In April 1968, race riots erupted in the US following the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the National Guard was deployed in Washington DC. As social dynamics continued to evolve, the time was ripe for change and learning.
Several years ago, at an educators’ workshop, I was asked to identify my cultural marker. “My afro!" I answered spontaneously.
It was then the ‘90s, long after the huge “’fros” of the '60s and ‘70s. Mine was still substantial, and old timers would often stop me to comment with nostalgia.
I had arrived in the US in the late sixties, at the height of the Duvalier regime in Haiti and in the midst of the movement for change in this country. The DC-area Haitian community, then small and mostly self-contained, included professionals from international organizations, diplomats, some students and academics, and a few working people. As in the home country, it was cosmopolitan, with some intermarriages with African Americans as well as with Caucasians, and a few families who were rumored to try to “pass” through the color line by keeping careful boundaries between their Haitian and projected selves.
Despite the language barrier, my husband and I set out to discover our new environment. While we had studied English in Haiti, the difference in accents initially made conversation laborious. Thus, as we took the bus and got lost countless times, we also read newspapers, watched a lot of TV, kept notes of new words and their pronunciation, and made liberal use of dictionaries. Often, when hearing us speak, black and white Americans alike would ask us if we were “supposed” to be black. We would then try to explain Haiti’s independence in the context of the slave trade and our African heritage.
During the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, 14th Street burned in Washington. In our Adams Morgan living room, we could smell the tear gas used to disperse the looters. The following Saturday, it was a quick dash for food at a neighborhood store where two armed National Guardsmen stood posted at the door. DC was occupied.
The low cost of housing led us to Northern Virginia, despite some warnings from relatives and friends. The first Blacks to move to our street, we initially felt welcome. That started to change, however, as we sought other black families in the neighborhood. When asked about her new behavior toward us, my next door neighbor told me point blank that she had thought we were “different.”
Our foreign language and other skills had allowed us to find employment in the newly desegregated work force, and in my daily bus commute from DC to Virginia, I was generally the only black person onboard. I started to notice that even in a crowded bus, often no one would sit next to me, although it might have been the only seat left empty. I then looked around and realized that while I was the only black person on that bus, my hair had been altered to fit the European model. That is when I decided to fully assume who I was. After some trial and error, I had a huge Afro, and that elicited curious stares one evening as people seemed to take me for Angela Davis, who was then in hiding and actively sought.
The young and militant graduate program at Federal City College (now UDC) later provided content, context, and the PanAfrican framework to explore issues related to the African American community as well as my Haitian culture. The African American bookstores of the Georgia Avenue corridor, the Alexandria Black History Resource Center (now Black History Museum), and other local scholars led me to discover the 19th century African American connection and migrations to the young Republic of Haiti, at the invitation of the then government of the country.
Now adults, my children, while conscious of their Haitian heritage, have also integrated the African American community. And, with the vagaries of celebrity fashion, young people now approach me sometimes. “I like your Afro,” they say. “How do you keep it?”
Simple, easy, and natural. Explore and learn through community and online resources, then style, trim, condition, and maintain. A good pick helps, and I still use an old one that someone brought me as a gift, from Africa.
Marie-Thérèse Labossière Thomas