The year was well, that's not important. I was beginning my senior year of college. With only a few required classes remaining, I decided to take an elective physical-education class. The selections were varied: softball, jogging, golf. Instructors suggested swimming, but with my chemically processed hair, that was not an option.
Memphian Arnecye Baker has heard stories like this too many times: women trapped in what she calls "Miss America hair," unable to enjoy many of the pleasures of life (like frequent swimming) because of their processed hair. A former perm-wearer herself, Baker has embarked on a mission to help women realize the freedom of natural hairstyles.
In her third annual "Natural Sistas Day Out" celebration, "Journey to Natural Hair Freedom," Baker uses short stories to dramatize the history of women, especially African Americans, and hair maintenance. What started as a small gathering of six women in her apartment has grown by word of mouth into a daylong event at the Buckman Performing Arts Center, complete with styling demonstrations and spoken-word performances.
"The drama will be a live and up-close experience and will present the trials, triumphs, and truthful situations in dealing with our hair," says Baker. "We are trying to get to a place where we can love our hair, whatever the [styling] preference."
The show highlights the natural, or non-chemically processed hairstyles that have seen a surge in popularity within the last few years. Worn by women such as actress Alfre Woodard and singer Jill Scott and Memphians such as attorney and Shelby County mayor's wife Ruby Wharton, the natural look is back.
Many of the natural styles, like Afros, braids, and knots, are replicas of those worn by African women. During the civil rights period, natural hairstyles were used by African Americans to make cultural and political statements. Perhaps the most famous Afro of the 20th-century was that worn by activist and Black Panther-turned-professor Angela Davis.
In an interview about the significance of her hairstyle, Davis once said, "I continue to find it ironic that the popularity of the afro is attributed to me, because, in actuality, I was emulating a whole host of women -- both public figures and women I encountered in my daily life -- when I began to wear my hair natural in the late Sixties. The Afro, even though it became a hairstyle, has a political history since the police were known in certain parts of the country to single out people who had Afros because of the political significance of that hairstyle."
These days, people who wear the Afro and natural styles like it have developed their own hair communities, complete with style specialists, maintenance products, and demonstrations. In Memphis, natural hair care is big business. According to Baker, a growing number of stylists are meeting the new demands, but women still should do their own research. As with chemically treated hair, some natural styles are not conducive to every face shape or personality.
Baker, who wears her hair in traditional locks, began her personal hair journey at age 12 with her first perm. After years of processing, she experienced a hair epiphany in 1997 while on a business trip to Atlanta. There, the natural styles worn by many African-American women intrigued her so much she began her own research. "I was like a lot of women," she says. "I like the styles, but I thought they wouldn't look good on me, and I was concerned about what others would think. It was fine for Atlanta, but in Memphis, I didn't think it would go over so well."
In January 2002, Baker stopped perming her hair. "I noticed a sense of freedom and knowing that I was already beautiful," she says.
But what about people who enjoy the sleek, manageable, bouncy feel that perms provide? That's okay, says Baker. The upcoming celebration is not a perm-bash but a lesson in self-love:
"We're not going to say things like, 'Yes, I can swim with my natural hair now,' because what we're dealing with is more important than that. We're talking about a foundation. There has always been a perception of good hair being permed or straight. But all hair is good hair and that is what we are wanting women to see. Natural hair is the root of who we are. Look at a baby picture. We weren't permed. If one desires natural hair, it should not be an unheralded thought." n
"National Sistas Day Out: Journey to Natural Hair Freedom" will be held Saturday, August 21st at the Buckman Performing Arts Center at St. Mary's Episcopal School.
Pop culture has always been an amnesiac. Every up-and-coming band hyped as the next big thing turns out to be a blast from the past. Recently, Pat Benatar has been repackaged as Ashlee Simpson, while Read Yellow "channel" Fugazi, and the Ponys reinvent the CBGB's scene, circa 1975.
But with the crop of original '80s bands currently working on comebacks, these new kids on the block have some stiff competition: Devo and Blondie spent this summer on the road, while Duran Duran just put the finishing touches on a new album for EMI. Boxed retrospectives from Roxy Music and the Clash are about to hit record stores, and the Cure's latest is already in the bins. Meanwhile, Berlin, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, the English Beat, and A Flock of Seagulls have all succumbed to host Aamer Haleem on VH1's Bands Reunited. Now, the Psychedelic Furs are throwing their hat in the ring.
When bassist Tim Butler -- brother of the Furs' gravely voiced lead singer -- calls, it's just one day into the current leg of their tour. Already, more than a few things have gone wrong. The Furs missed their flight from New York to Tempe, Arizona, the day before. Guitarist John Ashton came down with a rash (poison ivy, Butler says helpfully). The weather in Tucson, where they're scheduled to perform in an amphitheater along with Berlin and fellow '80s alumni Missing Persons, is downright dismal. And it's Friday the 13th. Butler, however, couldn't be more upbeat.
