WASHINGTON — Seventeen-year-old Michelle Barskile could imagine her appearance at the Alpha Kappa Alpha debutante ball. All eyes would be focused on her as she waltzed with her father under the spotlight in the darkened ballroom. She planned to wear a pearly white gown purchased months ago for the special night and to have her black tresses sway to the music.
But her coming-out experience isn't going to be anything like that.
The Raleigh, N.C., chapter of the black sorority withdrew Barskile's invitation to the Nov. 27 ball, saying her hairstyle was unacceptable. Barskile wears dreadlocks, long and thick ropes of naturally twisted hair that frame her bespectacled face and cascade down her back. The sorority sisters wanted her to wear her locks pinned up off her neck for the ball.
"I'd look like Marge Simpson if I did that," Barskile says, referring to the blue beehive hairdo of the television cartoon character. "When I refused, they said I couldn't be in the ball."
What particularly offends Barskile, an African American, is her conviction that she is a victim of racial discrimination by a black sorority. Clearly, she argues, if a white group had done this to a black woman, the AKAs would be among the first to cry foul.
"I don't think that's right," she adds. "I think someone should question them about this attitude they have. They seem to be saying unless you look a certain way, you don't have the qualities to be an AKA debutante."
Apparently, the AKA chapter is saying exactly that, although the sorority's officials declined to defend their position. "Decisions were made in accordance with our rules and regulations," says Gale Isaacs, co-chair of the debutante ball.
Carey Preston, the AKA's national executive director in Chicago, backs up the local chapter. "We have no policy on hairstyles," Preston says. "But the decision was that chapter's business. It's up to them."
Beyond the disappointment of one wannabe debutante in central North Carolina, this tale of hair strikes a chord of angst among black women across the nation. Those familiar with the history and politics of black hair say the demand to conform to white and mainstream expectations often begins at the top of their heads.
And, like sky-high afros of the 1960s or braided cornrows of the 1980s, today's battles are waged over dreadlocks. Black community leaders tend to cross swords with the trendy, fashion-forward and politically confrontational, pitting young and old in a painful race-conscious battle over their differing definitions of class, beauty and self-expression.
"We have not moved beyond hair texture or color," says Chuck Stone, a professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "This chapter of AKAs is really living in the antediluvian ages. I don't know who they are speaking for or about."
An Embrace of Mainstream Values
The AKAs' decision harks back to an earlier generation, when a tradition of southern debutante balls marked the "coming out" of black women. This rite of passage marked their embrace of mainstream values as a way of moving up in society. Black Greek-letter organizations, like the AKA and other sororities and fraternities, are well-known within the black community for their serious attachment to these middle-class American values.
"Many of the people who wear locks are younger people 30 and under and tend to be on the East and West Coasts, where styles are more relaxed than in the South," says Noliwe Rooks, author of "Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture and African-American Women." "The people with locks will tell you that they get a much harder time about their hair from other black people than they ever do from white people."
Rooks, a visiting professor at Princeton University, says dreadlocks are sprouting from the heads of more and more African Americans, as well as many white youths. But they are not yet mainstream, not worn by Masters of the Universe such as bankers and corporate executives. "People who have to go out and work to pay mortgages don't wear locks," she says. "You may see more and more African Americans wearing them, but mostly they're artist types."
A few iconoclasts, like actress Whoopi Goldberg, buck the conventional by wearing dreadlocks. As do folk singer Tracy Chapman and Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, who is an AKA.
Rooks herself began wearing dreadlocks several years ago as a graduate student, allowing the long strands to naturally grow, without time-consuming and expensive treatments, into thick tresses down her back. In time, she clipped the dreadlocks into a shorter page-boy style. "It's easier to maintain," she says, noting that many black women wear it for the same reasons. "I don't have to spend a lot of money keeping my hair looking good. I like how they look and I like how they feel."