Only in America
In Birmingham they loved the Gov’nor.
Now we all did what people (we could) do.
Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscious bother you?
Tell the truth.
Lynyrd Skynyrd first sang these lyrics in 1974 in the song Sweet Home Alabama in response to Neil Young’s song about Alabama. They were “singing songs about the southland,” but this song resonated across America, hitting #8 and staying on the charts for 17 weeks. Decades later, the song inspired Kid Rock to sing about it. Hailing from Michigan, he was “singin’ Sweet Home Alabama all summer long.”
In today’s climate, and with the current administration, the verse quoted above comes to mind regularly. The Gov’nor of Birmingham was a hardcore, unapologetic racist and a staunch segregationist; but the people loved him. He was their man. They voted for him, cheered for him and supported his racist agenda. In no uncertain terms.
Birmingham’s Gov’nor is a microcosm of what we’re witnessing today. 45 is the Gov’nor and his supporters are the Birmingham population on steroids.
The lyricist, like so many, was not bothered by Watergate, just like 45’s supporters are not bothered by his lies or his blatant disregard for the law. Their conscience does not bother them.
We are watching this lack of conscience play out in real time. And while Nixon resigned, 45 ain’t backing down.
It’s interesting that the lyricist chose to include Birmingham’s Gov’nor and Watergate in the same stanza. The Gov’nor was truly a racist and he is remembered for it. Nixon is remembered for lying and cheating. Racist. Lying. Cheating. Together in a song. Together in society. The common thread being white supremacy.
Lynyrd Skynyrd knew this. The people who made the song popular knew it. Kid Rock knows it. 45 knows it. 45’s supporters know it. White supremacy is racist. It lies and cheats. And now we have it all wrapped up in one administration. In one era. In the one America where it can happen.
O beautiful for spacious skies…
Let my lies be their demise.
Liberty is mine and mine alone
The others are merely as the stone
Silent they should be
As they labor in this “De-mock-racy”
Propping me up in my hypocrisy.
They speak of rights
Marching, protesting in my sight.
Thinking to make me believe
They’re worthy of equality.
But oh, how we shall deceive!
A losing fight
For never shall we grant that right.
See the history
Remember Booker T.
Now there’s a man
Knew his place
Equality twan’t for his race
For we still love the Gov’nor
And now we got a president in his place.
For centuries, Black women have been judged by their hair. Yes hair. We’ve judged ourselves by our hair. Madam C.J. Walker became the first self-made Black female millionaire by making and/or improving products that would allow us to straighten our hair. Straightening hair for Black women is a norm, big business and has a long history.
My first hair straightening experience came in the form of the straightening comb—a metal comb heated on the stove. The heat of the comb and the hair grease applied to the hair combined to produce shiny, straight hair that could be styled in multiple ways. After the straightening comb, it was chemical perms. The perms lasted much longer than the straightening comb method and you could wash your hair and it would stay straight. The perm was revolutionary. After the perms, my next experience was extensions—hair you could buy and integrate with your own hair by way of cornrows. My final experience was all natural. No straightening, no perms, no extensions. Dreadlocks. And the reason for this particular essay, though it is not the sole focus.
It was 2010 when Chastity Jones was denied a job because she refused to cut her dreadlocks. In 2013, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the company that rescinded the job offer. In 2016, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the basis of the job refusal was not discrimination because hair is not an “immutable” characteristic like skin color and therefore the law doesn’t apply to hair. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Since this ruling, at least 12 children have been denied entry to school, suspended from school, denied participation in certain events at school and one egregious case of one teen having to cut his dreadlocks in order to compete in a wrestling match. All of these children are Black. And these actions have gone against children with dreadlocks, braids and natural long hair (on a boy). Each story holds a heartbreak of its own. Each story is the tragedy of inequality and lack of justice. Each story finds its roots in the racial history of this country.
The first known law to regulate Black women’s hair comes from the 1784 Edict of Good Government. Thomas Jefferson would negotiate the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803, but before it was even a part of America, the Spanish crown had control of the Louisiana Territory. According to researchers, Governor Esteban Rodriquez Miró issued the Edict in response to the Black woman’s beauty, their attractiveness to white men as well as their economic competition with white women. The Edict reads in part:
“The distinction which exists in the hair dressing of the colored people, from the others, is necessary for same to subsist, and order the quadroon and negro women, wear feathers, nor curls in their hair, combing same flat or covering it with a handkerchief if it is combed high as was formerly the custom.”
It is interesting that researchers have focused solely on the covering of Black woman’s hair and have dismissed and overlooked the part about “combing same flat.” It could be purely accidental. It could also be something else.
My research found many articles about the history of Black women covering their hair. This led to the “Tignon laws,” pronounced ti-yon, according to scholars. Searching Tignon laws led me to some fascinating finds, including the Edict of Good Government. What I didn’t find until the coming across the Edict, was the actual wording of this law. That’s not an accident. Not one article quoted the actual law and I found that curious. But now I know why. The authors are showing that Black hair has been problematic for white folk for centuries but not even the law could stop Black women from beautifying themselves even while adhering to such discriminating laws. The articles are written to exemplify the resilience of Black women even against the odds. And it’s certainly true. I stand here today because Black women are resilient. But I digress.
