TURN UP YOUR NOSE at red heads! What ignorance! I pity your lack of taste. Why, man, red is the natural color of beauty! What is there that is really beautiful or grand in Nature or Art, that is not tinted with this primordial color?
-“Oh, She Has Red Hair!” from the Hannibal Daily Journal, 5/13/1853

The other night I sat under the falling leaves at the edge of the boat dock on Green Lake, listening as Coach Finney barked orders to the clumsy group of fourteen-year-old boys rowing The Millard along the water. The coach’s voice echoed through the microphone loud and clear, “Bill, Nick, Joe, Ginger. Row Harder!”

I felt myself stiffen and blush simultaneously. “Did he really just call my son ‘Ginger’?” I thought incredulously. “How rude!”

I stood up and paced the sidewalk, breathing heavily, debating whether to go over and lob a derogatory label back at Coach Finney in return, like, “Hey, Jocko, don’t call my kid that!” or sit down and shut up. So I sat down. And shut up.

But I felt bad, for the millionth time, for my two sons and their dreaded red hair. Boys who are both ginger bred, forced to run away from drooling idiots screaming and lunging after them, just like in the story books . Boys who’ve been endlessly called, ‘Carrot Top’; ‘Fireballs’; ‘Ginge’; ‘Big Red’; ‘Skinny Red’; etc. ad infinitum….instead of their actual name. Names which, in my younger son’s case, no one knows, because everyone at crew and his new high school simply call him ‘Ginger’, or alternatively ‘Spice Girl’.

Remarkably, this same son now wants his birth name to remain a secret. Which is a pity, as I put a lot of thought into choosing it. Yet I can understand his dilemma…swim upstream your whole life or get out ahead of the current? Now, when introducing himself, he routinely says, “Hello! I’m a ‘Ginger God’, but you can just call me Ginger.” He’s riding the wave clear into shore, apparently.

My older son is not so brazen, and in fact spent years donning hats in an attempt to cover his noticeable locks. Now he merely shrugs resignedly when picked on. Both boys know it’s part and parcel of having red hair. Yet the stereotype persists that we redheads are ‘fiery’. I think it’s more accurate to say that we’re ‘irritated’. No one likes a random stranger to scream, ‘Fire Crotch’ at them repeatedly as they walk through the subway station, so yeah, we’re testy.

Years ago I went to an arts & crafts show held in a group of newly opened model homes. My mother and I, both life-long redheads, walked into the first home, gorgeously outfitted from ceiling to floor, and saw a handmade rag doll sitting on the Ralph Lauren sofa. It had a pinafore with hand-sewn words on it reading, “I’d rather be dead than red on the head.” This doll was for sale, along with the furniture, house, and everything else. I froze, blushed, then peered around to see if anyone else was horrified at this outlandish ‘folksy’ saying. Of course, since natural redheads make up less than 4% of the world’s population, nobody there besides us had red hair ,or seemed to care.

Throughout history people with red hair have been persecuted. In the late 16thcentury, the fat of a redheaded man was an essential ingredient for poison. The Egyptians regarded the color as so unlucky that they had a ceremony in which they burned red-headed maidens alive to wipe out the tint. The Romans kept red-haired slaves, and at a higher price. In Corsica, if you pass a redhead in the street you are to spit and turn around. During the Spanish Inquisition flame colored hair was evidence that its owner had stolen the fire of hell and had to be burned as a witch. In December 2009, the British supermarket chain Tesco was forced to withdraw a Christmas card which had the image of a child with red hair sitting on the lap of Santa Claus, and the words: “Santa loves all kids. Even ginger ones“. And in September 2011, Cryos International, one of the world’s largest sperm banks, announced that it would no longer accept donations from red-haired men due to low demand from women seeking artificial insemination.

All in all, it’s not easy to have a head of red. Just look at this little red-haired seal, ostracized by its colony.

The world is a cruel place sometimes, and having red hair is a minor, but real, challenge. So to my Ginger Bred boys, I say: Run, run, far from the noise. They can’t hurt you, you’re my Ginger Bred Boys.

And to everyone else, I plead: If its hair is like spice, remember – Be nice!

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