My Black Son Was Sent Home From First Grade Because of His Natural Hair

Six-year-olds never seem to run out of questions, and my son is no exception. But in August, CJ asked me a question that was harder than the rest: He wanted to know if there was something wrong with his hair.

As a father, I’d tried to shield him from racism for as long as I could. But we had just been turned away in humiliating fashion from A Book’s Christian Academy in Apopka, Florida, on the first day of classes. The school’s administrators, led by John Book, barred CJ from entering the building because of his locs. They treated him like a leper, and then they gave me an ultimatum: my son’s hairstyle or his schooling.

I was bewildered that the all-white staff in charge of a predominantly Black school would have the audacity to shame something so closely tied to Black identity. In the months since the degrading ordeal, I’ve given a lot of thought to what I should do. And in that time, Book has made it clear that harmless affirmations of Black cultural pride remain unwelcome at his school.

And so today, I’ve decided to pursue legal action with the help of the ACLU and NAACP Legal Defense Fund. It’s not right for a school to take taxpayer dollars while singling out and shaming Black natural hair. On behalf of my son and other Black children in my community, I'm urging the Florida Department of Education to hold A Book's Christian Academy accountable.

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The encounter at school was the first time it ever crossed CJ’s mind that anyone might consider him unworthy based on his hair. We live in an African-American neighborhood, where locs are a source of pride rather than shame. CJ was four when he told me and his mother that he wanted to wear the hairstyle. He was inspired by his godfather, whom he considered a hero.

I told CJ that he could start growing locs on the condition that he first learn how to spell. I didn’t make it easy for him. I wrote four columns, 10 words each, on a piece of paper. Four-year-old CJ learned these words in less than a week. It turns out that I'd underestimated this boy's intellect and drive.

I warned him that growing locs isn’t something to take lightly. The hairstyle has biblical and, in the Black community, significant cultural foundations. Beyond that, it would require the tedious routine of retwisting, washing, and conditioning. Could a 4-year-old have that kind of patience?

I would soon find out. After CJ learned the 40 words, I kept my promise and allowed him to start growing his hair. The journey had its pains. He’s tender-headed, so he would cry while the loctitian yanked at his roots. But he endured the throbbing. He wanted it that badly.

CJ watched in wonder as his locs took shape by kindergarten. His hair represented the first tangible proof in his young life that hard work pays off. He was bursting with pride. And so was I.

But pride turned to embarrassment on August 13, 2018. The day began on an exciting note, as CJ was starting first grade at a new school. His mother and I chose A Book's Christian Academy because it promised smaller classes and more individual attention for our talented son. His mother and I could only afford the hefty tuition with the help of Florida's state scholarship program. Most students rely on the program to attend A Book’s school, which Book himself has described as “95 percent Black.”

For CJ, first grade was a long-awaited opportunity to make new friends, and so he was on his best behavior. He wore a tie, a backpack, and a crisp shirt that I tucked in right before we went inside to meet the teachers.

Unfortunately, that meeting never took place.

I pleaded with the administrators to accept my son as he is. But they insisted that his collar-length hair violated their decades-long dress code, nevermind a YouTube commercial for the school showing a white boy with shoulder-length hair.

CJ stood outside the doorway. He absorbed what it meant to be rejected because he was considered a distraction. It's a piece of innocence that was lost too young.

Still, he thought he could fix the problem. “Daddy, can I just pull it up in a ponytail?” he asked as we walked back to the car. “Can I just put it in braids?”

It broke my heart to tell him that the school had refused even these compromises. Despite what they said, it was clear the problem wasn't the length. They wanted our scholarship money — but they also wanted the power to control, and muffle, a child’s Blackness, the Blackness so visibly expressed by CJ’s kinky hair.

I won’t stand by as schools like A Book's Christian Academy financially benefit from Black student enrollment while showing a disdain for Black students who bring their whole selves to class. There is something terribly wrong with grooming codes that don't respect the cultures of their student bodies. The problem is not my son's hair. The problem is a school policy that doesn’t accept my son, and others like him, for who they are.

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Marie Boynton

Shame, shame, Shame on them! No excuse for this policy or this type of thinking. Truly indefensible.
Best dad ever for not letting this go.
I pray that this will somehow strengthen your son, not hurt him in the long run, but I am so pained that it happened to him. He is brilliant! Shine on beautiful boy! ❤️

Dr. Joseph Goebbels

Did the story mention anything about the head lice?

Melinda

As a Floridian, I’m proud this father is standing up for his son and ultimately what is right. I teach first grade and remember crying when I read the story as reported in our local Orlando news. It is so critical that children know that they have inherent value. Although the school at issue chose against teaching that, I’m so glad his family is teaching CJ that he is valued and has value as he is!

Ava

Home school or abide by the dress code. I teach and we are often sending home students with head lice or not dressed and following school guidelines. He’s a beautiful boy, love his hair but would have checked protocol before letting him think he can act against school rules, I’m sorry. Do you see further ahead, 4th grade, 8th grades when he was “taught” in first grade that if he complains enough he can go against the rules? Then in high school and the work place, taking it a step even further in not abiding by regulations? Add to that 1,000 students who wish to dress and keep their hair the way they want, and very soon we’ve got s school structure more out of control than it is now. See it’s not the hair, it’s the lesson behind it. I’m sorry you don’t see it but it’s only from a teachers perspective I can speak.

Anonymous

Ava if you actually took time to thoroughly read the post you'd see that the school itself has an ad that shows a white boy with hair the same length as CJ. Maybe rather than being a blind authoritarian you might want to look at context. All my best teachers were able to think strategically and within context rather than just spout off rule-following jargon.

Anonymous

AVA, the problem is that the rules require CJ to conform based on the dominant culture's standards for dress code at the expense of his own culture. In other words, the rules target the dreads, not the length. This is a clear example of systemic racism.

Anonymous

Ava,

I think his point is that girls are able to have hair longer than shoulder length so it definitely isn’t a health concern such as lice. Where some people are able to do something but others aren’t then you must wonder why. If a white girl had hair down to her butt and that was ok but on this boy it isn’t ok, why? If it’s because it’s a “distraction,” I wonder what makes it this? Certainly hair is just hair so what is distracting about it? You just rely on the rules. If this is what the rules are then abide by them. But rules and laws are unfair and unjust all the time because the people who are making them are unfair and unjust. It’s people like you who blindly follow rather than lead who allow such injustices to continue. I teach my children to question and think so that one day they can be apart of change for the better. If that’s not what you’re teaching in your classroom perhaps you should consider another vocation.

Anonymous

Your son is beautiful, his hair is beautiful. That the school has Christian in the title is disgraceful.

Robert

I am so angry, as an educator I would NEVER subject a student to this type of humiliation. The administrators should be fired and replaced with color blind teachers.

Anonymous

Color blindness is not helpful to the Black American experience. Thanks, but hard pass. See me, see my color. Respect it.

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