Category Archives: Culture

Why do I have natural hair? Because I hate hairdressers.

Then...

Then…

Yea, I know that we’re not supposed say that we hate anyone. Maybe what I should say is that I hate the experience of getting my hair done in a salon.

I came to this realization about 15 years ago. A white friend of mine got the idea to have her hair braided. She has gorgeous long blond hair. It was summertime, and she wanted a style that would be easy to care for in the heat. A number of her co-workers are black women with braided hairstyles, and gave her the name of a hairbraiding salon in downtown Brooklyn. She asked me if this was the type of place where she could get her hair done.

I told her the truth: “So far as I know.”

Then she asked if I would come along with her. You know for moral support. I shook my head. “Sorry, I can’t come with you.”

I’m not sure what she thought about my answer. She never asked why. And I never told her why. I didn’t tell her that the last time I set foot in a hair salon was in the late 80s. I can count the number of times on one hand that I’ve set foot in a hairdresser as an adult.

Now I’ve read stories ad nauseum about how hairdressers are a woman’s best friend, confidant, and psychologist. There’s even advice on how to break up with your hair stylist. That’s how close the bond is. And that women think of the hair salon as a type of sanctuary, one of the few safe places where we can be themselves and talk about whatever is on their mind. Well, I know nothing about that.

As an adult, the few times when I went to the salon to get my hair braided, it was done so tightly that I went home with a powerful headache, and wound up taking it out before it drove me crazy.

As a child, my mother sent me to the hairdresser to get a perm when I was eleven years old, after I spent the summer with a short afro. This was back in 1969, when sporting an afro was a radical political statement. But my mom didn’t cut my hair into an afro to be political. I liked to sleep with gum in my mouth, and this one time when it fell out and got stuck in my hair, my mom had no choice but to cut it. One of the things that happened to me in a most eventful year.

Before I got the afro, my mom, like all black mothers back then, put my hair under the hot comb in the kitchen. Now I’ve read sentimental essays that where women recalled the love and bonding with their mothers and grandmothers through this weekly ritual. Not me. Every Sunday, I lived in mortal fear of getting burned behind the ears with that hot comb. The worst burn that I ever got was the Sunday when Martin Luther King gave his last public speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” We listened to the TV broadcast while Mom straightened my hair. When he spoke those words, I think my mom had a premonition that he was going to be killed. And sure enough, she was right there at the back of my head—and burned the top of my ear.

Getting my hair straightened with the hot comb was worse than a whipping. If I could’ve gotten out of the hot comb by getting a whipping, I probably would’ve done it—gladly.

That brief summer season when I had my hair in its natural state was the first time that I experienced a relatively painless hairstyle—unless, of course, I didn’t braid my hair up at night. But I’d take that any day over the burns on my ears from the hot comb. Or, when I went to the hairdresser. At first, my mom had the hairdresser use the hot comb to straighten my hair. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t get my ears burned. I couldn’t believe this was ever possible. But the damage was already done. I was traumatized by my experience at home, so I was a nervous wreck when I sat down at the hairdresser. So my mom agreed to give me a perm.

I thought that I that the hot comb was bad, but I didn’t know about bad until I got that perm. Back then, we didn’t have the variety of products available today. We had few options, and all of them were lye-based. The hairdresser treated my thick, kinky hair like it was an enemy combatant. She permed my hair to within an inch of its life so it was bone straight. I was under the dryer for so long that all the other customers had left, and the hairdressers were sweeping up the place. The next day, there would be scabs in my hair from the burns. And sleeping in rollers, to me, is a contradiction in terms.

When I got to my senior year of high school, and mom said she couldn’t afford to send me to the hairdresser anymore, I didn’t say a word. In my mind, I thought, “Thank you, Jesus!” I grew out my curly perm, then went back to the short afro. In the 80s, I wore cornrows, then went to box braids. In the 90s, I just couldn’t take the tight braids anymore, and went to twists. Except for the few times when I went to the hair dresser, I’ve always done my own hair.

