Black Girls’ Armpits
While in college “Griffith & Boyle,” a small Chesterton, Indiana-based ad agency, offered me $5 an hour to be their creative department’s intern/assistant. Since I never made more than $4.25 an hour I took it.
I was 19 and the only Black person there. I remember being amped about the chance to learn advertising from real professionals. But like most bad internships, all I did was take lunch orders and send faxes and FedExes. (However, one of the art directors did teach me how to manually keyline ads—grease pencils, rub-on registration marks ‘n’ all.) But my biggest job was reminding my boss, “Matt” where he parked his Jeep everyday. Matt was our creative director and a raving bachelor who looked like a younger Magnum P.I. with longer hair and went thru women like Tampax. Matt was often too hung--over or scatter-brained to remember where he parked, so as low-man on totem pole, my job was to locate his car and tell him where he parked. (Don’t ask.)
Shockingly, I didn’t learn much my first few months. But then February came and they asked me to write one of those “we love Black people” billboard ads for Black History Month for a client. Sure it was a little condescending, but it was also a chance to do something besides memorize lunch orders and parking spots. So I eagerly wrote up a few ideas; and low and behold our client bought one. I was barely 19 and I had just produced my first real ad—for the Chicago Tribune, no less.
I remember seeing my billboard in of all places, my neighborhood—maybe 6 blocks from my house. It had my headline, my copy, and a picture of—you guessed it—MLK, Jr., plus the Trib’s big ugly logo. I remember feeling so “whatever” about it that I didn’t even tell anyone I did it. I also remember that billboard being the only project I was ever seriously allowed to work on. Their other projects just “weren’t up my alley” as it was explained to me.
A few weeks later, we’re having lunch at the big conference table; there’re maybe eight of us—half men, half women. Since most of us were single the conversation was often typical men vs. women stuff. Then out of left-field “Bertha,” our chunky, loud, redheaded print production manager turns to me:
“Hadji, why don’t black women shave their armpits?”
Just as I was about to mouth off, I noticed that everyone in the room was staring at me like it was one of Ari Fleischer’s old press conferences. During that awkward pregnant pause a couple things dawned on me: Not only was I the only black person at work, I was probably the only black person most of ‘em knew outside of Bertha’s Chewbacca-armed sistahs. Secondly, Bertha was a lot of things; stupid wasn’t one of them. She wasn’t asking a question as much as she was making a statement. So to keep the peace, I just swallowed my food and bit my tongue.
“Uh, I dunno, Bertha.”
Soon as I said that they all got the same deflated look on their faces, like this was Geraldo Rivera’s infamous Capone’s vault show from the 1980s. Here I was, surrounded by educated grown folks in a profession lauded for its open-mindedness and ability to connect with the masses yet they all believed something this stupid. And worse yet, they believed black folks were so homogenuous that any one of us could explain it. They just didn’t know any better. At least, that’s what I told myself.
I promptly went home and asked my sisters why black women don’t shave their armpits. They looked at me like I was an idiot. Then when no one was looking, I shaved my armpits to just see what it felt like. Stupidest thing I ever did. I itched for weeks. (I’m still not even sure if armpit shaving is a good or a bad thing.)