Thursday, December 24, 2009

East of My Eden

I’m packing up my apartment in preparation for my flight back to what my long time friends affectionately call the “Better coast.” As a writer, I can’t not take this time to reflect on the past two and a half years I spent at an East coast graduate institution. Anyone who follows my blog knows that I live in the liminal space between clear definitions, and now that I have lived in New England, my bi-coastal existence is no exception. People often ask me what the major differences are between the two coasts. After repeatedly wracking my brain, the only thing I can come up with is that the East coast is where our traditional history comes from, and is the landscape upon which children’s books are based. It’s been surreal to me to live in a place that has housed Emily Dickenson, Noah Webster, and many other historical figures that I am too lazy to remember at the moment. L.A. may be the place of movies and reality TV, Manhattan may be the Big Apple, but New England houses our history in the day to day, nitty gritty sense. It’s the birthplace or Mecca of many of our historical politicians, poets, writers, and cultural icons. And when we open Peter Rabbit, Little Women, and (if we include Canada) Anne of Green Gables, the East coast reflects the landscape of such classic stories. When you move to the East coast you learn that the town of Mystic, which brought us Julia Roberts’ debut role, is in fact a real place and that yes, Boston is just as obsessed with the Red Sox as is portrayed, and that L.L. Bean backpacks with embroidered initials--and black North Face fleeces--are worn by everyone and no one thinks it’s funny.
The differences and similarities between the two coasts are not my intended focus of this blog entry, however. Rather, it is what my time in the East coast has given me. Though I have only spent two and a half years here, I am leaving a somewhat different person that the girl who arrived. First of all, at the age of 33 I no longer see myself as a “girl.” This comes mainly from the experience of having taught actual girls (and boys), and of being given the power to give them As or Fs at my discretion. It’s knowing that I have changed lives for the better through helping students realize the liminal spaces in which they live, and to question the standard assumption that everything occurs in black and white. Just as life-changing, the East coast has given me my first ever set of black and biracial friends who will never know just how big of a void they filled. I see myself reflected back through them, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Not only do we share similar skin tones and similar hair, but I now don’t question myself when I see things through race-conscious eyes and when I get upset about race issues that don’t seem to bother my (though wonderful) white friends and family. Lastly, for those of you who know me well, I am returning to the “Better coast” with the ability to take my life and my relationships to the next level. In numerous ways the East coast has “fixed me,” and for that I am eternally grateful. 

--Shannon Luders-Manuel

Monday, November 16, 2009

Caucasia and me

The first time I came across a work of literature about a biracial character was Alex Haley's Queen. I found a tattered copy in my mother's small bookcase and I engulfed it with desperate fervor. While not as revered as Roots, due to the Haley's death before its completion and its subsequent completion by a less academic author, it had an impact on me like no other book, as I finally saw myself reflected in the protagonist. One downside to this novel was that it takes place during slavery -- an era in which I of course have no personal experience. It thus put my story into antiquity and outside of the goings on of 21 century life.

The second major work of literature to touch me on a racial level was Lise Funderburg's ethnography, Black, White, Other. I came across the title in a copy of Teaching Tolerance magazine, made my first purchase in 1995, and ate up the essays written by biracial men and women that the editor had interviewed. These were Americans just like me -- some young, some old, some in college, some in the working world, and all connected by the double ethnicity they shared.

After that came a short string of men's biracial memoirs (three over a period of over about ten years), followed by a similarly short string of biracial fiction that just happened to make its way into my grad school studies. The fiction I came across almost by happenstance, and mostly included antebellum novels written by white authors, thrown into syllabi dealing with Victorianism and Romanticism. I saw myself, but I saw myself through their lens, not through my own. I was a trope, I stood for something, but I was not a human being with a character arc or the ability to simply exist on the page. And, while this isn't true of all antebellum literature of the time, I was always male.

Then came Danzy Senna's Caucasia. Just having finished it about ten minutes ago, I have a similar feeling to the one I felt after completing my novel. A sense of finally seeing myself written down, my story finally told. Only, in this instance, I had the luxury of reading about myself through someone who shared my own experiences but was not in fact me. What does this mean to the biracial academic? It means that her personhood, her existence, is no longer silent in mainstream literature. Finally she is not just an antebellum figure to stand in for the injustices of slavery, and no longer is she a figure that is just as racialized as the institution the abolitionists sought to destroy. She is not just the protagonist of a memoir who has no place in fiction. Finally she is a heroine in a novel that tells her story -- one where the Pakistani mistakes her for a fellow countryman, one where her father hides behind his theories on race and wishes his daughter were blacker, one where she must constantly change her form in order to survive, where her skin at once makes her stand out from those around her and blend into any definition of the Other.