My best experience at a hairdresser was actually in a barbershop. For the New Year in 1980, I wanted to get a nice cut for my afro. On the last Saturday before the New Year, I went to the local beauty school, hoping to get a cheap cut from one of the students. But the school was closed for the Christmas holiday, so I ended up going to a nearby barbershop. I was the first customer, and the barber gladly cut my hair. Best haircut I ever had. If I ever get to the point where I can no longer do my own hair, I’ll go right back down to the barber, tell him to chop off these twists, and give me a brush-and-go. No qualms about it.

I mention my hair experience because it seems that a confluence of events has caused the question of black hair to be a topic of discussion this past week. The first was a so-called ‘study’ which reported that “Women with Natural Hair Have Low Self-Esteem.” Frankly, I think this was either a satire, or a bait, because there’s no online reference to the actual study. And if it was commissioned, it was probably done by a company with a vested interested in getting black women to chemically straighten their hair. I won’t dignify this article by providing a link, but Google it, and you’ll see how this has flown around social media.

What I will say it that the trauma of straightening my hair as a child was more of a cause for low self-esteem. What did I hear during all those years of hot comb and perms? “Her head is too hard.” “We can’t do anything with that!” “It’s too nappy!” Even if I wasn’t told those things, just the pain to took for to “look nice” spoke volumes. I swore that if I gave birth to daughters, I would never subject them to that kind of pain in the name of beauty.

Right after I picked up the so-called study about women with natural hair, I saw up an article from Atlanta BlackStar, which said that relaxer sales are slumping, and natural hair is here to stay. Now that I can attest to. Over the past twenty years, I’ve seen more women sporting afros, twists, braids, and locks. I’ve also seen women of other ethnicities embrace their curls and ditch the heat and the chemicals. And the beauty industry has taken notice; there’s a lot more products out there for women with natural hair.

Then, there was the whole flap around Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who identifies herself as black. That’s when we get into the whole discussion about race; representations, and societal reactions to those representations. We may not want to admit it, but hair for black women is still ‘political.’ If you don’t think so, well, tell me the last time you saw an African-American female reporter in a natural hairstyle. I’m not talking about commentators like Melissa Harris-Perry. Or the black female reporters on CNN International, or the BBC. I’m talking network television. There was one black woman reporter with a short afro back in the 90s. As soon as her hair got long enough, she straightened it. Blink, and you would’ve missed it.

Now I won’t give the side eye to women who use perms, hot combs, weaves, or dyes. In fact, I’ve complimented many of them, as people have complimented me on my hair. I just can’t do all that for the sake of beauty. But I can’t help but wonder how Rachel Dolezal got her hair to look like that. Did her hairdresser know her secret? (Probably did. “Only your hairdresser knows.”) Maybe that’s one of those things that we need to #AskRachel, if it hasn’t been done already.

...and now.

…and now.

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Hot town, Summer in the city

Yep, I’m old enough to remember hearing that song on the radio. 1966. The Loving Spoonful. It reminds me of the reason why I live for summer in New York. The free concerts in the parks.

One of the great things I love about New York is that there is always a free or low cost event. In the summer, we are blessed with such an abundance that you’re going to end up missing something. There’s just too many things to do.

I started going to the summer concerts when my boys were toddlers. The shows are family friendly; you can pack a meal, and everyone has a great time. The kids are grown now, but I still hang out in the parks. I’ve check out old faves, and pick up new ones at these festivals. Some highlights of my adventures:

  • Randy Weston at Celebrate Brooklyn, Prospect Park. Rodney Kendrick was the opener. C. Scoby Strohman did a soft shoe to some of Randy’s pieces; it turned out to be Strohman’s last performance before he passed away. My older son was nine years old at the time; he turned to me and said, “Mom, this isn’t elevator music.”
  • David Rudder and Machel Montano. They appeared at Celebrate Brooklyn on separate dates, but they were the wildest concerts I’ve been to. Total disorder. The. Hottest. Soca. Parties. Ever.
  • My first introduction to Tinarwiren was at River to River in Lower Manhattan.
  • Best surprise guest: Maceo Parker, the year he opened up at Celebration Brooklyn, brought out The Purple One himself—PRINCE. I could’ve died happy right there.
  • Some of the baddest party bands have appeared in the parks; Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Los Amigos Invisibles, The Pinker Tones, and more salsa bands than I care to count.
  • Crossed off the Bucket List: Richie Havens at Castle Clinton, Battery Park. I was too young to go to Woodstock, and he was in fine form.
  • Two of the last concerts I attended with my older sister before she passed away were in the parks. During the time that she was treated for cancer, we saw Steel Pulse and George Clinton at Rockefeller Park.
  • Philip Glass did a live performance of his score at a screening of the movie Powaqqatsi. ‘Nuf said.

