Ma went off to college, leaving the house of my grandmother, a onetime domestic from Maryland’s Eastern Shore who had studied nursing in night school and owned her own home. This was 1969. Martin Luther King Jr. was dead. Baltimore had exploded in riots. Ma hung a poster of Huey Newton in her dorm room. She donated clothes at the Baltimore office of the Black Panthers. There, she met my father, a dissident of strong opinions, modest pedigree, and ill repute. In the eyes of my grandmother, their entanglement was heretical, a rejection of the workhorse ethos of colored people, which had lifted my grandmother out of the projects and delivered her kids to college. The impiety was summed up in a final preposterous act that a decade earlier would have been inconceivable—my mother, at 20, let her relaxer grow out, and cultivated her own natural, nappy hair.
The community of my youth was populated by women of similar ilk. They wore their hair in manifold ways—dreadlocks and Nubian twists, Afros as wide as planets or low and tapered from the temple. They braided it, invested it with beads and yarn, pulled the whole of it back into a crown, or wrapped it in yards of African fabric. But in a rejection aimed at something greater than follicles and roots, all of them repudiated straighteners.
The women belonged, as did I, to a particular tribe of America, one holding that we, as black people, were born to a country that hated us and that at all turns plotted our fall. A nation built on immigrants and a professed eclecticism made its views of us manifest through blackface, Little Sambo, and Tarzan of the Apes. Its historians held that Africa was a cannibal continent. Its pundits argued that we should be happy for our enslavement. Its uniformed thugs beat us in Selma and shot us down in northern streets. So potent was this hate that even we, the despised, were enlisted into its cause. So we bleached our skin, jobbed our noses, and relaxed our hair.
To reject hatred, to awaken to the ugly around us and the original beauty within, to be aware, to be “conscious,” as we dubbed ourselves, was to reject the agents of deceit—their religion, their culture, their names. To be conscious was to celebrate the self, to cast blackness in all its manifestations as a blessing. Kinky hair and full lips were the height of beauty. Their bearers were the progeny, not of slaves, but of kidnapped kings of Africa, cradle of all humanity. Old customs were found, new ones pulled out of the air. Kwanzaa for “Christmas,” Kojo for “Peter,” and jambo for “hello.” Conscious sects sprang up—some praising the creator sky god Damballah, some spouting Hebrew, and still others talking in Akan. Consciousness was inchoate and unorthodox—it made my father a vegetarian, but never moved him to wear dreadlocks or adopt an African name. What united us all was the hope of rebirth, of a serum to cure generational shame. What united us was our champion, who delivered us from self-hatred, who delivered my mother from burning lye, who was slaughtered high up in Harlem so that colored people could color themselves anew.