"Geez," said the barber as he looked at the pile of severed braids in my hand. "She bold alright. She bold. "
He watched as Lisa, his fellow stylist and the shop's owner, ran clippers through what hair was left on my daughter's head. She has the thickest hair I have ever seen on anyone. Beautiful, but dense hair that took hours for me to wash, comb, condition and style when she was little. As Gianina grew older and took on the responsibility for her own tresses, the laborious care became overbearing. Recently, she decided she'd had enough and was ready to go ahead with getting "The Big Chop". Yes, she is bold.
Lisa the owner giving Gianina "The Big Chop" at Hair Studio L-M in Albuquerque. Check them out on Facebook at Hairstudio LM.
"The Big Chop is the process of cutting off the relaxed or permed ends of one's hair when she is transitioning from chemically processed hair to natural hair. Timing the big chop is a big decision for many napptural women who have decided they want to wear their hair natural. " That's what they say at NaturallyCurly.com
My daughter never had a perm. Her hair was occasionally straightened. Often braided or twisted. Black friends and even strangers frequently remarked on how much hair she had and how healthy it was. Recently, two African-American women selling flat irons at a mall kiosk wanted to sell her one.
"Oh honey you have such beautiful hair. Let us just straighten one little piece to show you how it looks."
"Well," said Gianina, "the iron might work nicely but I'm getting it all cut off on Saturday."
"Whaaat? Why? All cut off? But it's so pretty!" They could not fathom her desire to lop off all that length.
There has historically been a strong association between femininity, beauty and a copious mane. This is true in most cultures, but especially so in the Black community, which has in turn spawned an industry well supplied with wigs, extensions and weaves. Additionally, finding the right products for moisturizing, de-tangling, deep conditioning, de-frizzing, and curl-activating among the thousands on the market, can be daunting. Black hair is a demanding task-master for both time and purse if you're going to wear it long. Yet for decades, there has been an inter-generational dialog about how "good" hair in the Black community was too closely aligned to the idea of having long, straight hair as represented in a White standard of beauty. In the past few years, more Black women have begun to question that standard and have looked towards embracing the ease and beauty of wearing their hair short and natural.
Enter my daughter, Gianina, and her discovery on youtube. One just has to google "big chop" and up pops a myriad of videos of Black women documenting their journey to natural. Many said that too often with their hair styled longer, people only saw their hair and stopped there. With the short do, their faces shine through, and their real beauty can be seen. They stand taller, and even walk differently. Several days of viewing caused Gianina to come to me and ask if she could get a TWA a.k.a. Teeny Weeny Afro. I smiled. My baby girl, so dauntless and daring at sixteen years old. I wanted her to feel empowered by her decision.
"It's your hair. It will always grow back if you don't like it," I said. "You do with it whatever makes you happy."
What resonated the most with her from the videos was the word "freedom." She was reaching to recapture the time her hair demanded of her, giving her the breathing space to do other things.
Thank you, Black women everywhere, for being such role models for my daughter, and for sharing your bravery and your knowledge. We made the appointment.
"Okay, are you ready?" asked Lisa, scissors poised at the first braid.
"Yes," said Gianina. No hesitation. That bold grin radiated across her face.
One down. Ten to go.
Eliza with her baby running to freedom.
Two separate immigrants arrived at Ellis Island in the early 1900s. One came from Glasgow, Scotland. The other from Valledolmo, Sicily. I am their granddaughter.
Immigrants in our country have all experienced their share of prejudice as they assimilated into the American mainstream. I was reminded of this recently, when someone told me we should be having a dialog about all the discrimination that exists in our country. This person said that Blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, Italians, Muslims, etc. have all been subjected to intolerance, so the discussion about these issues should not be separated but be had as a whole. Dividing the dialog will continue to divide us as Americans. I disagree.
It is staggering to me to think that my grandfathers came to the U.S. a mere 40-50 years after the Civil War. That's hard for me to wrap my head around. But the prominence of the Civil War and even the existence of Civil War veterans in the daily lives of my grandparents is extraordinary to contemplate. Include in their midst, the presence of people who had been born into slavery. All these influences in my grandparents' lives have a direct line of connection to me. Their very own post-Civil War prejudices rang in the ears of my childhood. Those influences are only a mere two generations removed from some of us today, and only three generations removed from my teenagers. Slavery was a significantly different institution than standard immigration, and its impact ripples through time to the present, because I am still alive.