Now here’s what I’m looking forward to for this season:

  • Central Park SummerStage: May through October. SummerStage is in its 30th season. Last year was the best one ever. Most of the time, I hang at Rumsey Playfield in Central Park. But the festival extends through city parks in all five boroughs. This year, I’m looking forward to checking out Tedeschi Trucks Band, and two triple bills featuring Meshell Ndegeocello / Roy Hargrove / Gabriel Garzón-Montano, and Angelique Kidjo / Emmanuel Jal / Rich Medina.
  • Celebrate Brooklyn: June 3-August 12. This is the place where magic happens. Since 1979, BRIC has been putting it down at the Prospect Park Bandshell. Opening concert will be Chaka Khan. Also looking forward to shows by Third World (again!), Esperanza Spalding, Krosfyah and tUnE-yArDs.
  • Lincoln Center Out of Doors: July 22-August 9. I’m just now looking at their schedule, but already a few things have caught my eye: Toshi Reagon, Randy Newman, Yo La Tengo, and a Boogaloo Celebration with Joe Bataan.
  • River to River: June 18-June 28. Sorry to say, that this festival, in my opinion, is a shadow of its former self. Since it changed organizers to LMCC (Lower Manhattan Cultural Council), the focus is on new arts and new media. Now I admit to liking this genre more than most, but I really haven’t been feeling anything for River to River for the past couple of summers. This year might be different. There’s a block festival featuring the jazz singer Somi, performances by Trisha Brown, Roomful of Teeth, and the Poets House event is back on the calendar.

Honorable mentions:

  • Shakespeare in the Park: A much-anticipated summer event. This year, the Public Theater will present The Tempest (May 27-Jul 5), and Cymbeline (July 23-August 23).
  • Charlie Parker Jazz Festival: August 22-23 at Marcus Garvey Park.
  • Arts Brookfield: The former World Financial Center is now Brookfield Place. They hold free arts events year-round, but in summer they ramp it up. Must-attend is the Lowdown Hudson Music Fest, July 14-15.

Hope that all of you have a fun, happy and safe summer!

Would YOU attend preschool…for adults?

This was the correct story for the Bluff the Listener game on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Me. An adult preschool in…wait for it…Brooklyn!

It’s called Preschool Mastermind, and it gives adults the chance to get in touch with their inner child—arts and crafts, show and tell, even naptime. Of course, it comes with a price, though I have to give credit—it’s a sliding scale fee, from $399 to $999, for a month’s worth of preschool.

I’m not gonna try to understand this. Maybe it’s a generational thing. I didn’t have the benefit of preschool when I was a toddler. I remember when the federal government created the Headstart program. I was in junior high school by then. But the younger of my two brothers, born in 1970, was a Headstart baby. Many would argue that the Headstart program was the government’s response to the Black Panthers’ breakfast program. While I didn’t get to go to preschool, I attended kindergarten at my local public school. I had a lot of fun in kindergarten, but I have no desire to relive the experience now that I’m a grownup.

As the Bible says (1 Corinthians 13:11), “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” There’s nothing wrong with looking at the world through fresh (or refreshed) lens, and approach each new experience with the wonder of a child. But there’s a reason why human beings are adults for a far longer time than they are children. If one can’t take on their adult responsibilities and still maintain a child-like outlook, then frankly, I don’t think a month’s worth of adult preschool is going to help.

And right now we’re in the enrollment period for the NYC’s pre-K program in the public schools. I can’t help thinking that the same people ponying up to a thousand dollars to relive their childhood also have the means to place their children in an exclusive pre-school program. They don’t have to compete for the limited number of slots for free pre-K, often in schools where children attend class in closets and trailers.

But I guess this goes the way of everything else in our grown-up lives. You make it…somebody’s gonna pay for it.

