Girl's hair ordeal was dread wrong

Posted: September 13, 2013

THINK FOR A moment that you're a little kid all excited about the first day of school. You show up looking forward to meeting your new teacher, only to be turned away because your hairstyle is banned.

That's what happened to 7-year-old Tiana Parker recently in Oklahoma when she got sent home from school because her hair didn't conform to the school's dress code. Tiana, who's African-American, wears her hair in short locks, tightly coiled hair typically referred to as dreadlocks. At the time, the Deborah Brown Community School, a predominantly black school in Tulsa, banned "hairstyles such as dreadlocks, Afros, mohawks and other faddish styles."

Like a whole lot of us who first heard about the incident last week, Drexel University's Yaba Blay's impulse was to completely tune it out. It felt too much like, here we go again.

Hadn't comedian Sheryl Underwood, who's also black, just stomped on a collective raw nerve when on national TV she dissed African-American hair in its natural state on the CBS chatfest "The Talk"? Mind you, Underwood said this while sporting a silky, Farrah Fawcett-style wig, which makes you wonder what brand of self-hate pills she pops.

Then, there was the charter school in Ohio that earlier this year banned Afro puffs and small twisted braids. And who can forget historically black Hampton University's infamous no-tolerance policy on dreadlocks and cornrows for its five-year MBA students?

So, when news about what happened to Tiana began to spread, Blay did what the rest of us who are weary of this kind of B.S. did: nothing. She didn't even read news accounts of the incident.

Then, a colleague familiar with her work as the creator of the (1)ne Drop Project, a multiplatform effort challenging what constitutes black identity, sent Blay a link, urging her to take a look. Blay pressed play and the sight of Tiana crying incensed her.

At first, Blay thought about going after school administrators, but decided instead to concentrate on Tiana. Blay, who was a consulting producer for CNN's "Who is Black in America?" put up a Facebook post, asking women with locks and mothers of girls with locks to send a picture and a few-sentence affirmation for the little girl. Altogether, 111 women and girls responded, emailing letters, poems and photos.

Blay turned what she got into an online slide show she named "Care Package Full of Locs of Love," staying up all night to get it done. She posted it Friday on her website, yabablay.com. The slide show attracted nearly 100,000 views by yesterday.

"It reads kind of like a book," said Blay, a professor and co-director of the Africana Studies program at Drexel. "The response was overwhelming. I mean Alice Walker contacted to ask if I would include an excerpt from one of her essays."

Blay moved fast, hoping to keep Tiana's parents from changing the little girl's hair.

"I wanted to move quickly because something in my spirit was saying, 'Please don't cut her hair or please don't comb her hair out.' Because the average parent who just wants to do what's 'right' for their child, the easiest path is the path of least resistance, so 'let's just adhere to the policy.' ''

Next, she set out to make sure Tiana saw it.

"They actually did a follow-up story in Tulsa and showed the care package on the news; I think, on Monday," Blay said. "And Sunday night I spoke with Tiana and her parents.''

The very next day, administrators at Tiana's school voted to change the hair policy.

The modification came too late for Tiana, though.

Her parents already have snatched her out of there - as well they should have.

Let's just hope little Tiana made it out in time before the damage the school inflicted got ingrained in her psyche.


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

Email: armstrj@phillynews.com

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