The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Redheads


I’ve been a sucker for redheads since the day in second grade when chubby Johnny with the glasses kissed me on the playground and told me I was his girlfriend. His hair was actually reddish, but I was drawn to it nonetheless, maybe because it reminded me of my mom’s real hair, copper like her skin, always hidden away under long wigs, which were popular in the 70s, and made her look like Diana Ross.

Johnny was always in some horizontally striped shirt too tight for him and Toughskin jeans that barely touched his ankles. I abhorred and adored him at once. He hounded me, chasing me down the dusty playground, begging me for just one kiss on the cheek or a hug at least, bringing to school one day a green jeweled brooch in a velvet box, obviously a bauble poached from his mother’s jewelry case. It was proof, he said, of how much he loved me. (When Mom saw it, she said I’d have to return it, that it was too expensive a gift for children to be exchanging.) I liked his doggedness and, although the way he constantly pushed his glasses up the ridge of his nose with his index finger and always panted after the smallest bit of physical exertion made me scowl, there was a place in my heart for him that was safe from anyone’s ridicule of his high-water pants or his often unkempt waves of hair. He tried hard, and all for me.

My second redheaded boyfriend had been a good friend of mine since sixth grade. In our junior year in high school, while I was learning Portuguese and expanding my hips with a steady diet of feijoada as an exchange student in Brazil, he grew half a foot and spread out in the chest like a swimmer. I think I seemed different to him senior year, even more than skin-deep different, but like I had changed from the brown-skinned girl he’d joked with in the halls between classes to someone mysterious and maybe even interesting. His thick straight hair seemed cool in that spiky cut so popular in the eighties. We lasted the summer. He was as kind, as always, when the candle of our romance flickered and eventually faded with the autumn air (we were longtime friends after all), but he had other pursuits. I can’t remember their names.

In college, my third and most serious redheaded boyfriend emerged. He tried almost as hard as Johnny. On our first date, he took me to a NCAA basketball game at Madison Square Garden even though he was suffering from the flu. He grabbed my hand after class and dragged me to the Central Park Zoo to catch the zookeepers feeding the sea lions or to the Met where we made silent wishes at the Temple of Dendur. We ate corned beef and soda bread at the Gaelic Society’s annual dinner under an Erin Go Bragh sign plastered over our university crest so we’d feel like we were in the emerald cliffs of Ireland instead of our college’s concrete-floored dining hall. After about six months of outings, he gave me his claddagh ring, a gold circle with two hands holding a heart that he’d bought on a family trip to Ireland. He told me to wear it heart in, crown out so people would know I was taken. Eventually, we crossed the Hudson River into Jersey for dinner with my parents. They were used to all of the redheads by then. In my entire dating career, I only went out with a handful of black men and three of them were light-skinned like my father. Perhaps that’s where the preference for fair skin comes from. Perhaps it was a combination of Dad’s skin and my mother’s hair that created my redheaded obsession, or perhaps, as my mother always said, “You just like to be different.”

But when we took a train up to Maine for Memorial Day weekend, my boyfriend’s parents weren’t prepared for me. It wasn’t like he hadn’t told them that I was black. He had. He was clever about it. He was taking a photography class for fun, because he’d been given a great old camera as a gift. At spring break, he brought home some black-and-whites that he’d taken of me. I always look darker in black and white photos and the contrast was even more pronounced because I was wearing a white V-neck shirt in the shots. My hair was wet and crinkly. I looked undeniably black. But in the photographs I was a two-dimensional theory. In their living room in Maine, I was a reality. The reality of me was so frightening that his father refused to meet me. When we went to their summer cottage on Peaks Island, his parents were at their house in Yarmouth. When we tried to rendezvous with them in Yarmouth, they were out at Peaks. I saw his mother at the island ferry before he drove me back to my train just long enough to thank her for her hospitality and letting me stay in both her homes, and to tell her that, incidentally, I was born in Maine on its most northeastern point. She seemed surprised and shook my hand goodbye.