Have you ever read Uncle Tom's Cabin? It is an absolutely compelling read for several reasons. Harriet Beecher Stowe captures the politics and culture of our country at that time, like no other writer. She lived in it. Her writing is wrenching and merciless in dealing with the subject matter in all its madness. And periodically throughout the novel, she steps out of the story, as the author, and addresses the country as a whole as to why slavery was a barbarity. She challenged Americans about how they could stay unmoved by this institution and let it continue to exist. It is no wonder the book had such an impact on the Civil War.
Also, the book is an absolute witness of the Gospel of Christ. That, I didn't expect. Uncle Tom was not the kowtowing character as he is often depicted by those who don't know the story. He was smart, and he was literate. His heart was to preach the Gospel to any who would listen, as he was sold and carried away down through the deep South to the final plantation of a heartless slave master. Uncle Tom was someone to look up to, and Stowe utilized his content of character to convict a nation.
It's one of the most powerful books I've ever read, and it convicted me to the core of the wound left on our society. A wound like no other. A lesion that left it's prejudiced mark on my own grandfathers and rendered me a bigot, until I was willing to challenge my own racist thinking. As difficult as my grandfathers' lives were, they pale in comparison to the scars left by slavery. It's not that the struggles of our immigrant forebears were insignificant. They were, and do merit discourse as needed. But they are a different discussion. Slavery, Civil Rights, and race relations between Black and White Americans today, deserve their own platform for dialog. At least that's where my heart is, if we are ever to see the damage healed.
I just got back from a morning walk, which took me past a bike lane underpass. Two young homeless men were camped out there with a spread of tents, shopping carts, and a dog. They were out working on their stuff. One was shirtless. I stopped briefly, said hello, exchanged beautiful weather comments, said, "Be safe", and went on my way.
Walking back home and past them again, I hollered, "Don't get a sunburn!"
"I already got one!" the shirtless man said, grinning back.
"Ach. Okay. Well take care of yourselves!" They waved back. 10 seconds later I hear footsteps running up behind me.
"Excuse me ma'am!"
I stopped and faced the shirtless one as he approached, thinking he was going to ask me for something.
He has something in his hand. "Most people are rude. So......"
Then he handed me this watch - the one on the right. He wanted to GIVE me something, out of his treasure.
"Oh! Thank you!" I said. And hugged him. And put it on.
"Oh," he said. "And it's not stolen. I found it."
"Well, I didn't go there," I said."
"Well, some things just have to be said," he assured me.
It's a cheapy little thing without a crystal. But how precious. The treasure is not in the value of the object. The treasure is in a heart that was touched, simply by words spoken, human to human. I'll wear it because I need to remember this young man, and the response of the human heart, no matter the race, creed or color, to respect and simple kindness.
Vincent F. Parlato - early 1980s - my father
The garbage truck roared it's way towards our house. My sister, Lisa, and I, jumped up from the couch to peek out the window. This was before the days of automated sanitation trucks that lift your plastic trash bin with a mechanical arm. Back in the day, it took real men all sweaty and muscled to hoist your trashcan by hand and dump it in the back of the truck. Men with youth, and vigor, ripped abs and brawny biceps in jeans and t-shirts clingy with perspiration. For two teen-aged country girls living in rural upstate New York, the weekly arrival of the garbage truck was a Junior Chippendales event.
My father, "Vinnie", chuckled at our gawking, amused with his oldest daughters and their newfound interest in the masculine form.
"Who's out there today?" he said.
Dad walked up to gawk out the window too. The truck halted at our driveway and two young men emerged and descended upon our trashcans. One was Black. One was White.
"Hey, the moolie's here! " he cracked, laughing.
"Daaaaad! Stop it!" my sister and I both said.
Moolie. Short for "moulinyan", an Italian word meaning "eggplant". It is a derogatory term that refers to a Black person akin to using the "N" word in English. It was difficult to hear my father say this. Harder still to stop him from saying it. Some internal force tightened in my stomach.
My dad was a first generation immigrant. His father emigrated from Sicily, landing at Ellis Island in the early 1900s during "The Great Arrival", an influx of southern Italians seeking a new life in America. Grandpa settled in Buffalo, New York. What I didn't know until years later was he entered into a society that, as it has been for decades, placed a value on how light your skin was. At that time, Italians, especially the dark, swarthy Sicilians, were viewed with malice and suspicion. In the South for many years they were labeled as "black" on census records, and even became the victims of lynching. The closer to "white" you were, the better your chance of obtaining employment, safety and acceptance. Italians and Blacks were in direct competition for jobs and upward mobility, so Italians made every effort to differentiate themselves from their African American counterparts. This was the atmosphere into which my father was born in 1932. There he assimilated all the contempt and condescension towards a people he considered to be his rivals in school, in society, and in life.