This can be seen as a tale of the tragic mulatto, yes. But it is also a tale of resilience, wisdom, and insight. It is not a tragedy, and it is not a blind celebration. Rather it is a fashioning of the mulatta protagonist into the role of all protagonists -- one who sees her world and herself and struggles to come to terms with both. It is a tale of self-discovery, growth, and character development -- present in most fiction, but absent in most biracial fiction of the past. In the literary sense, it is finally granted the agency to be a tale of everyone, everywhere, for we all struggle to find our place in the world, and we all have obstacles we must overcome.

The next step will be to have a work of fiction where the biracial protagonist is able to have a plot that is not about being biracial. This will only happen when the society in which she lives ceases to define its citizens in black and white terms. Until that day, Birdie and Cole Lee of Caucasia, and Shannon Luders-Manuel of Haight-Ashbury, will work to break the black/white binary and will assert themselves outside the box, embracing their differences yet longing to not be defined by them. In time, Birdie, Cole and Shannon will simply exist, and that will be a beautiful thing.

--Shannon Luders-Manuel

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Biracial Life in Strands

Written June 16, 2009

Black girls with white mothers experience a hair journey lik
e no other parent and child. In fact, the subject of black hair is so distressing to new white mothers that they are often sure they will fail in so vital a role as “hairdresser.” I have become an adviser to my white friends who have adopted African children, and my own hair has undergone distinct and radical changes throughout my life… almost as representing separate identities or developmental phases. These phases started off in a mother/daughter fashion, and then continued throughout my adult years in my own quest to find my identity.

This is how my hair looked fully grown out when I was a kid:

(me with my father in approximately 1984)

My mother would painstakingly comb my hair while I watched Sesame Street and put it into two huge braids that fell down my back. Then I’d go off to see my dad and he would take the braids out to let my hair fall free. It was a constant battle between them, and I would come home with beautiful flowing, but tangled, hair.


Then in 3rd grade I got lice and it all got cut off. I cried and I felt like I had lost my femininity:

(me and my mom, approximately 1985)

My mom and I kept it in that afro until my freshman year of high school. No more combing the hair in front of the TV. Now it only took a matter of minutes to get the tangles out and create a style.


At my request, my mom took me to a black stylist and I got my hair chemically straightened with lye:

(my mom, sister, and me in 1990)

The lye process burned my scalp while it was being applied, and after the straightening I had scabs all over my head. But I also, finally, had straight hair.


After swearing off the expense and danger of lye, I started relaxing my hair at home with kits bought from the grocery store. With this bi-monthly treatment, it stayed a less bone-straight version of the original lye treatment for about 15 years. (To keep it so straight would have required daily hair iron treatments, and straight hair wasn’t in fashion for white girls):

(my friend Brian and me at the Sadie Hawkins dance in 1992 or 1993)

But my hair did have some intermittent changes along the way.


During the beginning of my senior year, I got my hair braided for my senior picture. My chemically straightened hair was not as refined or polished as I wanted it to look (it was too poufy to wear down), so I figured braids would do the trick. It would also help to define me as a black woman, even though—even with the braids—I still had friends say, “What are you anyway?”

(My friend Jackie [from the Caribbean Islands] and me in 1993)

My mom and I found a black salon through a phone book, and the hairstylist came to our house to cut down on overhead costs. The braids were expensive and made my head itch, so I went back to the grocery store relaxer kits until I got braids again in 1997 for my best friend’s wedding in Iowa. I got them again after going off to college for the first time in 1998. I would find a braider by asking women on the street who had done their hair. It was usually a cousin who braided out of her home, and I would go there and sit on her living room floor for 8 hours while she did mine. Both times the itching got worse and braids were still expensive, so each time I went back to the relaxed style.


In 2000 I married a white Navy reserveman. For the first time in my life, I decided to document the important occasion with my own curly (but relaxed) hair:

(my sister and me at my wedding in 2000)

The white hair salon did a wonderful job on all my bridesmaids’ hair, but was at a loss of what to do with mine. I wasn’t much help, because I myself still did not know how to wear my hair down, but I figured a salon would. The picture here isn’t bad, but after an hour or so my hair turned into a big puff of disaster.


After the “disaster” I did research and discovered that treating hair with (proper) lye was actually better for the hair and scalp than treating it with kits from the grocery store. So

I looked in the phone book and drove to the black part of town. Finally my hair was relaxed enough that I could actually wear it down:

(me in 2005)

By the time the above picture was taken, I had gotten divorced, gone back to school, and moved to an area that didn’t have a black part of town. Once again I was a customer of a white hair salon, but one that provided lye treatments for its few black customers.


