Tress-passing: A Hair-raising Tale of Surviving by Migrating to the Un(Class)ified Mind

Teri A. McMurtry-Chubb [1]
Associate Professor of Law
Mercer University Walter F. George School of Law.

Tress: (noun) long locks or curls of hair; a plait or braid of hair. [2]
Passing: (verb) Assuming an identity not your own for daily use and survival. [3]

[1] This essay is about the currency of race and racial identity and the how it is used to both create and pay the debt of belonging. Cheryl I. Harris first explored the idea of race as a form of currency, an interest in property with economic and social value in her groundbreaking article Whiteness as Property. [4] In her work, Harris considers the legal characteristics of property ownership in the context of white supremacy. [5] She argues that whiteness is the pinnacle of racial property ownership and protected as such by American law. [6] Harris' view of property problematizes the concept of "white privilege" by exploring it as a fixed condition that has been infused with meaning along an evolving historical timeline. Consistent in its meaning is the notion that a property interest in whiteness is the foundation of white supremacy, bestowing a tangible, material benefit to those with white skin. [7] Because these benefits rest in the bodies of whites, whether they consciously recognize them or not, those non-white persons who possess lighter skin that choose to "pass" into whiteness are literally "trespassers." [8] What is not the subject of Harris' article but deserves equal, considerable treatment is the concept of "Blackness as Property" or whether Black people can be trespassers in how they construct and live racial identity if stigmatized and/or deemed inauthentic. [9]

[2] "Blackness" is a property right that while defined by Black people is shaped by a white supremacist ordering of the world. Blackness encompasses social and economic status (class), gender, sexuality, and race all as they rest within the bodies of those with black and brown skin. However, the ways that Black people live their lives in three dimensions is largely dictated by the spaces they occupy at any given moment. As Devon Carbado and Mitu Gulati suggest in their work on intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality, institutions and institutional context govern how a person chooses to present his or her identity (identity performance). [10] In private spaces populated primarily by people of African descent, Black people may choose to perform race, class, gender, and sexuality differently than in mixed-race settings or settings that are primarily White. White supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy together allocate rewards and punishments for acceptable (or unacceptable) performances of race, class, gender and sexuality. Kenji Yoshino in his article Covering adds a layer to the discussion of identity performance by exploring assimilation as a set of choices about which traits can be performed and rewarded and which traits must be suppressed or punished. [11] Yoshino's work draws heavily on that of the sociologist Erving Goffman and his deconstruction of stigma and social identity among homosexuals. Of social identity, an arguably interchangeable concept with identity performance, Goffman writes:

It may be suggested that, due to social identity, the individual with a secret differentness will find himself during the daily and weekly round in three possible kinds of places. There will be forbidden or out-of-bounds places, where persons of the kind he can be shown to be are forbidden to be, and where exposure means-expulsion – an eventuality often so unpleasant to all parties that a tacit cooperation will sometimes forestall it, the interloper providing a thin disguise and the rightfully present accepting it, even though both know the other knows of the interloping. There are civil places, where persons of the individual's kind, when known to be of his kind, are carefully, and sometimes painfully, treated as if they were not disqualified for routine acceptance, when in fact they somewhat are. Finally, there are back places, where persons of the individual's kind stand exposed and find they need not try to conceal their stigma, nor be overly concerned with cooperatively trying to disatttend it. In some cases this license arises from having chosen the company of those with the same or similar stigma. [12]

[3] This essay explores the performance of African American female identity by using African American hair texture as a proxy for race, class, gender, and sexuality. It explores straightened African American hair in those "out-of-bounds" places where it is a "tresspasser," its straightness always in danger of revealing the hair's natural kink. It examines African American hair in "civil places" where its natural kinky, curly, coily, state is simultaneously accepted as a symbol of racial authenticity and rejected as a resistance to white supremacy. Lastly, it investigates African American hair as it is in the "back places" where it is attached no stigma because it is in the company of hair that is similarly stigmatized.