On the long car ride to Boston, he broke the news to me that his parents would pull the plug on his college funding if he continued to see me. I already knew. I’d heard him that morning out on the deck, screaming into the phone: “You can’t do that!” and “It’s not fair!” and “I can’t believe you’re making me choose between her and school.” He told me with tears in his eyes that his parents were not racist—“They’re Irish Catholics after all and know a thing or two about persecution.” I marveled at the beauty of all the deep green pine trees that bordered the highway, so much like the Pine Barrens where I went to school with Johnny. I twirled his claddagh ring around my finger—now you see the heart, now you don’t—and considered the beauty a flash of gold would make against that expanse of green if I chucked it out the window while we sped down the road. As with Johnny’s brooch, my mother would have disapproved. At the train station in Boston, I gave it back to him.

I tried to figure out why I’ve always been attracted to white men in general but redheads in particular. At only two percent of the human population and only six percent of Americans, redheads were more of a minority than me. Thirteen percent of Americans are black. I cried in a therapist’s office that perhaps my white obsession was some deep-seated self-hatred; that maybe it had to do with being raped by a male relative. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat while she pooh-poohed my armchair psychology. “It’s just your preference,” she said, which made me suspicious, because usually she sat stoic and impassive in her chair, eyes wide open as if mirrors, and never gave direct answers to my questions.

After that, I swore off white men.

My abstention lasted for about a month. I countered my dubiety with a crucible of action and welcomed anything that might help more quickly change me.

I stopped drinking. I joined a group for survivors of sexual abuse. I threw myself into my new job as a reporter. On my first day, I covered a murder that landed on the front page and a few weeks later, a devastating fire that landed me in the doctor’s office with a nasty case of bronchitis. I constantly worried that I wasn’t up to my job and vacillated between applying to graduate school in social work and checking into a clinic that dealt with childhood trauma.

I made a list of the ten qualities a man must possess (or not) in order for me to consider a relationship with him. No interracial issue was number three, right under no active alcoholics/drug addicts and no smokers.

I let my roommate fix me up with eligible black men. The first was a cop whom I had known (and adored) since middle school. I didn’t tell her how the only attention he gave me when we were kids was to pinch me underwater in the deep end of our municipal pool. Now, he told me how silly he’d been and took me out for dinner and a movie. He was still adorable, but we had absolutely nothing besides a mutual physical attraction in common.

When that didn’t work out, she sent my picture to a handsome soap star, one of the few young black men on daytime TV at that time. She’d run into him in a grocery store in their mutual hometown and, as only she can, she’d engaged him in a lengthy conversation about love and convinced him that he needed to meet me. I have no idea how she got his address out of him, but she sent him my picture. She and I had similar childhoods, but she was full of optimism and her Catholic faith. She alternated between offering our dating lives up to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, and giving me pep talks that boiled down to “you’ve got to be in it to win it.”
One night, in the midst of covering a story about a municipal judge who belonged to a country club that was known to discriminate against jews and blacks, I came home from work and was told by my roommate to change into something casual, but sexy. A few minutes later the soap star was in our living room. My roommate did most of the talking, trying to convince this young man how much we had in common, how we should go out sometime. He wanted to go out right then and there. But I wanted to stay put in the safety of my shared old Victorian home, the comforting clang of its archaic radiator, my roommate as chaperone, and get to know him. After a few minutes of banter, he politely excused himself saying he’d call. He never did.

I called my AA sponsor and hyperventilated into the phone. “I have horrible anxiety,” I told her and blamed it on my job. The judge had said I was unprofessional and kept calling my editor-in-chief to complain about me. My boss suspected the judge knew that I was black and was trying to intimidate me. It was working. But worse than that, I told my sponsor, “I’m worried about how I would feel kissing the actor or having sex with him and it makes me feel ashamed.”

My sponsor, a white woman with red hair, listened intently, then suggested I call another woman in the program. “I think you need to talk to someone who is black.”