Still in school, in 2005, I got my first apartment with no housemate or husband, and I found a Puerto Rican hairstylist in a nearby town through an African friend—My first African or African-American friend since childhood. My friend got cute dreadlocks and I got my hair chopped off and learned how to make it bone straight with an iron (it took 3 hours each time):

(my mom and me in 2005)


That was the first step towards growing it out curly, which the hairstylist showed me how to do: combing only while the conditioner is in the hair, using leave-in conditioner, and curl activator or pomade, and blow drying with a diffuser. My hair had been slowly thinning over the years because of the persistent relaxing process, so when it was long enough (a few months later) every bit that had been relaxed got cut off. This picture is from about 2 years after that:

(me in 2007)

It was the first time that friends and acquaintances “ooed and awed” at my hair. And it turns out the great hairstyle was there all along. I just hadn’t had known how to unleash it.


My last really short haircut was right before coming to grad school, and now I am slowly growing it out again to be how it was back when I was 9, before the lice. Here is its progress so far:

(me in 2009)


Of course, I wear like this though:

(my sister and me in 2009)

In my new, white college town, I have actually been turned away from the owner of a hair salon, because my hair would be “frizzy for weeks” due to the rain. However, I’ve found a salon that will cut my hair even though they don’t know how to style it, which is okay because now I actually do. I’ve also, through a white friend, discovered a Puerto Rican hairstylist two hours away in Boston. After the life changing experience with the first Puerto Rican stylist, it will be worth the drive.


My hair has undergone many changes over the past 32 years. I’ve wrestled with how to make it coincide with the fashion of each decade, and I’ve struggled to tame the curls that kept me from looking like my peers…. and my mother. As the only one with curly hair in my extended family, and having a distant and now deceased black father, I was truly at a loss with how to maintain my biracial existence and embrace my biracial hair. Even now, many black women are chemically treating their hair to make it look similar to the white mainstream. While I can’t judge my black peers for their hair decisions, I am pleased to find that so many black women are letting their hair be natural again. Maybe it has to do with East coast graduate school fashion, but I find I’m not the only one sporting my natural curl. In fact, I now have three black friends who do just that. It’s nice to finally see a reflection of myself in someone else’s hairstyle, and I am so thankful and grateful for my mom, and for those hours she spent with me watching Sesame Street and tackling my hair with a wide toothed comb.

(my friends Denia, Eboni, Rachel, and me in 2008).

--Shannon Luders-Manuel

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

No Service Salons

I’ve been denied service at the two major hair salons in Amherst. Why? Because I choose to keep my hair natural. So see a black hairstylist, you say. Well, that would work except the black stylist I saw, funnily enough, didn’t know how to cut my hair either. Most likely because she is used to cutting the hair of black women who choose to have their manes chemically treated. In addition to her dry cut consisting of taking a random handful of my hair and chopping, she made judgments about my father. The only thing she knew about him was that he was black, and that he liked my hair natural, and that was enough for her.

“Did those salons really turn you away,” you ask? In the first instance, the owner of the salon where I get regular waxing took one look at my hair and said, “You don’t want me to cut it. Really.” Her reasoning? It will be frizzy for two weeks because it’s raining. As a semi-native of Seattle I am well aware that a haircut in rainy weather does not result in two weeks of frizziness. Perhaps she was confusing it with a hot iron treatment, which is probably what black clients usually come in for. Nevertheless, I decided I did not want to trust her with a pair of scissors, and even my confused expression was met with nothing but continued assertions that "you REALLY do not want me to cut your hair."

The second stylist, who I had been seeing for the past year, accosted me today as I walked in for my haircut, saying, “Because you’re growing your hair out you’ll want to find someone who knows how to cut your kind of hair" (emphasis mine). Funny, as the first time I saw her I lamented being turned away by the other salon. She was completely sympathetic to my plight, yet also terrified because she could not restyle my hair the way it was when I walked in. No sweat, I said, I just need a cut; I can style it myself. Now apparently even the cutting is too much for this seasoned stylist. Now that I’m growing my hair natural it’s the healthiest it’s ever been. But stylists seem unwilling to tackle this curly black beast in its natural state and instead send me on my way to “my people.” Tell me where my people are, and I’ll be glad to make the journey. None of my people, at least in Amherst, have successfully found a stylist.

This sounds like your typical consumer rant, but it is much more than that. It is an awareness that hairstylists are not taught how to work with natural black hair. It's an awareness that blacks and whites alike are more comfortable giving or receiving lye treatments than they are combing through hair that will remain as curly when it leaves those four walls than it was when the hair walked in. Not that blacks and whites don't love natural black hair and wish they had it for themselves. After finishing my cut today my stylist played with my ponytail puff, commenting on how lovely it was. It reminds me too disturbingly of adults who will declare your ebony beauty but not let you marry into the family. I see a change coming, at least throughout New England, where women of color are rejecting the Caucasian-inducing lye and embracing their natural beauty. Hopefully hairstylists will soon follow suit. Until then, I’ll hop from salon to salon, feigning remorse at my unruly curls, and eagerly await Chris Rock’s black hair documentary entitled, ironically, “Good Hair.”