Acting Class

[4] Respectable, middle-class, straight-haired, young black womanhood was delivered to me at age 12 in the form of a box of Dark & Lovely no-lye relaxer. [13] Underneath the veneer of tamed tresses, I, like my no-lyeing hair, struggled against the truth of living in a family on the fringes of working-class. In my Southern New Jersey hometown where I grew up, just twenty-four miles southeast of Philadelphia, class was an elusive concept. No one, Italian American, Irish American, Polish American, African American, Puerto-Rican or Asian American discussed it. I was raised in the shadow of the Black Baptist Church, under euphonic, resonant preaching meant to enforce the elusive "middle-class" values drilled into me by my parents. They would be happy with a daughter who performed class as respectability: acceptable, neat, and not too big hair; teeth brushed, body washed and well oiled (no ashiness [14] on knees or elbows); spine straight; and head up. My mother had learned how to perform middle-class identity properly from her mother (my grandmother) and her grandmother (my great-grandmother). My grandmother worked as a maid in the Atlantic City casinos. Each morning she fixed her pressed and curled [15] hair, dressed in her Sunday best, boarded a bus, and arrived at work. Once there, she changed into her maid uniform and worked a full day cleaning the rooms of wealthy whites intent on winning, or losing, a fortune on games of chance. After work, she changed back into her Sunday best and rode the bus back home. The lesson my mother learned from all of this? What you do is not who you are.

[5] My mother's grandmother, a laundress and an usher in the Baptist church, who, together with my grandmother, provided my mother with a home and solid middle-class existence, would reiterate this lesson. In her youth, my mother wore the most fashionable clothes to school, attended every formal, and every two weeks had a standing appointment with her hairdresser to have the kinks pressed out of her hair with a hot iron and curled into smooth bouncy curls. My mother taught the same thespian skills to me, whom she dressed in Rothschild coats and Dior dresses, bought used but cleaned well and given proudly. She was also my first hairdresser; I would have my hair pressed and curled into submission at her stove each Saturday for Sunday morning church services. While I was sitting in that chair my mother taught me that mainstream, White, beauty standards were a type of currency, but impermanent. After all, the hot comb could only temporarily hide the curl and coil of my hair until a good rain, heat or humidity forced it to give up its secrets, its racial identity. In my mother's kitchen/beauty salon, beauty was not as valuable as attaining knowledge. Knowledge, after all, had staying power.

Learning the Script

[6] My father and mother were co-conspirators in writing the script for my class performance. My father was raised in a solidly middle-class home in Philadelphia, He was a veteran, fluent in four languages (Spanish, Italian, German, and English), a musician, an entrepreneur, and the possessor of an endlessly inquisitive mind. He had finished community college as a student of sociology, read the paper every morning, and did the crossword puzzle in ink. I remember once, when I was in high school, my father said to me: "A friend of mine has summer jobs on the janitorial service for the school system. Would you like him to get you a job?" I replied: "Sure!" My father laughed, and then his eyes turned to flint. He responded: "I will never allow you to work as a maid." As it turned out, I could have used the job.

[7] The values with which I was raised and the ideas to which I was exposed were in no manner reflected in my family's economic reality. Shortly after my parents' fourth child was born, my father was diagnosed with the rare, degenerative muscle disease syringomyelia. At the time of his diagnosis, my father worked three jobs so that my mother could stay home and raise their children. The disease worked quickly; its debilitating effects prevented my father from working his jobs. My mother, a math wiz who graduated from high school at 16, went out into the workforce to support the family. She would only return home again as a stay-at-home mom when I was born, remain until my third birthday, and return to the workforce until she was needed at home to care for my father until his death just prior to my graduation from law school.

[8] My parents were joint partners in all aspects of my education. They expected no less of me than excellence, and did everything they could to develop an environment that ensured that I succeeded and thrived. My mother did and does not suffer fools. After work she would read to me when I very young, and later give me reading comprehension tests to make sure I developed deep and critical reading skills. She would stay up late into the night with me, going over homework assignments and making sure I owned key concepts. This was her practice until I graduated from high school. My father was equally active in my learning. When in second grade long division threatened to break me, my father made endless flashcards for me and provided sheet after sheet of practice problems until I scored 100%. A musician, my father demanded that his children have some artistic curiosity and pursuit. I picked study of a musical instrument; my father demanded my singular focus and attention. I was required to practice an hour when I arrived home from school and an hour after dinner. He set the metronome and looked over my shoulder as I read music and struggled to play what was on the page. He called my music teacher at school (my public school system offered private music lessons through twelfth grade) to check on my progress, and to suggest new music that would challenge me to the next level of achievement. The same was true when I showed an interest in dance. Woe unto the little girl who did not aspire to tap and ballet mastery. The same devotion to practice was required as for musical instruments with an added twist; I was now required to view performances by Gregory Hines, Mikhail Baryshnikov, The Nicolas Brothers, Bill Robinson (the original Mr. Bojangles), Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers. I was shown excellence; in turn greatness was expected of me.

