Xiomara and Isleidy wiped tears from their eyes, Stacy’s sniffles quickly deteriorated into sobs, and even the boys tried valiantly not to cry. My tough inner city sophomores were viscerally affected by Elie Wiesel’s heartbreaking Holocaust memoir, Night, which we just finished reading. I was about to become a waterfall myself when Stacy blurted out, “Miss, when you gonna blow your hair out?” causing everyone to laugh and lifting the somber mood.
The subject of my hair was a recurring one in class; the girls desperately wanted my wild curls tamed into smooth tresses. They repeatedly offered hairdressers’ numbers, then frustrated by my inaction, took matters into their own hands. One morning, at 7:30 a.m., Xiomara, Isleidy, and Stacy marched into my class while I was getting ready for the day and ambushed me with a flat iron. I almost gave in, since the attack was so well orchestrated, but ultimately hid in the closet until they put the weapon away. When asked why I resisted, I responded with girl power clichés like “Be yourself!” and “Rock what you’ve got,” but because I never meaningfully addressed the issue, the nagging continued.
But now, inspired by my students’ connection to Night, I was ready to dive into history, identity, and why I refuse to straighten my hair.
Interestingly, my Jewish curls are similar to their Dominican ones, but mine are red, while theirs are black. And hair was not the only thing connecting us. Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan, where our high school was located and where most of my students lived, was populated by Dominicans and Jews, yet the two rarely interacted despite a shared history.
I explained that in 1938 President Roosevelt organized a 32-nation conference to address the resettlement of Jewish Holocaust refugees. Only the Dominican Republic was willing to take them in. As a result, over 500 Jews settled in Sosua, a rural area on the north coast of the Caribbean island. Ironically, the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, who had brutally murdered his own people, saved Jews in order to whiten up the dark-skinned population of the country. While Trujillo was pleased with the intermarriages, he must have been disheartened that the curly hair, for the most part, would remain the same.
“Do all Jews have curly hair?” Isleidy asked.
“No, but many do; it’s considered a Jewish trait and is, therefore, fodder for anti-Semites,” I explained.
I told them about my mom’s experiences growing up in the Soviet Union. Though she was Faye Dunaway’s doppelgänger, with the same sky-high cheekbones, green eyes, and small nose, and could have passed as gentile, her curls were a dead giveaway. As a result, she incurred humiliation when applying to a top medical school. After waiting for hours to be interviewed, the head of admissions told her that, despite her high test scores, the university wouldn’t accept her due to her religion, and pointed her towards a less prestigious school. Although her ID card happened to have the requisite “Jew” stamped on it in bold red letters, my mom saw her hair as the ultimate betrayer.
Consequently, she hated her hair–and mine. Growing up, I had a friend, Nadia, with long straight blonde hair. My mother thought she was gorgeous. Understandably, I wanted Nadia’s hair so badly, that when I was a teenager, I poured a bottle of Sun-In over my head; sadly, it turned my hair fluorescent orange. Once it grew out, I went to a salon to straighten it–but the stylist refused, calling my hair the most beautiful she had ever seen. However, this confidence boost was soon shattered because in no time at all, I was reminded that my unrestrained personality was just as disappointing as my flamboyant curls. Willful and sarcastic, I was the opposite of the docile daughter my mom desired.
As a result, it took me years to fully accept myself.
My students, affected by my struggle, touched their hair, tamed by flat irons and keratin.
Certainly, curly hair makes some people uncomfortable. In Chris Rock’s excellent documentary, Good Hair, Maya Angelou says that there is a perceived impoliteness to natural hair, and that you have to straighten it in order to be palatable…to white people, presumably.
Similarly, Lorraine Massey, the founder of the Devachan Salon for curly hair, has said, “This whole pathetic straightening religion… it’s modern-day slavery. Everyone is trying to hide from their heritage–it’s anthropological. It goes very deep.”
I want to not only own my history but celebrate it, and I want my students to do the same–and curly hair happens to be a part of it.
And I’d much rather they were rabble rousers than docile daughters.
After my lecture–or rant–never again did they ask me to get a blowout. And a few even started wearing their curls occasionally.