A Complicated Response

Unpacking the unreal response to my last post. “Unreal” applies to my perception. I wrote my poem with some urgency but could not, would not anticipate the scope and depth of feedback I received. I am still reeling from the experience.

I wrote a thing about wearing my hair in its natural state to school one day. In fact, it was the fourth day of Spirit Week which called for different dress up themes each day. Thursday was ’60s Day (in honor of our school’s 60th anniversary celebration) and being the minimalist that I am, I opted for wearing my hair out, adding some silver hoops, dark sunglasses, wearing all black, and Voila! I became a symbol of the ‘Black Is Beautiful’ Movement in 3 easy steps.

When the day was done, I felt a deep need to process all the attention my new style garnered. The rush of comments and compliments felt sudden and a little overwhelming. I’ve been working at the school for 25 years. I am a known quantity. Until I wear my hair out, apparently. Blogging helped me parse the emotions of being on display (by choice), causing a stir (not intentionally), and remaining true to myself. In the morning I tweeted out a snapshot of my ambivalence.

Exactly! “In character and out of character at the same time.” It’s me and it’s not me. Based on how I usually move through school – hair worn close to my head, pulled back away from my face, braided, twisted and almost always contained – this Afro-look represented a radical departure. For the eyes of the beholders, it must have arrived like a revealed secret, a mystery unveiled. Hence, the excitement. I let folks see what I have previously chosen to keep to myself. Turns out, I have a long history guarding this aspect of my Black abundance.

In her book THICK, sociologist, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom takes on Beauty in black and white and explains how capitalist structures insure and promote a very specific cultivation of white feminine beauty as a form of capital. “In The Name Of Beauty” is a downright masterpiece of deconstructing what we think we know and serving it back to us sliced, diced and neatly displayed. For instance, she explains

…beauty can never be about preferences. “I just like what I like” is always a capitalist lie. Beauty would be a useless concept for capital if it were only a preference in the purest sense. Capital demands that beauty be coercive. If beauty matters at all to how people perceive you, how institutions treat you, which rules are applied to you, and what choices you can make, then beauty must also be a structure of patterns, institutions, and exchanges that eats your preferences for lunch. p. 58

Pause here. Take a moment to collect yourself if you need it.

The whole essay is fire and uncompromising. Tressie McMillan Cottom allows us to get away with nothing.

Big Beauty – the structure of who can be beautiful, the stories we tell about beauty, the value we assign beauty, the power we give to those with beauty, the disciplining effect of the fear of losing beauty you might possess – definitionally excludes the kind of blackness I carry in my history and my bones. Beauty is for white women, if not for all white women. If beauty is to matter at all for capital, it can never be for black women. p. 65

It’s a lot. And I turn to this text in particular because in response to my post, I received so many kind words referring to my beauty. My point here is not to reject or deny those but to investigate my own ambivalence in receiving them. Tressie offers me a frame for that line of questioning. Choosing visibility is always fraught. Choosing visibility as a Black woman in a predominantly white space is another level of fraught. Willingly putting myself and my magnificent hair on display as a Black woman in a predominantly white workplace turns out to be a surprising choice for someone who leads a life of deliberate understatement in that same institution.

I walk into my school every day regardless of how I’m feeling about my level of attractiveness. I have work to do. And that work requires that I remain approachable, open, modest and welcoming. The show that I put on is not about me but about all the people I come in contact with every day. My appearance must afford me a high degree of comfort and flexibility and few distractions during the work day. After that’s done I just want some peace.

I went to school one day in a costume of myself, of

who I might be

if I chose

Not to give a damn

about packaging and expectations.

It’s complicated. And unfolding in my mind. My experience is not only about beauty standards and where I fit in some nebulous hierarchy. It’s partly about how I see myself and how others see me and how that is wrapped up in how we identify ourselves and each other. It’s about who I can be and choose to be at work and on which terms that can happen. It’s about the crossover effects of private versus public behaviors – costs, benefits, and fallout. It’s about markets and patterns of consumption in the attention economy. My experience is about the ongoing tension between doing and being, between choosing and being chosen.

My experience requires more words than the world may have space for. I keep writing anyway.

