You know how sometimes you just know something, even when you have no proof? Call it a "feeling" in my gut or the past being a predictor of the future. But whatever it was, when I heard about 7-year-old Tiana Parker, who was being harassed by her school because of her locks, I just knew this wasn't some wild misunderstanding by an all-white school board with no understanding of black hair.
It easily could have been, and I kind of hoped it was. I've learned to process hate. I haven't quite wrapped my head around self-hate.
As it turned out, dear Tiana's antagonist was a black woman, Deborah Brown. Based on on the picture circling the Internet, Brown wears her hair in a weave or a wig that imitates the texture of natural hair. In the charter school named after her, Brown's dress code denies black children the right to wear natural styles such as dreadlocks, Afros and other "faddish styles." Oh, the irony.
But why am I not surprised? Because I went natural – for the second time – when I was 18. I stayed that way for a decade. I went natural for the third time two years ago. And while I know that there are white people aplenty who don't like natural hair – that means you, Don Imus, Six Flags, American Airlines and others who believe stereotypes about it being dirty or unkempt or somehow unprofessional or unfeminine – in my personal experience, it's always been other black people who give me the hardest time about my hair.
Somewhere around age 20, I'd managed to grow a respectable and full 'fro that brushed my shoulders in the back. It was also around that time that I joined my mother on a trip to visit my grandparents. It had been years since I'd made the trek to the Midwest and to their church, a place in which I'd practically lived when I'd spent summers with the grands growing up. After service, my grandmother was showing off the "grown-up" me to her friends who hadn't seen me since I was maybe 10.
"What a lady," one of the church sisters said. "I'd love to take her home with me!" That in itself is a strange remark, but it's what my grandmother said next that always stuck with me.
"You'd have to do something with her hair first," she quipped. "Looks like she stuck her hand in an electric socket."
She chuckled. I don't recall how the sister responded because I was stunned. (And when we arrived back at her house, I went in a bedroom and cried about her remark like little Tiana did.)
I liked my hair. A lot. And surprisingly, so did most of my non-black classmates at my predominantly white institution of higher learning. And my non-black professors. And my non-black supervisors at my internships. And so did many of the non-black people I encountered.
Wherever I went – and wherever I go now – with my fluffy (or braided) hair, there was and is a non-black person, from the very young to the very old, openly wishing he or she had my hair; asking to touch it (which is its own problem); wondering with awe, "How do you get it to do that?"; remarking, "Cool hair"; or admiring it, like Heidi Klum, who thinks that the hair of her kids is so "pretty" that she saves it in a bag. (Further proving my point, it was Klum's collecting habits that led to Sheryl Underwood's misguided comments on natural hair.) In the lily-whitest of places, it seems to be A-OK, but in the black world, I've faced the most adversity.
To be fair, some black folks like natural hair just fine; others are indifferent. I'm not talking about all black people here, just as I was not speaking of all white people before. I am talking about the black people – similar to my grandmother – who go out of their way to put down natural hair, as if a similar version of fluff did not also grow from their own heads until it was permed into submission or covered in a protective style.
I am talking about the people who question whether I'll ever get a job. (Check.) Or if men will date me. (Check.) Or if I'm going to (insert special event here) with my hair "like that?!" (Yup.) I mean the Wendy Williamses of the world who feel it necessary to call out Viola Davis for wearing her natural hair during the Oscars. I mean the Sheryl Underwoods who will describe white hair as "beautiful" while dissing the hair that grows out of most black women's heads.
Luckily for little Tiana, a whole bunch of locked women stepped up to provide her with words of encouragement in the form of personal letters and images of themselves that reflect her beauty back to her, which Yaba Blay, co-director and assistant teaching professor of Africana studies at Drexel University, compiled into an e-book. It was a beautiful gesture of support and love. If only all natural black women could expect that feeling from their sisters instead of the negativity that's become too common, we'd really be getting somewhere.
(Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor to The Root, a life coach and the author of "A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life.")