Today my graduate students and I take up the migrating black woman in urban spaces. Above is an image of a turn of the century woman of color in Puerto Rico. She seems to have exceptional confidence while being photographed. Or maybe she’s just pretending. We might certainly know as she moves through space she is definitely being watched.
We study the implications of what the presence of a woman of African descent means for those around her. And what her presence in certain environments, including the city, means for her.
Eliza Potter’s 1859 memoir is before us. This mixed race woman sure did move a bit. She traveled to France, England, the South (never entered Alabama though following advice from her uncle) and resort cities, styling the hair of the elite. And tending to their babies, too. And when she was not traveling, she was in Cincinnati where she had her own home under her own fig tree.
In her position as a hair stylist to white women, she heard quite a bit. It is amazing what stories those gathered around hair permit. That will certainly be something worth thinking about as we also turn to Phoebe Robinson’s memoir You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Have to Explain. Here, we see a more modern woman grappling with what it means to encounter the dominant culture while moving and not.
Hazel Carby gives us a way to frame all of the readings. In a short article, she presents the turn of the century migrating black woman who is under surveillance by everyone including elite black women. How does Carby complicate the issue of black women being mobile in urban spaces (and rural ones, too, if we take seriously Potter’s own journeys)? She is both object and subject, as the top image unveils. She is more, too, beyond all of the stereotypes, among them ones revealed in the 1974 film “Claudine.” The trailer is below.
I have asked the students to scan their syllabus and see what big story is being unveiled as we march toward the finish line. I want them to make ties between the readings and other “texts “(music, movies, etc) as they ponder their final paper.
I find all of this talk of hair especially interesting as I prepare to possibly cut my locks. Twenty years ago this month, I did the same. We will see if I have the courage to do it again. I need change.
See my hair journeys – which includes a ‘fro Dana Gibbs Mason, a stylist-friend made for me – in pictures below.
See also the earrings I am making from fish leather purchased last year in Iceland. I have donated a pair to the Lunafest film festival being sponsored by the University of Alabama’s Women and Gender Resource Center on March 29th. They push my thinking on many things including issues addressed in my colleague Dr. Heather Kopelson’s Handmade Nation course last summer prior to my departure to Iceland. I make them to decompress and indeed, think about how things made by hand by certain bodies, including women, are or are not valued until co-opted by the market.