07 November 2011

Loves Roundness

From the third definition of "womanist": "Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless." - Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983)
“Girl, where you been hiding those legs?!” my high school classmate shouted. It made me regret the decision to wear my favorite outfit – a purple mini-skirt and matching top, ironically chosen because the long gold-flecked shirt covered what I considered to be my worst asset. Until that day, I hadn’t realized that my thick, muscular calves were just as capable of eliciting attention. I tried to hush my classmate, but he was unhushable. His appraising stare and loud mouth followed me down the walkway and onto the bus.

This was the late 80s, when skinny black women tried desperately to gain weight so that they’d be considered appealing to black men, whose aesthetic was defined by a preference for things thick. From the waist down, I had thickness in abundance. And I hated it.
Loves love and food and roundness...Loves herself. Regardless.
My classmate's yell was eerily similar to one that I'd heard one day when I was at my grandparents' house. “Where did she get that butt? None of y’all got butts like that!” That time, the voice belonged to a longtime family friend. “Her daddy’s people,” was the answer offered by one of my mother's sisters. Oblivious to my shame, the woman kept going, “And ain’t got titties the first!” Damn. Did she really have to go there? She could have won the top prize in how to crush a teenage girl’s ego.

It was true, though. I was the inverse of my mother and her sisters, who tended to be heavy up top and narrow below. I was built just like the women in my dad’s family, more like an inverted P, the small of my back ending abruptly in a large mound. I once had to whip out my school ID on a clearly-too-old-to-be-talking-to-me man who refused to believe that those hips, those thighs, that ass belonged to a sixteen-year-old.

Being a natural introvert, I hated the attention that my lower half brought. It probably didn’t help that I spent my early adolescence in nearly all-white schools, where skinniness was in and thickness was sin. So as best as I could, I tried to camouflage it – loose pants, shirts that hung below the waist, ankle (or at least mid-calf) skirts and dresses. For most of my life, I have been incredibly uncomfortable with my body.

Strangely enough, while I have deplored my own thickness, I love it on other women. Beyonce is beautiful, but Jill Scott and Marsha Ambrosius are downright breathtaking! The irony is never lost on me. I watch them in admiration, wondering why I have had such a hard time appreciating that same roundness in myself.
Loves love and food and roundness...Loves herself. Regardless.
This month, I enter the last year of my third decade. Looking ahead to the big 4-0, I have decided that the next two years – preceding and then entering my forties – will be dedicated to celebrating me, loving me. And that requires me to learn to love roundness…my roundness. I have realized that 20 years from now, I will look at images of the 38-year-old me and wish that I had enjoyed this body while I had it. I have realized that it is time to do with my body what I learned to do with my hair – delight in it and all of its big roundness – rotund belly, ample derriere, thick thighs, and boulder-sized calves.

Even as it flagrantly violates the societal ideal of beauty, as it repeatedly sidelines me with chronic illness, and as it requires medication that causes it to regain much of the 35 pounds that I worked so hard to lose, I am committed to loving this body…this flesh…this round, brown flesh. And guess what? On more and more days lately, I actually do. Regardless.

25 October 2011

Paint the Town Purple (and Pink)!

For as long as I can remember, pink has been my favorite color. Nearly everyday, you can find me sportin' some shade, even if it's just my carnation pink leather briefcase. Every once in a while, though, I get so inundated with pink that I need a break. In the year or two after I pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha, almost every gift from my relatives was pink or green - fuchsia suede shorts, emerald leather coat, rose-colored shirts, mauve sweaters, pink...pink...pink. For about 10 years after, I essentially purged my closet of all pink. It was still my favorite color; I was just sick of it.

This year, with Breast Cancer Awareness Month underway, I am starting to feel the same way. The entire city seems adorned with pink, from shopping centers to funeral homes. There was a time that I loved purchasing merchandise with that pink loop. My mother is a breast cancer survivor. She was only 41 when she was diagnosed with stage 4B breast cancer. When I tell that to doctors, they look at me like I've got an expiration date stamped on my forehead. That, together with my first lump scare at age 28, has had me going in for a breast smash annually for ten years now. And still, I'm getting tired of seeing the town painted pink.

Maybe it has to do with the commercialization of breast cancer. A few days ago, I passed a Rue 21 store with the display window full of ribbon-adorned shirts that had more to do with breasts than cancer. What percentage of this junk actually goes toward finding a cure? Or perhaps providing aid to the victims of this disease who are poor and lack health insurance? Saving ta-tas is nice, but saving lives is much, much better.