[9] When I was 14, both parents sat me down and explained that, although I was expected to attend college, they did not have the means to send me. With this declaration they pulled me into their partnership as the Chief Financial Officer of College Financing Endeavors. A lover of libraries, and an employee at one, I set about the task of researching scholarships available to me. Over the next four years I managed to secure enough scholarship money to cover the costs of my first year of college, and a rather large partial scholarship from my undergraduate institution to cover the rest. That institution was Spelman College.

Performance Anxiety

[10] From the moment I stepped foot on the Spelman College campus, I endeavored never to leave school; It felt like a homecoming. Spelman College is one of only two [16] Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) specifically designed to educate African American women. I was educated in Predominantly White Schools since I began school at age three. I remained the "only chocolate chip in the cookie," the only African American person in all of my classes from grades K-12. My formal educators were overwhelmingly White; I had two African American teachers, one each in ninth and eleventh grades. Spelman College was a departure for me. It was an opportunity for me to be judged, I thought and as Dr. Martin Luther King so eloquently stated, by the content of my character and not the color of my skin. Little did I know that my character would be impaled by my class status. Spelman College was where race and class collided.

[11] From its founding on April 11, 1881, Spelman College colluded with white supremacist constructions of Black womanhood, while simultaneously resisting those constructions to create others ordered by Black community norms. At its inception, the College attempted to control the images of its matriculants within the strictures of the Black Baptist Church (Friendship Baptist Church where it was founded) under the motto of "Our Whole School for Christ." Perceptions of a Spelman woman: a lady with white gloves unsullied by the dirtiness of her presumed "hyper-sexuality," purified [17] by the word of God, and tripping daintily to and from the gates of higher education, became juxtaposed in disjointed fashion with images of the quintessential strong Black woman, a woman leader who achieves in and outside communities of color. The always-polite subtly retiring Spelmanite was identity performance deserving of an Academy Award. That performance is part of what historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham calls "The Politics of Respectability" in her engaging study on the women's movement in the Black Baptist Church. [18] Black women's identity formation as "respectable" was a radical proposition in the 1880's, but it also appeared to be (and sometimes was) an endorsement of class, race, gender, and sexuality performances that aligned with white supremacist ideals. [19]

[12] Spelman's founders, Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles, were White New England educators, and members and officers in the Women's American Baptist Home Mission Society (WABHMS), an affiliate of the American Baptist Home Missionary Society (ABHMS). [20] They stepped into adulthood at a time where early collective struggles for women's rights followed closely the abolitionist struggle. [21] The enduring example of their commitment to social change is their founding of Spelman College. [22] As they traveled to the South with their grant of one hundred dollars from the First Baptist Church of Medford, Massachusetts, they were spurred by more than divine providence and brought more than benevolence. [23] What they offered the freed population of Black women was an exodus from formal illiteracy into the promised land of Christian morals, bibles, books, and proper "womanly" tasks. [24] The satchel containing these newly acquired items not only carried the promises of inclusion into the established order, but also contained the possibility that a Spelman woman's reflected image would match that of the institution's founders. [25]

[13] Slavery had constructed Black women as immoral beings, the lovers of the slave master, the breeders of the workforce, and available to address every whim of the White mistress and her children. The early curriculum at Spelman was developed to sculpt these women into those mistresses, to escort them into the ranks of the Black elite, the "Negro Female Talented Tenth." [26] The faculty was comprised of an overwhelming majority of White female teachers, most from the North, whose socio-economic status mirrored Packard and Giles'. [27] It would be a mistake to overlook what this faculty composition meant for the pedagogy and practices that shaped Spelman's early years. [28] The faculty built the curriculum around what it meant to be a "lady" as they conceived ladyhood. Important were those tasks that defined the duties of service, wifery, and motherhood. [29] Of particular interest was the curricular emphasis on health and hygiene. [30] Dr. J.H. Hanaford, a health columnist for the Spelman Messenger, Spelman's newsletter, wrote a health column for the women about physical and moral hygiene. [31] Likewise, regular reports were published about the women's health by the college administration, and instruction on the proper care of the body was a fixture in the curriculum. [32] At Spelman "cleanliness [was] only second to godliness." [33] It was important to appear tidy and trim; a Spelman woman's diet was strictly monitored to prevent weight gain. [34] Proper Victorian ladies controlled their appetites. [35]

