“My Hair Is Not an Apology”

ENSEIGNE AFRICAINE. “Coiffeur de Dames,” Cotonou, Benin. Photographed by Lionel Adenis (Postcard from my collection. Purchased).

Every semester I choose a “theme” for my first year writing courses. The past semester’s focus–one word–misogynoir.

Misogynoir is an amalgam of the word “misogyny” (dislike or contempt for women) and “noir,” the French word for “black.”

Moya Bailey coined the term to “describe the racialized misogyny aimed at black women.” But many were writing and thinking about misogynoir long before there was a word for it. In fact, I recall writing an essay in junior high about intra-racism and the experiences of darker hued Black women in New Orleans. Basically, all the work of my “professional life” is a response to misogynoir.

In my classes, our goal was to find constructive strategies to cope with and combat the effects of misogynoir. Discussions covered many topics: images of black women in the media–including social media; representations of black women in music, film, art, literature; controlling images of black women; black women’s invisibility; politics; health and housing disparities; police brutality; systemic biases and treatment. The list goes on and on and on.

Obviously, there was no way we could cover all the topics, particularly since new issues emerge(d) frequently. But it was interesting  to note how often black women’s hair entered the conversation.

Of all things.

Books have been written about it. Documentaries filmed. Policy written. Memes created. Regular discussions held around the dinner table and on social media.

Black women’s hair.  

Little black girls are removed from classrooms. Nursing students are “forced” out of programs. Professional women are fired. Because of  hair. Because of hair. Because of hair.

Let that sink in.

Black women are targeted when we refuse to press or relax our hair, when we insist on loving our natural selves–including our hair–when we reject conformity in favor of self-love, when we shun the European “standard” of beauty because we know there are countless ways to be beautiful.

I’m not sure other women are advised [urged] to damage their hair to make it [read: themselves] more presentable, or told their hair is intimidating.

Does this happen to non-Black women?

When they were undergraduates, my [former] students, Lauren and Jasmin, performed a powerful piece on this very topic. Take a listen.

Poetry Break with Jasmin Oya

“A Moment to Reflect”

For the last several weeks, my mood has been “poetry.”  I’ve been reading it, thinking about it, writing it.  Perhaps, this mood has been driving my need to get in touch with what I call “ur-Chandra,” the person I was eons ago, before “life” invaded “living.”

When I was a teenager I spent whole evenings reading classic and contemporary poets, memorizing and writing favorites in a red spiral notebook designated for words that struck me in a particular way. (I still have that notebook).  I’d then pen my own lyrics till the wee morning hours.

Although my profession allows me to enjoy poetry regularly, long, long evenings with poetry and my thoughts are rare.

A few days ago, I treated myself to time with poetry.  Instead of grabbing one of my “go-to” collections, I read from The Ghetto of Eden, a stirring collection of poetry written and self-published by my mentee, Jasmin Oya.  I’ve had the collection for several months now, and though I have read many of the poems, I’ve not been able to give the book the attention it deserves.

The book is divided into two sections–“The Beginning of Man” and “The Fall of Man.”  The 143 pages offer a sensual mix of spirit, flesh, and song, a prayer to the sacred and desecrated in all of us. Despite its title(s) the poems are not “religious” in the traditional sense, but they are spiritual.   Some of the poems are a little “raw,” but the painful honesty of “the story” that unfolds makes the collection difficult to leave on a shelf collecting dust.

“Time Out for Verse”

Jasmin is one of my favorite people. She is a senior, graduating this year and heading to a prestigious university for graduate school.  I love her to pieces–she is unapologetically Jasmin, and she loves humanity and knowledge and a good challenge.  She has been writing poetry since she was a preteen. She performs at various venues and enjoys facilitating poetry workshops for children.  She is a spoken word and a paper and pen poet.  She’s also an activist who often uses her work to speak up and speak out.

I am sharing two poems that demonstrate the flexibility of her artistic expression.  The first is from The Ghetto of Eden:

“The Prayer”

I believe in God like I believe in my mother’s palms.
I believe in Him like I believe in my mother’s mouth
and knees.
Her tongue and every hallelujah that
yawned with it.
I see Him in her posture.
I’ve been trying to mirror it since young
since young,
I’ve been trying to reflect her old.
All the prayers that have seen more days than me.
The ones answered and the ones that haven’t/won’t/will.

For I am no one without them.
For I am one with them.
For I breathe because they did.
I believe in God like I believe in tomorrow.
I believe in Him like I believe in today.
How exhausting they both can be
smelling of morning breath,

prayer and gospel.
These days aren’t easy, most of them are lies about what’s really hurting.

what lies beneath
who we are when
the room is empty.
when they’ve all gone home.

the party is over.     the
decorations are worn.
the night is fast asleep;
you’re left wondering,
who turned off all the music.
where have all the people gone.
who stopped dancing first.

Prayers don’t have room for the pride.
Put that to the side.
Gather yourself away from all the noise.
I’m learning to stop mourning the morning.
Find solace in the silence.
To stop fitting God into the nearest human body.
Believe into what I have yet to see.

The second is a spoken word piece Jasmin performed three years ago for a Black History Month event.  “For the Black Artist”–

If you want to read more of Jasmin’s works, I encourage you to purchase her book on Amazon.  It is well-worth the few bucks.

Be sure to take a poetry break this week!