10 Books That Stuck With Me

  1. Mama Day by Gloria Naylor. Wonderfully magical modern-day love story.
  2. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. More relevant now in this post-9/11 era.
  3. Read My Pins by Madeleine Albright. Inspired me to reach into my pinbox.
  4. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. One of the best first-hand accounts of the ‘peculiar institution.’
  5. Blue Light by Walter Mosley. Masterful sci-fi from a master storyteller.
  6. Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson. Required reading for an understanding of the how the modern nation-state came into being.
  7. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. “God is change.”
  8. The Music of Africa by J. H. Kwabena Nketia. My first exposure to the richness of African music.
  9. Soul Survivors: An African American Spirituality by Carlyle Fielding Stewart, III. Required reading for anyone who wants an understanding of African American culture.
  10. Black Voices: An Anthology of Afro-American Literature edited by Abraham Chapman. Got this book back in 1970 when I was twelve, and a book like this was hard to find. Was honored to lend it to my son for a school assignment.

Honorable mention:

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus. It all starts when one person ignores something. How it ends…

1969: Time of Change in America

In August 2014, we celebrate the 45th anniversary of Woodstock, a seminal event in what came to be known as the “Summer of Love.” Now, I wasn’t there; even though I begged my mother to let me go. Many of the artists that I was listening to were on the bill: Buddy Miles, Sly & the Family Stone, Richie Havens, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Since I was only eleven years old, my mother thought it a joke that I would even form my lips to ask her if I could go to some place way upstate “with all those white folks,” as she said it. So I had to console myself by getting the soundtrack album when it was released. But as it turns out, that summer I had my own musical adventure of my own. Here’s the story:

It was the summer of 1969, a time when the United States was still in the midst of social upheaval. President Nixon had just taken office, and was welcomed by vocal protests against the Vietnam War on one hand, and a militant change in tone to the civil rights struggle on the other. The Civil Rights Bill and the Supreme Court decision that forced busing as a way to integrate the schools, had just made their way on to the American landscape. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had both been killed just the year before. Yet, the country took the time to marvel at the success of the Apollo 11 mission that landed astronauts on the moon.

I was eleven years old at the time, and watching these images at home on TV made it seem like the whole planet was just a “Ball of Confusion,” as the Temptations sang on their hit record. Nevertheless, I was happy that it was finally summertime, which meant not only time off from school, but also more time to spend singing with the chorus. My older sister Karen and I were members of the St. Albans Community Children’s Chorus, a professional group of black boys and girls from the St. Albans section of Southeast Queens that performed classical music. The director of the chorus was Mrs. Lucille Burney; Mrs. Ruth Perkins was our accompanist; and Mrs. Beatrice Nickens was the business manager. We performed all over New York and New Jersey, and made trips to the state capitol in Albany, Chicago, the nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C., and to Montreal, Canada for Expo ’67.

That summer the chorus was at the pinnacle of its career, as we prepared for our longest trip ever: a six-day, seven-night cruise on a Cunard ocean liner to perform Bermuda! We would also perform on the ship as well. And I could not wait to go! This was the longest trip I had ever taken and my first trip away from home by myself. My grandfather, who emigrated to New York from St. Croix, regaled us with stories about his experience traveling to the United States on a steamer ship. That heightened my excitement over the cruise.

However, my excitement was soon replaced by anxiety. The directors of the chorus thought that maybe it would be best for me to stay home. I was the youngest member of the group, and the resident space cadet. The directors thought that I might be too much trouble, since I had a hard time following directions. I was one of the leads in the two chorus lines that marched on and off the stage. Brenda, the other lead, and I were supposed to mirror each other and reach the front stage at the same time. Once, at a concert at Harlem’s famed Abyssinian Church, I veered so far off that Brenda got to the stage before I did. That landed me in a lot of hot water. I also daydreamed a lot and forgot that there were people and photographers watching us for the littlest slip, like the time we got our photo taken on the steps of the state capitol. My smiling face was turned so that it looked like I was facing the person next to me, while everyone else faced forward. The thought that I might miss the trip of a lifetime because of those embarrassing mistakes was like adding insult to injury.

