Standing in the middle of the bathroom I could see myself from three angles: left, right and back. I laid a large towel down on the cool tile and then went to run my hairbrush under the faucet until it was dripping.
Taking the wet brush in one hand, I undid my bun with the other and let my hair fall down around me—well, fall as best it could. I ended up looking like Edward Scissorhands with my stubborn curls sticking out in all directions. Nervous excitement was brewing in my stomach as I ran the wet brush over my head and watched as my wild hair began to lie flat and become heavy with moisture. In a fit of impatience, I wrenched open the shower door, turned on the water, and thrust my head into the spray until I could feel the water running over my scalp and neck. When I was good and soaked, I stopped the shower and returned to my position before the mirror. With one hand I began wringing out my hair and with the other I took up the black scissors that had been resting ominously on the counter. Another deep breath escaped my soul as I held up a thick group of strands in my trembling fingers, opened the jaws of the scissors, and ran the blades across my hair, releasing the wet locks from my head forever.
I was the only freshman in the class. The AP tests I’d taken in high school had paid off and I found myself in an upper division English class with nothing but juniors and seniors as my fellow students. The instructor, Professor Bill Cook, was ancient in mind if not in body, and he spoke with a thick accent that was hard to decipher. Perhaps he was Irish? Maybe Scottish. I spent most of the semester trying to figure it out, amongst other things. The class had been reading a short story by W.E.B. Du Bois as we worked our way through the African American additions to American Lit Since 1865. Each class we spent on this subject made me feel increasingly uncomfortable as Professor Cook veered away from the actual literature and instead focused on ethnicity and some of the worst instances of racism that ever occurred in the so-called civilized nation of the United States. In an attempt to please him, many of the students would offer their two-cents on this subject they, quite apparently, did not truly understand.
I, however, never spoke up when we took these detours for I knew that what I was saying wouldn’t be heard and my opinions would never be challenged or engaged. Only my skin color would be seen and my classmates made it pretty clear that unnecessary guilt lay upon all of their shoulders. If only they could understand that by wrongfully treating me like a victim, they were in fact victimizing me. It didn’t help, either, that I was often the only black student present in the class and Professor Cook enjoyed getting my opinion on concepts with which I had no first-hand experience.
During one class, we were reading aloud from the thousand plus page volume of “concise” American literature. A discussion had ignited amongst the students about the treatment of blacks in the country after the Emancipation Proclamation was passed. Every time an opinion was voiced, the student who had spoken conveniently skated over the defining word of the entire text. Professor Cook watched them steadily, sporting an unnerving smile. In one hand he held a Bible marked with so many post-it notes and tabs that one would have thought the good book had been the victim of a paint bomb attack in one short glance. In the other hand he held the volume of “Concise American Literature” spread open to the page bearing W.E.B. Du Bois’ words. His eyes roved around the students and he smiled slyly.
“None of you will say it, will you?”
In spite of myself I tensed up. I couldn’t decide whether or not to look him in the face or keep my eyes on my desk. Both options would catch his attention, and his attention was what I so desperately wanted to avoid.
As he waited, the class remained quiet and some students even had pained looks on their faces. I could have sworn that some of them shot furtive glances in my direction. “I’ll ask you again. What did the whites call the blacks? What did the blacks refer to themselves as without even batting an eye? Mr. Du Bois paints a clear picture here.”
Still, the class was silent and he gave them all a pitying look. He turned to me and his smile widened. I knew what was coming and I closed my eyes as he softly said my name.
“Kathryn, what about you? They called the blacks—”
“Who would’ve thought we had so much in common? This is amazing. I can’t believe we didn’t meet until now!”
“I know! I used to see you around all the time but I never imagined we’d talk.”
I was sitting at the Table—the safe haven and hangout my high school friends and I would congregate to every day at lunch for that one glorious hour of freedom. The newest addition to our group, Adam, was sitting beside me. The rest of my friends were lying on their backs in the grass underneath the big tree beside our table. It was a nice cool day. The sun was out and the sky was laced with a few fleecy gray clouds. The remnants of summer were still stubbornly morphing into fall, and though it wasn’t quite cold enough yet, Adam was sporting one of his very best cardigans.
“Why didn’t you think we’d talk?” he repeated. There was a smile in his eyes mingled with a look of concern and innocence. I shrugged and looked at my lap.
“I don’t know… I guess what I mean is, you always looked like a cool person to talk to, but I didn’t think I’d get the chance. It wasn’t like our paths were going to cross… we’ve never had any of the same classes you know?”
