SWIMMING

I should clarify that I am not black. I am biracial. There is a difference, and it is not small. I am possessed and possessor, slave and master, cotton picker and wearer. In St. Louis, the birthplace of my family, I can reach to one neighborhood and touch the bodies of two boys gunned down in the street a few months after Michael Brown and call their scarlet leakage TheBloodofMyCousins. I can also knock on the door of the bigot banker that goes to church at 7 in the morning say “Hi Uncle.” I am biracial, but I always know I am black first. And what does this do to the mind? What does this do to a body? I do not have an answer.

“I most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” – Zora Neale Hurston

I feel the most black when I am thrown into a swimming pool.

AT THE POOL

My friends are tall and thin; I am grounded low. While they breeze easy with long legs, tennis skirts, and limbs they can wrap their fingers around, I am a progression of the ethnic pre-woman baby fat that will become “curves”. They spend most days hopping in and out of the pool with their hair wet. One of them, a soccer star from a suburb in Ohio, has a platinum bob cut short, so that it does not get in the way of her defensive playing. When she pulls up out of the pool it is immediately detangled by gravity and settled into the soaking signature skullcap of a proven high school athlete.

(What’s it like to work with gravity? I ask the strands drying vertical from my forehead. Kids on the playground used to call me the sun, with so many cowlicks radiating out&up, out&up.)

The other girl is Italian American with long wavy hair that dries puffy as the ferns that grow outside the pool fence. Somehow, it is improved while wet — its color richer, its ends pulling up from the cotton of her t-shirt as though seeking to suck the light of day. Once out of the pool she turns her head to the side, opens her fingers into wide frame, and combs her tresses a loose braid with enough weight to drape itself, as if sketched, over her shoulder. It is a scene entropic in its grace.

I was always worried about what my friends could see in my curls, which I call curls because I have never learned a better word for them. Any theoretical re-appropriation of “kinky” never took root in my household, and I wouldn’t use it even if it had. I didn’t like when people called my hair natural as soon as I pulled myself out of the pool. They would pick at the ends like the split thread of an old sweater and grimace. The contrived self washed away at the bottom of the swimming pool. The chemical “relaxer” as white as the faces that demanded it washed away at the bottom of the swimming pool. This could only mean a failure of discipline, treatment. Forget any question of beauty. Forget any seizing on unique. I looked only to pass.

AND ON LAND

Curly is not what biracial black hair is. It is the word white people use to describe it on shampoo bottles and salon brochures, but that is because they do not care to observe and record its distinct nature. It is really like cotton balls plugging outwards in masses from the skull. It is really like the underside of a homeowner’s hedge,[1] where hands get lost and fiddle with waves smooth and slight until they lay-tight-lay-right in the dirt. Sprouting cottonballbramble thickets out of the skull oozes the fragrance of academic-grade “moral confusion,” coaxes people into a grateful blindness, calling it curly, and in doing so, making it clear that it should aspire to be not what it is but how they would most prefer to see it.

And so biracial black and black women go through the ritual, drag baby girls to the hair salon, carve out two hours on a Thursday to sit in the beauty shop, suffer the burn of strands limp with relaxer (white paste with slight concentrations of fermeldahyde), press into skullskin sweetsmelling shimmer spray or flowery pomade, when wet with water, feeling its expansion against the hot dryer, like a thirsty stomach swelling against the will. We call this self-discipline. We call this “getting our hair done” or “to burn, cut, hack, spray, spit, batter, and beat the hedge until it is suburb-grade sod or something close to that.”

After leaving my friends at the pool I go to my mother. In front of the hotel bathroom mirror, her hands full of pink lotion that smells like coconut and suntan oil, she parts my hair into sections and braids, wetting it down until it turns a dark brown, running the tips of her fingers across the tender parts in my scalp. This is a satellite version of the beauty salon ritual. Use product to do this. Use enough product that the hair, thirsty due to its savannah-bush nature, cannot absorb it fast enough. When the product dries, when the hair has lapped it up, apply more, tamp it down, so that it cannot speak, spring or ask for attention.

“People are always telling me about the natural hair movement,” my mother says, yanking.

My white father sits on the bed outside, watching Wimbledon on the TV.

I cry, tender-headed, hating the smell, and the style, the length, the color, the unnamable texture. My mother tries to feed me pride dug out from the teeth of her hot-combed upbringing, has me google Madame CJ Walker, do a book report on her, and then teaches me how to blow-dry it straight without her help. She tells me it is interesting hair to have. “At least you won’t go bald when you’re 50.”

Then she starts losing hair at 50.

After she married my father, she never wore her hair untreated and has since rejoiced in losing some of it because the less hair you have the easier it is to treat into submission.

Self-hate, she used to call it, but only for one side.

AND AT THE POOL

My friends sat at the pool eating ice cream and taking turns throwing their flip-flops into the water. They did not bother or shake about what sat above their shoulders. They flipped and twirled and braided, letting each strand dry with the form of the water that shaped it. Just sat and maybe watched as it dried and dripped patterns of wet spots across the cement.

SOMEONE ELSE’S POOL

Why has racism lingered so long at the swimming pool? “Water has long been the site of racial anxiety… Racial tension over integrated swimming pools boiled down to two major anxieties: contamination and miscegenation” (Bennett). Spell out the recipe for the pool party in McKinney, Texas. (“Boiled down” like water used to clean. “Water boiled” as a means of rough purification when far away from filtration systems.)

Black people have been dragged out of pools since there have been pools for them to swim in. The hair is only a recently considered component, because black women are only a recently realized component

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The Zeitgeist buzzes insistently about accountability in the digital age. The talk started when cellphones became the neighborhood watch. So when I see the evidence posted on my screen in the morning after I’ve stepped out of the shower still damp and wrapped in a towel, I should not be… horrified. I should take pride or comfort in the fact that the hurt was recorded, can be recorded, the wounds watched as they opened, the blood spilled over so many screens. Never mind the compression of the screams that cannot be delivered beyond the bounds of a cellphone quality audio file and embedded computer speakers. This is action, audience, theater, meaning – this is something. And that is the closest thing to memory or evidence we’ve ever had.

But it is fear and shame that I feel. Fear that at 8 o’clock in the morning the world can still get at me. It does not rest or love with me. It only beats and burns.

Shame that I am exempt and still in pain. Shame because although my hair is not white it is not black either — at 8’clock in the morning I can step out of my shower without the ghost of a white hand grabbing at the flesh of my scalp and yanking me onto my knees into the News.

LEARNING TO SWIM

I have never seen my mother swim. But she doggedly insisted throughout my childhood that my sister and I learn. I cannot count the number of locker rooms we stood in; shoving both of our heads into brightly colored caps that looked and felt like the ends of used up Crayola crayons. One more way, we felt, for us to be marked as colored. It mattered that my mother was the chaperone for swimming classes, as when we were with our father people often assumed that we were “Olive Skinned Italians” or gypsy children he may have acquired at the novelty store of a mulatto’s forgotten womb. With my mother we were just black. Early on we felt this was cruel. We were, I think, attached to a racial nuance that does not exist in America.

At the Y, where my mother first took us for playgroup swim lessons, I met my oldest friend, a dirty blond girl with freckles named T. In our playgroup, T was the favorite. She was considered by and large the sweetest girl, the prettiest girl, the most talented girl, the smartest girl, the best swimmer, and the likeliest to marry one of the boys we played with. T’s mother believed in entropic child-rearing, letting T and her siblings design their actions according to the fickle understandings of children under the age of ten. Throughout our time in playgroup my mother would drive us home busily dissecting the wrongness of T’s mother with whom she shared the closest and most tightly bound friendship. What bothered her most was the failure at discipline. At T’s house we were allowed to throw clothing and food in a messy array on the kitchen floor, imitating the work of T’s mother, an abstract artist living off her mother’s trust fund. While my sister and I were taught to call adults by title Mr___ Mrs____, T and her siblings called my mother by first name only, shouted it from across the room at her, and refused to honor her requests that they do otherwise. My mother was the one most likely to provide an array of snacks that did not include lunch meat poured from its package onto an empty plate and left out on the dining room table, but she was also the one least likely to be asked to host a party, because the pride she took in the quality of her household was considered “ a little intense.” To suffer nicks, chipped paint, or crumbs in the couch – all the minor destructions that would be wrought by the hands of someone else’s children, little girls and boys who, unlike my sister and I, had never known what it is to be handled, tightened, smoothed, and steadied into place, would have undone my mother, it’s true, but of course they turned her pride to isolation.

“Kinky hair in tropics allowed for heat/transfer water to be “wicked” away, ” this observation was posted in the comments section of an article called “It’s a Slap in the Face When White Women Wear Black Hairstyles.” From that it could be deduced scientifically that black women are, by design, incompatible with water, built to wick away” moisture in favor of survival not only to find evolutionary advantage but to remain in the shape, place, and color that they are ordered into. Thus even from the perspectives of biology water + black hair = disorder.