Yet despite my missteps and mishaps, I turned out to be the one person who could sing my part and everyone else’s. Mrs. Burney had awarded me best musician at one of our recitals, and got me a scholarship to study music at Mannes Preparatory School in Manhattan. So in the end, I guess that musicianship won out—that and the fact that my mom pleaded with them to let me go. But Mrs. Nickens gave me a stern warning to be on my very best behavior.

Before the trip, we learned something about the country of Bermuda and the type of clothes we had to wear, like Bermuda shorts. Nothing could be worn above the knee, so mini-skirts, which were high fashion at that time, were not allowed. We also learned about ship etiquette. Each chorus member was fitted for new uniforms. One of the uniforms featured a hot pink calypso blouse made fashionable by folks like Harry Belafonte. That was my favorite uniform. We also got a uniform that included white deck sneakers, our first uniform without dress shoes.

In addition to getting us fit for new uniforms, my mom had to buy us luggage, toiletries, new clothes and accessories. The clothes included two formal gowns to wear to the captain’s dinners. Mrs. Nickens had just started her women’s clothing business and we bought our gowns from her. When mom took us over to look for gowns, she discovered that just about all of the gowns were either too wide or too long for me—or both. When I got measured for my uniforms, folks complained that I “had no waist”—that’s how skinny I was. Only one gown managed to fit—a lime-green shimmering lamé with a high neck. I liked the color, but hated the style.

“That’s an old-lady gown!” I said to my mom.

“But we’ll have to take it,” she said. She liked the style, but hated the color.

And so we were packed and ready to go. But at our last Saturday meeting, I caused an uproar when I walked into the school auditorium where we rehearsed. The night before, my mom took me to the hairdresser, who cut my hair into a short afro. At the time, only revolutionaries like Angela Davis wore their hair in an afro. My mother was not trying to make a political statement. She cut my hair simply because I liked to fall asleep with gum in my mouth, and this time when it fell out and landed in my hair, she could not get it out. So she dragged me to the hairdresser at the last minute to cut my hair.

“How can she go to Bermuda looking like that?!” they asked. “You can’t straighten that! It’s too short! How is she going to take care of it??”

Back then, straightened hair was still the standard of beauty. Wearing our hair natural was not looked upon kindly. Plus, we were black people trying to prove ourselves in the white venue of classical music. The pressure to conform to European beauty standards was strong. The directors were also concerned because sometimes they had to style our hair right before a performance, and they didn’t want the challenge of trying to get a comb through a head full of tightly coiled natural black hair. My mom promised to teach me how to braid up my afro at night so that it would be easier to style and to comb, and I was strictly advised to braid my hair up each and every night.

That was a small price for me to keep my new afro. I knew that it was a radical style, and many black people didn’t like it. One boy said to me, “You look like a Mandingo warrior!” which at the time was not a compliment. Nevertheless, I loved my afro, and hated the alternative—the hot comb. I cringed in fear whenever I got my hair hot combed straight because I would always get a little burn along the top of my ear while someone tried to get that “one little nap.” But this fuss over my new hairstyle added to my extreme shyness. And it didn’t help matters any that I had entered that odd pre-teen growing stage, being short and skinny with size 9 feet and a belly that caused my mom to buy a girdle for me to wear with my gown. When I tried to imagine myself with this modern, even militant, hairstyle wearing that old lady dress, it wasn’t a pretty picture.

All this anxiety meant that for me, the cruise really began when we got on the charter bus that took us to the pier in Manhattan where we would board the ship. Once we went across the 59th Street Bridge, I knew that the back-and-forth about whether I would go had finally ended, and there was no turning back. I joined in the excitement of the other kids as we approached the pier where the ship was docked. When we stepped off the bus and saw the large, gleaming back and white ship with red smokestacks that would be our weeklong home, we let out a collective gasp. I smiled in awe as we walked up the gangplank and boarded the Cunard Franconia.

The captain and crewmembers of the ship treated us as special guests. Before we left port, we got a tour of the ship. Everything looked so large and luxurious, from the wood floors and walls, to the pool and the dining room, with its chandeliers and the white tablecloths. We returned to the deck just in time to wave goodbye to the parents who drove to the pier so they could see us off and wish us a safe journey. I felt like a star in a movie as I saw the crowd waving on the pier while the ship’s horn bellowed in the background.