I loved my dad. 6'3" with massive arms and legs like tree trunks. He was big and hairy and loud in language and laughter. His presence filled a room. I was safe with him, and I was sure he knew everything. I remember the day I found out he did wrong things sometimes. I was in first grade, sitting with my little girl friends around a cafeteria lunch table. Amid glass milk bottles and the crinkle of the wax paper around our sandwiches, we complained about boys, and Rodney in particular.
"I don't like Rodney," said Nancy.
"I don't like him either. He's mean," said Faith.
"Me neither, " I chimed. "He's a real bastard."
"Uh ohhhhh!" said Shirley. " You said a swear word!"
"No I didn't." I knew I hadn't.
"Yes you did," said Janice. "That's a swear word!"
"No it's not. My dad says it all the time." I sucked my teeth. What did they know!
I was sure my dad would never swear. Until I went home and asked my mom.
"Mom, is bastard a swear word?"
"Yes, Susan, it is. You should never say it."
Wow. My dad - swears. I was so crushed and confused. My dad is good. Why does he do this bad thing?
As I grew older I eventually learned about slavery in America, the Triangular Trade, the Civil War and the tragic history of my country. As a New Yorker, I self-identified with the abolitionist leanings of "The North", wanting to disassociate myself from this brutal past. I was glad my genetic roots hailed from somewhere outside the US. I learned in school that oppression of Black people was identified as something immoral and destructive. But here in my own home, was this father I loved, who spoke so disparagingly about Black people. A father that said and thought "bad things." And then there was my mother, who taught me to never use the "N" word. How could my parents be so different? How could I reconcile all this in my heart?
Young adulthood would bring further division, and further challenges to the contradictory beliefs in my head vying for definition. Enter the age of cognitive dissonance and it’s crucible of discovery.
"Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for
what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome."
- Rosa Parks
Whether you like new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos or not.....there is a larger issue. In the past number of years, including my relatively few months on Facebook, I have read all manner of complaints about our nation's public school system including the following:
1. Standards- too much testing; teaching to the test; Common Core – to keep or not to keep?
2. Teachers- being UNFAIRLY evaluated based on test scores of students - TEACHERS THREATENING A WALK-OUT IN ALBUQUERQUE
3. Non-competitive salaries - teaching is one of the lowest paid careers for bachelors/masters level professionals; ALBUQUERQUE PUBLIC SCHOOLS (APS) wanting to CUT SALARIES THIS PAST FALL
4. Shortage of teachers – who wants to go into the profession THAT PAYS SO POORLY???
5. Large class sizes
6. Race Disparity – children of color are increasingly under performing in reading and math readiness in our public schools, and the gap continues to grow https://www.brookings.edu/…/7-findings-that-illustrate-rac…/
7. Breakdown of family- family issues that teachers must remediate; lack of family involvement; single parent families-stressed parents and children
8. Poverty- lower student vocabulary and language abilities upon entering school leads to lack of school readiness; poorer sleep and diet; students tired and hungry when arriving at school; large number of students on free lunch and breakfast programs
9. Poverty areas –less money to schools; FEWER RESOURCES; HIGH CRIME AREAS; BROKEN DOWN FACILITIES; DEPRESSED ENVIRONMENTS IN WHICH CHILDREN MUST LEARN
10. Budget cuts - in music, the arts and physical education; obesity epidemic; reduction of nurses, counselors, social workers – all while dealing with the needs that come with special needs students, fractured families and at risk-children living in poverty
11. Passing to next grade level for social reasons (age of student) when student has not mastered reading and math; IF they are college bound, number of college students in remedial classes “to catch up” has increased
12. The ABYSMAL number of “failing schools” in Albuquerque: http://aae.ped.state.nm.us/SchoolGra…/…/School%20Listing.pdf
Recently, when DeVos was going through the vetting process, there was an uproar about her being against public education. Accusations of privatization! School choice! HORRORS! Why? The public education system is a shambles. Fewer and fewer people want to consider entering the teaching profession since our culture so devalues it already! The government has had DECADES to try and address the miseries of the system. Money has been thrown at the problem for YEARS….across both political parties. Yet here we stand.
Personally, I am for public schools, AND school choice. My son and daughter attend two different public high schools…...however…..not the local high school. We have always taken our children out of district due to the under-functioning, even dangerous schools within our district. We applied for and received in-system transfers to schools with better track records and we have transported them since day one of kindergarten. BUT WE HAD THE ABILITY, VEHICLES AND MONEY FOR FUEL THAT GAVE US THAT CHOICE! How many people do not, and are then STUCK with the school that happens to be closest? If they are poor, too bad for them. I have also seen the increase of charter schools in APS……BECAUSE PARENTS ARE FED UP WITH THEIR LACK OF OPTIONS IN THE SYSTEM and the FAILING GRADES OF THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS! Somebody is sending all these children to this uptick in charter schools so my guess is, there are a lot of folks out there who are not so offended with DeVos' proclivities toward "choice".
