By: David P. Casal
Sulma Arzu-Brown is a Garifuna from Honduras. Her parents were both college graduates, who majored in accounting, but her mother was overlooked for a promotion at a bank in her home country because she was black. With hopes of better opportunities, the family moved to the U.S. In America, Sulma became a college graduate and made it her mission to educate people about the Garifuna people. She spoke to us about the Garufina people and her book, “Bad Hair Does Not Exist! (Pelo Malo No Existe).”
- Who are the Garifuna people?
We have our origin in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. We are a mixture of Africans, Yellow Carib and Arawak Indians. But in a war against the British, 5,000 Garifuna people were deported off our land. The goal was genocide, half of my ancestors perished. In 1797, the survivors were placed on ships and ended up in Roatán, an island that is now part of Honduras. Fast forward 217 years later, we have an estimated 200,000 Garifuna living in New York.
- Your mother didn’t get a promotion in Honduras because she was black. How does that experience compare with racism in America?
In America, racism was a fact of life. Racism in Honduras was more unspoken. It was easy to forget how prominent racism was. My mother was devastated. It prompted difficult conversations in our family. My parents decided to leave for a better life in the U.S., and my brother and I soon followed.
- You wrote a book called “Bad Hair Does Not Exist! (Pelo Malo No Existe).” As a Garifuna, why is that important to write about?
The book was not written as a Garifuna. It was written as the mother of a little girl whose thick, curly textured hair got labeled as “bad hair” by her caregiver. It was that her caregiver said that in my presence. I was angry by what she said to my 3-year-old Bella-Victoria. My husband and I work hard to ensure our daughters are confident individuals. With girls, that often means complimenting their hair. That day, the caregiver and I discussed alternate terms to describe hair. Terms such as long, short, straight, curly. I explained that bad hair does not exist. We managed a good relationship since then.
- There’s talk in pop culture about how celebrities deal with their children’s hair. What do you make of all that?
This issue is blind to socioeconomic status. I remember watching [Beyoncé’s daugher] Blue Ivy during the Grammy’s with her free and beautiful hair. It was exactly how my daughters wore theirs. It was devastating to hear the bullying remarks that a 2-year-old received, even from grown black women!
- Have you ever disliked your hair and wanted to changed it?
My dad would always say “la belleza de la mujer es el pelo” meaning the beauty of a woman is her hair. My mom relaxed my hair at the age of 12. I don’t recall ever disliking my hair. It was more about imitating my older cousins. When I became a mother, it was difficult to teach natural beauty when I did not adhere to it. So I came home one day with natural hair and my older daughter Suleni breathed a sigh of relief. She said, “Mommy, “Mommy, we finally look alike.” It seemed to me that her internal battle to look like Mommy was finally over.
- You have very cool illustrations in your book.
The artwork was created by my best friend Isidra Sabio, the president of Afro-Latin Publishing. Isidra is a self-published author and illustrator. She created greeting cards with Afro images and was inspired to create them because of the invitation to her baptism. Her mom sent invites with the image of a blonde, blue-eye baby. Isidra is of a rich, smooth Nubian complexion. As an adult, she realized that finding cards with Afro-images was still an issue. I knew her art would be perfect.
- Who should read “Bad Hair Does Not Exist”? (Pelo Malo No Existe),” and why?
Everybody! “Bad Hair Does Not Exist” should be a part of family time and table discussion for children of Black, African-American, Afro-Latinos, Garifuna and children of mixed ethnicity.
- As a mother yourself how do you teach your daughters to appreciate their cultural background?
My husband, Mho, and I do not just talk about culture, we have our girls experience it. For example the girls and I had the opportunity to go back home to Honduras. It was my mission to visit a remote Garifuna village far from modern civilization. The experience was priceless. I love being Garifuna. I love my Jamaican-Canadian husband. But most of all, I am grateful to God for making me complete enough to share everything that I am with my girls and the world.