Finding the Silver Lining: Hair, (Mixed) Race, and Identity Politics in Toni and Slade Morrison’s Little Cloud and Lady Wind

Finding the Silver Lining: Hair, (Mixed) Race, and Identity Politics in Toni and Slade Morrison’s Little Cloud and Lady Wind

The Lion and the Unicorn
Volume 37, Number 2, April 2013
pages 173-187
DOI: 10.1353/uni.2013.0016

Sika A. Dagbovie-Mullins, Associate Professor of English
Florida Atlantic University

we are
black people, we rainclouds
closer to the sun and full of life.

—Marvin Wyche Jr., “We Rainclouds” (1974)

As a little girl I dreamed freely, often on the top step of the back porch—morning, noon, sunset, deep twilight. I loved clouds, I loved red streaks in the sky. I loved the gold worlds I saw in the sky. Gods and little girls, angels and heroes and future lovers labored there, in misty glory or sharp grandeur.

—Gwendolyn Brooks, Report from Part One (1972)

In Happy to Be Nappy (1999), bell hooks describes black girls’ unprocessed hair as “soft like cotton, flower petal billowy soft, full of frizz and fuzz.” In addition to being described as puffy, spongy, kinky, crinkly, wooly or cotton-like, “natural” unprocessed hair is often associated with clouds. “Flower petal billowy soft” immediately evokes the image of lightness but also brings to mind billow clouds, layers of water vapor that create fluffy wave-like patterns in the sky. The trope of black-hair-as-clouds is especially noticeable in descriptions of black hair in twentieth-century African American literature. In Jessie Redmon Fauset’s “Double Trouble” (1923), Angelique shakes her “short, black, rather wiry hair til it misted like a cloud” (32); Fran Ross’s mixed race protagonist in Oreo (1974) is told: “Kinky hair—like that beautiful fuzzy cloud you have—is not really kinky” (49); in Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow (1983), Avey Johnson’s daughter’s hair “had stood massed like a raincloud about to make good its threat” (13); in Dorothy West’s The Wedding (1995), Clark Cole thinks of his mistress: “There is no beauty like that of a brown skinned woman when she is beautiful: the velvet skin, the dark hair like a cloud” (97); and in John Edgar Wideman’s Hiding Place (1998), Tommy’s hair is described as, “[c]ombed so high it’s a cloud over his head, a bushy cloud making him taller than his brothers” (77). Toni and Slade Morrison’s children’s book Little Cloud and Lady Wind (2010), illustrated by Sean Qualls, focuses on a young female cloud whose image appears as a black or biracial girl; she sports a giant blue Afro (cloud), striking feature and a continuation of the hair/cloud analogy. In fact, some of Morrison’s novels also equate African American hair with clouds. In Tar Baby after Jadine complains about the effect of the island’s foggy weather on her hair, “[s]he pressed her hair down with both palms, but as soon as she removed them her hair sprang back into a rain cloud” (Morrison, Tar Baby 64) and in Love, the narrator, L, describes the transition black hair goes through when wet as she recounts the actions of a woman on the beach: “Her hair, flat when she went in [the water] rose up slowly and took on the shape of the clouds dragging the moon” (Morrison, Love 106). Little Cloud’s hair and her lavender tan skin act as racial signifiers in this children’s book about independence, belonging, and community.

In the beginning of the story, Little Cloud separates from the other clouds, “not wanting to blend into a group and lose her freedom, [but] not wanting to frighten the earth” (Toni and Slade Morrison). A visit from Lady Wind shows Little Cloud that her cloud duties of providing mist and dew are important, teaching her to respect both her individuality and restoring her place in the sky community. The story is reminiscent of Eric Carle’s Little Cloud (1996), which also features a “Little Cloud” that chooses independence: “The clouds pushed upward and away. Little Cloud pushed downward and touched the tops of horses and trees” (Carle). Toni and Slade Morrison’s book seems to signify on this Little Cloud predecessor who does not take a human form (and thus remains a white cloud). On one level, Little Cloud and Lady Wind encourages children to express their individuality while honoring “the whole is far mightier than any single part” (Little Cloud, inside flap). On another level, the story is a subtle treatise on mixed…

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