I think, though, that my frustration has more to do with the invisibility of the other symbol for this month. October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The month is almost over, and I've yet to see a single purple ribbon (much less a 10-foot-high one mounted in front of a shopping mall). I've seen no races, no marches, and no men, women, or children cheerfully declaring their status as survivors. The only acknowledgement that I've seen was a spoken word performance at the church my family attends in Birmingham (and I'm deeply grateful for the prophetic ministry of East Lake UMC).

Long before my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was involved in a physically abusive relationship. I saw and heard the abuse on more than one occasion. I have a distinct memory of being about 5-years-old and throwing myself between my mother and her abuser, yelling at him, "Don't you hit my mommy!" But I was well into my 30s before I thought of it as domestic violence. My mother was not a passive victim. She fought back. She called the police. And when she was overpowered, she grabbed whatever she could to defend herself. She was nothing like those women on Lifetime movies, who cowered and hid behind sunglasses. So for years, I simply did not recognize her victimhood, even as I was a passionate advocate on behalf of women's issues.

Domestic violence is one of those things we don't like to talk about. Few people are eager to claim their status as victims or perpetrators. And even though 1 in every 4 women in the United States experiences domestic violence during her lifetime, those experiences often go unnamed as such. This is especially the case in the African American community. Growing up, I often heard African Americans dismiss domestic violence as a white issue: "No sistah is gonna let a man beat her. Black women are too STRONG to be victims. They fight back!" Collectively, we liked to pretend that a woman's attempt to defend herself against violence actually nullified the existence of that violence, even though the perpetrator was usually larger and stronger. We allowed ourselves to believe the lie that Black women are less likely to be victims of abuse than women of other races, when in fact, approximately 29 percent of Black women have suffered violence at the hands of a romantic partner. We hid our heads in the sand while Black women, who comprise only 8 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for 22 percent of all intimate partner homicide victims.

If those of us who are survivors remain silent, how can we ever expect those who are still victims to find their voices? It's time to end our silence. Let's paint the town purple!

19 October 2011

Time to Unplug

Two weeks ago I discovered a writer’s haven – an internet café at a public library. It’s got tables, plenty of power outlets, restrooms, vending machines, and even a microwave. Walled off from the rest of the library by glass doors, it opens into a private courtyard, with benches, picnic tables, and yes, more power outlets! It’s been a great spot to work. Armed with a thermos full of coffee, a lunchbox, and a laptop, I can work there all day – without spending any money!

This morning, though, my haven keeps getting interrupted. Every few minutes, a young man dressed in a sports store uniform, pops in with his cell phone to his ear. A longtime lover of library silence, I'm impressed that he is respectful enough of the patrons in the main space to take his phone conversations elsewhere. I just wish that "elsewhere" was somewhere else. Doesn't he see me working?!

Cell phone conversations are loud, even when people think they're speaking quietly. So it didn't take long for me to get a sense of what was going on. He was being called repeatedly by his job. More than three hours before his shift was supposed to start (like I said, cell phone conversations are loud), his co-workers were tracking him down, asking him when he was coming to the store. By the fifth call, he walked straight through the café to the courtyard. Even with the doors closed, I could hear him giving instructions to someone. By that point, my frustration with the noise had turned into sympathy for this man, who couldn't enjoy his morning off without constant interruptions.

I couldn't help but think of a few of my friends in ministry. I have been to a few ministry retreats and conferences this year where I've watched colleagues who could not get away from issues back home. Every few minutes, they got a call, text, or email from someone who ostensibly needed their help. And every few minutes, they were responding. It was nearly impossible to have conversations with them without them pausing to take a call or answer a text. "Hold on, I need to respond to this" was the frequent refrain. Their busyness took on a manic element as they rushed from task to task.

If it were just conversations with me that were being interrupted, I wouldn't be bothered. But I knew that their addiction to busyness was all-encompassing. It impacted their health and their relationships. Is it ironic that it happened most, actually always, with African American men and women? Probably not. My guess is that it's the StrongBlackWoman/StrongBlackMan thing rearing its head. Layer that with Christianity's emphasis upon "bearing the cross" and you've got a full-scale case of ministry overload and eventual burnout.

