Who On Earth Do You Think You Are?
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Who On Earth Do You Think You Are?

 Terry Barr
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 Terry Barr
Who On Earth Do You Think You Are?
by Terry Barr  FollowFollow
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I love music. Here's what's on my IPOD now: Dwight Yoakim, Merle Haggard, The Mavericks Lana Del Ray, Vampire Weekend, Television, Tennis,...read more Massive Attack, Yo La Tengo, George Jones. My essay collection, Don't Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother, was published in 2016. My wife is from Iran, a refugee. She's gorgeous and is a Buddhist. Our daughters look exotic and no one knows what to do with them. My wife is also half-Jewish, and so am I. I think that makes our daughters half-Jewish, too, but since I slept through tenth grade Biology, I'm not sure. That's my dog Max over there>>>>> He's a Carolina Wild Dog.
Who On Earth Do You Think You Are?
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In reality, I didn’t think much of myself when I entered Jess Lanier High. Like most guys, I tried to dress cool—Paisley shirts, Mod pants (houndstooth checks, window-patterned frames within-frames), and velour pullover shirts in burgundy red or old gold. Unlike the other guys, though, my pants weren’t flared, but stove-piped. They might be checked, they might be patterned, they might even be multi-colored, but not flared. I don’t know why my mother and grandmother who picked out and bought all my clothes so proudly each Christmas and for my birthday in July refused to buy me flares in my ninth grade year, my entrance into Coolville. They couldn’t tell me either.

Neither would they allow me to wear jeans. I wore them back in elementary school, but now I was supposedly my mother’s idea of a GQ model. My clothes had to match: black and gold, blue and white, plain shirt, striped pants. Jeans suggested the working class, the uneducated.

The ones who caused trouble.

“They just aren’t cute,” my mother would say.

By the next year, I’d have talked her into to my first teen jeans: “Scene Jeans, by Liberty.” Jeans, however, were the after-shock, the tremor that vibrated through the boys of my school after we believed the fissures couldn’t get any wider.

The fissures emanating from the pure quake itself: our long and wavy hair.

It’s hard to believe, but in 1970’s small-town Alabama, hair was a battleground almost as divisive as separate drinking fountains or café entrances in the 1960’s. Junior high students could be expelled for carrying switchblade knives, suspended for three days for engaging in any kind of fight. But in my freshman high school year, students could also be sent home for three days—a suspension ostensibly etched forever on our permanent records—for having hair that only slightly touched our collars, only barely covered the tops of our ears. 

I had no trouble believing this policy; I just had trouble following it. 

An “A” student, never trouble for anyone or in trouble for anything, with my Beatle bangs making me look similar to John on the cover of Rubber Soul, I ran afoul of the law, and the law won. At first.

I knew I was violating policy because I consciously tucked my reddish hair behind my ears at school, surfacely in compliance. For weeks, no one said anything. I saw other guys, older guys, senior guys, tucking their hair too. Maybe we thought that the school officials forgot their own policy, or maybe we figured that with 1600 racially-mixed students crammed into a new school originally designed and built for 800 white students—a misguided attempt to circumvent forced integration and busing—our administration had quit caring about stray hairs. After all, they had to police for smoking, for bathroom skirmishes, for walking-down-the-hall bravado. 

For racial taunting and bullying, and for walkouts by aggrieved Black students who were bused to school as early as 6:30 every morning. 

So we got complacent, the four of us who, that early winter afternoon, found ourselves gathered in Horace Peterson’s office.

I had arrived through diversionary tactics. My Civics teacher, Mr. Davidson, had asked me to take a note for him to Mr. Peterson’s office. I thought my errand was one of mercy, of favor, so I didn’t bother checking my hair on the way down.

“Come on in here,” Peterson said, obviously expecting me, as I opened the door to his office. “You might know these guys.” He left us momentarily to ourselves. On some level, I didn’t know the other boys sitting there, not as friends anyway. Even though one was a neighbor, another went to my church, and both played in Night Wind, the only rock band in town, I didn’t “know” these guys as true friends and certainly not as equals. We did share one clear and noticeable trait: we each had lustrous and wavy long hair. Seeing them, I reflexively tucked my hair behind my ears, and a boy I didn’t know, Dean Smallwood, said in an accent I didn’t recognize (something “Northern”), “Hey, don’t bother hiding it. We need to stand up to these rules. They’re fascists and they have no right to tell us how to wear our hair.”

