Of Hair and Origin
In this guest blogpost, Tricia Amiel, a mother, writer, adjunct instructor and former teacher, takes an introspective and candid look into the intersection of race, identity and self-perception. She divulges some hard truths and hurts that emanate from others asking her questions about her roots. Then, in turning affliction into learning opportunity, she discusses how she had students turn questions about origin and identity back on themselves, and what both she and her students learned about the power that emanates from knowledge of self.
When I tell some people that I am Jamaican, the first thing they want to know about is my hair. My hair is long, very dark and “smooth.” It is naturally very wavy, but is easily made straight. As a little girl in elementary school, I was either a fascination or the object of disdain; they said I was conceited, that I thought myself to be better than other girls because my hair was so different from theirs. It was “good hair,” of a quality that at the time I didn’t understand was supposed to be better, more beautiful than theirs. It didn’t help that I was smart and my teachers favored me, but my hair was the sorest point of contention with the other girls in the schoolyard.
It used to annoy me, that request to know about my hair, the misguided guesses about my origins—I was thought at various times to be Cuban, Dominican, “mixed” with Native American, anything but what I am—and my annoyance led me to reply in a sometimes vague, often sarcastic way. I’m human, I would say, or, my hair came from my head. Now, a student of Multicultural Literatures, African American and Caribbean philosophy, I understand that there is a lot that people don’t know about the Caribbean. It seemed to me that many people were purposefully ignorant, that they went out of their way to NOT know, but now I think so much is hidden from us, and that as human beings in a world divided along lines of color, belief, and politics to name a few, we seek to categorize people, place them in spaces that we understand and control rather than assume that there are things we don’t know.
Until recently, I was a ninth grade English and Drama teacher at a South Florida high school in the “green zone,” one of those areas in which teachers were paid a slightly greater salary for their bravery. It is a low-performing, mostly black, Hispanic, and immigrant school with few resources, set far away from other, newer, “better” schools. There too, my hair was a fascination, a curiosity, to students and staff alike. It was the genuine curiosity and lack of knowledge in my students that changed my sarcastic tone to a didactic one; I saw that they wanted to know. I assigned a project to my English classes, called “Where I’m From.” Students were to seek out ancestors–parents, grandparents, any elder family member at all–and interview them about their family’s origins. They were encouraged to write essays, create posters of family photos of each generation they could, pictures or drawings of flags, national colors, foods, and historical information.
One student presented a recording of his Cuban great-grandmother’s voice telling the story of her emigration to the United States, hidden on a cargo boat, nearly dying of starvation. Another had a very old family album, full of bIack and white photos of great and great-great family members, labeled with names and dates as far back as the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Still, I heard things that saddened me deeply, especially from my minority students; for example, a Haitian student wrote that black people had come to Haiti from France, denying vehemently her African origins and history of slavery and the successful revolution carried out by slaves. Some Hispanic students did not understand that Spanish was not just the name of the language they spoke, but also the adjective describing people from Spain—not Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or Mexico—that they spoke Spanish because Spain had colonized those places, and that some of their ancestors were native Indians. Many African American students were unable to see beyond the neighborhood they lived in, posting things like the area code and gang colors on their poster boards. They took pride in what they did know, but did not know as much as they should in a time when history’s pages are more open and questioning of tradition than ever before.
I did the project along with them, using the colors of the Jamaican flag for my poster, included pictures of my family that were taken at my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday party, pictures of Arawak Indians, stories about the Maroons, the arrival of the Chinese and East Indians in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and Rastafarian religious practices, a group for whom the “dread” style of hair that so many of them had adopted had significant meaning. I also included pictures of my high school in the Bronx, where my maternal grandmother, whose own half-Chinese countenance fascinated my students, had emigrated to from Jamaica after living for many years in England. I told them my paternal grandmother was East Indian, that she had black hair that fell to her waist, and that I’d been told my coloring and bone structure were like hers; I knew little else.
In those facts, my students finally understood the story of my hair and the truth, as best I could tell it, of my origins. The thing that had so annoyed me became the medium through which I was able to teach the value of knowing where you’re from, understanding your own personal history within the larger frame of historical knowledge. Look in the mirror, I told them; see yourself. In the mirror lies the beginning of your story. A story that includes the people, the ancestors of your past, and the history of how you came to be. Look for answers, I told them. Try to find some truth; try to find out who you were, so that you can know who you are.