"Your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself."
-- Kahlil Gibran
In recent weeks, I've had reason to reflect on those words a little more. I'm remembering my daughter Melissa's hard-won struggle for her own identity, a battle waged through years in schools where she was a young black girl in predominantly white settings.
When Melissa was 7 and her sister Leah was 5, they had a game in which they tied my pink, purple and paisley scarves around their heads and pretended the flowing tails were long hair. "Darling, your hair looks l-o-v-e-ly," Leah would say, taking a puff on an imaginary cigarette. Cooing back, Melissa would say, "You look divine yourself."
My heart leaping with pain at this attempted emulation of an ideal that could never be theirs, I thought of the character Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison's book "The Bluest Eye," and wondered if Melissa would continually strive to find acceptance in a world that would reject her.
"Darlings, why do you insist on those games?" I would ask. "Your own hair is beautiful." To that they would protest, with a whine: "Mom, leave us alone. This is only a game."
Years later, Melissa told me how she had felt: "For a long time," she said, "hair did mean beauty for me. Not that I felt ugly with short hair, but my goal with each successive straightening was to see how much closer my hair was to my shoulder."
To reach this ever-elusive goal, she endured lengthy appointments for chemical straightening at a District salon filled with pounding rock 'n' roll music. The operators' hair styles were the latest in black chic: red, gold and auburn tints, dangling locks sweeping daringly past partly obscured eyes, and asymmetrical, gravity-defying haircuts.
Melissa remembers being suspended between awe and contempt: These women had a comfortable niche she lacked, but shouldn't their musical tastes be more advanced? She concluded, in a terrible pun, that their superiority somehow seemed rooted in their hair.
Her pursuit of her identity has taken a quantum leap in recent years. She recently reminded me of a visit home from college when she met a former ambassador from Grenada, Dessima Williams. Williams' image was instantly imprinted on Melissa's consciousness: "There she stood, no shoes on her feet, an African-like straight, cotton, sleeveless dress grazing her shins. She had no makeup . . . and appeared to be 10 years old. Her black kinky hair, bundled into two fat french-braids on top of her head, reminded me of my childhood hair styles."
Melissa recalled standing in Williams' small kitchen discussing writers, poetry and politics. "She was so strong and yet unthreatening. I'll bet she would never have spent four hours in a beauty salon."
Recently, Melissa's best friend Allison cut off much of Melissa's chemically straightened hair. "With each snip, vanity fell to the ground; with each snip, I became a stronger black woman . . . my face recalled you in the '60s in your 'back to Africa' days . . . . I looked deeply into that mirror, embracing what I saw there. I entered that image in search of a self. For surely that nonprocessed hair was the link to my past and present."
In recent days, Melissa has demonstrated to me how much of her own woman she has become. She has emerged as one of the leaders of the antiapartheid demonstrations at Yale University, a member of the Divestment Steering Committee, which is urging the university corporation to divest its holdings in companies conducting business in South Africa.
Although I've tried not to thrust my opinions on her, I'm pleasantly surprised that we share some views. In many ways, we've come closer together. As I explain the activities of the '60s, she educates me on the student activism of the '80s.
And Melissa is even affecting my work. The other day she asked me to write on the South African issue. I am sure she expected an analysis of the ideological positions of the American right and left, or at least a paean on the courage of Nelson and Winnie Mandela and many unsung South Africans.
But I decided to write about her, because what she and the rest of the protesting college students across America are doing right now is very significant. During a recent visit to Washington, Dr. Ntahto Motlana, president of the Soweto Civic Association, told me, "The protests of the American college students are an important catalyst in our struggle."
These days, I'm not surprised when Melissa calls to say, "I've been arrested, Mom." She was among the 78 people who were arrested recently when Yale officials wanted to demolish a symbolic shantytown students had built to protest the university's South Africa investments.
Of course, I love my other daughters just as much, but each day I'm looking at this middle daughter with new pride, albeit laced with concern. I'm also looking at a young woman whom I'm coming to respect more, and a voice within me can't help but applaud her and say, "Right on, sister."