Thank you to all who entered “Memorable Bosses,” the latest Work Stew writing contest. I was overwhelmed by the quality of the entries I received. Even though I’ve been running Work Stew for more than five years now, your stories gave me a new appreciation of the daily dramas—some quiet, some not—unfolding in workplaces all over the world.
In the end, I needed to select one entry to receive the $200 prize, and I chose “Sticks and Stones” by Karen Good Marable. I imagine we could all draw a Venn diagram, with one circle labeled “Moments That Shook Me Rigid” and the other called “Times I Did the Brave Thing.” The incident that Karen describes sits squarely in the overlap, and I’m honored to share her well-written account of it here.
—Kate Gace Walton, Editor of Work Stew
Sticks and Stones
By Karen Good Marable
Having separated her mail, I walked into the cavernous, lamp-lit office of Josie Shapiro-Stone, a high-ranking editor at Seventeen magazine, and placed the pile on her desk. A mere 5’3” in three-inch heels with long blond hair and wearing a plaid kilt mini-skirt, Josie stood before her inspiration wall and stared through me absentmindedly, as she often did when one interrupted her reverie.
Then: “Karen! I love your hair!”
I beamed. “Thanks, Josie!”
Usually my dreadlocks were covered under a swath of African fabric, but on this day, as spring warmed into summer, I’d chosen to let my light shine. They stood thick and upright on my head like sunrays.
Josie moved closer to me, peering. “What do you call that?” she asked. But before I could answer, she added: “Is that, like, how Buckwheat wore his hair?”
My body reacted first: Hands went cold and clammy, heart raced, and a single bead of sweat trickled from underneath my armpit. I lifted one finger—“Um. Excuse me for a moment”—about-faced and walked the seven steps back to my desk. I just sat there at first, confused, wondering if what had just happened, happened. On the one hand, Josie was notoriously stupid. The type to stop the editor who’d just written an award-winning personal feature about anorexia and offer: “You are so skinny!” But this…this felt callous. Violent.
Did I mention I was the only Black girl on the editorial staff?
I needed to speak to someone, so I picked up the phone and called Beverly, my Howard University classmate-now-colleague who worked at Money magazine.
“This is Beverly.”
“Hi,” I whispered into the receiver. “Okay…so…my boss just asked me if the way I wear my hair is the way Buckwheat wore his hair.”
“I’m calling you because I need someone to tell me not to slap this shit out of her.”
“Whoooo,” Beverly breathed. “Okay.” Pause. “Okay. I know you want to cuss her out, but don’t. Definitely do NOT hit her. Because then you’ll be the angry Black girl and you’ll get fired and you’ll get arrested.”
I bit my lip. “Mmmhmm.”
“This is what you do: Go back into her office and explain why what she said was wrong. And racist. And crazy! Let her know the deal.”
“Don’t hit her.”
I rose from my desk and walked back into Josie’s office. “May I speak with you for a minute?”
“Yah! What’s up?” Smiling. Not a care in the world.
“I have to tell you, the comment you just made, asking if the way I wear my hair is the way Buckwheat wore his hair…that was so…disrespectful.” I locked eyes with her and did not blink. She had the nerve to look shocked. Her face and neck flushed red.
“These,” I continued, motioning to my hair, “are called dreadlocks. Like how Bob Marley wore his hair.” Here, my voice trembled. I was suddenly very angry that I had to explain what dreadlocks were to a forty-something, six-figure-making editor of a then-fifty-year-old mainstream magazine for girls. I was angry that, even for the merest moment, I felt ugly and ashamed.
“Buckwheat,” I continued, “represents a sore spot in Black American history. This image of a poor, Black child with torn clothes, bugged eyes and unkempt hair. It’s stereotypical and racist.” I took a breath. “Be glad that you said this to me and not someone else,” I added, my eyes narrowing. “Because someone else might not be so nice.”
At this, Josie’s eyes grew wide. Much, much wider than Buckwheat’s.
Karen Good Marable is a writer, editor, wife and mom who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently an MFA candidate at The Writers Foundry of St. Joseph’s College.