[14] Hair was by no means exempt. During the Antebellum era in the American South, the battle over Black women's right to define their own beauty was fought with sumptuary laws, laws restricting excess. At their inception these laws were meant, in part, to externally reinforce implicit class hierarchies. [36] Early European sumptuary laws placed regulations on how a group of people (categorized by wealth, social standing, and gender) could perform their class, gender, and ethnic identities through outward appearance. [37] The laws restricted how much persons within a group, usually the wealthy, could spend on clothing as a means to restrict intragroup competition. [38] They also served to restrict certain types and styles of clothing to certain classes; essentially, the laws were crafted to prevent the poor from committing class trespass by copying the styles of the rich. [39] As European imports to the U.S., sumptuary laws took root in the New England colonies as restrictions on "luxury, fashion, and dressing above one's rank." [40] As these laws migrated to the Antebellum South, their purpose was to control Black women's performance of race, class, gender, and sexuality through their dress.

[15] One of the earliest accounts of sumptuary laws in the South is the 1786 tignon law enacted by Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miro. [41] The Law required women of African descent to wear a tignon, a large piece of fabric resembling a West African head wrap or a series of headscarves tied around the head. [42] The reason:

[L]icentiousness had become very prevalent in the colony [Louisiana], and the extravagant dressing of the pretty free quadroons [people of African descent with ¼ African "blood" in them] outrivaled that of the ladies [White women] of the city. They added to their attractions by wearing costly jewels and nodding plumes on their heads. Governor Miro sought to render them less conspicuous and attractive by ordering them to wear only a plain handkerchief as headdress—a great blow to their vanity . . . . [43]

These laws (customary and formal), enacted in Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Maryland, [44] set the field of battle on the Black woman's scalp. They were meant to stop the "tresspasser" in her tracks. Hair textures too distracting and alluring because of their difference had to be hidden, lest White women had to compete publically for male attention. Ambiguous racial status, due to a skin tone lightened by the ravages of rape and reproduction, was made known when a tignon was required; after all, the tignon was not a proper ladies hat. [45] Despite these laws, Black women reclaimed their heads as their own:

[T]hey brought their black tresses forward in waved bandeaux, fastened the handkerchief, intended as a badge of their condition, high on the back of their heads, tied its ends in a coquettish style, and looked prettier than ever, for the bright hues of the Madras harmonized artistically with the mellow duskiness of their complexion and their dark eyes. Thus were [Governor Esteban Rodriguez] Miro's efforts in the cause of virtue frustrated. [46]

By the mid-1850's headscarves were not required in most Southern states and were worn with diminishing frequency, primarily as a custom. [47] However, the contested space between a Black woman's ears, both scalp and brain, remained embroiled in a larger war. The famous photograph of Spelman's 1897 graduating class reveals hair in an "out-of-bounds" place, hair stretched (literally) into classic Victorian Era updos or buns befitting these newly minted Black female elites. [48] As the era changed to the 1920's, African American hair occupied the "out-of-bounds" places of the "flapper" culture; flappers wore bobbed hairdos, hair at ear length, straightened or slightly waved, and angled toward the chin. In direct opposition to Victorian era mores, Flapper women also possessed "devil may care" attitudes. A Black flapper's hair, however, took some work to make it carefree; its highly textured state made it a challenge to straighten and manipulate into a bob. A popular beauty school advertised: "bobbed hair is all the go, . . . bobbing colored people's hair is somewhat different than white people's hair . . . . [T]he principle is the same, but a style of bobbing must be adopted which will reach the grade [texture] and length." [49] It would take a while for this hair to lose its stigma; for the women who possessed it, even longer.