He frowned in agreement. “I suppose that’s true, but I’m glad I ended up over here. I needed a change.”
I nodded and silence settled between us. I shifted in my seat and he glanced at the group in the grass.
“I really am glad you’re with us though,” I said. Adam turned back to me smiling. “You fit in so well—you should’ve been here all along. I can’t even imagine not knowing you now.”
“I feel the same. I mean, I never thought I’d have a black friend and here we are getting along like nothing!”
I started and looked him straight in the eyes. He was smiling, but his smile quickly faltered.
“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro… two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longing to attain self- conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.”
― W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Souls of Black Folk”
What is it to feel less than a person, Less than human, and yet still want
the other side to accept you as you are?
For I am not a Negro
Nor am I an American
I am a Christian, and a woman, and a writer and a human being.
Who merely happens to be presented to the world
in umber skin with a crown of coils adorning my head.
But what differences are these really,
when humanity is set under
the eyes of God?
You can’t be all black with that hair. What else are you?
Is that really all yours? I mean your hair is really pretty for a black person. No offense.
It’s so nice like a weave! …Wait, is it a weave?
Let me touch it! This can’t be real.
I heard that weaves don’t blow in the wind. I’ve noticed your hair doesn’t blow in the wind. Is that a coincidence?
Wow do you wash it every day? Can you?
You’re lucky there are products out there that can get your hair like normal peoples’.
Half of my head was crowned in sopping tangles while the other half looked like freshly cut grass that was shining and curling in the fluorescent bathroom lighting. The fear had left me long ago and as I continued to chop off my hair, I felt lighter with every section that fell. Each blow of the scissors erased one of the idiotic questions I had heard all throughout my childhood and adolescence and I rejoiced because I knew I would never be asked such questions again. Each time a section hit the bathroom floor, a memory of superficial but all too real agony vanished. The biggest fear that had lain on my heart had fluttered away only minutes after I began cutting: what if I didn’t like it? The truth was that I loved it, and I began to cut more vigorously the further I went in order to do away with the old burdens I didn’t know I was still carrying.
Professor Cook smiled.
“Very good,” he said, and began to pace the room. I could feel the other students looking at me but I didn’t dare return their gaze. Instead I stared at the textbook without really seeing it. My cheeks burned with embarrassment and my eyes burned for reasons far beyond what I could comprehend. Looking back, I think it was shame.
“You were all so afraid to say that word, but it is a part of history and this literature.” He shook the book at the class. “You will have to grapple with how this makes you feel, but you must remember it is a part of your history, and mine.” I glanced up to see Professor Cook looking at me steadily before turning away.
“When we read these stories, we are to say every word that comes under out eyes, understand?”
There was a murmur of half-hearted agreement from the class. I sunk down in my chair and checked my phone for the time. Class was nearing its end, but there was still a ways to go. I sighed and pushed my bag back under my chair. Gripping my pencil in one hand and clenching the other into a fist, I resolved to sit quietly, take notes, and watch the minutes as they slowly walked by.
“Now, let us continue,” Professor Cook said from somewhere ahead of me. “Who will read the next passage? Mr. Du Bois isn’t finished with us yet.”
“A black friend?” I said incredulously, but I was careful to maintain a smile. I didn’t want to give the impression that I was offended, even if his words had shocked me. It wasn’t like I hadn’t heard them before from others, but it always surprised me when it was uttered.
“Well, yeah,” Adam said, carefully. “I mean you’re black, and we’re friends and—what?”
In spite of myself I had begun to shake my head and laugh as he spoke. It was always the same, no matter who I met or how we get on. This was who I was to them and I would stay that way unless I actively changed their mind. Adam no longer looked frightened or concerned, but was smiling along with me with apparent confusion in his voice.
“What did I say?”
Steeling myself, I looked at the sky and took a quick breath. I turned back to Adam and said, in a tone as careful and kind as I could muster, “Can’t I just be you’re friend Kathryn? You don’t know any other Kathryn Rosses, do you?”
He smiled, catching on, and ran his hand through his hair. “No, I don’t know any other Kathryns.”
I pushed forth another smile. “See when I look at you, I don’t see my ‘Mexican’ friend Adán. I just see my friend Adam, because you’re the only Adam I know. You’re race doesn’t mean anything to me—and mine shouldn’t mean anything to you.”