 

Tressie McMillan Cottom, THICK and Other Essays, The New Press, NY. 2019.

What Happened When I Went To School With My Hair Out

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Hair out. That’s how I’d have to say it, right?

Hair out, as in: not down, not “open” as one would say in German.

I wore my hair

my natural Black hair

out

at school

all day long.

Which is to say I wore an Afro.

An unpicked, unshaped tussle of curly strands

crowning my head.

A supersoft bouncy castle up top

framing my brown round face.

I added big dark sunglasses

and silver hoops,

Wore all black and a serious look

and suddenly my kids could not recognize

the teacher they were expecting.

Colleagues stopped in their tracks, smiled wide

then threw their roses at my feet.

Behind my glasses I felt protected, shielded,

safely distanced.

I kind of liked it.

My hair out

with its own righteous agenda

let me tap into

who I might be

if I chose

Not to give a damn

about packaging and expectations.

With my crinkly crown out and about

I cannot go unnoticed.

I cannot float under the radar.

I cannot not be seen.

Being able to choose visibility

and which damn to give

are privileges of the few.

But for a limited time only

I tested the waters and dabbled in a role

I could find becoming

and welcome:

sharp, fierce, unbothered;

proud black all-woman.

Imagine what it means,

what it meant

to wear my hair out,

my eyes covered,

my expression nonplussed,

brown skin gleaming

surrounded by a well meaning white gaze

that wonders but can

never really know

the extent of that Black abundance.

“It’s still that black abundance?”

“Yup” LaThon told me. “And they still don’t even know.” – Kiese Laymon, Heavy. 2018

“Caught Up”

There’s this sort of internal breathlessness that comes up when I reel through my twitter feed trying to catch as catch can important events, significant reads, personal check-ins all in the space of a few hours a day. I feel like I can’t possibly catch up. Then I  begin to ask myself the weightier question: what it would actually mean to be or feel “caught up?” And that’s when the other meaning hits me: “caught up” as in immersed, drowning in, emotionally involved and preoccupied. Caught up.

So which is it? Which one am I striving for? How much room is there for a both/and proposition? And what if it’s neither?

Ultimately, the answers do not much matter. I will never be fully “caught up” in this steady stream of information, so I can stop trying to be right now. And sometimes, thank God, I have the capacity to become “caught up” in someone’s story or message. My empathy muscles get a workout when I open myself to words, images and thoughts which move me, which extend deep into my feelings and remind me of who I am  in the world and that I am not alone here.

Recently I have been deeply moved by words by women of color in particular. Their messages, their presence, their use of voice, the chosen topics have reached me on deep levels. One poet creates a sacred space for me to contemplate the complexity of self in the hair I wear. An author confirms that I am in fact in my right mind when I experience the fear of not being liked and I persist in telling my story anyway. A speaker illustrates for her audience the prevalence and perniciousness of unconscious bias and reminds me that I have more to share in this life than I or the world may initially give me credit for.

This poem, ‘Invocation’ by Ariana Brown

Or this commencement address by Chimamanda Adichie.

This TED talk by Yassmin Abdel Magied

http://www.ted.com/talks/yassmin_abdel_magied_what_does_my_headscarf_mean_to_you

Each woman in her own way, speaks to me like someone who knows me; like someone who knows of my struggles. Each message reaches me in a place of humility and also pride. I identify and feel personally addressed.

There are many sources from which to draw inspiration and meaning. For now I feel grateful for the willingness to pause long enough to be moved. To repeat the exercise twice or more in order to experience the impact a little differently each time. To hold off before jumping onto the adjacent bandwagon of ideas that will not hold still.  To do this – to stop, take in and gradually digest such works of personal significance takes practice and a certain fortitude. It is not always easy to linger a moment longer because I want to let a feeling last or allow an idea to resonate to its full extent. Our current tools of communication hardly encourage this. They constantly remind us of how much may be passing us by.

I say, let the things pass for they will likely bounce around again and our gaze will not have been missed. If I want to experience resonance that is full, rich and lasting, finding and creating space in myself has to remain a priority. Chasing the latest leads me in the wrong direction. Taking time to experience and appreciate the profound bring me that much closer to being the self who can allow herself to get “caught up” in the most meaningful ways.  The poet, the author, the speaker they all live in me in some mysterious and beautiful way. The highest honor I can offer them is to continue to create space in me where their messages may land and find a home.