It was 1784, 236 years ago, in the land we now call America, that Black women were first told to straighten, “comb flat” their hair. And that admonition still holds true today.
During the Civil Rights Movement, women wore afros in defiance of the status quo. The afro became a symbol of Black Power. But then it fell out of favor. We can thank COINTELPRO for that.
I went natural in 1986. By 1995, I had gone through phases of braids and the afro and when I landed a new job, the afro was my go to. A sister later confessed that she thought I was, “gonna ruin it for everybody,” when I showed up on my first day with an afro. In 1996 when I twisted my hair, my own father offered to comb it out himself. He even brought me a bottle of shampoo that would supposedly undo my new hairdo. He asked me point blank “What are you trying to prove?” And quite frankly, I wasn’t trying to prove anything. The first morning after I got the twists, I got up and got the kids ready for school. When it was my turn, the only thing I had to do to my hair was shake my head back and forth a couple of times and I was done. With three kids, this was phenomenal! The time saved alone had me sold on the hairstyle. And that’s just what it was, a hair style; one that required little maintenance. The twists eventually turned into locks. I did not complain or protest. 20+ years later, my locks are longer than they’ve ever been. And I love my hair. I cannot imagine cutting my hair off. I haven’t cut my hair since 1987.
But a court of law says my hair is not “immutable.” The Court says my hair can be changed and because it can be changed, the law allows white people to deny me a job. The law allows schools to deny an education or participation in certain activities because hair can be changed.
Hairstyles are changeable. Hair growth, its natural progression of growth is not. Choosing a hairstyle is an individual right. Choosing a hairstyle is goddamn right. Denial of anything because of a choice of hairstyle is and always will be discrimination. Hair is an immutable characteristic. It cannot be changed.
Notice in the Edict that curls were also forbidden. In 1784, how did Black women get rid of the naturally occurring curls? They didn’t. But they didn’t defy the law either. They covered their hair per the law. And they made it look good. I will wear my locks with the same pride.
Edict of Good Government, July 2, 1784, Digest of the Acts and Deliberations of the Cabildo, Laws, Volume 1, Book 3, p. 105-112, Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library, 219 Loyola Ave., New Orleans Digital Print on Canvas with hand beading 54 X 36 inches 2018
Marcus Garvey said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
This hit home in so many ways.
As I am wont to do, I use my personal experience to relate a broader message. Africana philosopher and author, Lewis Gordon, of Existentia Africana, said that personal experience becomes relevant only when it can transcend the individual. My experience fits the bill.
I was recently tasked with researching the meaning and purpose of tradition because I don’t have any. The reason I have no traditions is because I grew up in a toxic, abusive environment.
Traditions are about history. Creating new traditions is living history. Traditions are cultural. And they have origins even if we don’t know it.
I have no traditions and like Garvey’s statement, I am a tree without roots. Now realistically speaking, we know that trees cannot grow without roots, which is what makes Garvey’s statement so profound because here I stand. And here Black people stand. The history and culture of Black people was stripped, stolen and whitewashed. I was simply never given history or culture. The little I got, like the history given Black folk provided no roots. What was given was just enough to let us know that there were Black folk before us.
Historically speaking, the Western traditions imported to America have stood the test of time with the majority of those being religious in nature. Secular traditions of today were born in religious traditions. When we speak of the traditional family, we mean the Christian version. When we celebrate the holidays, we tend to overlook the ‘holy’ part.
Here in America, while the traditions evolve, their purpose remains the same. These Western traditions are what shape society. Traditions provide a historical foundation on which to build, a common thread that can be traced back to ancient times. Black folk, like me, were stripped of this common thread. We were told there was no common thread. We were told we had no history, no culture and no traditions. We were made to believe that our being began when we were born. Whatever back story there was to our being was irrelevant because we had no roots.
Roots run deep. Roots provide life. Roots grow into trees. Trees have branches that stretch to the heavens. As Jesus claimed to be the Tree of Life and He promised to ‘graft’ us in, Black people had no roots of their own and being grafted in to an eternal tree became the appeal that simply could not be resisted.
We need to have roots.
But we cannot have traditions, no historical common purpose, if we are to be grafted in. Those roots are not compatible with the new tree of life. And we are dead without roots.
Or are we?
I have no traditions. I was not provided any, nor did I seek to create my own. But I’m still standing. Black folk were stripped of their traditions, culture, even their origins; but here we are, still standing.
Lack of knowledge of the history, culture and origins is in no way a lack of roots. If it were, Black folk would’ve ceased to exist a long time ago and I would never have been born.
I don’t have traditions. I was not given that common thread of history that connects me to my ancestors. I was not given any cultural awareness. I was not provided with knowledge of my roots. But the fact that I am is proof that my roots exist.
It is the same for Black folk. We may have been stripped of the knowledge, even lied to about it, but our very being is proof that we have roots. And our roots run deep. And we are finally, collectively, becoming aware of these roots.
We are not, as Garvey said, a tree without roots. We are trees whose roots and branches span the globe and reach for the heavens. We are a strong hold hidden by the lies of white supremacy.