Finding confidence in her curls

February 06, 2018 | GET MORE : Life

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Cincinnati high school senior Carly Jones read this essay at the U.S. Bank-supported King Legacy Breakfast.

Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Dr. King was a man who dedicated his life to the ongoing struggle for racial equity, for truth, for justice and for an appreciation of diversity. He advocated non-violence, serving as a vessel of unabashed love in the face of a nation who robbed him of his humanity and labeled him a criminal simply by way of his skin color. 

His movement and his dream are in no way restricted to his lifetime or in the years immediately following; rather, his message serves as universal model for behavior, applicable not only in waging war against a political and social climate hostile to the needs of the African American community, but also in communicating an air of confidence and grace within our everyday context.   

Two years ago, I decided to wear my natural hair. 

The stubborn curl of my afro (that I had once wished to exile in hopes of conforming to a Eurocentric standard), was an aspect of myself that I had come to tentatively love and take pride in. 

At school and beyond, my hair was not met with this same love. I was called a “clown” and often subject to taunts likening my hair to broccoli or pubic hair. When I attempted to convey the hurt I felt as a result of this intolerance, I was dismissed by: “Can’t you take a joke?” 

One day, while I was delivering a presentation to my class, a student held up a picture of broccoli, taking away the authority of my presentation. The imposition of this closed-minded standard of beauty was intimidating for a girl with gravity-defying curls who aspired to break through such barriers. 

It was then that Dr. King's Legacy resonated with me. While I may not be waging war against Jim Crow, I indeed must articulate and defend what is important to me as an African American woman with love rather than hate. 

In the spirit of non-violence, in the spirit of creation and positivity, I resolved to create a multimedia art collection that expanded beyond my own testimony, and included the larger struggles of my community:

A painting of an African American woman with green broccoli in place of her hair
Beautiful in Broccoli

I have depicted a girl who rocks her broccoli hair, and possesses complete ownership of her identity.

A painting of an African American woman with three layers of black and dark green hair
6018

Approximately 60 percent of African American women younger than the age of 18 will be sexually assaulted by the time they reach adulthood. Once, I shared my artwork with two women, and they both said that they were assaulted themselves. This 60 percent is not simply a statistic. It is somebody’s sister, somebody’s daughter. We must work to heal and protect our vulnerable black girls.

A painting of an African American woman with red and white lifeguard flotation devices in place of hair, and a stream of water running down her face from her eye
Miss Lifeguard

In my experience as a lifeguard at a pool frequented by a predominantly African American demographic, I noticed a trend in that a large deal of African American children are non-swimmers. Upon further research, I found that compared to the 40 percent of Caucasian children, 70 percent of African American children cannot swim. I want our children to look at the water and to feel safe, and supported, unlike this girl depicted, who is distressed and completely alone.

I would like to conclude with a quote by Dr. King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This message has colored my personal growth, as I am not a product of my environment anymore. Rather, this environment is the product of the positive energy I invest in my community through my artwork. I will build upon this portfolio throughout my senior year, and create a platform for distributing my artwork, and by extension, the love I have to share. 

Carly Jones is a King Legacy Youth Leadership award winner, graduate of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center youth docent program and senior at Seven Hills High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. She read a full version of this essay last month at the 2018 King Legacy Breakfast, which U.S. Bank is proud to support. Carly’s story was also covered locally by the Cincinnati Herald.