Black American Princesses and Queens in the Ivory Tower

[16] Like my sisters who came to Spelman less than twenty years from the formal end of slavery, my own emancipatory entry into its spaces brought conflicting notions of respectability, resistance, and belonging. Prior to my coming to Spelman, race was a major issue in my daily interactions outside of the protective bubble of my home life. Class status was never really an issue. My classmates did not know I was poor because they were never invited to my home. If other people knew my family was poor, it did not impact the way they treated me. However, Spelman was different. Spelman College has been located in what is now the West End of Atlanta since 1883. Historically, Atlanta's West End was one of Atlanta's premier neighborhoods. [50] By the time I arrived on campus, West End's splendor had dissipated to a not so elegant decay. [51] Public housing was located across from our campus, which was and remains surrounded by gates and accessible only after those seeking entrance pass the careful scrutiny of campus police. We were Black princesses in an ivory tower. We were Black women at an elite Black women's college in an elite Black city. We, like the protective bubble where we resided, were both embedded in and separate from the community where we lived. Like our counterparts in the Victorian era and beyond, upon stepping on the campus we were part of the African American middle and upper classes, "The Black Female Talented Tenth," to everyone outside of our gates. We were Rapunzels, unwilling to let down our hair for just anyone to enter, and Oh what hair it was! These tresses were not pressed into submission like our Spelman foremothers, like my own, my mother's, grandmother's, and great-grandmother's. They were gloriously twisted, loc'd [52], froed [53], wild and free. This was upper-class hair; it redefined respectability without referencing what was acceptable to those not of African descent. In this hair was class hierarchy. This was hair in "back places," hair that defied stigma because it was among the stigmatized.

[17] I would see this hair again when I entered the academy, as it existed quite differently in a "civil place" as evidence of authenticity. Women of African descent who had attended Ivy League Universities and Law Schools, deemed elite and acceptable, had no need to conform their appearances to White beauty standards. They were steeped in the "cannon of prosperity" transmitted through a curriculum that provided access to commoditized whiteness. The irony was that they were deemed appropriate as colleagues because their Ivy League pedigrees made them appear to be "one of us," us meaning upper-class and wealthy Whites. They could write about race, even ruffle a few feathers, but they were part of the club, outsiders on the inside. These professors' outward appearances covered a disturbing truth. The hair was kitsch, the marketing of the "Black Woman Law Professor." It said about the institutions where they worked: "Look! We are inclusive. Would an institution that did not value diversity tenure someone who looked like this?" For these institutions, authentic Blackness materialized in the bodies of these African Diasporic women. This was "real" Blackness, middle and upper class Blackness, commoditized, bought, and sold to our students as part of the modern law school and the rhetoric of diversity.

[18] As for me, a graduate from a law school ranked among the top 20 in U.S. News and World Report during my matriculation, I was still an outsider firmly on the outside. The gates that surrounded Spelman and kept us sheltered and safe concealed a secret that my "back place" hair revealed. The education Spelman offered, the education that preceded the law school's attempts to re-educate me, was a subversive one. Spelman College, like many HBCU's, is firmly committed to the education and advancement of African Americans. Spelman's particular vision is to cultivate women of color who are leaders and imbue them with confidence through self-awareness and an awareness of their history. For the institution to accomplish this work, its curriculum, by necessity, must deviate from the "cannon of prosperity," which bestows Sainthood on its European political economists, historians, writers, sociologists, and scientists. Instead, Spelman's modern curriculum worships other saints, in another church, on a different continent; Spelman's curriculum begins on the continent of Africa with reverence and celebration, confronts pain, capture, and The Middle Passage, [54] and begins anew in the Americas. The curriculum is a curriculum for outsiders; its respectability husk has been shucked to reveal kernels ready to pop with the excitement of self-definition, reflection, and acceptance. All who pray at its altar receive instruction to interrogate the silences; to ask who is represented and who is not; and to ask how those present are being represented and why. Its essence is to constantly problematize the absence of people of color from the monolithic telling of the "American" story.

[19] Spelman's curriculum underwent such radical change beginning in 1983, over one hundred years from its start. Twenty faculty across disciplines engaged in a joint effort with the Ford Foundation and the Women's Research and Resource Center at Spelman to thoroughly integrate Black Women's Studies in the whole of the curriculum. [55] Their task was to redesign eight required courses and some others for this purpose: "Freshman English, World Civilization, World Literature, Introduction to Sociology, Introduction to Psychology, Survey of Fine Art, World Religions, Afro-American History, Introduction to Philosophy, and Science and Society." [56] Spelman's English and History Departments were arguably the most industrious in employing faculty and curricular resources to reformulate the curriculum. For example, the English Department used Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as its foundational text for English 101, a required course for first year students at Spelman. [57] The Department's World Literature course was African Diasporic in context and world reaching in scope. [58] By the time I arrived at Spelman, eight years after the Ford Foundation and the Women's Research and Resource Center partnership, Spelman's curriculum was a tightly knit group of courses that taught a canon woven with the work of African Diasporic intellectuals, writers, philosophers, artists, scientists, mathematicians, physicists, chemists, biologists, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, linguists, and political scientists. The cannon, now transmitted through a course of study called "The African Diaspora and the World" (ADW), was a canon to change the world. My required World Civilization course is exemplary. When we studied Europe's colonization of African countries, we simultaneously read Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, studied images produced (through various artistic media) by the colonized and colonizer, and viewed primary sources detailing the modis operandi of the colonizing countries (e.g. scientific reasoning for claimed African inferiority).