G. was petite with close-cropped tightly curled hair and smooth dark skin. She was beautiful in a way I’d grown up being told black people could not be—darkly, naturally. She sometimes carried thick books with her to AA meetings and spread them across her lap afterward in the park—I saw her there once, but didn’t want to disturb her. She had a self-possession that eluded and scared me but that I badly wanted.

As a municipal reporter covering evening meetings, I didn’t get home until late, so by the time I called G., it was long after the time I’d normally call people, but I felt desperate. Her voice sounded almost groggy. It was obvious I had disturbed her. I tried to beg off, tell her I’d call another time, but she wouldn’t let me go. “You must be really distressed,” she said, hearing the desperation in my voice, her voice softening.

She listened to the fifteen-minute version of my life story—I’d been molested by a relative, started drinking to deal with my anxieties when I was in my last year of high school and now, sober two years, no longer had a booze problem, but a living problem. How could I trust myself to be in a good safe relationship? I felt fundamentally broken and unsure of all of my decisions and even my desires, like they were all warped through the prism of my fucked-up life. Sitting on my stiff platform bed that an ex-boyfriend had made for me, I told G. how I worried that I didn’t want to date black men because I didn’t like myself.

She told me she’d been through similar issues as a child. Before she got sober, she was a sex worker. She’d also had to deal with racism that dogged her all of her life and, sober many years longer than I was, she told me that she continued to come to terms with all of these things and just accept her own desires not as right or wrong, but just as is. When I asked her if she thought my redheaded obsession meant there was something wrong with me, she told me I sounded like I was fine. We love who we love, she said, which made me think, I love to be loved, a verse in a Peter Gabriel song that I’d been wearing out on my CD player at the time. She told me I could call her anytime, but soon, she’d be moving across the country. She’d recently passed the bar and was about to embark on a new career as a lawyer. We love who we love became my new law.

I started dating my husband a month later. We’d met about a year before at a dance in a church basement on the night of that winter’s first snow. I spotted Dennis the second he walked through the door. His red hair was like a thick crown of fire and glittered under a sprinkling of snow.

“Just so I’m clear,” he said the first time he called to invite me out, “I’m not interested in being your friend. This is a date.” He was as sure about his feelings for me as I was doubtful of my capacity to accept my redheaded leanings.

Despite the differences in our skin, Dennis and I were perfectly matched. We were both from big families, me the youngest of five, him the middle of seven. Our dads were both military men, his in the Navy, mine in the Air Force. Both men went on to work with technology giants, his dad at IBM and mine at Kodak, and both developed problems with alcohol that each would conquer in their own ways and pass on to us like a family heirloom. If that weren’t enough, our names were the male and female version of Dionysus—the Greek god of wine.

On our first date, we both showed up at the movie theater wearing identical outfits—black jeans, black T-shirts, and olive-colored jackets. On our second date we played paddle tennis in the arboretum in my town even though I was wearing the wrong kind of shoes and kept tripping in the gopher holes, then ate, on top of a picnic blanket, the only meal that I then knew how to prepare —chicken smothered in Italian dressing, broiled seven minutes on each side, then diced and scattered on salad greens.

Later, we would snuggle and kiss on my bed, but the thing that most excited me was when, after our picnic, Dennis asked if he could brush my hair. I’d always wanted a guy to do that—nothing feels better—but I was extremely self-conscious about it. Unlike G., I wore my hair long, and chemically straightened and never let anyone but my hairdresser touch it. People had asked to touch it, like I was a pet, but no guy had ever asked to comb it, which is entirely different. Stretched out on the picnic blanket with Dennis, covered in the cherry blossoms shaken loose by the steady spring breeze, it seemed time to give something new a try. That night before sleep as I folded my hands and knelt before my bed to list all the things I was grateful for, I spotted a single strand of red hair on my bedspread, gleaming.


Excerpted with permission from Soul Mate 101 and Other Essays on Love and Sex, edited by Jennifer Niesslein, due out from Full Grown People on September 21, 2105.

Dionne Ford's work has appeared in the New York Times, More, Brain, Child, and other publications. She is an M.F.A. candidate at New York University and is at work on a novel and a memoir. More from this author →