“It doesn’t! I didn’t mean it that way, honest—”
I shook my head knowingly and gave him a pitying look. This was obviously more uncomfortable for him than it was for me. I mean, I’d been here before, I had practice with this conversation and this scenario. Poor Adam was simply floundering out there, choking on the foot he had so carelessly shoved into his mouth. I smiled at him for reassurance before speaking again.
“Look, I know you didn’t mean it that way, I do— but that’s what you said. Understand?”
He watched me quietly and I sighed.
“When you tack race on like that, it’s like you see me as a black person before you see me as a person. I just want you to see me as your friend and nothing else. Get me?”
“I didn’t realize it sounded that way,” he said quietly.
I waved my hand nonchalantly and gave him a gentle nudge with my elbow. “No one ever realizes it sounds that way. I’m used to it, but I’m not above getting preachy to set someone straight.” I smirked to let him know that I was not mad, and hadn’t been.
He nodded sheepishly. “You’re deep, Kathryn Ross. I’ll never say that again.”
I laughed and rolled my eyes. “Shut up, Adán. Just shut up.”
“The nineteenth was the first century of human sympathy, — the age when half wonderingly we began to descry in others that transfigured spark of divinity which we call Myself; when clodhoppers and peasants, and tramps and thieves, and millionaires and — sometimes — Negroes, became throbbing souls whose warm pulsing life touched us so nearly that we half gasped with surprise, crying, “Thou too! Hast Thou seen Sorrow and the dull waters of Hopelessness? Hast Thou known Life?” ― W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
Let me peel back this skin
that seems to stand in the way
between me and all that I might’ve wanted
from the world within the world in which I live.
For underneath this pretty mask you’ll find the familiar.
Snow white bone
rose colored flesh and endless eyes
that compose the windows and the gates into a simply human soul.
Yes, God knew the sorrow and put it in us
and he saw the dull waters and let us
And he gave us the hopelessness so that we may find hope in Him.
So that we, regardless of the skin
we peel away, may know life,
and engage in the elusive practice of human sympathy.
A pile of black hair lay on the towel like a lump of seaweed. Weak waves and curls withered at my feet and I felt no sympathy for the hair I had worn all of my life. It didn’t feel like mine anymore anyway. After I cleaned up my mother’s bathroom, I hurried back to my room to grab a change of clothes. I didn’t want to look in the mirror yet. I left the remnants of my hair on my bedroom floor still in the towel—they deserved a burial even if the care I had once had was gone. Once inside my own bathroom, I turned on the shower and jumped in. Using the new shampoo I’d bought for “natural hair,” I quickly lathered up my hands and let the warm water wash over my face. Each time I ran my fingers through my head of freshly cut curls, I would laugh to myself, unable to contain just how wonderful this small but profound change felt. A little while later I was standing in my towel before the big bathroom mirror with my eyes closed. I reached out to blindly wipe the mirror clean of any steam from the shower, and then I waited. I could feel drops of cold water running down my neck and back. Inhaling and exhaling steadily, I opened my eyes to see a batch of beautifully coiled curls hanging in my eyes. I placed my hands over my mouth to keep from crying out at the surprise, delight, and utter freedom I felt—it was nothing like I had ever experienced before. My eyes hungrily watched the intricate twists and turns of my hair and I wondered how I could ever have lived with hair that wasn’t my own— even if it was my own.
When I was finished in the bathroom I went back into my bedroom to dress. Once I was done, I gathered my old hair in my hands and stood over the trashcan. It was soft in death, and somehow heavy. I immediately appreciated the lightness of my new hair. With one last deep breath to put the ordeal to rest, I dropped the hair into the trash and caught my reflection in a nearby mirror. The girl inside smiled widely at me, and I smiled back.
“I add that I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the veil.” — W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Souls of Black Folk”
From this and these
I have transformed. The scales on my eyes
have finally fallen and I see with clarity
that is free from the pain of their ignorance and my forced oblivion. These scars are my skin
and these wounds are my memories.
Taking the old I have transformed into
the new. Bone of the bone, and flesh of the flesh, I am different than I was.
For the eyes of man will always be blinded
by the barriers of the world we have created.
So I shall look upon myself with my Father’s eyes
and perhaps, if anyone cares to look closely,
they might see Him within me
and the outward barriers might finally pass away.
Kathryn Ross is a 20-year-old writer, Christ follower, and avid reader living in Southern California. She is a beginning her senior year of college at Azusa Pacific University where she majors in English with a concentration in writing. This is her third publication in a literary arts journal, the first being in the seventh issue of the Pomona Valley Review and the second in Azusa Pacific University’s Fall publication of their journal, The West Wind.