"Hopefully, this will all be sorted out by the time we get to Memphis," he says. "Tonight, we're playing for 5,000 people -- in Tucson, of all places! Our fans seem to come out of the woodwork!"
It feels like déjà vu for the Psychedelic Furs, who were at the top of their game in the middle of the Reagan decade. Back then, frontman Richard Butler's sneering face loomed from the pages of the New Music Express nearly every week. In Memphis, new-wave kids had to trek to Tobacco Corner to score a copy, with "Love My Way" blasting from the cassette deck in mom's car.
Sounding like a cross between the Velvet Underground and Public Image Ltd., the Furs' intelligent lyrics and subtle musicianship was a delicious secret for young Brit-obsessed music fanatics until movie director John Hughes wrote a plot around their "Pretty In Pink" single, pushing the band to American stardom.
"If we'd just stuck in the direction we were going after Mirror Moves, we would've been fine," Butler says, remembering the hype surrounding the band after Pretty In Pink, a 1986 release starring Brat Packers Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy.
"We were under pressure from the record company to come up with a similar hit," Butler admits. "We came out with Midnight To Midnight, which was such a glossy sounding album. We liked the success and the screaming fans, but halfway through that tour we thought, What are we doing? This is so fake! So we reexamined what we were all about, which wasn't the big hair or all those things! We came out with Book of Days afterward in an attempt to get back to our roots."
By 1992, the Psychedelic Furs were ready to call it a day. "Although we were tired of the whole tour/album/tour grind," Butler confesses, "we just wanted to take some time off. We never said, 'This is the final tour.' We decided to play again when we could do it on our own terms."
And, Butler adds, the band has a new CD in the works. "We're taking our time with it," he says. "Hopefully, we can lay it down at the end of the year. But we're not gonna come out with an album that's gonna topple Britney Spears or anything."
Nevertheless, fans can expect to hear some of the fresh material live. "Of course, we play all the hits -- 'Pretty In Pink,' 'Love My Way,' 'Heartbreak Beat.' Otherwise, people would complain," Butler says good-naturedly. "We also try to make it interesting for us with some obscurities and new stuff.
"People always put down the '80s, but there was a hell of a lotta good music made back then," he continues. "Our albums could come out tomorrow, and they'd still sound relevant. It's grown a bit stale now. Music isn't clicking with younger people. There's no Sex Pistols or Nirvana out there.
"It's a strange thing," he says. "Our crowd includes fans from 16 to 60. We get older people showing up with their children and kids. We even have people recording our shows with their cell phones. That's something we didn't see in the '80s!
"We're enjoying playing together again," Butler concludes. "Onstage, we tend to look at each other and smile. We've been doing this for 25 years, and we've still got something." n
The Psychedelic Furs perform at the New Daisy on Thursday, August 19th.
Knock back those mint juleps, girls! At the sixth annual Southern Girls Convention, the Southern belle sports fatigues, a blue mohawk, and enough radical spirit to mend the world's ills. Or at least that's what local organizers Robin Jacks and Anna Mullins of the Women's Action Coalition (WAC) are hoping for.
The Southern Girls Convention (SGC), being held this year at First Congregational Church from August 12th to 14th, is a three-day conference of feminist workshops on everything from radical cheerleading to transsexual health. SGC originated in Memphis in 1999, and after a four-year tour of other Southern cities, the convention is back in the hands of its founders.
"It's kind of strayed from its focus over the years and become more about skills-sharing and less about activism," says Jacks, who created the convention after noticing the lack of resources in the South for feminist activists. "We brought it back here this year so we could make sure there are more organizing workshops. There really needs to be a space for people to gain political consciousness."
The workshops will address issues that are specifically feminist in nature as well as broader ones, such as the religious right and Marxist humanism. Deborah Cunningham, from the Memphis Center for Independent Living, is scheduled to lead a workshop on disability rights and language. Marquita Bradshaw, from Youth Terminating Pollution, will host a workshop on environmental racism. Other topics include queer rights, reproductive choice, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and post-third-wave feminism.
"I like to see feminists moving outside of just women's issues," says Jacks. "Feminists are starting to understand where other minority or oppressed groups are coming from because we're living under a very bad presidential administration. People are saying let's work together and be cool."
After Saturday's workshops, groups will be gathered in a regional caucus so activists from the same areas of the country can network. Jacks says she wants the convention to be a tool for people to meet others of like mind and not just a place for socializing.
