South Side Stories Spotlight, January 2015: Loss

Each month, Ci3’s South Side Stories project features digital stories that spotlight the lives of adolescents and young adults from the South Side of Chicago. This January, we reflect on loss. Personal loss challenges, forms, and transforms us. Grief and bereavement are particularly poignant for adolescents. In this month’s spotlight, we feature stories by Charles, Nailah and Jajuan, in which each youth grapples with family loss. Through these stories, we experience death after a long life, death after a brief life, and finally a story of premature loss due to incarceration. South Side Stories highlights the bravery of storytellers and the power of stories. As we welcome the New Year, we salute these youth, their courage, and their stories of loss and of hope.

South Side Stories January 1

In All I Have, Charles presents his perspective on the death of two family members. Charles opens with an emphasis on how important family is to him, juxtaposing images of his family against words about his struggle with his peers and community. His narration has a clear rhyme and rhythm, though peppered with sudden interruptions and pauses, not unlike those brought on by the loss of his loved ones. He fondly remembers times with his grandfather and cousin, then tells of the shock and hurt of his grandfather passing and his cousin’s suicide. Charles incessantly questions, “Why? … I just kept wondering: why?” While he clearly appreciates and loves the family he currently has, he still wonders, “Sometimes, I wish he would just bring them back.”

In In Memory Of, Nailah brings us into the intimate moment of her grandmother’s death. Nailah’s story begins at a festive time — her graduation from grammar school — before quickly turning to the hospitalization of her grandmother.  As “things got really crazy,” she jumps forward two months, when her grandmother’s health has declined. Throughout her piece, Nailah contrasts actual events with ideal events. She tells us how her grandmother felt sick and looked beautiful. She describes her grandmother’s sickness as a blur, but paints a finely detailed scene: the coldness in her grandmother’s hand, the hospital bed, and her own body on a hot day in August. Nailah struggles with the doctors and nurses coming to “help save” her grandmother in those last few moments, as “people of no significance” block Nailah’s view of someone so significant to her. The contrasts in Nailah’s story illustrate the conflict that arises when letting someone go – someone who was so lively, yet passes away quietly.

Finally, in Searching, Jajuan reminds us that loss is not only due to death. Instead, Jajuan struggles when his father is incarcerated. When his father is sent to jail, he struggles with his father’s absence, and with comprehending what his father had done. He starts us just where he started, not knowing why his father was taken away, before slowly revealing the truth he learned. “The day you went away I sat and wondered, ‘What did he do?’ They would never tell me. I guess I was too young to understand…” Despite his father’s absence, Jajuan asks his father pointed questions, and challenges his father to reflect on his actions. However, when his dad returns, Jajuan’s words and description soften dramatically, as he recognizes he is searching not only to  understand his father’s actions and imprisonment, but also for a connection to someone who he had lost.

Click here for the full January spotlight, which includes broader implications and a resource guide.

South Side Stories is made possible through the generous support of the Ford Foundation.

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“Female Unauthorized Hairstyles” and the US Army

Political Science Doctoral Candidate and guest blogger Dilara K. Üsküp discusses the U.S. Army’s controversial new grooming regulations for women. The US Army’s new grooming regulations for women has caused quite the stir. Immediately when observing the widely circulated images entitled “Female Unauthorized Hairstyles” I was immediately struck by the lack of diversity in the photos themself — the majority of models in the photos were Black and Hispanic Army women.

female unauthorized hairstyles 1

Image: US Army

female unauthorized hairstyles 2

Image: US Army

female unauthorized hairstyles 3

Image: US Army

Twists, multiple braids, thick hair was not in regulation; was Black and Hispanic hair not regulation? Seemingly, the Army’s intent of the updated Army Regulation 670-1 is to standardize and professionalize soldiers. However, as I read through the summary of changes I couldn’t help but feel disquieted by the consistent emphasis of hair thickness and the measuring guideline “1/4 inch” and 1/8 of an inch space between the scalp and the braids or cornrows.  I immediately thought of one of best friends who had just graduated from basic training and was currently in AIT (Advanced Individual Training). I had been corresponding with her through letter and email and enjoyed the Instagram updates by her proud husband. He posted a series of photos and videos throughout her graduation as she proudly donned Army regalia and Dress Blue uniform. There she was jubilant, absolutely gorgeous, and proud. Her hair was Senegalese twists neatly pinned back. Her graduation had occurred prior to the outset of the new regulations. Having known her for many years she had began embracing the natural hair movement and was moving away from chemically treating and straightening hair —not to mention the fact that her hair would be the least of her concern during basic training she would be too busy getting her Demi Moore on as G.I. Jane, obviously!

