Taylor loved that her mother had started wearing her medium-cut afro again in retirement. Natural hair was one of the few mutual traits that Zee-Zee shared with her daughter. This small act purged them both from a space that, for too long, had been flamed by devotion and ambivalence. In her daughter’s yielding eyes, Zee-Zee reminded her of the 1970' s when she’d first committed to the natural hair movement, seeing it as an irresistible phenomenon. With the start of nearly twenty years of ugly right-wing government and her contentious appointment as Superintendent for the Philadelphia Board of Education, Zee-Zee was forced to surrender her natural hair wearing for what she’d adamantly defended as a much needed break from the plantation’s gaze.
"I will not have silly white co-workers asking to touch my hair the way they stroke their cocker spaniels,” Zee-Zee frequently lamented. “Do I look like somebody's damn house pet?!"
The indignity overpowered her, so she retreated to the indifference that processed hair, the perm, offered both the subject and her audience. Some called it the Essence woman-look, which, as featured across the magazine's glossy pages, is bound up in the alluring packaging of such products known as Ultra Sheen, Soft Sheen, and Taylor's favorite appellation—Dark & Lovely. These products, she convinced herself, exist in the tradition of Southern writers who were secretly fascinated by their own literary portraits of the savage slave woman. Possessed with a galvanizing sense of their own superiority, these writers set about to pygmillonize or otherwise refine the primitive with the same tenacity that each application promised to liberate black women from the daily rigors of their lambs-wool manes, via swift, effortless destruction of the kink.
Many were the Friday or Saturday nights of her childhood that Taylor sat captive between her mother’s sweet-smelling knees in the kitchen, while she “lathered up” her scalp with what at first appeared to be a creamy vanilla pudding mix. The promise of course, was a ubiquitous manageability of the hair, (at least for a month) that enabled even the tenderest heads among her girlfriends to endure certain follicle damage and that blasphemous astringent smell. A smell, it's been suggested, that hovers between the stench of spoiled mayonnaise chemically blended to bleu cheese. Container instructions still caution against allowing any parts of the permanent relaxer creme to make contact with bare human skin with the certainty of third degree burns.
"CAUTION: This product may cause serious irritant, respiratory and/or allergic reactions III sensitive individuals. Avoid contact with eyes and skin (other than areas of application). If contact occurs, immediately flush with lukewarm water and get medical attention if irritation occurs. Do not inhale or ingest. Prepare and use in a well-ventilated area. [ ... ] Induce vomiting if accidentally swallowed. [ ... ] Do not save any unused mixture; container may burst."
Burns. Growing up, Taylor's peers and their mothers wore them like honor badges, the Purple Heart for example, which reminded you that a soldier had to die to earn the mark of respect. Applications by the unskilled practitioner had a similar impact. Older know-it-all sisters and well-meaning aunts or next-door neighbors with too much time on their hands were the usual perpetrators, when tasked with precise timing and a lye-based product against human flesh. Invariably these scenarios proved disastrous. A uniquely traumatizing affair, surviving adolescent perms could be positioned in the social distress category that is arguably comparable to anything suffered by the girl during her menstrual cycle—both were recurring and both were usually fraught with degrees of anguish. Such “episodes,” often recalled vividly by anyone who’s experienced singed hair shafts, were compulsory rites of passage for women of certain hair textures.
For this reason, Taylor could hardly wait to grow up and feel the natural fibers that she knew lived somewhere under the layers of "dead hair," as she called it, that childhood and beauty-industry conspiracies had kept her and countless other black women from celebrating until well into her twenties. Consequently, she barely spoke to her mother for weeks after she reverted to her chemically relaxed hair. She argued that her mother should just look lethal and humorless at her job, though simultaneously black and proud like Pam Grier, Tamara Dobson or some other hot, kick-ass Mama! in those blaxploitation movies she'd seen thanks to her Uncle Man's inappropriate baby-sitting choices.
Time revealed that there were no rules and ultimately no judgments on the contradicting behaviors of black women toward their hair. The debates were as treacherously complex as the ancient African designs of contemporary cornrows, extensions, weaves and blonde dred-locks. Zee-Zee also reminded her daughter that before marrying her father and completing her undergraduate degree, she'd practiced as a licensed beautician. A hair stylist. In fact, it was this unlikely training that earned her extra cash while studying for her doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania.
"That's right," she'd eagerly claim, "even Black girls in Ivy League schools needed an occasional press and curl. But that was my time. That was the ol' school set. The sophisticated chicks always demanded Zee-Zee's silky perm."
In this new era of life at the close of the twentieth-century, Zee-Zee confidently restored her hair to its original unprocessed state. When Taylor saw her on that first occasion, she prostrated herself before her mother and puckishly exclaimed "Your afro-eminence has returned." Zee-Zee purred when Taylor coarsed a trail of fingers through her hair, not knowing that her daughter’s secret plan was to transform her natural coif into a set of spiky dredlocks. Although, Taylor knew to slow her game. If she acted too aggressively, she'd risk her mother's rightful charge of not finding value in her or her choices.