According to Jacks, there's a lack of concern for activism in Southern cities like Memphis because so many people interested in making a change move to cities such as Olympia, Washington, or Portland, Oregon.
"Being an activist shouldn't be about you personally," says co-organizer Mullins. "If I were just thinking about me, I'd go off to San Francisco and be with my kind. The goal of activism is social change, and that means you need to address problems for everybody. That includes rural and Southern places, where many women have never thought about these things."
"The South is very polite," says Jacks. "Nobody in the South grows up thinking it's okay to be gay or it's okay to not pluck your eyebrows. To be able to find other open-minded people here is really cool."
Jacks decided to put the original conference together after attending a human-rights conference in Jackson, Mississippi. She was already involved in WAC, a feminist student organization at the University of Memphis, and the group helped her sponsor the 1999 convention. About 150 girls from all over the country showed up, and the next year, a feminist group from Louisville, Kentucky, asked if they could move the conference there.
SGC ended up getting passed around from year to year with hometown groups in each city taking up the organizational reigns. It went from Louisville to Auburn, Alabama, and then to Athens, Georgia, and Asheville, North Carolina. Jacks says they never intended for it to last this long. "It's now become an institution rather than something that just happened once," Jacks says.
The spirit of the conference has been very do-it-yourself (DIY) from its inception. Funding comes primarily from registration fees. Attendees who can't afford the $20 fee are allowed in on a sliding scale.
"All the things that DIY and punk-rock culture rebel against, like corporate control and people trying to own our bodies, are the same things that feminism resists," says Jacks. "The reason we do the convention so DIY is because we don't ever want to organize something where someone might not be able to come because they can't afford it."
The Southern Girls Convention will be held from Thursday, August 12th, through Saturday, August 14th, at First Congregational Church (1000 South Cooper). For more information or to preregister, go to SouthernGirlsConvention.org.
Shane Asbury lightly knocks at the door before entering the room. His next patient waits inside on an examination table. "Hello, ma'am. I'll be doing your exam today. It says here that you have a cough," says Asbury, consulting the patient's chart. "Tell me about it."
For the next 15 minutes, Asbury's every move and every word are observed and graded. If he passes, he takes one step closer to becoming a doctor.
No pressure. At least, not yet.
Asbury is one of six University of Tennessee Health Science Center students participating in a simulated examination in preparation for a national standardized test. The test, called the Step 2 Clinical Skills exam, is aimed at measuring a medical student's bedside manner. The test, instituted in June, is a new component of the three-step United States Medical Licensing Examination.
The Step 2 CS is a one-day exam in which students are graded on their interactions with 11 or 12 people trained to act like real patients. Students read a patient's vital statistics before entering the examination room, then they encounter one of about 25 common ailments seen in doctor's offices from abdominal pain to migraine headaches. Students use the information they gather to write an assessment of the patient's condition.
The test sounds good in theory, but some UT students say the Step 2 CS is unnecessary.
Students participating in UT's simulation are fourth-year medical students who must successfully complete the test before beginning their residency programs. They contend that by the time they reach their fourth year, they've already had similar training and tests. "We have been doing this type of program here at UT for about four years," says assistant dean of academic affairs Robert Shreve.
Students taking the national test must do so at one of five testing sites around the country: Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston and the UT students' closest option Atlanta. Test registration is $975. Students are also responsible for transportation, lodging, and other expenses.
For Asbury's classmate and future pediatrician Laura Goss, the price is too high. "Some of [my classmates] are taking the test before the end of the year, but I'm not taking it until I can come up with another $1,000 and that probably won't be until February," she says. "Don't get me wrong. It's a good test, and I could see the need for it at some schools, but here, where we are involved with patients throughout our curriculum, we don't need another test."
Future pathologist Doug Hof is more adamant in his dislike of the Step 2 CS. "There is a similar component in Step 3 [of the USMLE] already. I think the National Board of Medical Examiners spent so much on these test sites and on the early trials that they had to go through with it. Just being in a room with someone for 15 minutes in front of an observer does not show whether or not I can interact with my patients. Of course, I'm going to be on my best behavior during that time."
Jennifer Ware is the training manager for the "patients" used in UT's simulations. "Sure [the students] would rather not take the test," she says. "Even the American Medical Association has been critical of the test because of additional costs."
But Gail Beeman, director of UT's CS program, says the new test has merit. "When it's administered in the first two years of study, we've found that those students have a problem sometimes with closing or ending patient encounters," she says. "Older students are more aware of those things, but they sometimes still get nervous and forget to call patients by name, which is what patients like."
The Step 2 CS test began almost a decade ago as an assessment for foreign medical students. In its current form, all students are given a one-year window of eligibility, based on their registration date, to take the exam. Passing this portion of the exam is a prerequisite to the Step 3 test.