I also work in a private school for the deaf. I believe in the private education we offer. Why? Because the options for deaf preschoolers using spoken language in the local public school system is incredibly substandard. The special education system and the meager services it offers to special needs children is as broken as the regular education system. The law calls for a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for all children with disabilities. It may be free, but it is hardly “appropriate”. It’s a band-aid on an evisceration.
School vouchers? If they give poor families the opportunity to obtain a better education for their children than their questionable local public option……then I am all in. Children living in poverty have enough counts against them to overcome. They can’t possibly keep their heads above water in a failing school where they are forced to go. Put the shoes on your own feet. How would you feel if you lived at or below the poverty line and had to daily send your children to a school that offered a sub-par education, possibly in disrepair, was crime-ridden, and offered your children little to no hope for their futures? Or do you live in a neighborhood with your needs fairly well met, and you can't wrap your head around the struggles of those less fortunate?
What I am also for, are our teachers. I have seen so many do so much with so little. It has been said, if you're a teacher, you must love teaching, because it sure isn't going to make you rich.
If you didn’t like DeVos because of her lack of experience or expertise……I can understand your opposition. But if you didn’t like her because she advocates for “choice” in education….when I’ve heard SO MUCH from friends and the public about the atrocious issues with our failing public educational system……then I respectfully ask about your motivation. Are you really all about loving public education, or did you just not like her because you don’t like this president? In other words…..was it just all about the politics? Because our public school system is SORELY lacking, and continues to put all our children….the future of our nation…..at further risk.
“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today my family went out to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. As is our custom now, we choose to do something together as a family that we could not have done 50 or 60 years ago. We decided together to go see a movie, and sit side by side in recognition that once, in my own lifetime, we would not have been allowed to do so in many places in our country.
When we got into the theater itself we found it to be a small space that was relatively full. The higher seats were mostly taken and there were a smattering of single seats sprinkled throughout the upper section. Normally we would have split up, but not today. So we found 4 seats together in the lower section closer to the screen, sharing popcorn and the pleasure of spending time together.
I'm thankful for those who have gone before us, who have made not just these simple outings possible, but for the greater things.....such as being able to have the family that I have. I'm thankful for those who put their lives and well-being at risk, so that I could be the wife and mother to this husband, and these children. It is because of the struggle of others that I can enjoy a sweet afternoon with my husband and children in safety. Such a small thing as going to an afternoon movie, together, as an inter-racial family, has come at great cost. Thank you Dr. King, and to all the others who have fought the great fight for racial equality and brotherhood, for making my life beautiful.
"I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
A good friend of mine said to me recently, "but there is still a long walk ahead of us to eliminate the racism that exists in our country today. Especially recently I have felt that our quest for equality has been given a heavy blow..."
Indeed, a blow has been dealt, but to whom? And why has it felt so heavy? The issues are complex. There is the overt, in-your-face racism of the KKK and White Supremacist groups. And then there is the more subtle, pervasive, hard-to-pin-down kind that has become institutionalized. The racism of White Privilege. Both have been dealt a blow. My response to her was roughly this:
"The walk ahead of us is exactly my point too. I invite people, especially White people like myself, to really be honest with and examine our own inner sanctum. That's why I write and confess my own journey in recognizing the prejudices I had within my own head that I didn't even realize were there.
When I was young, I had long thought that I was "color-blind" as some folks say. I don't really support the use of that word now. But I once did. I thought I treated everyone with fairness and equality. I convinced myself that I did. In reality, I had many preconceived notions that I didn't recognize. I had to see it in myself before I could admit it. It should be said that those thoughts were not malicious thoughts. I didn't want to hurt anyone. They were just ignorant thoughts. "Ignorant" in the sense of "not knowing".
I mean no insult when I say this...but In general, I find many White people are that way, regardless of political affiliation. Most are not intending to be malicious. They just "don't know" what they "don't know". It is often reflected in the kinds of questions I get asked by White people. As Dr. Beverly Daniel-Tatum writes, often White people are deathly afraid of talking about racism with Black people. They haven't had to think about the reality of racism, so it has not been a topic in their conversations to any large degree. They're afraid of their lack of knowledge being exposed. They're afraid of saying something that would make them appear unintelligent. So they do not engage in conversations about racism with Black people.
