Meg A World


rejecting the legacy of  being able to take it 

 by Meg Henson Scales
    The question- 
    You Tenderheaded? 
    reaches from blackberry depths 
    to millennia of recalcitrant beadabees. 
    It is the nomenclature of 
    dark feminine introductions, 
    that question before the hair 
    fixing rituals commence, 
    before the immolation and the ambush, 
    this naming of things, 
    "Are you Tenderheaded?"

     It's an intimate question, asked impersonally, in either of the traditional standing or sitting poses. When she sits, set there between her legs, your limbs mix and slop, dripping down the sides of beds and davenports, arms over legs, which clasp in an accidental embrace of loving abstract Africania, marvelous.

    When she stands, your head nestles against the soft pooch of her abdomen as she becomes totally hands and arms, completely for your "Tenderhead- or Not"?  The musk can be scandalous from here, intertwined, it enslaves you in that kitchen chair, even the memory of it. "Are you Tenderheaded?"

    Hanging in your answer, the neck can easily become a fulcrum and the hair a lever, absently directing the face, unnaturally, perpendicular to the spine, providing tension against ones self. Enduring this is total macha, and it only occurs when one answers that all-important question in the negative: "No, I'm Not Tenderheaded", the unsaid being: I can take it. 

    This denial of sensation in the head and neck, this  disallowing ones physical pain or discomfort solely for the convenience of ones 'stylist', is a most disingenuous and under-examined cultural construct.  In girlhood, it readies the child for the merciless role of the much-vaunted yet anti-hero strongblackwoman; under whose guise, a blank emotional palate is assumed, probably for the first time. 

    Strongblackwoman's most striking characteristics are her gross displays of endurance and the absence of a personal agenda. The strongblackwoman lives for (and sometimes through) others, and is culturally valued in direct proportion to her personal sacrifice.  Strongblackwomen are the astronauts, the most right stuff of American martyrdom. 

    If we then consider Tenderheadedness as a paradigm for self-worth in black girlhood, we can perhaps understand something more of what makes American black women so specifically disparaged from within and without. 

    There is no tenderness in this march to the bottom of the hierarchy; just as there are no tangible rewards in pursuing an elusive 'hair fixing' based upon European aesthetics. Not being Tenderheaded is a pain preparation, not an analgesic.  Its supposition of crime (felony napistry) and  punishment (corrective straightening) is curious enough, without its extorted confession of neuropathy ("No, I am not Tenderheaded."). 

    Most American women suffer for beauty/acceptance, though none as trumpeted as this monstrous strongblackwoman fetish, that wrestles with us, within and without, exacting.  Even the most-told martyr of American womantales, the Jewishmother, does not get her hair pulled and burned in the course of her daily toilette, and she typically would not countenance such an imposition. 

    If we examine the cartoonish cinematic depictions of the sultry temptress/ crack ho, or the media's societally dependent breeder, we find no one intrinsically good in the storehouse of accepted  black women's repertoire, until we find Mammy. Needless to say, Mammy is never Tenderheaded. 

    The raison d'être of the strongblackwoman was never to be inconsequential, or to live a life unburdened with self interest; it was a survival tactic, utilized under the most trying circumstances in contemporary history. 

    Now strongblackwoman is an expectation, it is the math of the myth of our horribleness. It is not surprising then,that any strongblackwoman worth her high blood pressure and obesity feels that any time spent on herself, is time wasted. 

    Following the gangsta beat, African American youth culture has been in rapt accord about the utter dispensability of its female members, with its bitch/ho nomenclature and corporate backing. In that hostile terrain, it is comprehensible why so many young women cloak themselves in weight and children; and why so many defend the vile forms that denigrate them, under the witless guise of 'telling it like it is'.  What we know about youth, their  individual possibilities, and our collective past, makes not being Tenderheaded a very poignant lie, especially for our girls. Strongblackwomen have not been getting fat on their pain and hardship, they have been starving on it. We should tell them these things. 

    The Tenderheads, in contrast, perceive themselves in an adoring, a more giving light, and they reflect this,  with more repose than bearing, more portrait than posture. They expertly define how little distress one should be willing to endure for the sake of appearances, with a hugged knee or slightly shrunken shoulder, their untwisted necks all soft and pliant. 

    They are absolutely no help whatsoever to the napaloosa tasks at hand, which is anathema to strongblackwomen who unnaturally are, of course, all the help. The Tenderheaded offerings are meager, yet each is gold, for they are Tenderheaded, and that must be acknowledged. 

    The needed play of ballast and weights, when extruding the naps from their natural state, doesn't even concern the Tenderhead--  under the best of circumstances, their hair retains a hint of bushy nostalgia, a pleasurable contradiction to the parallelogram order being forced upon such anarchic tangle--  and still they are complimented on their mundane hair achievements, still!

    The Tenderheaded's lips are dahlias, complaints and sighs pouring from their fluted depths, for she knows from practice, that complaint is the cornerstone of relief, especially in this mise-en-scene of napistry. 

