THE BLOG
10/05/2010 01:32 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Tales of Pan Am: Playing Beauty Shop

As a young girl growing up in North Carolina in the 1950's, I participated in the classic rite of passage for teenagers: slumber parties. Whether it was as a group or with just one friend, these sleepovers were all about pushing the envelope of parental rules and boundaries. We'd stay awake as long as possible, eat junk food, giggle, and engage in deep conversation about all the dramatically important teenage issues. And we would play "beauty shop," experimenting with our makeup and hair, longing to look and be more grownup than we were. My friends were all white, Anglo-Saxon, and Christian -- in fact the most exotic friend I had was Italian-American and Catholic. The demographics were similar in my sorority at the University of Alabama where I went to college.

When I was hired by Pan American World Airways as a stewardess in 1965, I could not have imagined the scope of the education I was about to receive. Not only was I going to have a National Geographic experience in terms of travel, but also in learning about cultural diversity and the appreciation of difference. Little did I know that my most profound education was going to take place among the employees ourselves. We were from everywhere imaginable in the world, and considered ourselves to be "Pan Am family." We were a tight-knit but inclusive group, who learned from each other with a sense of "we're all in this together."

Until the mid-1970's when the union intervened, Pan Am stewardesses shared rooms on layovers. Even though it was sometimes inconvenient to have a roommate (especially when one of us couldn't sleep), I think that many Pan Am stewardesses have fond memories of getting to know each other in circumstances that recalled those "slumber parties" from long ago. Usually punchy, dog tired and jet-lagged, we would arrive at our destinations not quite ready to go to sleep. Often, we'd talk many hours through the night, sharing our lives, our beliefs, our feelings and our differences. I heard unforgettable stories about growing up in war-torn Europe, about Catholic girls' schools in South America, about the differences between Asian cultures -- a whole range of completely different experiences from mine. For me, the future psychoanalyst and psychotherapist, I found these conversations to be invaluable to my understanding of people.

I didn't expect, however, that one of these experiences would stand out more than most. Who would have imagined that it would be someone from my own country, as well as my own neck of the woods? She was the first black stewardess I'd ever flown with that wasn't from Trinidad, Jamaica, or Haiti. Pan Am had finally hired their first African-American stewardess in 1965. About time!

On this particular trip in the 1970's, I flew to Dakar, Senegal, where the Pan Am crews always stayed at our elegant hotel that featured individual bungalows with local décor showcasing colorful Senegalese fabrics. As often happened, I ended up rooming with the stewardess I had worked with on the flight. She was African-American and, like me, from the South, and I looked forward to hearing about her life.

Having arrived in Dakar very late, we were exhausted and waited in our room for the bellmen to arrive with our bags. There was a loud knock on the door, and in walked two very tall, handsome, ebony-skinned, "ripped" black men dressed in native garb, and sporting very large authentic-looking swords at their sides. Startled, my roommate and I looked at each other; I don't know whose eyes were bigger -- hers or mine! But I do know that the unexpected sight of these fierce-looking men struck our funny bone, and we got the giggles. We laughed and laughed, and we laughed some more. Here we were, in the heart of Africa, two young American women from the South, and she didn't feel any more at home than I did! In fact, this was her first African trip.

Feeling silly and too tired to sleep, we began to talk, sharing our backgrounds and childhoods. They could not have been more different. We had been raised in separate, but somewhat parallel universes. I found that my roommate's experiences were even more different from mine than those of stewardesses from other countries. While I had grown up in an atmosphere of comfortable safety, acceptance and naïve trust, my roommate's family, who was from the deep South, had faced severe racial hatred and even violence at times. Her stories amazed me. If you shook her family tree, a lot of traumatized ancestors would fall out, and that legacy of trauma had continued. Her family had never felt safe in their town. From an early age, my roommate had grownup responsibilities, including the raising and protecting of her younger siblings, jobs to support the family, and hard work to win scholarships for college.

One thing in particular that she told me has stuck with me all these years. Her mother, despite the fact that she worked as a "domestic" in the homes of white families, treated herself to a manicure every single week. If she was going to have to work with her hands, then those hands were going to look good! I could never remember my mother ever having had a single manicure.

Like two teenage girls having a slumber party, we began talking about our hair. Hers was the traditional African-American hairstyle being worn at that time, a la Angela Davis. Mine was the long, blonde and pencil straight hair a la Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary. She showed me how she could place her hair wherever she wanted it to go, and it would stay there. She "rolled" it at night by simply curling it around her fingers in perfect curls. I got to experiment with it too, and wherever I moved her hair, it would stay put! I had never seen hair that cooperated like that. Thinking that she could comb my hair and easily style it, my roommate soon found out how unruly it actually is. She tried pinning it up, and saw how it just slipped out of barrettes and clips. My hair is heavy, hangs out any curl I try to put in it, and in general doesn't want to do anything I would like it to do.

I remember thinking during that night that somehow, in belonging to the larger world that Pan Am afforded us, two women from different backgrounds could play "beauty shop." In other words, two people who felt equally foreign in a foreign land managed to bond and transcend some of the racial divide between us. Touching each other's hair was a physical manifestation of crossing the kinds of barriers we'd witnessed our entire lives growing up in the South.

I came away from this experience in Senegal greatly enriched, and admiring of this lovely African-American Pan Am stewardess. She possessed strength, competence and dignity that I understood came from adversity. I often thought of her when I later took my mother on trips around the world, and insisted each time that my mother get manicures! It's about dignity. Lately I've heard in movies and on television about the conflicted feelings that African-American women have about so-called "good hair." For some, "good hair" is the hair that many white women have--long and straight. I hope that if my roommate is out there somewhere and remembers our African layover, she knows in her heart that so-called "good hair" isn't all it's cracked up to be!