But because I'm White, many White people feel comfortable asking me things about my inter-racial marriage or my husband's thoughts on things or my children's experiences. Which is fine. I invite the dialog. It needs to happen. I want White people to be comfortable asking the questions they ask me. But it also shows me that White people have a lot to learn about racism in this country. The fact that they are surprised by its persistence in America speaks volumes to me. It's been here for so long. Black folks have been talking about it for so long. White folks have not wanted to face it or deal with it. Rather they've said things like, "Slavery happened a long time ago. Why are we still talking about slavery?" or "We've had a Black president now, so don't we live in a post-racist society?" or "Jim Crow was done away with decades ago. Why all the anger?"
Because racism never went away.
Black folks have known this for a long time. White folks are just recognizing this truth. Honestly, I don't feel that our quest for equality has been given a heavy blow in a negative sense. I feel the lid has been blown off, and we can finally see the sickness inside. Maybe now the infection can drain and has a chance to heal. But it will take guts for people to look at themselves. And from my experience, and the questions that have come my way, it is not relegated to one side of the the political aisle.
It has a lot to do with White privilege....and there are many White, privileged Republicans and Democrats who have no idea how they contribute to the racial divide. But now.....there is the invitation to talk, and get behind another person's eyes....and see how they see......and make internal changes.
This year, celebrate King's birthday in a more sentient and intentional fashion. Do you have friends of other races? If not, then make some. If so, do something together that you could not have done 50 or 60 years ago. Be mindful of the gift we've been given for the opportunity to rise up out of our past and make that "bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood.......become a reality". Be deliberate.
The last time I talked with my Dad, he was coherent. That was just a week ago. He is less so today. His mind and body are less and less cooperative. The human body can only go so far. Take so much. Yet it is doggedly determined to live.
So I will covet in my heart my most recent visits with Vincent Francis Parlato. My father. My Dad. I flew to New York the day after Christmas. Everything looked like I was not going to make it back there before he died. But I did. And he soldiered on. He even made it out of the ICU and into a rehab hospital. And I had time with him. Time to hold his hands that I love so much. No one has hands like my Dad, massive and imposing, once strong and powerful. Now weakened by neuropathy and age. Time to talk. To squeeze next to him in his bed, all six foot three of him with my arm across his immense chest and my head on his shoulder, and just be quiet. To hear him breathe. To stroke his hair. To kiss his scruffy face. To smell his scent. To say one more time, "I love you, Dad." To hear one more time, "I love you too." I even got to see him smile and capture it in my mind forever. A precious, precious gift of time, and touch.
December 26, 2016
I think I am going today to see my father die. I bought a ticket last night that will fly me out to Syracuse this afternoon. I spoke to Dad in his hospital bed yesterday, and his wheezing was horrible. All I could manage to say was that I loved him. Repeatedly. He tried to talk but hardly had the breath to support it. And he didn’t know what to say, other than that he didn't know whether he was up or down, and that he was scared. I couldn’t stand being here anymore. It was comforting to get online and buy a ticket. I now knew what to do. It was time to go.
My friend Linda, has been posting on Facebook for the past month one thing she is thankful for, every day. It has made me think about the things I’m thankful for, and right now, I’m thankful that if I must see my father die, it’s at this time of year. At Christmas. Because all around me, I see indications of Jesus coming to earth. Of God becoming flesh and bone. Spirit becoming human. And I am thankful for the mystery of His presence.
Donald Miller says, “It comforts me to think that if we are created beings, the thing that created us would have to be greater than us, so much greater, in fact, that we would not be able to understand it. It would have to be greater than the facts of our reality, and so it would seem to us, looking out from within our reality, that it would contradict reason. But reason itself would suggest it would have to be greater than reality, or it would not be reasonable.”
I got up early, unable to sleep more. I got up to turn on my tree lights and light the candles around the living room, and to sit in the middle of it all. In the middle of this glowing, warm light. The flames bounce and flicker and I remember that in Jesus "was life, and that life was the light of all mankind", and even the smallest flame dispels the darkness. I feel like I’m getting ready to fly into darkness, and I need to fill up on light and take some with me and carry it around in my chest. Somehow in the middle of this pain, there is still joy in knowing that God became Man, for the very purpose of defeating death and the grave. 1st Corinthians: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” I can’t describe the fullness in my heart despite what I know is waiting. I am surrounded by reminders of His love for us. Death can snuff out the life in our bodies, but it can’t touch the joy of knowing the One who came and removed its power. I don’t understand how this joy is possible at this moment. So palpable. I didn’t think it could be like this. But I’ll take this peace, and put it on like a warm sweater. I’m thankful for discovering that the promise of His rest in the midst of calamity, is for real.
It's time to go.
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