it was twisted into a threat that they’d better not go trying to contact their child. By 1990 all states but 3 (South Dakota, Alaska, and Kanses) closed all records. There are plenty of statistics that say mothers want just as much for their children to find them one day, and that the secrets have done more health and psychological damage to adoptees than good.

The issue has since become something buttressed by groups supported by adoptive parents, mostly based on fears that a birth mother will come back to haunt them. These are likely the same parents who would discourage their children from searching for their birth family later in life. They might feel threatened that their child is trying to replace them (when really their child will probably be closer to them if they allow them this.) These parents probably were not given support from agencies in order to be informed of the full scope of the issues.

Let us give them other perspectives. Let us give them our stories.

I'm always so happy to hear about the many adoptive parents who fight for their child's right to records and who support their child's search for roots.

But it’s not just those in the triad who are against open access to birth certificates. There are many powerful groups that strongly oppose it. In Ohio (side note: I'm baffled by Andrea's comment on the last post that her friend's adoptive child's birth certificate was destroyed!), Ohio Right to Life has been a major opponent because they believe if information is shared openly, mothers will opt for abortion instead of adoption. This is not true, and there is evidence to prove as such. Take a look at Kansas, which has always had open records. The abortion rates in that state have either stayed the same or gone down in recent decades. There is no evidence, statistical or otherwise, that proves more women choose abortion because they do not want the possibility of their baby coming to find them later.

Planned Parenthood bats for the other team too. They get more funding for abortions, apparently, so they’re not about to be okay with supporting healthier adoptions.

One of the biggest opponents in many states countrywide is the Catholic Church. One woman at an adoption conference I attended in April said she’d been fighting the Catholic Church in New Jersey for 29 years now--documentation in hand to dispel every myth--and had made little progress. I’d like to ask the Catholic Diocese to check out the Old Testament, the pages and pages of tribe recordings and lists of names. It is important where one comes from. It is simply not fair to withhold vital information from someone about themselves in order for some people to save face. It places value on one person's rights over another's, which ironically is one of the big arguments that pro-life advocates use.

Some people have theories that there are a lot of powerful people who are secret birth parents (politicians, priests), and so they have a strong vested interest in keeping birth certificates sealed (or destroyed!) Obviously it's difficult to research something like this, so I can't say whether it's true, but it does make one wonder...

Luckily there are a few states that have opened birth certificate access recently. I believe Oregon did so in 2000, so any child born and adopted in or after 2000 will have access. Here's a video showing a recent victory in Maine.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Open Access Rights

Who are the only people in this country denied access to their original birth certificates, which are fully and forever owned by the government?
(a) Illegal aliens
(b) Criminals on death row
(c) Adopted persons

If you answered (c), you got it.

Adopted people whose records are sealed may have difficulty obtaining genetic health history, may never have a chance to know who their parents were, and--as some argue--may never have a chance to know who they are. As my friend Rachel at pointed out, take one look at the hot debate over Obama's birth certificate and you will see why it's so important.

Seems like a basic human right, you say? Exactly. Check out this video.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Nappy Hair Brushing Session: Child Abuse?

If you can make it through this video of a little Black girl getting a brushing from her mother without crying, you probably don't need to read the rest of this post.
Not surprisingly, this clip has been quite controversial. It was flagged for abuse, taken off youtube, put back on again.

Teresa Wiltz wrote a beautiful reflective essay about it on The Root, which will clue you in on the myriad of issues and strong opinions this video unearthed.

My personal reaction to this is not objective. Every opinion deserves space, and here's mine.

My hair is similar to that little girl's, and I have many painful memories of hair combings. My mother also used a brush on it (cardinal sin for ethnic hair!) I will bet that 99% of Black women have had similar experiences. Most do not have the pain associated with hair that I do. They do not have the situation I did--being adopted and told over and over again that you are white and that is all and meanwhile kids are spitting on you and calling you nigger and all you know is that they are doing this because of your hair. I will tell you that my hair has been a site of mourning, racial pain, self-loathing. I will tell you that wielding a brush like a weapon and treating a piece of a child as something that needs to be 'dealt with' is not the best approach.

All little girls in this world need reassurance that their bodies are pretty and worthy because they will encounter many, many forces that will tell them the opposite.

Often children of color need extra assurance because the forces on them will be greater than for white children.

Often adopted kids need extra assurance because their lives have been framed by rejection.

It makes sense that adopted girls of color may need extra assurance too, perhaps even more.

Is it fair that parents of little girls and parents of ethnic children and adoptive parents have to overcompensate for societal issues they did not create? No.

But please do it. Please.