African American female soldier

Image: live.huffingtonpost.com

I had a chance to contact my friend (as I shall refer to as Chloé) to get her thoughts on the matter. She and her Army friends were deeply disappointed that there would be no changes to the policy no matter how many signatures were on  the White House petition. While Chloé could understand the reduction in bulk and the aim of professionalization she could not understand the racially targeted language of thickness. For her she remarked the most frustrating part was the continued emphasis in the regulation and marketing materials regarding hair “thickness” and not hair length. Women of color have had an entire history regarding hair thickness and the need to “professionalize” and “conservatize” their hair to meet “American” standards of beauty within the workplace and beyond.  Chloé reflected “buns cannot exceed 2 inches but you [Commissioned Officers] have personally stopped [NCOs] on several occasions for [measuring] braids, but no one stopped you [women who wear buns] to measure buns to see if it is two inches.” I couldn’t even imagine an officer stopping me and measuring my hair with a ruling how degrading. She remarked that much of the interpretation of the Regulation was up to the officers, which in most instances are men. Women of color already have much ado about hair, finally, in this modern period women have freed themselves from chemical processes, constant hair straightening, and are embracing their natural roots. Women in the military put their lives on the line every day on the front lives for our freedom but why can they not wear conservative protective styles while serving our country? Are Black, Hispanic, and Indian hair not conservative and professional; what does say about women of color within the Army — are they not regulation? When reading the regulation “long hair is defined as hair length that extends beyond the lower edge of the collar. Long hair will be neatly and inconspicuously fastened or pinned, except that bangs may be worn” again there was not inch provision regulation for length of hair.  What is the Army saying exactly [excessively] long hair could be regulation while thick hair could not? The answer to me seemed obvious the Army is regulating a politics of respectability a sobering reminder that women of color were not respectable, professional, or conservative in their natural states.  “I’m annoyed, severely, I have to wear my hair in protective styles (such as braids) because I try not to straighten my hair because we work out so much and straightening my hair isn’t practical. I wear two French braids pinned back—it’s not very flattering—but it’s in regulation.”

army hair cartoon

Image: dailytitan.com

I find it fascinating that in a world where we have ended the practice of DADT, where unauthorized investigation and harassment of suspected servicewomen and men existed the Army has taken regressive steps back. Doesn’t the Army have more important things to worry about regarding women service members:  sexual trauma and violence, perceptions of women as hormonal, whiny and weak, suicide rates, and mental health services? But apparently not, apparently hair and tattoos are the most pressing issues facing the Army. As Chloé reflected, “This isn’t just about black hair though. Another controversial ban was tattoos. Tattoos were always documented when entering the military, but they’ve taken it one step further now and stated that you are not allowed to become an officer if you have tattoos that are visible in the PT uniform of shorts and a t-shirt. When these soldiers risked their lives in service to our country in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and wherever they found themselves, they were good enough. But now they are not eligible to further their career because of pictures on their body? I found this highly offensive. Black women and tattoo enthusiasts were the hardest hit with the new regulations, but everyone else has nothing to worry about. I’m praying they change their minds about the twists and at least the already enlisted soldiers with tattoos, but I’m pretty positive they won’t. I love the military but that’s the military though.” *This post is dedicated to my Specialist Army Barbie Chloé, even with your two braids you and your colleagues serve our country proudly and fearlessly. I know without the sacrifice of women and men like you our freedoms would not be defended. You go girl, hooah! Dilara K. Üsküp is a second year Doctoral Student in Political Science at the University of Chicago. Her broad interests include public opinion at the intersection of religiosity, race, gender, and sexuality.

The History and Politics of Hair

In honor of International Women’s Week, the Ci3/Section blog is spotlighting the experiences of our staff and constituents. Today, Political Science Doctoral candidate Dilara K. Üsküp discusses the history and politics of hair.

Since December I have decided to embark on a journey wearing wigs and weaves until June. My only experience with hair extensions was at Michigan when I walked in college fashion shows. Thus far I have received a variety of reactions from friends, colleagues, and complete strangers about my hair. Some were convinced I cut my hair, others were not so sure what I did, and those that I considered friends knew.

As an American woman of both Turkish and African descent I recognize hair becomes a cultural, religious, political, economic, gendered, sexualized, and racialized expression.

Hair has a rich global history. Particularly, within the American experience African American hair has been associated with an ideology of ascription of White conceptions of femininity, beauty, and womanhood. There are those that believe Black women have embraced hairstyles and beauty approaches that are reflected of prevalent Eurocentric notions and standards of beauty. Some maintain that replicating Eurocentric standards of beauty, styling, and grooming directly enable Black women to be accepted by White culture and potential employers, educational institutions, and the like. Others have argued that historically during the 19th century Black women practiced hair processes such as straightening to reduce perceptions of being hypersexual. African American hair procedures, styling, and performance are intrinsically rooted within a cultural history acknowledging the ways race, gender, class, and sexuality interact in the way one performs their identity.

