Our Battle Against Controlling Images
“Some days I just let my hair be free to do what it wants, to go any which-way it pleases. Then my hair surrounds my head, like a globe. This is my Afro style.”
I Love My Hair! by Natasha Tarpley
My cultural artifact, I Love My Hair! is a popular children’s book written by author Natasha Tarpley, and illustrated by E.B. Lewis. Tarpley is an African American woman who studied at Harvard University and began writing adult books about black life in America. One of her first pieces of work is titled Testimony: Young African-Americans on Self-Discovery and Black Identity. Later, she began writing children’s books about black culture and identity. I Love My Hair! was inspired by nights spent on the floor in between her mother’s knees getting her hair combed and braided and pulled every possible way. Tarpley went on to write a few more children’s books such as Bippity Bop Barbershop, a children’s book geared towards young boys, and The Princess and the Frog: Princess Tiana and the Royal Ball. Tarpley began writing at the age of seven, and she idolized her mother who spent her time writing and reading to young Natasha. She loves writing and views the form of expression as a passageway to “control and imagine the outcomes of things, which [she] couldn’t do in “real” life” (Gayle).
Tarpley’s I Love My Hair! was published in 2001, which falls in a significant era of African American culture as mass incarceration is a major issue in the black community around this time. Mass incarceration is the “concentration of imprisonment among young, African American men living in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage” (Wildeman). In 2001 “there were 20,000 more African American men in the penal system than there were in universities around the state” (Pittman). Children see their mothers, fathers, brothers, neighbors, and other important influences in their life be uprooted and locked up in mass numbers by the local government. With a large number of the community imprisoned, a stigma develops in that community that demonstrates that education is unimportant. It makes children believe that there is no opportunity for them, that they can’t release themselves from the hole they’re in, and that they’re likely to follow in the footsteps of those who have found themselves restrained by the criminal justice system. All of these aspects of black life contribute to a false black identity. Non-blacks look in at blacks and see “gang-bangers”, and blacks look at other blacks and see a lack potential in themselves and in their community. African Americans begin to lose the positive pieces of their culture from a young age because they are constantly exposed to bad pieces of life. I like to believe that people like Natasha Tarpley are able to make a difference through their chosen forms of expression. If one parent read a book showcasing the positives of being black to their child, that child could see that there is a future for them. In reading these books, or engaging in any other form of positive representation, children are able to see a proper African American culture that can make them proud to be who they are!
Tarpley’s children’s book is significant because African Americans are misrepresented in the media around the time that her book was published. I Love My Hair! is a well known book about a young black girl written by a black women trying to teach self love and show appreciation of African American culture. The idea of self love in the African American community then (in the early 2000s), and now, is highly overlooked. The beauty standard in America is Eurocentric, and idolizes fair skin, thin lips, and straight hair. All of which are nearly the opposite of what little black boys and girls see when they look in the mirror. With this exclusive idea of beauty, and trends like mass incarceration riddling the African American community, forms of positive representation are imperative. Yet, they are somewhat difficult to find. As we still face these issues today, Tarpley’s books, and other positive reflection of African American culture, have not, and will not, lose their significance. There is always room to have a source of media or expression uplift the African American culture.
Although my cultural artifact wasn’t published during this time, it still relates to controlling images such as Coon, Sambo, or Mammy. Like the modern day “gang-banger” or “welfare queen”, Jezebel and her counterparts created false ideas of black women and men in the mid to late 1900s (Ethnic Notions). The importance of I Love My Hair! and other positive representations of black culture now would have been just as important then. It makes me wonder if there were any artists producing similar things like books or music to uplift the African American community in the time period where Coon and Uncle run rampant. This damage, which is rooted in slavery, is still affecting the black community and culture in American society today. In the film “Ethnic Notions”, we watched blacks with unrealistic caricature like features and enhanced stupidity. In direct contrast with that, I Love My Hair! includes accurate representations of African American hair and features, and a healthy mother daughter relationship. One could say that Tarpley is battling controlling images by introducing the world to her writings that portray African Americans in a different light.