--Shannon Luders-Manuel

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Political Heads and Tails -- Two Sides of the Same Coin

Just as my ethnic self includes the binary of black and white, it also includes the binary of both right wing and left wing camps. I am a Democrat, and believe strongly in Democratic values, but because I was a born again Christian for 10 years of my past and attended rather conservative churches, many of my long term friends are Republican. While their views, which sometimes include Libertarianism, often violently contradict my own, many of these friendships able to withstand this divide because of our history, our mutual respect, and our genuine desire for each of us to understand the political motivations of the other. This is not true for all the friends of my past, however. Those who use facebook as a platform to comment on the “stupidity” of “socialists” and Obama supporters in general are not people I can easily tolerate. This intolerance is twofold: 1) Because I feel that none of us should call the other camp stupid, and 2) because Obama is my biracial brother, and one who I trust as my Presidential leader.

As I read these spews against an increasing “socialist America” I become aware of the fact that Libertarians and extreme liberals really want the same things, we just view these wants through a different lens. I read 1984 about six years ago and became afraid of Bush and capitalist greed. A Libertarian acquaintance read the same book and became afraid of Democrats who he feels are thinly-veiled socialists. How can one book provide such similar reactions to such opposite truths? The answer is this: Libertarians and Socialists both want and fear the same things—not on a specific level, such as healthcare or abortion—but on the thematic level of freedom and a quest for truth. 1984 speaks to both camps because it relays a fear of power, a fear of being denied one’s rights due to the control of an outside Other. These rights differ, but the fact that we are all afraid of losing them is what makes us the same. We each accuse the opposite camp of being “lemmings,” and demand, as Coldplay demands of those they feel are not socially aware, to “Open up your eyes.” Each of us feels that those who do not share our beliefs are living in darkness and following the status quo without giving thought to what it is we are following. But how can each of these status quos be threatening our existence at the same time? How can we at once both be doomed to Conservative Capitalism and to Socialism? If both camps have their eyes closed, who has them open?

I will always believe in a woman’s right to choose and equal rights for homosexuals. I will always believe that everyone should be afforded healthcare and a good education. I will always believe that war is not the answer, and that America should embrace people from all countries, religions, and orientations. But while I support these things, I am simultaneously aware that humanity is predisposed to believe that the world is falling to pieces, and that this individual fear unites us collectively. Whether we fear Conservative Bush or Liberal Obama, we should “open our eyes” and realize that our belief in freedom is what links us to, not separates us from, our political opposition.

--Shannon Luders-Manuel

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Loving Myself with Unbiased Eyes

Published on Teaching Tolerance Web Site January 4, 2007

I recently had the pleasure of attending the lecture by James McBride, having read his memoir a few years ago when I was at my most-heightened search for identity. Without retaining much of the details of his life story, what has remained with me is the knowledge that someone else had experiences similar to my own. To know that he too struggled with feelings of shame over his white mother—and questions over whether he, as a black child, had been adopted—brought down the wall of alienation I felt was between me and the rest of the world.

There is often a divide, as we know, between black and white. For those of us in the middle, we often feel that we must choose one side of this divide or the other, especially in our younger years. For me, growing up predominantly African-American in a white family gave me a sense that I was interminably an outsider. My family loved me unconditionally, but it was hard to love myself with the same unbiased eyes. I felt this most acutely during sixth grade when my mother and I moved to a more diverse, and more racially divided, part of town. African-American eighth graders teased me for being so light-skinned, while my best friend and I were forbidden to continue our friendship because her white parents disapproved of my dark skin and of my cousins’ Japanese ancestry.

A few years ago I was standing at a street corner, waiting for the walk signal, when a white woman and a black man came up beside me with their young daughter on her bicycle. In those moments before we continued on our separate paths, I felt a sense of completeness like I had never experienced before. Standing there at the corner, we looked like a family. It was the one moment in my life when I did not stand out from the crowd.

It seems that biracial children these days don’t have quite the sense of alienation that was felt by those of us born a generation before. As a child I could spot another biracial person from a mile away and felt an instant connection with the individual. But now biracial children don’t seem to see me for anything other than a human being, if they even notice my presence at all. I take this as a good sign. It shows that the children of the new generation have more biracial peers than we did twenty years ago. In addition, while race relations are no way at peak form, I think we can see a marked difference in attitudes between then and now.

My struggle for identity has pretty well ceased within the past few years. I am an individual of complex origin and am proud to be so. I find it fitting that my birthday falls on United Nations Day, because I think by default of identity, those of us who incorporate two opposing races do much to bring those two races together. As an American with African, German, English, Irish, and Scottish, and Mexican heritage, I am proud to participate in the melting pot that is America.

--Shannon Luders-Manuel