Our sleeping cabins on the ship were below the deck, and I almost ran alongside the chambermaid who escorted me to my cabin. My quarters were small but bright with white walls and cabinets. I marveled that this space could hold everything found in a luxury hotel, yet still look spacious and cheerful. The chorus members slept two to a room, and the chambermaid shows us how the beds unfolded from the wall and folded back. We were expected to keep our rooms clean and neat, and to make up the bed. Mrs. Nickens would get a report every day of any problems with kids who did not keep up their rooms.

Up until then I had no idea who would be my roommate. I automatically assumed that it would be my sister. Then Mrs. Nickens crisply stated Karen and I would be separated. I know she thought that my sister and I spent too much time together, to the exclusion of the other members of the chorus, and she looked for ways to pull us apart. I don’t think she realized that many of the older kids did not like to talk to us because they were teenagers and to them we were babies.

Nevertheless, I took it in stride when Karen was taken to her room and I was left alone to unpack my things. Soon my roommate came to join me, and I don’t know who was more surprised. Here I was going to share a room with the instrument of my torment—Andrea. We had never gotten along from Day One. I never did anything to her, but she would call me names or pinch me when no one was looking. While it’s true that the other kids got mad at me sometimes when I messed up directions, with Andrea it was strictly personal. My only consolation in dealing with Andrea was that some of the older girls that I liked and respected didn’t like Andrea either, and barely tolerated her older sister and younger brother. The word going around was that all three of them were stuck up, so they hardly had any friends. And Andrea was the worst of the three siblings. She never missed the chance to let us know that she was better than everyone else.

When Andrea saw me inside the room, a big frown came on her face. “Why do I have to stay with—her?!” she huffed.

Why can’t I sleep with someone else too, like Norie or Linda or Donna or Alison or Joyce? I thought to myself. These girls were all teenagers like Andrea, and while we weren’t best friends, they were nice to me and didn’t mind talking or having a laugh with me. I knew that if one of those girls was my roommate they would be kind enough to make the best of it. Now here I was stuck with the queen of stuck-up.

The vehemence of Andrea’s reaction was not lost on Mrs. Nickens. She looked at me sympathetically, but stuck to her guns. “There is where you’re going to sleep!” she said as she turned to leave.

As soon as the door closed, Andrea plopped down on the bottom bunk and glared at me like an animal marking her territory. I figured that Mrs. Nickens and the other chaperones would want me to sleep on the bottom in case I fell out of the bed, but I thought it best to say as little as possible to Andrea. Besides, I could do something that I had never done before—sleep on the top bunk. The directors had no idea that back at home, I was a little tomboy, so climbing up to the top bed for me was like a big adventure. I looked forward to going to bed that night.

But before bedtime, we had to have dinner. And our first dinner on board the ship was exquisite. It was the first time that I ate gourmet food with different courses and full table settings. I sat at table with Mrs. Burney. During our meals, she would ask if I was having a good time, and what I thought about the trip so far. Our waiter was a tall, slim man with short black hair, a strong British accent and a pleasant smile.

“My name is Francis,” he said as he held my chair. “Welcome aboard!”

“That’s interesting!” Mrs. Burney said, because our waiter Francis was on a ship called the Franconia.

“Yes, it is!” I agreed.

But then there was more. “I have a brother who lives in New York,” Francis said, “On Francis Lewis Boulevard in Hollis? Are you familiar with that area?”

It turned out that his brother lived in the neighboring community from St. Albans, and that I often went past his area on the school bus coming home. Mrs. Burney gushed with pride as she explained that I was bused to an all-white school in Flushing.

“Well, what a coincidence!” he laughed.

Francis took the time to explain what was on the menu and made suggestions about the kind of dishes I would like. He assumed that I, like other children, would hate the vegetable dishes, and he was really surprised when I ate all of my salad and raved about the cream of asparagus soup. After that, he made it a point to let me know when they were serving a special vegetable dish.

Having such a pleasant dinner with good food and good conversation did not prepare me for the shock that I got when I opened the door to my cabin. Andrea had thrown her clothes all over the room. Well, well…Miss Stuck-up doesn’t know how to clean her room! I thought. I maneuvered around as best I could and got ready for bed.