My artifact also relates to the reconstruction of black culture, or “How they Got Over” (Pittman). During the Jim Crow era, and the era beyond, parents and communities were forced to “teach children to survive in hostile environments” that they were placed in. Families did this by practicing religion, telling stories, and playing games (Pittman). Recreation is reached through the formation of a positive African American identity in our country, which is often clouded by misconceptions. One common misconception of black identity is that black is ugly. One thing we hadn’t talked about in the class, but is very interesting, is Dr. Kenneth Clark’s Doll Test. Clark and his wife, Mammie, conducted an experiment in the 1940s to show how institutionalized racism has altered the way black children, and the whole community, view blacks. He showed children two dolls and asked them to identify which doll was white and which was black. He then began a series of questions like: which doll is the ugly doll? Which is the pretty doll? Which is the smart doll? And the stupid doll? In almost all cases, the doll with positive characteristics corresponded with the white doll, and the negative with the black. The Clarks’ deduced that segregation and racism had a permanent effect on the self esteem of these young children. This evidence was later used in Brown vs Board of education to rule that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional (NAACP). Here is a link to a video of the Doll Test: https://youtu.be/PZryE2bqwdk. When asked which doll was the ugly doll, both black and white children would point to the black doll. Then, Clark would ask the black children which doll resembled them the most. My heart breaks as I watch the black children point to the black doll, which they had previously said was ugly. I Love My Hair! is a modern day tool to break this stigma. “Black power means proper representation”, and proper representation is reached by the production of materials such as Tarpley’s book (Black Power).
I Love My Hair! isn’t a book I read when I was young, although I wish I had. Come to think of it, I can’t remember one centrally black book or show I ever watched. My mother is white, and she was unsure of anything to do with my hair. Since I was the age of 10, I walked around with an unkempt, out of control afro. Growing up in a predominately white community, and living with a white mother and sister, I didn’t have much of a black identity. My father, brother and sister are black; however, I didn’t live with them. All I knew about African American culture was what I saw through television, the news, or music. And I hardly saw positive portrayals of it. I saw black women in music videos, black men as criminals in crime dramas, black rap artists, and other negative representations of black culture. Along with that, the black women that I saw and considered beautiful had very light skin, straight or wavy hair, and petite figures. I never saw women with their natural, bouncy afros, thick braids, or dark skin. I’m able to recognize that this has had a tremendous impact on me. Up until just this year, I chased the popular view of beauty. I lathered sunscreen on my body and tried to stay out of the sun in the summer. I began straightening my hair at the earliest age possible, and my curls ceased to exist as I continually pressed them between two hot plates. As much as it pains me to think of the way I felt just a year ago, I am so happy to be able to say that I love myself now. It’s been a constant battle for the African American community to rebuild after all of the hardship that we have been put through, and I believe my artifact is one of the many ways that the community can rebuild. It’s important to start at our roots, with our children, who will grow to represent our community after we are gone.
I know there are many other young black men and women who go through this identity crisis because of what our society tells us about being African American. It may take some time, but it’s important that we, as blacks, define what being African American looks like. We cannot accept any more stereotypes or controlling images forced upon us. I am a strong believer in materials like I Love My Hair! because they put the power in our hands. We’re given the power to teach young black boys and girls about who they really are, and where they really came from. We have the power to define what is it to be African American.
“Brown at 60: The Doll Test.” NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Web. 1 Dec. 2015. <http://www.naacpldf.org/brown-at-60-the-doll-test>.
Marable, Manning. Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 19451990. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1991.
“Natasha Tarpley.” The Brown Bookshelf. 5 Feb. 2010. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. (2015). “Black Feminism.” [Powerpoint slides]. Lecture.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. (2015). “How They Got Over.” [Powerpoint slides]. Lecture.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. (2015). “New Jim Crow.” [Powerpoint slides]. Lecture.
Riggs, Marlon T. Ethnic Notions. Berkeley, CA: California Newsreel, 1987.
Tarpley, Natasha. “An Interview with Natasha Tarpley.” Bridgette Gayle.
Wildeman, Christopher. “Mass Incarceration.” Oxford. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.