Oh What A Beautiful Baby

Magnolia Earl is the 2020 Gerber baby seen here with her adoptive family

Magnolia Earl is the winner of the 10th annual Gerber Baby search.  She’s the first Gerber spokesbaby to be adopted. Magnolia is from Ross CA and was picked from over 327,000 entries submitted. She has “captured the hearts of the judging panel with her joyful expression, playful smile and warm, engaging gaze.”

“At a time when we are yearning for connection and unity, Magnolia and her family remind us of the many things that bring us together: our desire to love and be loved, our need to find belonging, and our recognition that family goes way beyond biology,” Bill Partyka Gerber President and CEO said in a press release.

Magnolia’s parents, Courtney and Russell Earl, have two other daughters, Whitney age 12 and Charlotte age 8 (who is also adopted).

It would appear that Gerber has been actively seeking more diversity. Past winners have included the first Gerber Baby with Down Syndrome and the first of Hmong descent. Ann Turner Cook, the very first Gerber baby, is still featured in the iconic charcoal sketch done by her mother in 1928 and seen on most Gerber packaging since 1931.

The issue of trans-racial adoption remains highly controversial and images of Magnolia in a headwrap set off divisive debates on social media. I know this because I wandered into one that has kept my heart’s attention since last night.  So, this morning I wanted to educate myself about what seems to be the contentious aspect of the baby being photographed in a headwrap.  Truly, the adoption issues should be front and center, though it does appear that aspect is part of the marketing effort by Gerber.

So, regarding the headwrap.  This usually completely covers the hair, being held in place by tying the ends into knots close to the skull. As a form of apparel in the United States, the headwrap has been exclusive to women of African descent.

The headwrap originated in sub-Saharan Africa, and serves similar functions for both African and African American women. In style, the African American woman’s headwrap exhibits the features of sub-Saharan aesthetics and worldview. In the United States, however, the headwrap acquired a paradox of meaning not customary on the ancestral continent. During slavery, white overlords imposed its wear as a badge of enslavement and afterwards, during Jim Crow it was part of the regulations.  Over time, it evolved into the stereotype that whites held of the “Black Mammy” servant.

The enslaved persons and their descendants have regarded the headwrap as a helmet of courage that evoked an image of true homeland-be that ancient Africa or the newer homeland, America. The simple head rag worn by millions of enslaved women and their descendants has served as a uniform of communal identity.  At its most elaborate, the African American woman’s headwrap has functioned as a “uniform of rebellion” signifying absolute resistance to loss of self-definition.  Which gives me pause in the case of a black baby adopted into a white family.

Tying a piece of cloth around the head is not specific to any one cultural group. Men and women have worn and continue to wear some type of fabric head covering in many societies. What does appear to be culturally specific, however, is the way the fabric is worn; in other words, the style in which the fabric is worn is the ultimate cultural marker and a studied way of presenting the self based upon an idea of how one ought to appear to others.

A woman of African ancestry folds the fabric into a rectilinear shape usually ties the knots somewhere on the crown of her head, either at the top or on the sides, often tucking the ends into the wrap. African and African American women wear the headwrap as a queen might wear a crown.  Some African American women played with the white “code”.  Flaunting the headwrap by converting it from something which might be construed as shameful into an anti-style uniquely their own.

African American women demonstrate their recognition that they alone possessed this particular style of head ornamentation.  Donning the headwrap is an acknowledgment of their membership in an unique American social group. Whites have often misunderstood the self-empowering and defiant intent, seeing the headwrap only as the stereotypic “Aunt Jemima” image of the black woman as domestic servant (putting the image of the Gerber baby alongside the iconic one on social media has set off discussions related to race rather than adoption and that was the predominant energy in the discussion I found myself in last night).

The more complicated truth regarding the headwrap is that it acquired significance for the enslaved women as a form of self and communal identity and as a badge of resistance against the servitude imposed by whites.  The headwrap worn by African American women was forged in the crucible of American slavery and its aftermath.  Modern African Americans consciously adopt the headwrap to mark their cultural identity and in solidarity with the black women who were often forced to wear it in the past.

The research paper I read was based on comments made by approximately two thousand formerly enslaved African Americans who recounted their experiences and contributed their oral histories to the Federal Writers’ Project in 1936 to 1938.  There is much more about the symbolism and history of headwraps at this link – http://char.txa.cornell.edu/Griebel.htm

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