Got control?

Negative stress, my husband informed me, comes from the feeling of not having control. Yeah, that makes sense, I agreed with him.
It’s a straightforward insight and yet I hadn’t heard it put in such clear terms before. I’ve held onto that thought ever since.

I began observing myself in situations where I became impatient, annoyed or disengaged and discovered distinct patterns. In a short time it became readily apparent that when I felt helpless, at someone else’s mercy, or dependent on an outcome over which I felt I had no say, those negative emotions were almost certain to surface and persist. I found many more examples at home with family than at work which helped me recognize that the real work I needed to do was, above all, on myself.

So I learned to pay closer attention to my sense of control in various situations. Below are some of the things I do to regain control when I am on the verge of losing it or have already lost it. See if any of these make sense to you:

1. I go exercise.
If I can get out on my own, an extended walk helps me re-establish some degree of equilibrium. Just moving, thinking and being outside works wonders. If I don’t have the luxury of going solo, I just get into a space and do some sit-ups, push-ups or sun salutes. The point is, it doesn’t have to be much. I don’t need to change clothes. Simply straining myself a little shifts the energy in my body from overpowered to empowered.

2. I do a little housework.
My husband is an excellent housekeeper and does a lot of the stuff that I tend to avoid. Tackling a small duty, however, makes a positive difference. Folding and storing a load of laundry, sweeping the floor, or washing some dishes by hand. These are all tasks where I can see the results and I feel responsible.

3. I do my hair.
This may sound funny but it works. Doing my hair involves some effort. While I am fond of my naturally wavy-kinky tresses and the versatility of style I enjoy, washing, combing and styling my hair – typically in some form of braid or twist – takes some time and a bit of forearm strength and finger dexterity. Left to its own devices, my hair is wild and dense. Taming it on its own terms into neat side twists or multiple playful braids without the aid of a chemical relaxer becomes a source of stubborn pride and nice visual metaphor for the order I am striving to create and maintain.

4. I prepare myself a healthy meal.
A couple of years ago I undertook the Metabolic Balance program to work on improving my overall nutrition. Strict adherence in the beginning brought great results but after about a half year of seriously disciplined eating habits, I gradually let up and some of my less favorable habits snuck back in. Nevertheless, the basic principles (moderate portions of protein and veggies, minimal carbs, plus a daily apple) are still with me and have had a positive influence on my food intake. So when I prepare one such meal, I usually steam chicken with broccoli seasoned with some ginger, lemon, salt and pepper and then add a couple of cherry tomatoes for color. A tall glass of water to wash it all down and I feel like I have just won the discipline trophy of the year.

5. I write.
Journaling more than two or three times per month is often just enough to remind me that I have a valuable outlet that I may be neglecting. Giving my funk a name, address and telephone number lets me take ownership of my situation in a different and more balanced way. My journal doesn’t argue with me the way my head does. That makes writing a gift that keeps on giving. The more regularly I write, the more familiar I become with my mental and emotional neighborhood, the better I can cope with all manner of crises in my neighborhood and beyond.

Not quite 6. Time out.
I would love to be able to say that I find a quiet corner and go meditate but that is not the reality. When push comes to shove, I may have to leave the room quickly and go sulk for a time. While it may seem childish, it is also sometimes what I need to do before I can attempt a course correction. This type of time out is the ultimate signal that unless I claim that time and space for myself right then and there, the results are likely to be worse rather than better.

This last point is the one I waffled about including. It is not the strategy I am proud of or would recommend. Nevertheless, it is one of the things that I do when it feels like the battle for control is lost, if only briefly.

My primary finding here is that one of the best tools we have for recognizing control is understanding how we feel and behave when it is missing. Identifying these six ways I try to restore or boost my sense of self-control moves me that much closer to growing a resource which can quickly become scarce when the pressure is on and I need it most.

What do you do to manage and negotiate your sense of control? Please share. I would like to hear your thoughts.