I am an African-American woman whose hair texture is considered different. Many have referred to it as “good hair”. As a child I remember people always commenting on how long and pretty my hair was. My hair texture and hue somehow gave people the impression that I was something other than African-American. Was I mixed? Was I Puerto Rican? Was I Indian? When I would respond that I was nothing other than African-American, people questioned whether I knew my true ancestry.
Of course, being the young, impressionable kid that I was, I was concerned about my looks and wanted to be considered pretty. So, the attention given to my “different” features at times made me puff my chest out and have my head in the clouds. These periods of being “conceited” never lasted very long because I was Del Allen’s child. And, Del Allen, my warrior mom, was having none of that.
My mom, quite frankly, is a stunning beauty. Despite her obvious beauty, and, the attention it bought her, she never allowed me for one second to believe that physical features were important, or a priority. For as long as I can remember, my mother’s goal was to make me a strong, educated, independent woman. For every person that commented on my “good” hair she was right there to remind me, “it’s what’s in your head, not on your head Tonza.” In fact to this day the term “good hair” makes her cringe. For every comment about our true lineage, my mother was there to remind me that African-American people come in all shapes and shades: you are not mixed, you are not Indian, and you are not Puerto Rican Tonza.
Whenever she got any inkling that I might want to identify as other, she would ask, “Why would you want to identify as something other than African-American Tonza?” This questioning was also followed by an immersion into the world of African-American culture to ensure that I knew, and, embraced my history. I vividly remember my mother forcing me and my cousin to sit down and watch Roots. Afterwards, while she held us hostage in the car traveling from one destination to another, she began to question us about what we had learned. Being the young, silly girls we were, my cousin and I looked at one another, with big smiles on our face, and, in harmony, said, “Toby gonna be a good N+*& for masa!” Absolutely infuriated, my mother drove in silence, probably thinking, “How in the world did I end up with this ignorant child?” 🙂
I cannot remember my mother ever suggesting that I pay attention to my appearance. Of course she reinforced the basic rules of hygiene, but she NEVER once encouraged me to dress a certain way, look a certain way, or act a certain way because of what we looked like. It simply was not a priority to her. The world that she grew up made her know that, as a people, we, African-American’s, had a lot of work to do in order to grow and excel as a race, and, raising a “pretty” child was not going to help us advance.
Now that I am a mother raising African-American girls, I admire her strength and focus. I often look at my children and wonder if I have, or am, teaching them the importance of knowing their ancestry, being intelligent, and excelling in life not only for your own personal well-being but for our advancement as a whole. Fortunately, I know when I fall short they have the benefit of having their “Mommy Del” around to slide in that history lesson or remind them of what’s important in life. Similar to the indoctrination my cousin and I received as children, my mother continues the push for knowledge. As a result, my children have been afforded so many opportunities to be exposed to their history by visiting, among other places, Malcolm X’s burial site and Harriet Tubman’s home place. And similar to me, over the years, I watch their youthful lack of appreciation blossom into a true appreciation for a grandmother that has been their to help expand their horizons.
As I watch us develop into a society that is more concerned with what’s on your head rather than what’s in your head I am saddened. As African-American’s we still have so much work to do in order to ensure that we continue to thrive and contribute to society in a meaningful way. While the burden of an entire race is a lot to bear, the reality is we must work collectively in order to truly succeed.
As you consider what you can do to make a difference, here are a few simple things my mother ingrained in me over the years for your consideration. If you have to choose between the $150 sneakers and a trip to the museum, go to the museum. When your kids are glued to the Real Housewives of Atlanta or Second Wives Club, turn that “mess” off and consider making them watch 12 Years a Slave or Rosewood. If you have to choose between True Religion Jeans and purchasing some books for your child to read, there should be no question that the books should prevail. We must re-prioritize in order to give our children a fair shot in this game of life because they absolutely deserve that chance. Through my mother’s constant reinforcement, I developed into a proud African-American woman that feels no need at all to denounce my ancestry and for that I am thankful.