Recently, the natural hair movement has emerged as a means for African American women and men to present their “natural hair”. Now the term “natural” is fully loaded and depending on who you ask you may receive a different answer. Some define “natural hair” as a maintaining one’s normal texture—not altering one’s hair texture through chemical straighteners, colors, relaxers, texturizes—and using minimal heat processing. Others profess that “natural hair” consists of being wig and weave free. There is a cadre of natural hair definitions complete with various tutorials and a growing industry of hair care products to support this burgeoning hair care movement. As a person who wears her hair “natural” in the summer time—I wash it with conditioner, throw some oil in it and leave the house—and styled in the wintertime—I go to the salon biweekly and have it blow-dried and flat ironed—I do not necessary consider myself as a complete natural hair devotee. Admittedly, I enjoy coloring my hair once a year and trying new hairstyles.

As I noted recently I am embracing weaves and wigs. During this past month, Black History Month, I became frustrated when on occasion scrolling through my Twitter or Instagram profile and seeing memes—an image with usually a funny header and or footer—conflating “natural hair” and “Blackness”. Interestingly enough many of the memes I saw were being uploaded by Black men. I was so fascinated with these memes I began searching hashtags associated with Black power. One in particular said “Natural hair is fly (but you know that)” with an Afro pick depicted as the image with a caption below of “Stop trying to look like White #blackgirlwithnaturalhair #girlswithdreeds #blackqueens” the comment went on. I found this incredibly frustrating and problematic.

hair beauty meme

By wearing hair weaves and wigs was I some sort of race traitor, was I not Black enough? To associate one’s hair with one’s racial and ethnic identity is just as degrading and problematic as associating one’s skin tone with one’s racial and ethnic identity. Factually, the association of phenotype with race has and continues to have devastating consequences on the identities of men and women. I began to wonder if these self professed enthusiasts of the Black Power movement were in fact so imprisoned by these generic delusions of Blackness and so shackled by the cuffs of White hegemony that they failed to see any other nonracially motivated and logical explanations for a woman who wears wigs, weaves, or styles their hair in a particular way? How acceptable is it to make a gross assumption and generalization of Black women and hair that seeks to further marginalize them, their choice, their gender display, their self conceptualization and their image?

hair beauty meme

Furthermore, many of the memes conflating natural hair and Blackness were projected by Black men—this could of course not be statistically significant and there are all sorts of selection biases through social media—but there is a unique relationship about the Black bodies in relation to one another specifically how we see each other, evaluate standards of beauty, and notions of ourselves through others. Arguably, men have too added to the self-conceptualization of women by desiring particular hairstyles, hair lengths, and hair colors. I find it admirable that Black men are growingly supporting diverse expressions of Black femininity, gender, and womanhood. However, we must be careful not to make assumptions and generalizations about one’s gender performance. Obviously, this conversation is steeped in a larger conversation about gender display, standards of beauty, and bodies in general and I in no way intend to minimize the natural hair movement, movements of Black Power, and larger movements of identity but I do challenge ourselves to relate more deeply and more consciously to the human experience.

Late last year, my mother who I fondly call “The Mommykins” was diagnosed with Her2Positive Breast Cancer. As a result of her diagnosis and treatment she has endured surgeries, now chemotherapy, and radiation. As a result she has suffered side effects associated with her treatment, not limited to nausea, and more importantly, hair thinning and hair thinning. When I asked her what made her feel like a woman she answered her breasts and hair, for her cancer has attacked the two things that make her feel feminine—thus her own perception of herself. The Mommykins and I are very close she is truly a best friend, a motivator, a consigliere, I could go on ad nauseam. I decided to start wearing weave as a result of her treatment because I knew according to the evidence, research, and conversations with her providers that she was going to lose her hair. If I could I would go through the treatment for her so she would not have to suffer but I cannot. I, however, can wear wigs and weaves in solidarity as she embraces them. We are becoming “Weaveologists”—experts in weaves and wigs together. It has become a family affair as even my partner Michael has purchased The Mommykins a wig. As I travel back and forth during the quarter to attend my mother’s chemo and other treatments we embrace wig shopping and the eternal quest for her to find a Weaveologist as expert as mine, Shari in Chicago, in metro Detroit. The truth of the matter is that cancer sucks and through this experience we have to find ways to have fun. For The Mommykins and I we are having fun with experimenting with our hair through this moment of health devastation. I know there are some other Weavologists in training out there and no one should have to feel judged as a result choosing to become one. Life is complicated, hair is complicated, and the human experience is complicated. The more we are accepting and open to a multitude of human expressions the more we can grow to understand each other. We truly never know what someone else is going through so who are we to judge.

natural hair meme

 Dilara K. Üsküp is a second year Doctoral Student in Political Science at the University of Chicago. Her broad interests include public opinion at the intersection of religiosity, race, gender, and sexuality.

(All images courtesy of Essence Magazine)