illustrated close-up of Kenny Watson with fire in the background behind him

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963

by Christopher Paul Curtis

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Chapter 7 Summary

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One evening, Momma is making dinner and Kenny is doing his homework when Byron walks in with a hat on. Seeing them, he tries to make a quick exit. Momma stops him and makes him take off his hat, only to discover that his head is covered with a blue and white handkerchief. Momma knows immediately that Byron has done something that his father has explicitly forbidden him to do: he has gotten a “conk,” a process that has left his hair “reddish brown, straight, stiff and slick-looking.” Momma, furious, asks Byron:

Is this straight mess more attractive than your own hair? Did those chemicals give you better-looking hair than me and your daddy and God gave you?

When Momma tells Byron that he looks like a clown, Byron retorts that he does not see anything wrong with his new hairdo and that he thinks “Mexican-style hair” looks “cool.” Momma warns him that he may not be feeling the same way once his daddy gets through with him, and she sends him to his room.

Kenny tells Joey about Byron’s hair as soon as she arrives home from church, and the two of them go upstairs to wait with their big brother. Kenny takes the opportunity to give Byron a hard time because Byron is already in trouble and will not be able to get back at him. Joey is shocked when she sees Byron’s hair and admonishes him to wash it out before Dad gets home. Byron finally tells Joey that what he has done to his hair does not wash out; it will be gone only when it grows out. Always protective of her oldest sibling, Joey asks Byron “who did this to [him],” and Kenny answers instinctively and correctly that Buphead is the culprit. Kenny continues to take the opportunity to torment Byron, and Byron compares his situation to that of a “top-dog wolf” who is injured or otherwise weakened, with Kenny playing the part of the “little jive wolves in the pack” who want to take advantage of the situation and overthrow him.

When the children hear the sound of Dad’s car parking in the driveway, Joey starts “blubbering,” Byron shows his nervousness swinging his legs back and forth rapidly off the side of the bed, and Kenny continues his teasing by pretending to play a funeral song on a bugle. They listen as Momma tells Dad that there is a “surprise that one of [his] little darlings” has for him, then calls Byron downstairs. Dad is amazingly calm when he sees Byron’s hair, musing that since it is permanent, there is nothing he can do about it now. After a few more ominous comments, Dad decides that there is something he can do, and he whisks Byron back upstairs into the bathroom and locks the door. Dad takes the precaution of stuffing the keyhole with toilet paper to deter observers, but Kenny drops to the floor and peers under the door to see what is going on. Dad takes a razor and, to Byron’s great embarrassment, shaves off all his hair.

When Byron and Dad emerge from the bathroom about a half-hour later, the whole family laughs at the way Byron’s ears stick out from his bald and shiny head. The laughter is short-lived, however, as Dad quickly becomes serious again, telling Byron that he has been told enough times to change his ways and that this time “something’s going to be done.” Dad and Momma have a private talk and then get on the phone with Grandma Sands in Alabama. Kenny thinks that this is the end of “Byron’s Latest Adventure” until Dad brings home a TT AB-700 music player for the Brown Bomber a few days later.

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