    Each sigh that drafts from her effulgent lips should be seized upon and attended to, because the Tenderhead is likely to just up and leave altogether, before the scalp is greased, before the doobee is pinned, the hair tracked or burned or yanked or washed and blown, she might just hat up and go
    Harriet Tubman was Tenderheaded. 

    There are also stories of the cruelties visited upon some hapless Tenderheads, but we simply won't tell them here,since they can easily be guessed. 

    During the actual 'fixing', their ears flatten against their Tenderheads, drinking in the browned and oval tones of whomever so gently dresses their hair-- The Tenderheads are talked through their stylings whereas the Nots are stalked through theirs.  For that betrayal of sensation, the yelp or the ouch! Let a whimper emerge from a Not, and the rebuke is as swift and triumphant as with the swatting of a fly-  "I thought you said you weren't Tenderheaded!"  is the very closest a Not will get to compassion.  Instead, chastened and silenced for another round of scorching or yanking, the naperial cauterization recommences, O Africania! 

    It can go dominatrix in a heartbeat-- you in a kitchen chair, and she standing, imperious, brandishing a plastic comb in striking  zone from you, freshly washed and trapped.  A stovetop glows near, with heated irons smoking, and you have only yourself to blame. 

    She might lean herself into you as she works, and she might  squint warmly through the halo of smoke your hair has become,  but so much lay in the challenge before her, this prelude to the scorching 
    of nappy tendrils, the hyphen of blister to come on the curl of an ear, this delicate kitchen of the neck, exposed... Are you Tenderheaded? 

    There is something about suffering and melanin and estrogen that has been added up incorrectly and then mispronounced. We are not included in white "feminist theory", we are not the women of the"National Organization of Women", we are the ones ignored in their polls and census, when they say "blacks and women".  Our  struggles are the most bloodied and extended; and our stories the least honored.  Within that context, as long as Not being Tenderheaded masquerades as the greater good, it is being kidnapped out of context and used as a cudgel. It says, if the  strongblackwoman is "able to take it"; here's some more! 

    To consider Tenderheadedness with not taking it  then, is to potentially disabuse ourselves of the entire strongblackwoman hoodwinking altogether. History positively exhorts us to understand, that once any people have had enough, when that word alone can fully describe their collective response to oppression; those same people will either become more proficient at eliminating the sources of their despair, or they'll take it to their graves, taking it with them, since people insist upon getting used to just about anything, even genocide. 

    Rosa Parks, another celebrated Tenderhead, spearheaded a movement based totally upon her unwillingness to be "strong" enough to take it-- indeed her strength was in her utter rejection of taking it;  the consequences of not taking it, mattering less than her personal safety. 

    When reminded of human sentience, no matter how nappy one's crown is or isn't, from the lushly coarse to the natural wave to the  imperial afros, to the beadabee buckshot; everyone is Tenderheaded,or simply, just about everyone has feelings or sensation, even in the head and neck, particularly in the heart. 
    This person with no declared sensation in her head and shoulders, who is "Not Tenderheaded", is not so subtly investing in the juggernaut of the strongblackwoman, and she is being ignored. 

    All that power in our collusions, sitting there between each others legs, dripping down our bedsides and burning in our kitchens, all that juice is being wasted. It would be much better to simply love during those moments. 

    In my girlhood, I was not Tenderheaded, because I had so-called "good hair", and was not allowed to be "funny" about it.  It was also  part penance, since I was considered ungrateful for my "good hair" in the firstplace. 

    My mother would braid my head in two, quite lovingly, as long as I wasn't freshly washed, which changed my hair from just getting done, to getting fixed.  But usually, with me between her legs, clasping her knees, facing out, a sotto voce hugging took place, nice, if not wonderful. 

    She'd sometimes compliment me on my hair as if I'd finally done something right, and I believed in the softness she said it had, that I'd done good, and sometimes she'd scratch my scalp  so exquisitely with the tail of the comb, my chest would flame. We did my hair anywhere, but most memorably, wonderfully, in her sewing room in that basement, watching baseball on a black and white television. 

    Summers, my mother wore black Capri pants and a black bra, smoking Tareytons and sipping baby Olympia beers, while she sewed.  All of her sewing gear was setup in half of the 'rec. room' in our basement, so the windows were near the ceilings, which were low, and all the other furniture was parted-out junk from the rest of the house. Being a classic strongblackwoman herself, my mother never met a  used piece of shit that wouldn't do better than something nice and/or new for herself. 

    As her only daughter, I was expected to then graciously receive all  of the lovely things she couldn't accept for herself-- like the calf-length, fully-lined, fire engine red wool melton cape she surprised me with, in the August of my eighth grade. To be Tenderheaded under these conditions would have been reprehensible, and even I knew that,  in the eye of my own adolescent chaos, that the Good Fight lay in claiming myself a Not, so I did. 

    It was a moot declaration for a long time,as our regimen was uncomplicated and predictable, the only variable being bangs, made from a Goody pink foam curler, the kind that snap when they close. 