A few months ago, my husband and I imposed a blackout period on electronic devices in our household, a two-hour evening time slot in which we would not utilize our cell phones or computers. Miraculously, it was doable. The world didn't come to an end. Our lives did not turn upside down. Instead, we had two hours each evening when we read, talked, or played games rather than checking Facebook and playing Angry Birds. Over the past few weeks, though, there's been a gradual erosion in our observance of the blackout. It probably began around the time of a deadline when I "just had" to work on something for a few hours. It's a slippery slope. I better scramble back up before I fall too far. I encourage you to do the same. Make a commitment to "unplug" for part of your day - even if it's only one hour. And for that hour, be present to the world in other ways. Spend time with your partner. Play with your kids. Read a book. Take a long, hot soak in the tub. And trust that God is in control of everything else.

15 August 2011

Going Natural

This article appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Geez Magazine.

It started in front of the mirror. I was in the bathroom, trying to figure out how to squeeze the next appointment between classes, a dissertation, and a research assistant gig. I'd pulled off some impressive scheduling maneuvers before, but in the final stages of my Ph.D. program, it was increasingly difficult.

My weekly salon visits began in my junior year of college. During a visit, my mother looked at me and asked, "When was the last time you got your hair done?" I'd mostly done it myself since freshman year. "You need to get it done every week." Was she kidding? It took a minor miracle to stretch my paycheck for groceries and textbooks. "I'll pay for it." But not tuition, groceries, or books? Just like that, my priorities were ordered.

In the bathroom six years later, I estimated that I spent at least fifteen hundred annually on my hair. My graduate stipend was eleven thousand dollars. That means thirteen percent of my income went toward my hair, toward salon visits and the cabinet full of products bought in my ongoing search for the bottled miracle that would keep my always-reverting hair straight. No wonder I couldn’t give to the church. I was tithing to my hair dresser!

Suddenly I heard a voice. No, not God's. It was my hair: "Isn't it obvious that I don't want to be straight?" Ridiculous, I know. Of course, my hair wanted to be straight. Why else would I endure costly and corrosive chemicals every five weeks and pay to have someone shampoo and style my hair each week in-between relaxers? "That's the point! You have to keep going back because I don't want to be straight!"

In some lost book of the Bible, African American women must have been given a new Decalogue. The first commandment: “Thou shalt keep thy 'do nap-free at all times and at all costs.” African American women are likely the only racial/ethnic group in the world where the majority do not wear their hair in its natural texture. In a society gripped by racism and sexism, we are strongly discouraged from doing so. Some corporations actually have policies forbidding “ethnic” hair. An article in the August 2007 edition of American Lawyer magazine reported that a Glamour magazine staffer did a presentation for a New York law firm on the "Do's and Don'ts of Corporate Fashion," in which she deemed black women's natural hairstyles "shocking," "inappropriate," and too "political" for the workplace.

For Alberta, a UCC minister, potential professional consequences were key in her consideration of going natural as a corporate employee twelve years ago: "To be natural was a radical approach." Comedian Paul Mooney puts it bluntly in Hair Show, the documentary directed by Chris Rock: "If your hair is relaxed, then white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, then they're not happy." And if the professional costs aren't high enough, there are also personal consequences. Alberta reports, “My family was against natural hair because of the stereotypes that had plagued the black community. We had to look like the ideal model - the Barbie doll - and not embrace our culture." Another minister, Dionne, who works for a Pittsburgh community development organization, first tried going natural as a college freshman; a noticeable decrease in romantic interest from guys sent her back to the salon after just seven


It is no wonder, then, that most African American girls are subjected early to harsh processes designed to break the bonds of naturally kinky hair and to transform it into straight, socially acceptable hair. According to the authors of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, sixty-five percent of African American women use chemical relaxers or hot combs to straighten their hair. In recent years, these processes have been supplemented by methods of integrating commercial hair, including extensions, weaves, and wigs. The popularity of extensions and weaves among African American women has risen so dramatically that one comedian joked that the current generation of

Black children will never see their mothers’ real hair.

When I was six years old, I got my first relaxer, beginning a twenty year odyssey of chemical processing (which doesn't even include the hot combing of my early years). The results were often disastrous - burns on my scalp, neck, or ears, and damaged hair. At 27, I'd had enough. Since high school, I'd expected going natural when I was older. I imagined myself sportin’ a silver afro, not because of a dye job, but because I couldn’t fathom having the courage to do it before I was sixty.