I pretended to be asleep when Andrea returned to the cabin, got in her bed and turned out the lights. Usually I sleep like a rock, but in the middle of the night, I woke up to a muffled tinkling sound coming from the bottom bed. Oh, oh…, I thought. That means trouble—BIG trouble. And people are going to think that I did it! It would be a natural assumption that an eleven-year-old would make a sound like that in the middle of the night. I wondered how I would get people to believe it wasn’t me. And I worried that Andrea would try and pin the blame on me, if she got caught.

I quietly tried to go about my business and enjoy myself as best I could. After the second night of that tinkling sound, I got up the next morning for breakfast, and Mrs. Nickens was waiting for me, along with the chambermaid.

“Someone in your room has wet the bed!” she glared at me.

“But I don’t wet my bed!” I said.

“Tell the truth!”

“Mrs. Nickens, I swear—I don’t wet the bed!”

The chambermaid also reported that our room was a mess, and that one of us wasn’t making up the bed. She and Mrs. Nickens marched me back to my cabin to have a look. Andrea’s clothes were still all over the room.

“Show me your things!” Mrs. Nickens commanded.

I showed her my clothes and things neatly placed in drawers and closets.

“Show me your bed!”

I pointed up to the top bunk.

“You’re not supposed to sleep on the top! What happens if you fall out?! Tonight you sleep on the bottom!” She turned to the chambermaid. “Which bed is the one not made up?”

“The one on the bottom,” the chambermaid said.

“I’ll deal with Andrea,” Mrs. Nickens snarled. “Cynthia, you sleep on the bottom from now on. You hear?”

“Yes,” I answered.

In all the commotion about me sleeping on the top, Mrs. Nickens never found out which bed was the one that got wet, so I was still on the hook. I was mad because Andrea’s behavior had caused me to lose my perch. But I got over it because I would soon get my revenge. That night I kept listening for that tinkling sound but all was quiet. I wondered if Andrea decided to control her functions out of spite. But then on the fourth night, there it was, like clockwork. I couldn’t wait to get up the next morning to see what would happen.

When I went down for breakfast, Mrs. Nickens was waiting once again with our chambermaid. As soon as Andrea came down, she pulled her off to the side. Later on, she told me that Andrea was going to another room, and I would now share the room with my sister. Mrs. Nickens did not apologize, but she did relax some of the hawk-like gaze that she had on me. For me that was apology enough. By that time, some of the other teenagers had kept her busier than I ever did. A few kids got seasick; one kid got homesick and cried for their mommy all day; and another kid was almost left behind in Bermuda.

Word quickly got around among the kids about Andrea, and they no longer let her or her siblings intimidate them. Andrea avoided me after that and never bothered me again. The other kids were friendlier to me too, so it was easier for me to relax and have fun. Even Mrs. Nickens looked at me in a different way.

All that did not mean that I went the entire trip unscathed. At one of our performances in Bermuda, we were sitting in the waiting room about to go on stage and I was daydreaming. Before I knew it, Mrs. Nickens ran over and smacked my legs closed, her ivory face red with anger. But the damage was already done. The next morning a photograph of me sitting with my legs wide open in my long white skirt appeared on the front page of the local paper.

Even with that embarrassing mistake, I had the time of my life on the cruise. And that much-hated girdle and gown turned out to be the biggest surprise of all. I dreaded the night of our first captain’s dinner, and took extra time to dress carefully and properly comb my afro. When I walked into the dining room that evening, all of the chorus members and chaperones turned and stared. They could not believe their eyes. The waiter at my table held my chair and smiled.

“Miss Cynthia,” he said, “you are the belle of the ball!”

Mrs. Burney agreed. You look absolutely gorgeous!” She tufted my afro with her hands, smiling with approval.

After that evening, I walked a little taller and spoke up more. The older kids in the chorus who shunned me would come up to me and start a conversation. They learned that I knew the words to all the hip songs, and that I knew all the dances. When we got back to New York, we were talking like old friends. And while I still made mistakes, one or two of the kids would console me.

“Don’t worry,” they would say. “It’s just a mistake. You’ll do better next time.”