[20] Our professors were this meticulous for every unit in each semester long course. In history courses, we examined historic methodology to determine how it excluded methodologies employed by communities of color. Our studies lay bare how the Europeans who colonized Africa and trafficked in African bodies deemed African traditions, such as the oral traditions of storytelling and historical chronicling, "untrustworthy." Such practices were illustrative of the African proverb: "Until the lion has a historian, the hunter will always be the victor." We were taught to speak for the lion and lioness, to historicize their experiences from their perspectives. White supremacist, patriarchal, and capitalist epistemologies were not to be trusted, but to be challenged, vigorously tested, and to be interrogated for truths that were often found lacking. This cannon allowed all who learned it to reject white supremacist formulated versions of identity as normative in favor of those ordered by African Diasporic epistemologies.

[21] Spelman has given its graduates, as its new motto states, "A Choice to Change the World." Beverly Guy-Sheftall, a participant in the curricular change at Spelman, has reflected about doing the work of changing the cannon in the academy. In her words it requires:

[1] acknowledgement that paradigm shifts are necessary in both Black and Women's Studies; [2] resources for faculty development seminars that explicitly address race/class/ethnicity issues and need to be inclusive; [3] acceptance of the complexity of the process; [4] recruitment of more women and minority faculty, and support during the tenure process; [5] alliances/coalitions between faculty and programs involved in Black Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Women's Studies; [6] development of a healthy respect, not tolerance for differences that does not embrace colorblindness, which usually continues to see whiteness as the norm; [7] maintenance of a good sense of humor; [8] willingness to move beyond narrow, disciplinary boundaries; the work is interdisciplinary; [9] willingness to take risks; [10] willingness to teach material with which one is unfamiliar or which might make one uncomfortable; [and 11] willingness to include material that does not focus only on gender or race. [59]

Although, all who come to the church of Spelman College are welcome to its message, its curriculum, that message is conveyed with the hope that those who find themselves in positions of influence will carry it into our professions like Trojan horses. Presented as gifts, we tick all of the diversity boxes (Qualified? Check. Black? Check. Female? Check). We will enter the enemies' territories, those "civil places" where our hair tells the story of resistance to white supremacy, and win the many battles in the war over our right to be present.

Bittersweet Belonging and Not Belonging

[22] Spelman marked my migration into a different class status and my continued conflict over belonging and not belonging visibly, ideologically, politically, and economically. Still African American and now a law professor, my hair has eschewed its "relaxed" nirvana [60] in favor of fully experiencing itself. It is "back place" hair in a "civil place." It has cast off its stigma and stands, like me, in resistance to white supremacy. Also like me, it knows that class is more complex than money. It has witnessed firsthand the cost of covering [61] its stigmatized crinkles, of assimilating. It has known longing for itself. Once altered, it now knows that although healthy and whole it can never be what it was before it shouldered the responsibility of my identity performance to simply rest on shoulders itself unpunished by the shame of my shortcomings. On this real estate that is my scalp is the declaration of "Blackness" as property. It is not kitsch or commodity, but held in fee simple absolute, [62] ownership and expression of what it means to be an outsider and an insider simultaneously. I am an outsider because my background and credentials state loudly that I was not carved from that special clay that, when sculpted and kilned, produces African American Academic Female Legal Intellectuals. I am an insider, because despite this fact, I am an African American, a woman, an academic, a lawyer, and an intellectual. I was made from that rock that sits close to the sea, continuously buffeted by wind and waves until it forms something completely unintended, but undeniably beautiful.

[23] It costs some of us more to be in academia than others, because for some of us academia is the end of a repetitive voyage to and from home. The fare for that voyage is loss. Bittersweet is this belonging and not belonging. In the space between, the barely articulable, is my truth that class is a state of mind and action buoyed by or submerged in an economic state of meaning ordered by white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism. This is the starting point of my journey - my migration to the un(class]ified mind.


