Friday, October 30, 2009

I Am My Hair And More

I am a big fan of India Arie. I decided to pull up the lyrics to I Am Not My Hair, which I have avoided in the past because that title just didn't settle well with me. It hit me like the commercial where the brother holds one of his locks and says "I want people to look past this," or when people say "I just want to be seen as a person." It somehow seems defensive to me in a way I don't want to own. If I were to paraphrase, it would be something like well I have this kind of hair, or skin, but can't you overlook it, or I'll distance from it so you can see me as a person. I mean when have you seen a white person say I just want to be seen as a person, or I am not my eyes.

Of course India is right. All of us are spirits at our essence, and I do hold the vision of a day when we can all consistently relate at that level of existence. Surely then, most of the world's resources won't be in the hands of very few spirits while so many others eat dirt and drink worms. Surely then, we won't need domestic violence shelters, and black mothers won't be so anxious about our sons going out in the world. And in my vision, no one has to look past whatever form of gender, race, age, hair texture anyone has because it will all be welcomed in.

And that's my idea of personal well-being as an African-American and collective well-being as a society, a welcoming in of differences that have been shamed powerfully around the world. And so, even as I continue to love India Arie's spirit, manifestation and creativity, I want to say, I Am My Hair. My hair is a part of who I am and I'm seeking to embrace all of me.

But of course India is right on another count. She had Robin Roberts, the Good Morning America reporter, in mind with her song. Robin underwent treatment for breast cancer and with courage and poise, shared this health challenge on the air. I remember the day she took the wig off her head playing around with Rosie, a guest that day, and then another day, photos shown of Robin dressed in a long gown and bald. Her beauty was mesmerizing and I welled up that she allowed herself to be seen this way. I even wrote in to the show to say Go Girl, in so many words. And so I understand too that India is saying that the essence of who we are is not diminished if we have no hair, and I agree. My hair is not my essence, and so if I lost it or chose to lose it I'd still want to say I Am My Hairless Head.

Audre Lorde's The Cancer Journals come to mind, her determination to not get a breast prosthesis, to stand firm in the belief that she was not her breast. If Audre or any woman of African descent wrote a poem 'I Am Not My Breasts,' it would settle nicely on me, like soft rain on dry skin. I would hear it as an expression of liberation from being objectified, as women in general have been. Black breasts have not been devalued and so the meaning comes across differently. Shame changes everything.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I Changed My Name

There are times when we just want to change our name. Maybe people have just been calling it too much, and we want silence or a vacation. Maybe people butcher our name and we get tired of the bone sawing sound, or of making corrections like a broken record. Maybe we're so happy to have a partner,confirmed by law or extralegal ritual,we want to add their name, or delete the one we got from our daddies. Note, this only applies to women. It occurs to me to wonder what it would be like if partners of same or different genders each added the name of the other. And sometimes, we just find that another name represents more fully who we are or hope to be.

That brings me to the new name of my blog, Darker than Blue. I think it captures more clearly the focus here. I took Darker than Blue from the Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions song We People Who Are Darker Than Blue, which speaks to the need of Black people to "tell the whole story," to deal with the self-destructive actions that persist even as "we've come a long way." I loved Curtis' music,his butter smooth voice, the messages he had for us, and the jamming, sometimes slow jamming band.

Names are symbolic magic. They are a product of creation and they create in turn. You can often tell an African-American name because there is so much creativity in it. Before people began choosing African names for their children, parents would often take parts of the name of a famous president, like Franklin Delano Jones. Sometimes we'd laugh at this, but we understood what was going on. His parents were imbuing him with the power to do grand things, and we could feel the love. We have instinctively known that names matter -- they can empower, reflect our sparkle,and even carry us -- and they can cut us down.

When we call something dark in the English language, and once you pay attention to it you realize how frequently it's done, the meaning is usually a variant of evil, dirty, death, bad guy, painful, or tragic. I do not see how we can release racism from the cellular level of internalization while continuing to associate and symbolize darkness, the absence of light or a shade of pigment, in this way.

And so, Darker than Blue, celebrates the shade, the People, the time of day --night, as deep, rich with vibrancy and possibilities to be explored.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Good Hair

It's been almost three weeks since I saw Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair. I left the theater with such sadness and a sinking feeling in my stomach. I came of age in the 60's and 70's, a time when we began to reclaim ourselves in public and private as people of African descent with our own expression of human beauty. We reclaimed from shame many things, among them: dark skin, full lips, rounded noses, our culture, and our natural hair. Wearing my hair in a variety of natural styles for the past 30 some years has been one of the most freeing and feel good experiences in my life. There is nothing to hide, no rain or moisture to fear, no forcing its nature to adopt some other nature over and over again.

There was something surreal about listening to the many black women in Good Hair , most of whom seem bound to keeping their hair straight, long and full, if possible, and by nearly any means necessary. It felt like we could be in the 1930's, 40's 50's, the only difference being our methods of straightening. Even in the 60's Odetta stood alone. It saddens me greatly because it seems that so many black women still only experience their hair as attractive or beautiful, to the extent that it matches the straight hair of Europeans and others. As Chris Rock made graphic when he tried to sell black hair, 'nobody wants it.' I think I might have felt better if some of the women had talked openly about how they don't want it, how it's unattractive, undesirable, "not good" to them. The surreal factor would have gone down for me, because at least I would have had the sense of their being connected to the feelings of hair inferiority and ugliness that underlie the intense pursuit of different hair. But I didn't hear this, or any reflections about the meaning, like we did in the 60's and 70's. Why do I feel my kinky hair isn't good, can't be managed? Why can't I see hair beauty in an African (traditional) way, in the way I have?
In the movie, it all seemed light-hearted fun and stylistic.

My sadness has to do with the continuing ways we as African-Americans continue to be impacted by racism, and the ways we have internalized it, that is, subscribe to its values that alienate us from the goodness of our form of human expression. No one likes to admit this, and we are often disconnected from the underlying shame that still lives. But I am fully with Terrie Williams, author of Black Pain, on this. Our healing is limited as long as we keep operating as though the surfaces we paste over the pain are all there is, are good enough. Chris Rock's daughter came inside crying to ask her dad why she didn't have good hair. She was fully connected with the pain. Hair is just one of the aspects of African identity and culture that has borne generational shame, and I have not been immune, as I believe none of us has. But I've committed to being on a healing journey for my own life, my collective community, and ultimately the world community.

And despite my initial reactions to Chris Rock's film, I applaud him for shining this light, for opening this up, because I believe we are in a time in which we can go deeper into the shame-based pain and understand that it does not belong to us. Something shameful has happened but we don't need to own it, bind it to us, or recreate it with someone else. And then there's the issue of courage and power. One of the most brilliant expressions in the film, in my opinion, was "relaxed hair relaxes white people." But how will white people have the opportunity to learn how to relax around natural hair if we keep helping them avoid it. Keeping them comfortable is about power, but it does not empower us, nor does it help whites to look at the way they use their privilege to maintain one standard of goodness.

When I go outside on the streets of New York, Atlanta, even Winston-Salem, there are locks, twists, pullouts, cornrows,women in light Caesar cuts dotting the straightened hairdos. We're not exactly in the 40's and 50's hairdo-wise, but the idea of "good hair" still exists and except for the commercials, representation of black women on TV delivers daily doses of this toxic notion.