1969 was indeed a time of change in America—at least in my part of it.

My First St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick's celebration in St. Croix, VI, the birthplace of my maternal grandparents.

St. Patrick’s celebration in St. Croix, VI, the birthplace of my maternal grandparents.

It happened during the first year at my new school. I came home with an announcement from the principal: On St. Patrick’s Day, we had to dress for assembly, in white blouse and blue skirt. But if we were Irish, we could wear a green blouse instead of the white.

This simple announcement caused a flurry of activity within my family. My grandfather insisted that my older sister and I would wear green blouses for this school assembly. It was left up to my mom, grandmother, aunt, and uncle to find these blouses on such short notice. They were fanned out to different parts of the city, from the local department store on Linden Boulevard, to Macy’s at Herald Square and every place in between, in search of just the right color of green blouses for St. Patrick’s.

While the folks searched high and low, I secretly hoped that they would not succeed in their mission. School was tough enough. Here I was in the second grade, among the first blacks to be bused out of my neighborhood in Southeast Queens an all-white school in Northern Queens. Then I was a short, shy, skinny kid who wore white sparkly Catwoman style glasses. So I was already under a microscope.

It looked like things would swing my way when they managed to find a blouse that fit my sister, but they couldn’t find one for me. I was always the difficult one to dress, since I was short, skinny, and, as the old folks would say, I had no waist. I wore suspenders on my skirts to keep them up. My grandfather just felt that they needed to try harder, and sent them back out. His granddaughters were going to be properly attired for this assembly. The evening before St. Patrick’s Day, my mom and uncle arrived home together, tired, but satisfied. Mission accomplished. They’d found green blouses for both me and my sister.

Why did my grandfather insist that my sister and I wear the green on St. Patrick’s Day? We were black folks—or should I say, Negroes, as we were called in the mid-60s, before we evolved to “Black and I’m Proud.” All the Irish folks that I saw in school books and on TV didn’t look like me. They looked like white people. But I couldn’t just straight out ask my grandfather, “Why,” because children were just supposed to do as they were told. Somehow, I needed to know that it would be worth my spending a school day thinking that I could be hauled off to the principal’s office because the teacher might think it audacious for a little black child to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. So I didn’t ask why. Instead, I asked, “What do I say if the teacher asks why I’m wearing green?”

“If anyone asks—you tell them your grandfather’s last name is REILLY!”

Until that moment, I did not know my grandfather’s surname. My second grade mind didn’t think it was possible for my mother’s parents to have a last name—and if they did, what did it matter, because to us kids they were always Moyee and Pa. Sometimes I would hear Pa call my grandmother Mintha—but we were never allowed to call her Mintha, which was short for her first name, Aramintha. That they had a last name at all was a new concept. And my grandfather’s last name was Irish?! That day, I learned something new about my family’s heritage. And I was proud that my grandfather had the conviction to celebrate this part of his heritage by making sure that we were properly dressed.

Well, my pride could not keep my knees from trembling under my skirt as I headed out to the bus stop that morning and tried to get through the day. Every time I saw a teacher in the hallway, I would look up to see if they would see this little black child in green, pluck her out of the class line, and march her down to the principal’s office because I had the audacity to think that I could wear a green blouse, when I should be wearing white. Because, judging by appearance, I wasn’t supposed to be wearing the green.

As it turned out, only one teacher asked, and it wasn’t even my own teacher. That afternoon, as my class was on the way to assembly, the sixth grade teacher caught sight of me, and asked why I was wearing green. Before I could get the answer out of my mouth, she was halfway down the hall with her class. But my knees had stopped trembling.

The Plot Thickens re: Statue of Liberty postage stamp

Bad enough that the forever stamp of the Statue of Liberty contains a huge mistake. The design was not based on the original statue here in New York Harbor, but on a replica that sits in front of the New York-New York hotel in Las Vegas. Now the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty in Las Vegas is suing the U.S. Government.

What irony that the government is being sued by the creator of this appropriation of the original statue. Back in 2011 I wrote first post about this blooper, and how it completed the appropriation of Vegas that helped to turn it from an adults-only gambling den to a family friendly destination. Will keep an eye on how this lawsuit proceeds.