The late afternoon sun cast a diffused light across Zee-Zee's copper tone figure. She sat as an interactive portrait of herself, absorbed in her string beans and crossword puzzle. What Taylor really wanted to say to her mother was, that after sixty-seven years, her beauty remained irrepressible and enduring. In this moment, Taylor loved her mother's 'fro because Zee-Zee colored it magenta like she did her locks. (The contradiction prevailing along with the question: Does it remain natural hair if you color it?).
Staring at her mother in the mirror that hovered above the kitchen sink, Taylor saw her Grandma-Mamie's face bounce off Zee-Zee's reflection, but not her own. "Mirror, mirror on the wall" she brooded under her breath. "Why are you so unkind?"
"You look tired honey," Zee-Zee said gently, and now cautiously aware of how her daughter's jet-lag induced agitation had rushed up on them both as full blown fatigue.
"Yeah, it's catching up with me," admitted Taylor, as she exhaled more of a piercing yelp than a sigh. “It must be what, two in the morning, London time? I’m knackered.”
"Why don't you call it a night,” Zee-Zee again judiciously prompted her daughter. Pop-Pop won’t be back for another hour or more. Some follow-up business at the funeral home is all he said. You know how secretive he is with his business affairs,” she shrugged, and then continued as though for her own resolve, “whatever. He'll be ecstatic to see his prized grandchild...home."
Peering back and forth at their features, Taylor questioned the unanswerable. How does a daughter measure herself against a mother who so unaffectedly reminded people of Dorothy Dandridge? Or worse, a deeply tanned version of her mother's other favorite movie star, Elizabeth Taylor, for whom she'd named her daughter. Grandma-Mamie had insisted of course, that her first grandchild be named after the line of slave women that every first daughter in their family long before Taylor’s arrival had been assigned. "Oh hell no" Zee-Zee argued fiercely, not my first daughter. Not my second, either! We have enough of that Lizzie naming nonsense." In the end, she was absolved of her "selfish disregard for family tradition" as Grandma-Mamie was known to exclaim at family gatherings, when she kept Elizabeth as the baby's middle name. Zee-Zee regretted never confessing to her mother that, in truth, she'd been inspired by the movie star's arresting performance in her Cleopatra film.
Taylor remained annoyed by Halle Berry's portrayal of Dandridge in the HBO movie, although she'd done so with a commendable if not an arresting performance. The risk, from Taylor's perspective, was not only did Berry introduce Dandridge's tragically laced biography to a new set of “spectators,” she distressingly unleashed a chorus of discourses on the subject of "breathtakingly beautiful" Black women. “Shit,” mused Taylor, “as if none existed before the inventions of Dorothy Dandridge or Halle Berry!”
Here as well, more than a useful set of quotes, Taylor, in this parenthetical consideration, aligned the (cultural) appropriation of black women and their beauty secrets, beginning with Bo Derek's shameless flaunts of her cascading cornrows and colored beads in television and magazine ads in the era of disco and Reganomics. In her dissertation that was nearing completion and titled, Black Feminisms/Cultural Schisms 1960-1990, she cited the academy’s rising Afro-Intellectual, Queen-Sista’s rather emphatic solution to the problem of counter-cultural appropriation:
"Really now, somebody should have pushed up on that wannabe ho' and told her that cornrows were not intended for blondes. Post-black fashionistas will not be supportin' that kind of brazen appropriation without cuttin' up somebody's tresses!" (10)
Nevertheless, how did one of those "breathtakingly beautiful" movie starlets wind up embodied in her own mother? What had she done karmically, Taylor ruminated, to offend the baby goddess or gods who'd gifted her mother with those distinct features that she herself had not inherited? There was her mother's thin, almost aquiline nose, as opposed to her father's generously proportioned Afro-Romanesque muzzle, the same flawless coloring that she projected as a teenage girl in those sepia-tone pictures, and that nothing had disrupted her perfectly ordered vision until she surrendered to reading glasses well in to her fifties? And finally, there was the admission that Taylor had only recently made to herself, that femaleness captivated her. Why shouldn't it? Women were captivating, clothed in their garments or not. Whether hateful and controlling, or gracefully present as she was in this moment dedicated to cracking the silky casements of string beans and a crossword puzzle, Zee-Zee's beauty was unwavering. In Taylor’s desire for that ease in her own life now, though ever stumbling, she craved to understand the world of how one loves. Her mother continued to serve as an unexpected standard-bearer, almost debilitating, for how to see, to look at, the gaze, the gaze and the longing for another. Yet for all of her diversity training skills, her mother could draw strict lines in the sand of social expectations and sexual tolerances. "Maybe," Taylor mused to a vast Universe, "please maybe, fortunes are waiting to turn in my favor." With that witch MomStout finally dead and out of the way, Zee-Zee would soon enough realize just how unaffectedly she'd responded to her daughter's pleas to sort out their messy emotional custodianship. Sadly, it was her mother's negligent, unaffected ways that Taylor saw as her most unsightly trait....