I looked at him and at the others, their hair flowing freely, and so I let mine down too. It was truly too late to do otherwise.

“Boys, I think you know why you’re here,” Peterson said as he re-entered. “We’re sending you home. You can call your parents to come get you. And when you return in three days, you better have that hair cut.”

Steve Griffis, Night Wind’s lead guitarist, had a red Yamaha guitar and used a Marshall amp. He lived on the bottom end of his frets and would go on to grow his blond hair so long that I’m sure he made every girl within small civic auditoriums around our region beg for salvation. I know I envied his hair, his stature among the teenage-dreamy wasteland. But on this day, Steve was both pissed and petulant and just a bit whiney:

“I’m not putting up with this school. I’m leaving just as soon as I can. I don’t need this.”

Steve did leave, too. He turned seventeen that year and was gifted enough academically to finish his credits, skip his entire senior year, and enroll in a local university. After his three-day suspension, maybe he came back to JLHS and finished out the year, or maybe his parents worked something out so that whatever assignments he had, he could do them from home. It was an interesting choice, but Steve was the only one who chose that path. The others – Dean Smallwood and Russ Guyton (Night Wind’s bassist) – stayed. 

And I stayed, too, for freshmen had no other choice.

Perhaps the oddest thing about this experience was that while my parents were troubled by my suspension, while they didn’t care for my Beatle bangs at all and would rather I had the crew cut I wore through fourth grade, or, if I had to have some hair, part it neatly to the left side, they weren’t angry at me. My mother calmly trimmed my hair that evening, making it so much more respectable because of course you really are a different, a more trustworthy person if your hair does not touch your ears or your collar. 

No, the only ire my parents felt was directed at the school, at Mr. Peterson.

“I don’t see why with all the troubles we have they have to focus on a boy’s hair-length,” they said as one.

So I returned to school after my three days, and though my suspension didn’t make my peers as envious as I hoped, they did notice me, or at least my shorter hair. Clearly, I was no Steve Griffis or even a Dean Smallwood. I was just a ninth grade boy who wanted to look like a certain brand of hero: the ones he saw on American Bandstand each week, the mainly white ones who, he thought, were stars.

The ones who “all shine on,” on and on and on.

In my sophomore year, two related events changed how I saw the previous year’s hair battles. First, in its weary wisdom, the school abolished its hair policy. “Grow it as long as you want,” they proclaimed in essence, if not in actual stated policy. They also let female students shed those wretched pants suits, the ones where the top tunic had to cover the burgeoning “hip” areas. Now the hippie chicks could blossom, intertwining their long tresses and frayed jeans with ours.

I dated a couple of these girls, was in our high school drama troupe with others. After those four years, I graduated my high school class ranked 6th and never got suspended for anything again, though I refuse to tell all my secrets.

All the while, my hair grew to my shoulders, and I wondered which girls wanted me for that hair. The clamor was never resounding. 

Which brings me to the second event of my sophomore year, the year I earned my driver’s license. 

Backing out of a parking spot near the city library one afternoon, I hit a car hovering to my blind-spotted left. Earl Graves, my victim, turned out to be a very nice man who, to my knowledge, never noticed my hair. He felt bad for me, didn’t call the police, and told me he figured the damages would amount to about $35. I drove out to his house and paid him three days later, money from my meager savings. But I also paid in this way:

Upon arriving home with the tragic news of my first car accident, I confronted my mother whose face finally colored as red as my hair:

“That does it. You’re getting a haircut!”

Of course, her reaction made no sense, but I did as I was ordered. 

I don’t know if this was karma, but as soon as I could, I grew my hair even longer. And soon enough in my Alabama youth, I became one with the crowd. I joined the human race.

Of course, the odd thing about growing up with long hair in early 1970’s Alabama was that by the 1980’s, long hair on men was a contagion. And those who grew their hair the longest were the ones that many in my closest circles would have identified as “rednecks,” the ones a decade earlier who would have wanted to “beat my long-haired ass” if they could.

