When the news broke about the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, I was struck into stunned, furious silence.
I was already heavily anticipating the ruling on Proposition 8 and DOMA when the VRA hit me like an unexpected left hook. I was left feeling so powerless, so voiceless, in ways that I had never personally experienced in my life in contemporary America.
Paging through images and articles about the Black Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and hoping to find resilience in the images of those proud, defiant black bodies weathering beatings and abuse for the rights that I held dear until that day--rights that had just been torn from my hands by a handful of robed court justices--I saw this familiar image.
My mother had this picture hanging up in the study at our house when I was growing up. She’d told me the story behind it whenever I asked as a child: Ruby Bridges was a little girl who went to school even though people hated her for being a black girl wanting to go to a white school. She told me that they treated her terribly and shouted terrible things at her, but that she was a very brave young girl and went to school despite that. She did it so that I could go to the school that I went to at the time.
Being that I was about four or five years old when she told me all of this, the gravity of Ruby’s bravery didn’t really sink in. At that age, I was still under the impression that the fire hoses unleashed on the Birmingham protesters were no more powerful than our garden hose. I was a little girl: a child who did not yet, and should never have, known that level of hate.
Naturally--sadly-–I learned that hatred, even in those young years. It has shaped my view of the world throughout my life. I learned that fire hoses are powerful enough to rend flesh from bone, and I learned what the threats hurled at little, six-year-old Ruby Bridges really meant.
I decided to draw from her as a style icon, not only to share all of this with you, but also to reconnect with my mother and other family members who were alive during that period in the American south, and hear from them what they felt.
I talked with my mom about this story and asked her what she would dress like back then. She gently reminded me for what was probably the thousandth time by that point that she was born in 1959, and wasn’t really engaged with the Civil Rights movement on account of her being an extremely small child at the time, but she offered me her memories of what she, my auntie, and little girls like Ruby would do as they got ready for school.
Poorer black folks in the south tended not to put lotion on their children’s skin due to the expense, my mom said, and it was usually reserved for teenagers and adults. Girls Ruby’s age would moisturize with Vaseline. I remember hearing stories about how much girls hated to do that, especially in the dryer places in the south, because the wind would pick up dust that would stick to their legs.
I’m allergic to the petroleum in Vaseline, so I substituted it with Aquaphor. If you’d like to get the Black Southern Girl glow but are concerned about clogging pores, try mixing the Aquaphor with Cetaphil moisturizing cream or any other light, water-based moisturizer.
Hair was (and is) a big, big deal to black southern girls, and black southern women in general. My mom would say that girls would get their hair pressed straight with a hot comb, and then it would be braided into either two pigtails, or one braid in the front with two in the back.
I distinctly remember having my hair done the same way when I was a girl, as well, and it’s for that reason that I strongly recommend against using hot combs for anything other than staring at in abject horror. They aren’t fun.
I took a vow to myself in high school to never straighten my hair again for any reason, so I recreated the look of the three braids with my natural hair texture.
It should go without saying that southern six-year-olds weren’t running around with faces full of makeup, but my mom said that girls did use Vaseline as lip gloss. They weren’t allowed to wear lipsticks or tints, because everything that wasn’t completely transparent was “grown folks color.”
Considering that I’ve been taken to task for daring to wear “grown folks color” lipstick within the last five years, and I’m pretty well-entrenched in my twenties, I’m not sure when a woman ever graduates to the status of “grown folk.”
My mom said that girls would sneak makeup to school and put it on there, though, so I’m going to be extra rebellious and use my Red Violet crayon tinted lip balm.
This part is key.
If you’d like to really, truly embody Ruby Bridges, you have to have the heart and the guts to throw behind your Vaseline-shined skin, triceratops braids and Grown Folk’s Color™ lips. When you leave the house, your head must be held high, and your spine must be a solid steel rod. When you meet jeering crowds that hate your existence--be they throngs of violent racists or general everyday haters at your office--you look at them and imagine that they’re actually celebrating Mardi Gras, for you. When people treat you as though you don’t belong, burst into those places and fill them up entirely with the immensity that is your resplendent self. You must exist with a full heart and the courage of several lions, and exhibit it gracefully.
The next coming months and years will certainly be eventful and turbulent for minority voters, and this is a fact that cannot be ignored. If we can summon the strength of the Ruby Bridges of our past into our future, however, it may at least feel less hopeless.