    With a little Three Flowers Brilliantine, my bangs would straighten and curl overnight, with only the Goody roller and some water, but because it aroused questions of racial purity from my Negro friends, I kept this shortcut around the straightening comb to myself-- no one but my family knew. 

    Since my father and my twin brother had too many "white features" for these same tribalists, there was a strong perception amongst these same great people  that I too was almost certainly racially under-endowed, and that my brown skin was just a cover for something paler and sinister. 

    I was mortified when my bang secret was discovered by one of my classmates in front of the water fountain one afternoon at school.   We'd just pulled a particularly rigorous safety patrol in the rain, and I'd thoughtlessly wrung them out in the fountain and curled them under with my fingers. 

    I straightened up and we were head to head;  I was looking dead into her drenched messy naps, gone (as they used to say), plastered on her forehead as she stared into my fraudulent and tubular bang roll, freshly turned. 

    Hair perjury was a serious offense and she didn't believe my lie or my hastily botched bang roll or my compliments on her go-go boots for even a moment, but I'd reached a watershed resolution; I would not be outcast on the grounds of something so ludicrous as "good  hair", not if I could help it. 

    When my mother started pressing my hair, at my insistence, in that loathsome 7th grade, she wept in the kitchen, burning me, my ears, my hair, "just ruining your beautiful hair!" she cried. Later, she blew Tareyton smoke in my face and told me that since I'd started "frying"  my hair, I'd never be able to stop, and I suddenly started noticing things about her, like how fat her behind looked as she walked away from me. 

    "What'd you do to your hair?" they said at school, and they were pleased; my hair looked terrible, burned and greasy,and we were one; me and my friends,or at least we were "we" again. This pain was perhaps my first taste of being something very similar to a credit to my race, and every bit as unrewarding. 

    My hair became an ordeal, more strongblackwoman-ly; thankless, unpleasant, never during a baseball game and for the first time,always near a heat source. If I happened to flinch at the sizzle of an ear, or a scorching of the kitchen under the irons, I was reminded that this was my desire, my transgression-- that I could have stuck with the braids and the bangs-- and "I thought you said you weren't Tenderheaded!

    There was apparently no turning back, no "passing" after one takes that fateful stand as being Not Tenderheaded.  I was doomed. 
    From the hot seat, I started noticing my cousin, who had always been Tenderheaded.  We occasionally had our hair done at the same time, since our mothers were sisters, but I was always long gone by the time she was done, since her hair seemed to take forever.

    Now that my own hair needed more "fixing", I realized that what had been taking so long, was this tremendous ass-kissing she was getting,  right in front of God and everyone, her with her Tenderhead. She'd sit between my aunt's legs like a soft golden Buddha, her beautiful long bush in rays extending,or parted like farm land in more manageable sections as the fixing progressed- her in her catbird seat! 

    "Are you OK?" my aunt would ask solicitously, and my cousin might even say, "No!  It hurts!!" and other flabbergasting backtalk.  How she'd miraculously be invited to rest even, to stretch her pampered legs!  To top it off, she was roundly congratulated  for getting her hair done, for being so "good" about it and all, whereas I was simply Not Tenderheaded, for all my hurt. 

    I protested to my mother about this Not clause hanging (literally) over my head.  She agreed in part, saying that I was, in effect, a junior kind of zygote version of the strongblackwoman, and therefore, while my pain was real, it either didn't matter, or just confirmed itself by being, zen-like. 

    She then implied, without actually calling her one, that my cousin was a slight pain in the ass with that Tenderheaded business,and that's about all there was to it.  She also offered that she knew I could take it-- I thanked her for that--  and anyway, no daughter of hers would be Tenderheaded anyway, that it was genetic or something. 

    This worked for me until soon after our conversation, I watched my mother do my cousin's hair. "Are you OK?" she asked the golden girl,  "How's this, Sweetie?" she petted, she cooed. "You were real good, honey!" she says when she's done, sweat pouring from her from the effort, as my cousin floats out of our basement like a butterfly. 

    There are more arduous tasks before us,than to be tender to each  other, especially when we're there between each other, enveloped, doing our heads. In all likelihood, there is no greater climate possible  for the devastating teachings of strongblackwomanhood, than the ones given in those accidental embraces. 

    If we remember that this over-abundance of misery and usury and taking it are how we got this way, then we can intuit, if not see from here, that there is no freedom in that bag, that there never was, and we can renounce it altogether. 

    How profoundly we must delve, even to find the smallest bit of  tenderness for ourselves! Unfolding these dormant capacities for  gentleness and compassion for ourselves will certainly engage new mechanisms in our living, that aren't so concerned with  suffering in the first place. 

    When we bury the mythological strongblackwoman expectation, even one inhumanity at a time, it can still rescue us from the massive belittlements we suffer daily; each time, changing the math, adding us up.  It is self-evident that we must now, for all of us, become Tenderheaded. Yes. 

    © 1995 by Meg Henson Scales

 H e n s o n  S c a l e s