SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2007 Personal Memory Ethnographies
Corn Rows and Strawberry Shortcake
From the time I was about five years old until I was about seven or eight, my favorite babysitter was Clara. Clara took care of me when my mother went out at night. If memory serves, that was at least a few times per week. I can remember going over to Clara’s house and playing cards and getting my hair done. I loved it!
I remember babysitting for Kelly or “Strawberry Shortcake,” as I liked to call her, a few nights a week while her mother was out. It was the early eighties and I was living in the same apartment complex as Kelly and her mother with my family, my husband Carl and my son, Carl Junior.
Little Strawberry Shortcake would come over and have dinner with us; I even remember teaching her how to play Gin Rummy. I remember many nights when her mother would come to pick her up and we’d still be up playing cards and having a great time.
When my mother picked me up at the end of her evening’s out, I would almost always have my hair braided in corn rows with colorful beads on the ends. Most nights when my mother picked me up I would still be awake, playing cards and having fun with the adults.
I didn’t have a daughter of my own but I loved to do hair and Kelly thought that the braids and colorful beads were exciting and so different than anything she’d ever had done to her hair before. Kelly was a little white girl with hair so blonde, it was almost white. Kelly’s mother never said anything to me about the corn rows when she picked her up so I assumed that braiding her hair was okay.
I remember those visits fondly! I also remember when I learned that Clara and I were “different.”
I assumed that braiding Kelly’s hair was okay, that is, until one night when her mother picked her up with a man; I assumed it was her mother’s boyfriend or Kelly’s father the way that he looked at her hair and then look at me with disapproval.
One night when my mother picked me up from Clara’s house after an evening out with her boyfriend, I recall him making a really big deal about my mother leaving me with Clara and allowing her to braid my hair. I just couldn’t understand why he was making such a big deal about me being with Clara.
Poor little Strawberry Shortcake looked so confused! From the look on her face she could feel the tension building in the room, even without a word being spoken. When they went home that night and I’m sure that Kelly’s mother and her boyfriend had words about her hair.
I inquisitively listened to my mother and her boyfriend arguing back and forth about differences in race and culture and how people were going to look at me with my hair in corn rows, but I still didn’t TRULY understand why my mother’s boyfriend thought that it was such a big deal.
I only got to go over and stay with Clara and her family a few more times before her husband was transferred out of the state. I think if Clara and her family often, and wish them well!
Kelly only came over to my house a few more times after that night and she seemed to look at me differently. Something had changed; my reflection in her eyes just wasn’t the same. She now looked at me with a kind of curiosity. My husband was in the military and we were transferred to a base out of the state shortly after the corn row incident. I haven’t seen little Strawberry Shortcake in years, but I wish her well. I hope that the curiosity she has about me as a black woman after that night has not surfaced in her adult life as anything other than an appreciation for diversity. As far as her mothers’ boyfriend goes, it wasn’t the first time I’ve been faced with prejudice, or the last.
It was the early eighties and Affirmative Action was in place, but not delivering the intended effect. Affirmative Action was initially put into motion by President Kennedy in 1961 with executive order 10925. By the 1980’s the court system had so narrowly defined discrimination that the onus was on the victims of racial bias to prove the intent of employers and institutions that had exhibited racism in their policies and practices.
Another noteworthy issue of this time period was the published opinions of scholar, Arthur Jenson, which put forward that over 70% of the within-race IQ variability was due to genetics, and the rest due to environmental influences, and that as a result programs designed to boost black IQ had failed, simply because the IQ of African Americans could not be increased. In 1981, the opinions of Mr. Jenson were later debunked by Stephen Jay Gould, the noted Harvard paleontologist and evolutionary biologist.
With these major racial issues happening in the world at this time, it’s not hard to see WHY Clara didn’t react with shock when my mother’s boyfriend looked at her with disapproval. I’m also willing to bet that she wasn’t at all surprised that my visits decreased until they finally stopped completely.
Another side of the why in this story is the WHY of the reaction of my mother’s boyfriend. Why did he get so angry? I think the answer lies not only in the racial issues of the United States at this time but his upbringing and racial issues of the world that shaped his opinions on race and equality.
The final WHY of this story and probably the most important why to me is, why did my mother allow her boyfriend’s personal opinions to influence her and ultimately me? After thinking long and hard about this, I’ve come to the conclusion that my mother was probably lonely and trying build a relationship with her boyfriend, hoping to assemble a family and ease our hardships. Being a single mother, trying to work, raising children and having an intimate relationship with a man couldn’t have been easy. I don’t think that I would have come to this realization without all of our readings, which have helped me to understand not only about diversity, but whiteness as well.
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