But standing in the bathroom that morning, something came upon me. I’m not sure if it was courage; it may have been plain ol' fatigue. The next day, I was sitting in my stylist’s chair as she trimmed away the chemically straightened ends, leaving me with the half-inch of new growth. Seeing my hair for the first time in my adult life was daunting. A persistent thorn in my flesh had been my hair's refusal to show any sign of the racial miscegenation evident in my caramel complexion. The stuff on my head was thick, coarse, wiry, and tightly coiled. I put on a brave face, smiling in response to the stylist's pleased expression. I walked to my car, donned a baseball cap, drove to the nearest beauty supply store, and bought a wig. It took five weeks for me to adjust to the sight of my own hair and to feel comfortable exposing it to the world.

When I did, it was like being emancipated. I was freed from a daily twenty-minute hair ritual and a weekly two-hour salon appointment. Freed to exercise anytime I wanted, not just when I could spare an hour afterward to get my hair back in shape. Freed from fear of rain (a relaxed head’s kryptonite) and the weight of the umbrellas and ponchos I carried everywhere. Freed from the bondage of constantly striving to make my hair conform to an ideal that I could never attain.

Alberta experienced a similar kind of freedom when she went natural at the age of thirty-three. "This was a spiritual journey. I embraced who I was. I began to love African American culture and history. I realized that on this journey I had a voice as an African American female. My hair was a symbol of power."

For some African American women, going natural is just a temporary style preference. But for others, especially

those of us rooted in the traditionally conservative Black church, letting our hair exist in the way that it grows out of our head is revolutionary. It is a countercultural move, an intentional act of personal liberation from the sociopolitical powers and principalities that tell us that we are "less than."

After her first transition to natural hair, Dionne returned to relaxers for over three years before making another attempt to go natural. "My reason for going natural the second time around was this deep desire I had to really appreciate the grain of hair that God gave me. I had been thinking a lot about what it meant for me to be made in the image of God.

One of the things I concluded was if God took the time to create me with my specific grain and texture of hair, why couldn't I take the time to appreciate my hair in its natural state. In addition, I wanted my hair to serve as a source of inspiration for other young, black women who struggled to appreciate their hair. I wanted my hair to spark conversation that would allow me to empower women to wear their hair natural. I prayed that prayer before cutting my perm off and I can't tell you how many opportunities I've had to minister to women about their hair since I've gone natural. I can honestly say that after three years of wearing my hair in locs, I absolutely love my hair and would never consider perming it again. I'm so proud of my God-given hair and I'm learning to appreciate it more and more!"

Although I had not anticipated it at the time, that last visit to the hairstylist marked the beginning of a journey of spiritual transformation. A few months later, I had different experience in the mirror. Arriving at work one morning, I pulled down the visor to look in the overhead mirror and discovered a pair of beautifully enormous brown eyes. For most of my life, I had spent so much time obsessing over my hair that I had never noticed my face. That morning, I drank it in, recognizing the reflections of my parents in my face, realizing how much I looked like the aunts whom I admired. In going natural, I saw myself for the first time. I realized that I was beautifully, wonderfully, and intentionally handknit by God. And I was good.

26 July 2011

We Got Mad (Hair) Issues

Recently it occurred to me that I've been that I've been fairly silent on a topic about which I'm fairly passionate and that has considerable significance to Black love - Black hair. Or more specifically, our personal and cultural hang-ups about Black hair. Maybe my silence has to do with its potential explosiveness. Conversations about Black hair tend to devolve into a sort of war between two nations - those who wear their hair relaxed and those who wear it natural. It's a touchy topic. But fully loving ourselves also means loving our hair in its natural form.

That's an assertion that usually rubs relaxed heads the wrong way. Keep in mind that I don't think it's wrong to relax or straighten one's hair. My issue (really our issue) is that the vast majority of Black women have been straightening their hair for so long that we don't actually know what our real hair texture looks like. We are afraid of our natural hair texture. We don't want to see it and we don't want anyone else to see it. So collectively we spend billions of dollars each year on hair care products even though we are among the poorest group of people in the United States.

