The power of the single narrative: ‘Hair & Other Stories’ by Urban Bush Women
When I was little, I used to have golden hair — the kind that shone under the sun and could be categorized as both blonde and brunette. In Mexico, my family affectionately knew me as “güera,” which means “blondie” in Spanish, and I accepted the nickname with no hesitation because I never thought of the color of my hair as being indicative of my “Mexicanness” or my beauty. The fact that, by the age of 13, I was still a “güera” did not matter to me. That is, not until I moved to the United States. Here, being Mexican was equivalent to having olive skin and silky dark brown hair, so as a “güera,” I was often questioned on my identity, as people were incredulous when I told them I was Mexican.
When I entered high school, my friends started to experiment with their hair. Ombre and colorful highlights came and went, but my hair stayed the same. I thought that changing my hair in any way would make me look less Mexican, and therefore lose the identity I hung on to so tightly because I would look white. As a person who can pass as white, I have semi-fair skin and light brown eyes. My blonde-brunette hair was one of the only things about me that fit the Mexican stereotype, so changing it in any way would make me appear less so.
This inner conflict suddenly resurfaced when I went to see Urban Bush Women’s “Hair & Other Stories” last Friday at the Power Center. With a mix of singing, dancing and performing, all of us were emotionally captivated and taken on a journey of what it means to be Black — or any minority — in today’s society. The performance was a collage of personal stories the dancers chose to put forth. Every scenario was based on real experiences in which the dancers explored issues ranging from single mother households to superheroes, but most of their stories centered around one theme: hair.
Throughout the show, certain moments stuck out to me.
Madame C.J. Walker:
During their show, Urban Bush Women referred to Madame C.J. Walker’s System of Beauty Culture as one of the first beauty products tailored specially for Black women. In it, Madame C.J. Walker miraculously and effortlessly fixed her nappy hair and exchanged it for long, silky and luxurious locks. During Friday night’s show, the dancers sang about societal views on nappy hair. They sang and danced about the beauty of Black hair in its natural frizzy state. They praised short, unchanged hair and talked about their stories of how, because of their fight to keep long, straight and soft hair, their hair had started to fall out due to all the products they used to change its texture.
“If you’re white, you’re right”:
The stories about nappy hair and societal views on what is right brought forth questions about othering and the single narrative perspective we currently experience in our society. The dancers from Urban Bush Women put forth a beautiful, organic dance number in which they enveloped a dancer in black paper that she slowly broke out of while radio footage played on the speakers. It included news about the Civil Rights Movement, with commentators speaking about the place Black people should hold in our society. The audio started speeding up as commentators spoke about Black women being primitive and Black men being criminals. Then, it suddenly stopped as the dancer who was enveloped in the paper fell to the ground, next to the remains of her black shell.
“Seat at the table vs. part of the menu”:
Dialogue about minorities and their place in society is exploding all over the nation. More and more people and organizations are trying to spread awareness about the problems facing minorities, especially African Americans, in our country. However, Black voices are seldom heard, even with issues affecting the Black community. The Urban Bush Women made a powerful statement regarding this issue when they did a number in which they brought out a picnic table and a deck of cards. As they dealt the cards, which had phrases like “internalized racial superiority” and “understanding and undoing racism,” the dancers tried to understand why conversations about African Americans, politics and equality often excluded the subjects themselves.
“Being powerful is being vulnerable”:
The company concluded with a number in which they explained their version of being a superhero. Power means a higher ability to manipulate society and to tilt the scale in a way that could benefit a singular group. According to Urban Bush Women, being in a position of power also entails the humility to realize that there are multiple perspectives and ways of seeing the world and being aware of everyone else’s experiences.
After seeing “Hair & Other Stories,” I decided that I was finally going to cut my hair. Thanks to this performance, I finally understood that there is no right way to look Mexican. I understood that the power of the single narrative is only powerful as long as everyone who defies it stays quiet.