A short story in response to the video clip in the Brooklyn Museum about how hair identifies an African-American child.
Lil’ Suzy Jackson held tightly on to Buttons as Mama insisted on combing her thick hair with a fin toothcomb. It was exactly because of this reason why Lil’ Suzy despised Sundays after Church. Lil’ Suzy understood at the tender young age of seven that if she never got her hair done on Sunday, she would be the laughing stock on the block.
Lil’ Suzy still painfully remember the day she was sent home from school for her ‘unkempt’ and ‘nappy’ hair. That was the day her little behind was introduced to Mama’s belt for making her leave work.
“What is you crying for little girl? It’s rather you get it done today or go to school with your head lookin like a black cloud tomorrow.” Mrs. Jackson sucked her teeth as she continued to comb the tangle knots in her daughter’s hair.
“But Mama it hurts when you comb it like that!” Lil’ Suzy bawled as she sunk her face in Buttons cotton back. Soaking the poor rabbit with her tears.
“Suzy Alicia Jackson!” Lil’ Suzy knew to keep her mouth shut whenever Mama used her full name. Mama stood up from the cushion-less couch and stormed into their overheated single bedroom where she cracked the window open more hoping cool air will pass through the evening. She opened her first draw and took out a crinckled twenty-dollar bill out from underneath her red bra.
Mama marched back into the living room and presented Lil’ Suzy the bill. “I has been doin your nappy head since the day you been born Suzy. It’s bout time you get yourself a fix.” She tucked the bill away in Lil’ Suzy’s overall pocket. “There’s a white lady’s salon down on Cherry Street. By the time I come home tomorrow your head betta be done. You hear me?”
“But Mama what about my-“ The little girl’s sentence was cut short by Mama kissing the top of her forehead.
“I can’t waste anymore time Suzy. Mama needs to go to work now. Take care of yourself while I’m gone.” Mama said as she grabbed her purse and headed out of the apartment.
Lil’ Suzy groaned to herself, knowing what will be in stored for her tomorrow. She sluggishly drew to the cramped bathroom and, with her stool, climbed up to look at herself in the mirror.
She pulled at the ends of her hair trying to lay her hair flat like Mama’s and the pretty white ladies on the front covers of magazines. Lil’ Suzy used Mama’s brush, trying her utmost best to flatten her hair. Once she believed she was getting some type of progress, like a spring, her hair sprung back up into a puff.
She felt the heat of tears come streaming down her flushed cheeks as gazed at the mirror.
“What’s wrong with my hair!” In utter frustration, Lil’ Suzy threw Mama’s comb on the floor and barged out the apartment with a pink cap and her Buttons.
She kept her head down to avoid any type of eye contact not wanting to start a conversation with any of the neighbors like she usually does.
“Hey Lil’ Suzy! Is you good girl?” Grandma Jones asked as she watched Lil’ Suzy stroll by her. Grandma Jones was everyone’s grandmother on the block. The fact that Lil’ Suzy ignored Grandma Jones sent a pang to her little heart.
“She ain’t al’right! Look at that child’s head.”
“It be lookin’ nappy like bush!”
“Is your Mama taken care of you?”
Comment after comment after each passing neighbor, Lil’ Suzy covered her head with her pink baseball cap and rushed on. The distinct laughter’s of people falling behind her.
Once the green sign that read Cherry Street came into her view, Lil’ Suzy took the bill out her pocket and scanned the area for any salons near by. Across the street, in big bold letters read “Maryann’s Hair Salon”. This was the first time Lil Suzy ever came to Cherry Street.
The roads were practically glistening, no waste, nor garbage lying across the floor and the air didn’t feel polluted but rather light and clean.
Lil’ Suzy looked left and right twice before scurrying across the street and over to the salon. She peeked through the glassed windows watching in awe as the white
ladies get they’re hair done by other whit ladies. She felt intimated, out of place as she pushed open the doors. All eyes gazed down to her.
“Do you need some little girl? Are you lost?” Lil’s Suzy liked the way the tall blonde lady spoke as she kneeled down and spoke to her. A bit hesitant for words, Lil’ Suzy presented her bill to the lady.
With her best and polished white voice Mama taught her, Lil’ Suzy said “Can you fix my hair ma’am.”
