Loyle Hairston’s short story “The Winds of Change” follows Waddell Wilkins through several days in his life as a young and aspiring African-American musician in New York City in the early 1960s. Waddell’s day begins much the same as any other in the run-down house he shares with his father and sister; however, he soon experiences a series of unexpected events that profoundly alter his sense of personal identity, changing him forever. In addition to Waddell Wilkins, who narrates the story, characters include his sister, whom he calls “Sis,” and two women he meets at an audition, Colleen and Oleta. Waddell’s barber, Sonny, appears briefly in the beginning and in the end of the narrative.
As the story opens, Waddell wakes up early, excited for the day ahead. He will be auditioning for a well-paying part in an off-Broadway show, a chance to earn some “long bread,” in Waddell’s musician’s vernacular. He lays out his clothes and makes an appointment with Sonny, his barber, to have his hair styled later that morning. Waddell pays special attention to his hair; he sleeps in a stocking cap to preserve the marcel waves Sonny creates for him after using strong chemicals to relax his hair’s own natural curl. On this morning, the cap has slipped off during his sleep, and his hair is “unstrung” and “all tangled up.”
Before leaving home, Waddell is accosted by his sister, who derides his preoccupation with his hair and disparages his musical ambitions. They fall into an old argument. Waddell’s sister wants him to find steady work, but Waddell dreams a larger dream: to make a career in music and escape “this dump” his family lives in, with its cracked walls and leaky pipes. To do so, he must navigate in the foreign world of the white man where a black appearance is not valued.
Taking a cab across town, Waddell goes to Ray’s Barbershoppe, where he finds other men of color biding their time, talking about gambling and the news, integration and “the silks” (Caucasians). Taking his turn, Waddell submits to Sonny’s styling. Wearing rubber gloves to protect his hands, Sonny rubs the chemical “process” into Waddell’s hair, explaining that “the secret” is to burn his hair all the way to the scalp so that his newly straightened hair will look “natural all the way to the roots.” When Sonny finishes the job, Waddell is pleased and impressed with the results. Another customer observes that if Waddell were “a shade lighter,” he could “pass for a silk.” Sonny adds, “The only way you’ll ever get your mop to grow natural again...is to have your head shaved!”
Waddell changes into his suit and leaves the shop to go to the theater for his audition. While he waits to be called, he finds himself surrounded by white people and feels very conspicuous and uncomfortable. One white woman—Colleen—strikes up a friendly conversation with Waddell and then introduces him to several of her friends, one of whom is a stunning young black woman who, it seems to Waddell, looks like an African princess with her short, natural hair and gold-looped earrings. Colleen explains that she and her friends are all students with the American Ballet. Before he can chat with the beautiful “princess” who has captured his attention, Waddell is called inside for his audition.
As it happens, the nature of the show has been changed and there is no role for Waddell. Feeling bitter disappointment, he leaves the theater, but Colleen stops him on his way out. She seems to understand his distress and invites him to join her and her friends; they are going to the United Nations, she tells Waddell. Before he can answer, Waddell is swept up in the group. As they drive across the city in Colleen’s car, the women are full of talk about the UN, while Waddell is mostly concerned with getting to know the “princess,” whose name, he learns, is Oleta. He also learns that Oleta is a “pure African” and that her brother is a member of the UN delegation from their country.
Seeing the UN for the first time impresses Waddell beyond words. Entering the General Assembly Building, he is amazed to see a delegation of African men sitting as equals with “the silks,” conversing confidentially and with authority among themselves about the issues of the day. Waddell watches with elation as Oleta’s brother and his African delegation succeed in passing a resolution on the floor of the UN, demonstrating a kind of black power previously unknown to Waddell.
Leaving the United Nations General Assembly, Colleen invites Waddell and Oleta to a party at the end of the week. Colleen says goodbye to Waddell (“Mr. Wilkins”); he is moved by this white woman’s sincere smile and invitation to friendship. Waddell and Oleta have enjoyed each other’s company, and headed home, Waddell can think only of seeing the beautiful girl again.
Back in his own neighborhood, Waddell drops by the barber shop to make an appointment with Sonny to have his hair styled again before the party in a few days. He then takes in a movie but falls asleep as soon as the film begins. Waddell dreams. He sees himself and Oleta by the lake in Central Park; he plays music while she dances for him. Then Waddell sees himself reflected in Oleta’s eyes: he looks like an African warrior and his hair, he dreams, “was woolly like them cats at the UN.”
As the week passes, Waddell cannot free himself from what he had seen and heard in the U.N. General Assembly. He knows he had observed behavior of great significance among the African delegation, but he cannot clearly define it. “[W]ithout even trying,” Waddell knows, the Africans were “sayin’ something.”
After trying unsuccessfully to explain to his sister what he had seen, Waddell goes to the barber shop and takes a seat in the chair. As he waits for Sonny, Waddell thinks more about the unique Oleta and her natural beauty. Sonny appears, and Waddell asks for a shave. When Sonny begins to lower the back of the barber’s chair, Waddell stops him: “Not my face, daddy—my head!” Then young Waddell Wilkins smiles to himself, closes his eyes, and wonders where he might find a set of African drums.
“The Winds of Change” is a more sophisticated short story than it might appear to be on first reading. First of all, it is an initiation story in the tradition of that genre. Through his encounter with the two women, one white and one black, Waddell’s very narrow world becomes much wider. Colleen introduces him to an easy social relationship in which segregation and racial tension play no part; Oleta introduces him to the grace and natural ethnic beauty of the African people. In taking Waddell to the United Nations, Colleen and Oleta bring him face-to-face for the first time with the sight of black leaders exercising power as equals among white men. As a result of these experiences, Waddell’s sense of identity is profoundly changed. In the conclusion of the story when he chooses to shave his head, he acts to embrace his own African heritage.
The story develops themes, however, that surpass Waddell Wilkins’s personal journey. At this time, the winds of social and political change are blowing throughout American culture and the world at large. The historical allusions to Patrice Lumumba, Moise-Kapenda Tshombe, and Joseph Kasavubu establish the early-1960s time period of the story and reflect the changing face of power in Africa, primarily in the Republic of Congo, as centuries of European domination are swept away.
Numerous references throughout the story suggest the forces of change and increasing racial tensions developing in the United States as well. The men in Ray’s Barbershoppe, which serves as a central meeting place in the black community, talk of integration and “the silks.” Waddell says they talk of “the NEWS.” The capitalization of the word, which appears in proximity to “integration” and “the silks,” suggests that the particular news that interests these men concerns the civil rights movement that exploded in the country during the 1960s. The racial complexities of the civil rights movement are suggested in Sis’s comment to Waddell that “some of our ‘leaders’” are “brown-nosin’ to the white folks.” Thus Waddell’s personal initiation occurs in the wider social and political context of the decade.
Finally, Hairston’s story is noteworthy for its point of view and use of language. Waddell tells the story as first-person narrator. He speaks not in dialect, but in the vocabulary of the black jazz musician of the era. In Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature, Gayl Jones refers to Hairston’s use of “slanguage” as his protagonist tells his own story. When the story begins and Waddell lays out his “vine” (clothes), brushes his “kicks” (shoes), and checks out his “wig” (hair) in the mirror, the reader is drawn immediately into his character. When he distinguishes, frequently, between “silks” and “members” (fellow blacks), the reader is reminded of the segregated society in which he lives. Through Waddell Wilkins’s authentic voice, “The Winds of Change” captures clearly and powerfully a unique social and political period, one that changed the course of contemporary history.