That’s me in high school. 12th Grade to be exact, 1997. All prim and proper in my Catholic school uniform. But it was a special day. My Afro was a protest that day. Along with 3 other students we elected to protest over 100 years of what our school called proper conduct and presentation. All four of us (2 boys and two girls) came to school with Afros. The rule was that all hair should be “out of your face and above the collar”. Voila. An Afro followed that rule but we had continually been called aside and warned of any African hairstyles as being in violation of rules that were originally drawn up for White males. That day we were questioned, laughed at and even called “clowns”.
I thought of this day and the proceeding events after reading this article on the US army’s ban of certain hairstyles, most of them Black hairstyles and what that would mean for Black men and women (especially women) serving. It felt somewhat like school in South Africa again where the only option for most kids was to perm our hair.
In elementary school you would be sent back home (and forced to stay there until you changed your hairstyle) if you came to school in braids. Simple, neat braids that took hours to get done and cost money. (Add to that we were forbidden from speaking our mother tongues on the playground or in classrooms. You’d be fined if you were caught. That consequently meant our games and songs couldn’t be played either.)
After this day above we elected to take our cause to the governing body. We did tons of research, staying late into the evening presenting during PTA meetings (no Black parents had the luxury of attending those) in order to explain why being allowed Black hairstyles was humane. We researched everything from the chemicals in hair relaxers to the cost over time. We even spoke up for the White boys who wanted to wear their hair long. I remember at one PTA meeting a parent (Indian) said to us: “You Blacks always want what you want.”
For a group of teenagers we were as exceedingly formal as possible, catering to the “fears” of the white teachers and exec committee of Black kids coming to school with hair like “drug dealing Rastas” as they put it. I recall at one meeting one of the teachers didn’t even know what dreadlocks were until we showed him a photograph. He voted “no”. Most of the teachers did and all our pleas for the rules to be bent for us were thrown out the window and I was suspended from school for insisting on being informed on the details of the voting process. I spent a week at home while the school principal did his best to try get me voted off the Student Representative Council as I was a bad seed. (My mother - naturally - beat my ass most of that week for defying authority.)
Nonetheless, I never stopped. I’m still a bad seed. But I’m heartbroken that almost 20 years later, the most honoured members of the most powerful army in the world are still fighting the exact same fight: Asking for our humanity to be seen.
In this photograph I stand with a school mate. She had an Afro too. I’ve opted to crop the picture as I’m not sure how she would feel (haven’t been in contact for many years) with me speaking for her about this event. There were 4 of us in that valiant fight. Someone told me some years back that more students continued to protest after we graduated and Black students are now permitted our hairstyles. That made all the beatings from my mom worth it.
ps: I messed up my knee playing basketball and my physiotherapist taped it to the side to strengthen it. No bruising.