“I can do any type of hair sweet pea. Show me what I’m working with.” The lady responded nicely. Lil’ Suzy glowed as she removed her baseball cap and let her kinky curls spring out. In such unison the whole salon went quite. Everyone staring with their mouths agape like it was they’re first time seeing a foreign creature.
The tall blonde lady had the same shocking expression but forced a smile upon her features.
“Can you fix it ma’am?” Lil’ Suzy asked again hoping she can.
“O-of course we can! Come have a seat over here and we’ll set you up.” She said, guiding the child over to a chair and asking her politely to rest her head down. The blonde lady stared at her hair in confusion. Should she part it first? Can you even part that?
Just like Mama would, the lady began to wash Lil’ Suzy’s hair with sweet smelling shampoo. Her hands were gentle and not as rough as Mama’s hands, Lil’ Suzy thought.
But her attitude changed when she felt a slight burning sensation from her scalp and a unfamiliar smell. Lil’ Suzy tugged on the lady’s apron and asked why her hair felt like it was burning.
The lady responded, “It’s okay, this is a normal feeling when you get your hair permed.”
Permed. Lil’ Suzy heard this word whenever Mama was talking to her friends on the house phone. Perm. Does that mean her hair was going to look straight like Mama’s? Lil’s Suzy asked herself.
It didn’t feel right at all and a gut feeling told Lil’ Suzy to leave before something else happened. The burning sensation became unbearable for the little girl and she immediately jumped out of her seat, running to the nearest restroom where she dunk her head in the sink basin and set the water to its’ coldest temperature.
Does Mama do this just to get her hair straight? But why would you sit down through all that pain? Once the burning sensation subsided, Lil’ Suzy left the restroom with her hair damp and soaking.
Ignoring the lady who was asking if she was okay, Lil’ Suzy stormed out of the hair salon and began her journey back home.
“As much as I love Mama’s hair-“ Lil’ Suzy started as she put her cap back on. “It ain’t worth going through that.” The now big girl firmly said as she awaited for tomorrow.
“The purpose of theatre is to wound our memory so we can remember,”
writes Paula Vogel in the Playbill for Indecent. Currently running on Broadway in the
Cort Theatre, Indecent, written by Vogel and directed by Rebecca Taichman, was
nominated for several Tony Awards this year, including Best Play.
Indecent is a play about another play, God of Vengeance, and how it was
received when it was performed during the 1920s. God of Vengeance told the story
of a Jewish man who ran a brothel, and whose daughter fell in love with one of his
prostitutes. This play was the first on an American stage to present a kiss between
two women. It had a beautiful, pure love scene, often compared to Romeo and Juliet’s
balcony scene, depicting these two women enjoying the rain. A main character in
Indecent, Sholem Asch (writer of God of Vengeance) experiences dismay when his
play is not well received by his community of Jewish writers in Warsaw, for in a time
of strong anti-Semitism, any depiction of Jews as less than upstanding members of
their community was a strike against them. Asch responds by taking the play
touring throughout Europe (where it was better received), and eventually to New
York. Then, in 1923, shortly after God of Vengeance’s Broadway opening, the
producer and all of the cast were arrested and convicted of obscenity.
Indecent is a play that tugs on your heartstrings; it is truly a play that
“wounds” its audience in the hope that they can learn something from the past. It is
particularly moving because it shows that the actors were very devoted to God of
Vengeance and faced many challenges in performing the show: besides the obscenity
trial, the romantic rain scene is cut during one production, dramatically shifting the
tone of the play from love to manipulation. The cast returned to Europe during the
1930s and continued to perform, despite the increasing danger of Hitler’s Final
Solution, and even performed while in hiding, hoping to inspire their desperate
audiences. Finally, the cast was discovered and all perished in concentration camps.
The overall tone of Indecent is not entirely depressing—moments of comedy
and music lighten the mood—but the flawless direction makes the ordeals borne by
the characters resound deeply. One memorable scene depicts a Jewish writer
pleading outside the gates of the United Nations. This man, at first, is begging to
speak to the English ambassador, but is not received. He then begins switching
languages, from English to French to Russian and finally to Chinese, and grows more
and more desperate as in each language he is denied admittance. Asch stands next
to him, reading a letter that he received from this man, pleading with Asch to use his
influence to stress to the U.S. government the dire situation of the Jews in Nazioccupied
Europe. This scene was evocative of the hardships of Jews during this time,
because their pleas were unheard, just like members in the audience couldn’t
understand all the switching languages.
