“Why are you so sad?” a TV reporter asked the little girl with a bright pink bow in her hair.
“Because they didn’t like my dreads,” she sobbed, wiping her tears. “I think that they should let me have my dreads.”
With those words, second-grader Tiana Parker, of Tulsa, Okla., found herself, at age 7, at the center of decades of debate over standards of black beauty, cultural pride and freedom of expression.
It was no isolated incident at the predominantly black Deborah Brown Community School, which in the face of outrage in late August apologized and rescinded language banning dreadlocks, Afros, mohawks and other “faddish” hairstyles it had called unacceptable and potential health hazards.
A few weeks earlier, another charter school, the Horizon Science Academy in Lorain, Ohio, sent a draft policy home to parents that proposed a ban on “Afro-puffs and small twisted braids.” It, too, quickly apologized and withdrew the wording.
At historically black Hampton University in Hampton, Va., the dean of the business school has defended and left in place a 12-year-old prohibition on dreadlocks and cornrows for male students in a leadership seminar for MBA candidates, saying the look is not businesslike.
Tiana’s father, barber student Terrance Parker, said he and his wife chose not to change her style and moved the straight-A student to a different public school, where she now happily sings songs about her hair with friends.
“I think it still hurts her. But the way I teach my kids is regardless of what people say, you be yourself and you be happy with who you are and how God made you,” he said.
Tiana added: “I like my new school better.” As for the thousands of e-mails and phone calls of support the family has received from around the world, she said she feels “cared about.”
Deborah Brown, the school’s founder, did not return a call from The Associated Press. Jayson Bendik, the dean of students at Horizon in Lorain, said in an e-mail that “our word choice was a mistake.”
In New York City, the dress code at 16-year-old Dante de Blasio’s large public high school in Brooklyn includes no such hair restrictions. Good thing for Dante, whose large Afro is hard to miss at campaign stops and in a TV spot for his father, Bill de Blasio, who is running for mayor.
There is no central clearinghouse for local school board policies on hairstyles, or surveys indicating whether such rules are widespread. Regardless, mothers of color and black beauty experts consider the controversies business as usual.
In Chicago, Leila Noelliste has been blogging about natural hair at Blackgirllonghair.com for about five years. She has followed the school cases closely. The 28-year-old mother with a natural hairstyle and two daughters who also wear their hair that way said it is a touchy issue among blacks and others.
“This is the way the hair grows out of my head, yet it’s even shocking in some black communities, because we’ve kind of been told culturally that to be acceptable and to make other people kind of comfortable with the way that we look, we should straighten our hair, whether through heat or chemicals,” she said. “So whether we’re in nonblack communities or black communities, with our natural hair, we stand out. It evokes a lot of reaction.”
Particularly painful, said Noelliste and others, is the notion that natural styles are not hygienic.
“Historically natural hair has been viewed as dirty, unclean, unkempt, messy,” she said. “An older black generation, there’s this idea of African-American exceptionalism, that the way for us to get ahead is to work twice as hard as any white person and to prove that if we just work hard and we look presentable we’ll get ahead, and that’s very entrenched. My generation, we’re saying that that’s not fair. We should be able to show up as we are and based on our individual merit and effort be judged on that.”