[1] This essay is dedicated to my mother, an unparalleled fashionista and "tresspasser" in her own right. The author thanks: God, for allowing me to do this work; my husband Mark, for his endless and enduring love, patience, and support; Sue Painter-Thorne, a fellow class migrant who enthusiastically encouraged and read earlier drafts of this essay; and Scott Titshaw for his valuable insights about identity.

[2] Available at «» (last visited 7/1/14).

[3] The concept of passing was introduced in literary fiction by the author Nella Larsen in her book Passing (Knopf 1929). The concept was explored shortly thereafter in the film Imitation of Life (1934). In these two depictions, light-skinned women of African descent deal with the complexities of passing and not passing themselves off as White in order to avoid race and class discrimination.

[4] Cheryl I. Harris, Whiteness As Property, 106 Harv. L. Rev. 1709 (1993).

[5] Id. at 1724-1738.

[6] Id. at 1735-1742.

[7] Id. at 1741-1746.

[8] Id. at 1711, 1740-1741.

[9] Jessica M. Velasquez and Christopher Wetzel, Tradition and the Invention of Racial Selves: Symbolic Boundaries, Collective Authenticity, and Contemporary Struggles for Racial Equality, 32:9 Racial Studies 1557-1575 (2009) (discussing Mexican and Native American identity formation as both a response and resistance to racial stereotypes); E. Patrick Johnson, Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity (2003) (exploring how authenticity can be a form of "cultural capital" manipulable for financial gain and a resistance to white supremacist stereotypes).

[10] Devon W. Carbado and Mitu Gulati, The Fifth Black Woman, 11 J. Contemp. Legal Issues 701 (2000); Devon W. Carbado and Mitu Gulati, Working Identity, 85 Cornell L. Rev. 1259 (2000); Devon W. Carbado and Mitu Gulati, Conversations at Work, 79 Or. L. Rev. 103 (2001). Carbado & Gulati draw on the Judith Butler's seminal work on gender as performance. Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter (1993).

[11] Kenji Yoshino, Covering, 111 Yale L. J. 769, 771-774 (2002).

[12] Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity 101 (1963).

[13] A relaxer is a chemical straightener primarily used by women of African descent to straighten kinky, coily, and/or curly hair. Relaxers are available with lye (sodium hydroxide) and in no-lye formulations using potassium hydroxide.

[14] Ashiness is a term used to describe the white film that appears on brown skin when it is dehydrated.

[15] "Pressing" refers to the practice of ironing kinky, coily, and/or curly hair with a cast iron comb that has been placed on fire to make it hot. The "press and curl" was a popular hairstyle for African American women until relaxers came en vogue. Hair that is pressed straight is then curled, hence the name "press and curl."

[16] Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina is the first HBCU founded for the purpose of educating women of African descent.

[17] Margaret A. Lowe, Looking Good: College Women and Body Image, 1875-1930 14 (2003). In a letter to John Rockefeller (an early and continuous philanthropist of Spelman College), educator and corresponding secretary of the American Baptist Education Society, Frederick Taylor Gates was laudatory of Spelman's efforts to "purify and uplift the race by purifying the fountain, and by giving the girls simple and practical instruction and surrounding them by sweet influences." Id. See also Johnetta Cross Brazzell, Bricks Without Straw: Missionary-Sponsored Black Higher Education in the Post-Emancipation Era, 63:1 Journal of Higher Education 26, 36 (1992). The author states: "Black women, then, had to be purified and changed before they could be expected to assume their responsibilities in the home. Their femininity, which they had [purportedly] lost during slavery, had to be rediscovered. As White women were keepers and nurturers of civilization, so too were Black women seen as the force within the Black community that would lead to respectability."

[18] Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 185-229 (1993).

[19] Id. At 188-204.

[20] Brazzell, Bricks Without Straw, 63 Journal of Higher Education at 32.

[21] Harry G. Lefever, The Early Origins of Spelman College, 47 The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 60, 60 (2005).

[22] Brazzell, Bricks Without Straw, 63 Journal of Higher Education at 32. In creating educational opportunities for African Americans, the WABHMS, as Brazzell reports, held as a central tenet that: "The colored pupils are equal in ability to the white, and when we are asked what kind of instruction and instructors we shall give them, our answer should be the best." Id.

[23] Id. Of the WABHMS' impetus to provide education for Blacks in the post Civil War era, Brazzell writes: "In order to give them the edge necessary to make the transition it was felt that through education they would be taught White middle-class values and behavior patterns that would not only make them competitive, but also would make them acceptable to larger White society."

