Sunday, April 17, 2011

the p-word.

I went to a festival yesterday, the Spring Chicago Naturals Meet-up, sponsored by Black Girl with Long Hair. It was pretty amazing, to see so many natural women in one place. It's true that the practice of treating natural hair with chemicals or extensions in order to make it (gulp) "more manageable" or worse (gag), "more attractive" is falling by the wayside, and that there are plenty of natural sistas out there is true. But still I was so delighted by how many women were there to network, shop, learn about and revel in their natural status. I almost bought some really cute clothes from this girl--she has a shop on etsy, psychosurplus vintage, tres cute, alas, my torso is always too long--and I came home with some sweet accessories and a new product. I'm very discriminating about what I put in/on my hair, but it was the only thing I saw that passed the label-reading test, and after the first try yesterday it seemed great. We'll see how it goes.

So this isn't a space where I often write about my body, or my beauty or my fashion or anything. It isn't to say I don't like that sort of thing; I love it. But it's not a place where I'm all that comfortable. I feel like there's a real part of being a woman that I've just started coming into truly, and it's by and large been without a lot of support from other women in my life. You know that fantasy (or reality) of girls lounging around in one another's poster-covered bedrooms, trying on different shades of lipstick, swapping clothes and dishing about which boy they'd let get to which base? Yeah, that shit never happened to me. I used to make total fun of those girls who were always in the mirror combing their hair and worrying about their makeup--life was passing them by, and they were too busy worrying if their butt looked big in these jeans.

But something changed, and I'm not sure what it was. Maybe I began to finally, finally feel like I can be the woman I want to be without having to attach to others' perceptions or judgements. Maybe I met a man who made me feel so confident about who I am inside that the real me started to shine outside. Maybe going natural was the first step to letting the woman I am out... I have no idea, one of those brilliant alchemical things. But whatever it was, I've really come into a place where I can be pretty when I want to be without feeling liek I'm compromising myself; I can adorn myself the way I enjoy and deserve, and I can distance myself from anyone or anything who complicates that.

Yesterday I came home from this expo all in a tizzy, with a renewed sense of joy and beauty at my brilliant locked hair, at my love for tending to it, at my joy in the body God gave me, and I spent the whole evening thinking about really cool things I could do to my hair.

Then, like a neon light in the 3 am-skid row of my brain, this word lit up.

Pickaninny.
Pickaninny.
Pickaninny.

oh, Farina
My mother taught me this word. It'so one of those things that you know but you don't know how you know it: you can't lay your finger on the moment in your memory when you learned it, when it touched you, when it stuck, but you know it's there in some substantive and repeated way. I imagine she used to wash her hair and braid it up in corn rows and ask me if I looked like a pickaninny.

I had no idea that this was so damaging to me. I'm only beginning to discover the ways in which all kinds of self-hatred was enacted and handed down to me, and I'm horrified at seeing the same self-hatred still be enacted today. I don't mean that black women are perming their hair because they're caught up in pursuing a white standard of beauty--many have made that argument, but it's not what I'm saying today. I'm saying that after hundreds of years black people are still colorstruck, are still caught up in concepts of good skin and good hair. How can we expect the world to treat us well if we can't treat ourselves well? And how can we treat ourselves well with next to no one to model what a healthy acceptance of ourselves?

I've often taken, after washing my hair, to braiding it into thick plaits. I've been locked for six years now, so there's a lot of hair up there, and when it's all wet it can get heavy and annoying. My sweetheart would come into the bedroom and see me tangled in my hair up to the wrists and tell me that he thought I looked nice.

"Really?" I answered, "I don't look like a pickaninny?"
And then once I really listened to myself, and I thought, why in the hell am I saying this? I know I'm beautiful. I'm nobody's dirty, ignorant, liver-lipped, watermelon-eating stereotype. On top of which, why would having an interesting, dimensional textural quality to my hair make me less attractive? This is me in my natural state. Why am I speaking such hatred and death to myself?

Because I learned it.

I'm so angry with my mom for ever thinking this about herself, and for teaching me to think it about myself. She's a smart, capable, attractive woman who simply knows too much and has too blessed a life to be caught up in such diabolical shame. But when I look back over my childhood, I see now that this bear trap of self-loathing clanked around her ankle every day of her adult life, and still does. And my churning, midnight-blue anger is run through with a red racing stripe of pity. I could pretend that I've already freed myself of the kind of humiliation that she still falls prey to, but the truth is I haven't. I can see the trap now, but choosing not to step in it is a daily activity, like choosing to put food into my body that makes me feel good, or choosing to speak life to my writing career rather than death. So angry, yes, I'm angry; my mother has come from so far that she should know better than to call herself a pickaninny or to ever have called her daughter one. She should know that being the human that you are is a fact, and one that can be celebrated and honored, not lacquered over or hidden. I'm deeply impatient, and I resent that I have to spend such time sloughing off her baggage. But all of that frustration and anger is tinged with pity. She's a woman, a person, and she doesn't know how much better her quality of life would improve if she could begin to accept and love herself.

No comments: