As my cashier scanned my groceries, I glanced up from the screen and looked past her, my eyes suddenly glued on…it. I took off my glasses and wiped them, convinced that I was hallucinating.
There, in the middle of Wal-Mart, was a young lady fresh from the club, dressed in a fitted beige mini-dress, chocolate high heels and, heaven help us, a bright purple-laced Dooley and Vaughn bonnet snugly placed over her hair.
She sauntered down the main aisle, loudly chatting with her group of friends, seemingly oblivious to the many curious stares she attracted. After I regained speech and control of my faculties, I picked my lip off the floor and took my groceries to my car.
Every time I see a black woman in public with a bonnet, “do-rag” or wrap cap on her head, I imagine Aunt Jemima rolling over in her grave. Unlike Aunt Jemima, we have a voice in how we portray ourselves to the world. The minstrel show character turned pancake mix spokeswoman was represented by Nancy Green, a former slave who gained financial independence by bringing Aunt Jemima to life to consumers.
Green traveled around the country to promote the pancake mix with her signature phrase “I’se in town, honey” from 1890 – 1923. In 1989, the Quaker Oats Company changed her physical appearance to less resemble the mammy archetype by making her thinner, placing pearls in her ears and removing her scarf to reveal an attractive natural hairdo.
Finally, after years of hiding behind an archetype, the real Green, the former slave who used her wits to become wealthy and work as an anti-poverty activist, was seen. But it was almost half a century after her death. Educated minority students have the opportunity to not only disprove the countless stereotypes forced on them, but to completely re-write those images, especially those of young black women in America.
It’s impossible to do that when we’re determined to thoughtlessly hold on to those basic traditions that don’t maintain the positive aspects of our history. Don’t get me wrong. Black history is rooted in cultural head adornments of colorful scarves, cloths tied in a chignon or piled high on the crown of the head and lavishly decorated wide-banded church hats.
There is nothing culturally uplifting or significant, however, about wearing the knock-off brand bonnets and scarves that we wear around the house in public because we don’t feel like doing our hair. We’ve all seen them. On “The Set,” in the financial aid line, sitting behind us in class, in the chair next to us on the Venom and a score of other public places that make us want to bow our heads in shame and bewilderment.
Ever since my “conversion to natural hair care,” I understand more than ever those days when hair decides that it simply will not cooperate. But that is no excuse. There is no excuse for allowing ourselves to get so lazy and complacent in how far we’ve come that we let our physical appearance dictate where we’re going.
So the next time you see a sister rocking her night cap in the middle of the grocery store, please offer her a hair comb or a hug…it’s what Green would have wanted.