Imagine if every Black girlchild, around the age of 8 or 9, went to a plastic surgeon and had her skin lightened because she lived in a country in which light skin was considered beautiful and brought considerable advantages in terms of education, income, and marriage (Oh wait, it does.). And then for the rest of her life she avoided the sun and went back for regular "touch-ups" every six weeks to ensure that her skin stayed light. I suppose we could argue that doing such a thing has nothing to do with race-based beauty ideals. But we'd be lying to ourselves. The good news, though, is that it will be easier to lie to ourselves after several generations of Black women and girls have been doing it. Then we can pretend that it's just the way that things are done.

It's hard for a person to admit that she doesn't fully love and accept herself. It was hard for me. It still is. I've been natural for nearly 13 years now, after what seemed like a lifetime of conscious and unconscious hair self-hatred. Now, I'm working on getting over my body self-hatred (Seriously, do these two skinnies need to be sitting across from me eating cake while I sip on a skinny, sugar free, decaf misto?).

Whenever the conversation turns to natural hair, women with relaxed hair get defensive. Do me a favor and relax your defenses just long enough to ask yourself these questions (and don't worry - I've got something to say to women with natural hair too):
  1. Do you know what your natural hair texture looks like? Most black women don't. At the slightest sign of kinks, we rush to the salon for a new application of the creamy crack. How can you claim to love you if you don't know what you looks like?
  2. Do you know how to take care of your natural hair? That is, do you know how to style it, moisturize it, keep it healthy? Only in the past 10 years have natural hair care products become widely available. That's amazing in itself considering that beauty salons and beauty supply stores are among the businesses most likely to be found in Black neighborhoods. Of course, the irony is that most of these stores devote much of their floor space to selling hair - Malaysian, Indian, Asian, and European hair - to Black women. Apparently, relaxers are no longer strong enough to tame those natural kinks, coils, and curls. We've just resorted to wearing other people's hair.
  3. Do you feel just as beautiful with natural hair as you do with relaxed hair? You should. After all, your natural hair is the hair with which you have been fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. And as the church folk say, God don't make no junk.
  4. Can you honestly afford the time and money that it takes to maintain your relaxed hair? This really should be the clincher. If you're putting your hair styles on credit or on layaway (or ignoring other obligations - including tithing - because of your hair), then you can't afford it! Now that's not to say that natural hair doesn't take work; if you want to wear anything other than a closely cropped fro, it's going to take some work. And the learning curve is steep in the first few months if you're learning how to take care of your own hair for the first time in your adult life. But overall, I've found it to be much less time consuming and costly.
  5. Does your hair want to be relaxed? Not all Black hair is the same. Some people's hair does well with relaxers. But many of us have hair that just doesn't want to be fried, dyed, or laid to the side. For years I struggled to find the right relaxers and styling products that would make my hair stay straight for more than a few weeks (seriously, I once walked into a new stylist for a wash n' set and she told me I needed a touch-up. My response: "I just had one last week."). I finally realized that my hair was rebelling against the chemicals. It didn't stay straight because it wasn't meant to be straight.
I don't expect women to go out in droves and do the big chop. I just want us to be honest with ourselves about the reasons that Black women are the only group of people in the world who talk about wearing our hair in its "natural" state as if it's an abnormality. We have hair issues just like we have skin color issues.

By the way, for the naturalistas among us who have been reading this with a self-righteous smile on our faces, we have hair issues too. Many of us have made an idol out of natural hair. We act as though wearing our hair naturally automatically elevates us to a higher spiritual and emotional plane than our relaxed sisters. Please! Now, it's true that for many of us - including myself - the decision to go natural is part of a spiritual journey (I'll post another article about that shortly). But for a lot of folks, it's just a hairstyle, plain and simple. It doesn't denote self-love or the lack thereof; it's not a symbol of spiritual growth or political sensibilities. They do it because its convenient or in style. Sometimes they do it because they're flat broke and can't afford anything else.

So let's talk about hair. But let's drop the defensiveness, self-righteousness, and all the other stuff that impedes healthy, community-building dialogue. We've got enough issues without it.

A Long Hiatus

Yikes! Has it really been 8 months since my last post?! It's been a tough 8 months. Some medical and family issues have put this StrongBlackWoman on the sidelines. Against my chronic SBW tendencies, I've been forced to cut back. But that's the topic for another day. Fortunately, the receipt of a research leave grant means that I get to spend the next year writing. I'll be working on my book and reviving the blog.

The next post is coming up in just a few minutes.