Though threatened, I was never beaten, so despite New Wave and Punk trends, I kept my hair long and flowing through the 80’s and 90’s; through marriage and two daughters; through getting a professorial position at small and conservative Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina. I remember a colleague in another department telling me that after I interviewed, my soon-to-be department chair, when asked if the English department had found its candidate, replied,

“Yes! He has long hair, but we like him anyway.”

My chair was a good and kind man, and he was doubtlessly responding here with as much tongue-in-cheek as a Shakespeare specialist could muster. He also kept admonishing me to eat red meat that first year after I kept coming down with colds.

I finally cut my hair in 2002, the year after our country’s national crisis. I wasn’t honoring any fallen heroes; I was simply recognizing that the bald spot my mother first noticed and remarked upon back in the mid-80’s was now so wide that I feared becoming one of “those middle-aged guys,” the ones who tie their hair in pony tails and pretend that the thinning strands make them look as cool as ever, despite the pasty-white skin showing through. 

Short hair doesn’t erase a bald spot, obviously, but at least it acknowledges that the wearer knows his age and the condition his hair-condition is in.

Which leads me to this conclusion: though I suffered harangues from rednecks; though our elderly neighbor next door tried to get me to cut my hair back when I was fifteen so that, in her words, I could “grow into a young businessman one day,” I lived in an age where young guys, young white guys like me, could vary their hair patterns. Could experiment. Could count on being accepted on some level no matter what we did or how we looked. 

Black guys though? 

Back then, they could keep their heads basically shaved, or grow full, luxurious Afros. And if they did grow such hair statements, in Bessemer, in all of Alabama, white people either feared them or gave them shit, or at least wanted to. 

I remember a white guy I knew in high school taking a complaint to the Student council’s self-organized daily “rap session”:

“I’m tired of seeing those kinky black hairs all over the bathroom sinks after ‘they’ finish combing out their Afros.”

The senior Student council rep on duty, a sharp guy named Rodney Murrell, responded:

“So, where do you comb your hair?”

Even the complainant got this point.

I thought Afros looked good, though. The other thing I knew, many black guys told me that my flowing red locks looked good, too.

It felt like, despite the “racism” in the air, that we understood each other. That we existed in some form of alternative world together.

So what world are we living in today?

Sadly, I hear too often from white friends that dreadlocked Alabama Crimson Tide African-American football heroes like Derrick Henry or freshman sensation Jalen Hurts are crazy or offensive for daring to color or tie back their dreads. For, in essence, refusing to conform to some white standard of African-American hairstyle.

“What’s with all that hair,” my white friends ask? “It looks stupid!”

And it’s hard to say if this is a threat, or just another demeaning comment about youth, and in this case, minority culture.

I say, usually, into the air around me, “Well, if I were black and living now, I’d wear my hair pretty much like they do. I think it looks cool.”

“Gahhhh!”

It’s such a funny thing, hair. We lose it so fast. It’s basically dead on arriving out of our scalp. To so many, though, hair color, length, and style on men mean some measure of control. Some way of taking away another’s rights and in many cases, another’s dignity.

Apparently, same as it ever was.

“Get a haircut,” a man I knew growing up shouted at my friend Don and me when we were simply cavorting in the neighborhood pool. He didn’t yell those words kindly, either. 

Well, Mr. Tommie, eventually I did. 

But I know I kept my hair so long, for so many years, because it bothered you, and Mr. Peterson, and all those rednecks around me, though even after all these years, I still don’t know exactly why you cared.

Today, I’m a sixty-year old man, and there are a lot of things I don’t get:

Why do guys wear those crazy disc earrings that stretch the lobe to alien proportions?

Why do young men and women tatt up their entire bodies and pierce every orifice in sight?

Or let their butt cracks hang out?

What statement are they trying to make; what point do they want me to get?

I ask these questions only of myself, though, and maybe of my wife. And while she just laughs and says, “I don’t know,” I think I get it now. I really do.

As it was in my beginnings, the way people look today is really none of my damn business. I don’t know their stories, their struggles. Their lives.

For, in relation to them, who on earth do I think I am?

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