What is so insidious about this hiding of black heads from white pools? This refusal to get wet, “take a dip,” “cool off,” walk to class with your hair wet? WATER is not a great divide. It is running through every part of our survival and encouraging the growth of the African foliage it so easily reveals for those with burning branches and hot combs in their hands – ready for the fire setting. Water can put it out. Water to wash but water also to paint, to grow, to make the mud that dirties.

But yesterday I saw a little girl that looked like me — her hair settled into two fat braids, sitting on the edge of the pool in her bathing suit, skimming her toes over its surface, watching her white friends play Marco Polo.

AND if we have learned anything from this past summer of high and low brow solidarity it should be that staying out of the pool, rather than diving in, is what has been “keeping us down,” so to speak.

BUT ALL WE GOT WAS DOGGPADDLE

On YouTube there is a niche community of biracial beauty bloggers who have toiled long enough at the task of vlogging to find some brand of corporate sponsorship. The array of products and rituals now placed en vogue around the treatment of “natural” biracial black hair is innumerable, saturated with coconut and pineapple fragrances and packaging that resembles the bleached out beach towels and wooden hotel bars lining the coasts of Caribbean Islands. Each blogger’s individual process for processing their hair revolves around a rhetoric of pride and exhaustion, with most routines requiring at minimum 30 minutes of twisting, washing, conditioning, and plying, piece by piece, each strand of hair into its natural position. The climax of each blog segment is each woman’s time in a hot shower, which is tastefully shot so as to expose only space above the neck. The shower clips are gauche in that a black woman is, with a certain degree of confidence in her unvarnished beauty, exposing herself in a moment of transition, the moment when, for the audience, the biracial women passes from maybe to definitely mingled with at least one drop of damned dark blood. Even still, there is all of the pomp and circumstance, the recitation of products thrown brazenly in the face of the spectator, the flipping, twisting, and drying. Even still, the path to beauty is no less strenuous than when it was a question of pasting skullskin down with thick white formaldehyde based paste. Even if it is a little less dangerous, a little more natural, “it hasn’t gotten any easier to be pretty” is what the whole thing reeks of. “We are still fighting something.” But fighting to look like who? Not white women, at least, not white women anymore. But not black women either. “This is how to elongate the strand.” “This is how to get a good curl.”

“The meaning of the Yellows to people in the West Indies is this: Their external self calls up hatred, self-hatred, and contempt in the dark; pity and fascination in the whites.” – Hilton Als

In my hair I find an otherness that is unnamed. In being both black person and white a person I am dual natured in a country that has relied so long on dichotomy, black vs. white, it cannot even call its president by the right name. It would have been easiest for me to write this essay as a black woman. At the pool I feel black. My hair feels closest to black. My mother is black. But I am not black, and relying on an otherness that is not my own to convey a point about an experience or a people is the worst kind of exploitation, and it is lazy. Still, I do not have the vocabulary to understand myself. I am instead relegated to explaining what my hair is not – kinky or curly or what my skin is not – black or white. Here I have the opportunity to make a language, as what I want is not to be given the words, but the power to make them. And still I am at a loss, because I cannot name what I do not know. And even as my skin is light enough to pass me through a police lineup, and even as I know I will never be accused of being the “wrong” color, as a 20 year old girl I still feel, when the question of womanhood and beauty arises, I feel just as black as anyone, wicking away moisture, trying to live without the shade I come built with. And on my head is all dry, all thirsty, all bramblebush, torn up, thrown into garbage cans, and waiting for another pair of adequately whiter hands to take it some place useful.

 

[1]In a legal anthropology class once I read a civil court transcript. A woman allowed the hedge in the front of her house to outgrow its boundary and cross her brick driveway into her neighbor’s yard. Although she and her neighbor shared the driveway equally, the hedge had clearly begun to encroach on his property. And, what was worse, its branches had penetrated his front lawn and begun their advance beneath a thin layer of topsoil, ruining his sod. *The transcript was meant to demonstrate bias in the language of civil court.

The woman refused to destroy her hedge, citing a claim to personal property. The neighbor, a white business owner, explained plainly that his homeowner status entitled him to certain rites that were beyond the scope of her claim to landscape. The neighbor won the case and she, with her hedge, was forced to first ply off its branches with a hacksaw and when that would not work, uproot the plant in its entirety and place it in a series of dumpsters set in the alley behind the two houses. A few months later she was evicted and left the hedge in the alley where it was rescued by a group of college students looking to install community gardens across the Detroit area (Conley and O’Barr).

Winner of the Francis Bergen Prize