It’s hard not to relate Indecent’s themes of fear, xenophobia, homophobia,
and anti-Semitism to our current politics. Vogel states that “theatre is a living
memory,” and Indecent certainly leaves you questioning what you would devote
your life to, and in light of the fate of the cast of God of Vengeance, what you would
give your life for.
I had received the invitation in the mail, no return address, no specific sender. Its only
directions: The Dinner Party – the Stroke of Midnight…Do Not Be Late. Firm hands on my
shoulders had guided me, in a dream-like state, from my home to the party where I was placed
firmly in a chair. Although a throne would be a more accurate word for it. The room I found
myself in was a large and dark expanse and the walls of the room seemed to disappear into that
darkness. The table was designed in the shape of a giant triangle, each side lined with
glamorous and decorated women, some I recognized and others I did not. In front of each of
woman, and myself as well, were plates of food piled high enough to just slightly block the view
of some of the shorter attendees. In the empty space in the center of the triangle, glossy tiles
decorated with the names of important women in history were scribbled in a curly golden font.
This was the Dinner Party.
Across the tile sat two queens, one Mary Queen of Scots and, next to her, her mortal
enemy, Queen Elizabeth the First. Instead of tearing at each other for the sake of their
respective countries, they sat chatting and giggling over goblets of dark burgundy wine. I hadn’t
noticed, but each woman was amidst vibrant and colorful conversations with those around her.
Each women adorned in a dress that represented her culture and her time in history. Some,
notably the two queens sitting across from me, wore dresses whose decorated necklines
concealed the bottom halves of their faces. Others, whose hair was tied into braids fit for battle,
were covered in metal armor. They carried shield and swords with them but had haphazardly
placed them next to their feet as they gripped goblets of colored liquors. I looked down at my
own dress, which reflected the latest fashion trends of the room. It had been a gift, a simple
black dress straight from the Hérmes 2017 Fall Collection. It was then I noticed, looking around
the room and feeling spectacularly underdressed, the artist sitting next to me.
Georgia O’Keeffe sat scribbling flowers idly on the napkin she had delicately placed on
her lap. Upon closer inspection, I could see the winding note that she had written privately on
that same napkin. Just as I leaned over to get a better look at what the note actually entailed,
she rose up from her chair. Her black and white dress shifting to match her now tall stance. She
placed the napkin on the table in front of her. “Welcome to the Dinner Party,” she started with a
clap of her hands, “you are all here because you have done something great in your lifetime.
You have prevailed despite the hardships that you have all faced. Now, through some mysticism
and a dash of magic we are all here tonight. I would like to go around the table and have each
of you share your story with the rest of us.”
Around the table erupted a slight murmur and a collection of dignified nods from the
women at the table. Throughout the night, we heard stories of women leading rebellions on
behalf of their tribes in Northern Europe, of women fighting to keep their thrones amidst coups
and diplomatic attempts to seize them and of artists whose work spoke for those who were the
most oppressed. Eventually, each leg of the table had shared their story and I was up next to
dazzle the women with a story of my bravery, courage and strength. However, I was simply a
poet, an award-winning poet, but a just poet nevertheless. These women had led armies and
quelled rebellions, I had just sat stuck in my yellow-painted attic. But, before I began, I
remembered the reason that I had found myself writing poetry. It was almost as dark as any of
these women’s tales about war or betrayal. So I began, “If I were to exaggerate, I would say that
I have had one near-death experience in my life. No, it did not come as a result of a car-crash or
a sickness but, from a loss of my soul. Because, then again, what would I be without my soul?
And it all started when my husband and my doctor decided that it would be a good idea to trap
me in my attic with nothing but the sturdy yellow walls, a piece of paper and a pen…”.
Note: This short story is in response to a permanent art installation at the Brooklyn Museum’s
Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The installation is called “The Dinner Party” and
was created using mixed mediums by the artist Judy Chicago in the year 1979.