[24] Id. at 37. From the 1887-1888 Spelman College (then Spelman Seminary) catalog: "The aim [of Spelman College] is to build character. Christianity and morality are the foundation of all of our teaching, for if these are neglected all else is in vain. To this end, we train the intellect, store the mind with useful knowledge, induce habits of industry and a desire for general information, inspire love for the true and beautiful, and prepare the pupils for the practical duties of life." Id. Early classes included: "chamberwork, table-work, dishwashing, cooking, washing, ironing, and plain sewing" in addition to more "academic" courses. Id. at 41-44.

[25] Id. at 36, 45.

[26] Higginbotham, supra note 18, at 192-201.

[27] Brazzell, Bricks Without Straw, 63 Journal of Higher Education at 46.

[28] Id. at 45.

[29] Id. at 41-44.

[30] Looking Good, supra note 17, at 14, 18-19.

[31] Id. at 18-19.

[32] Id.

[33] Id. at 19.

[34] Id. at 39-40.

[35] Id. at 40.

[36] Alan Hunt, Governance of the Consuming Passions: A History of Sumptuary Law 27, 34 (2003).

[37] Id.

[38] Id.


[40] Hunt, supra note 36, at 39.

[41] Origin of the Tignon, A Head-Dress Worn by the Old Mammy, The Weekly Picayune. June 18, 1891. Volume 51. Number 4. Page 8. Column 6. Available at: «» (last visited 10/31/14).

[42] Barbara Wells Sarudy, Turbans, Voodoo, and Tignon Laws, 19C American Women Blog (November 7, 2013, 4:00AM) «» (last visited 11/3/14); Origin of the Tignon, A Head-Dress Worn by the Old Mammy, The Weekly Picayune. June 18, 1891. Volume 51. Number 4. Page 8. Column 6. Available at: «» (last visited 10/31/14).

[43] Origin of the Tignon, A Head-Dress Worn by the Old Mammy, The Weekly Picayune. June 18, 1891. Volume 51. Number 4. Page 8. Column 6. Available at: «» (last visited 10/31/14); Barbara Wells Sarudy, Turbans, Voodoo, and Tignon Laws, 19C American Women Blog (November 7, 2013, 4:00AM) «» (last visited 11/3/14).

[44] Barbara Wells Sarudy, Turbans, Voodoo, and Tignon Laws, 19C American Women Blog (November 7, 2013, 4:00AM) «» (last visited 11/3/14).

[45] Id.

[46] Origin of the Tignon, A Head-Dress Worn by the Old Mammy, The Weekly Picayune. June 18, 1891. Volume 51. Number 4. Page 8. Column 6. Available at: «» (last visited 10/31/14).

[47] Barbara Wells Sarudy, Turbans, Voodoo, and Tignon Laws, 19C American Women (November 7, 2013, 4:00AM) «» (last visited 10/31/14).

[48] Looking Good, supra note 17 at 82, 84.

[49] Id. at 129,131.

[50] See generally Kevin M. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism 54 (2013) (detailing the prominence of West End Atlanta as a repository for White wealth and the phenomenon of white flight in Atlanta).

[51] "Elegant decay" refers to the notion that an existing structure or place is more beautiful as it declines or decays.

[52] A style worn by people of African descent, mistakenly referred to as "dreadlocks."

[53] "Fro" is a shorthand version of the word "afro." It refers to long, kinky, coily, curly hair worn loose in its natural texture.

[54] The Middle Passage refers to the passage of slaves by sea from the countries in Africa where they were captured to the ports in the Americas where they were sold. See generally Stephanie E. Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (2009).

[55] Beverly Guy-Sheftall, "A Black Feminist Perspective on the Academy," in Transforming the Curriculum: Ethnic Studies and Women's Studies 309 (Johnnela E. Butler and John C. Walter, eds. 1991).

[56] Id.

[57] Id.

[58] Id. at 309-310.

[59] Id. at 310.

[60] Nirvana (noun): "freedom from the endless cycle of personal reincarnations, with their consequent suffering, as a result of the extinction of individual passion, hatred, and delusion", available at «» (last visited 7/1/2014).

[61] Yoshino, Covering, 111 Yale L. J. at 772.

[62] Fee simple absolute is a legal category of real property ownership, in which the rights of full ownership (the right to convey, exclude, and use) are vested in the owner. See «» (last visited 7/1/14).