on the diversity of black women

On Tuesday morning, I saw a striking image of Janelle Monáe (wiki) on For Harriet‘s Facebook page, promoting a new song of hers called ‘Yoga’. I wasn’t a huge fan of the song, but I found that image of her invaded my thoughts for a good chunk of the day.

In this image, Janelle stood against a kumquat-coloured wall, with her hair tied up, and her legs crossed. She wore a short black sport top with TOMBOY against it in bold, white lettering. She had hoop earrings on as well as a look that seemed to dare anyone to challenge her and be foolhardy enough to think they could win.

Tomboy. That word to me feels as though it gets most of its traction in whispers and private messages among trusted friends, and yet it was arguably the loudest element of the image. It took the breath out of me.

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It should perhaps come as no surprise that I find Black women incredibly powerful, intelligent, creative and autonomous. There are some out there in the world that I will carry love for my entire life. These are a few observations that I have made throughout my time on this planet. Even in times where I may not be able to see someone who resembles my colour out on the street, I can turn to the internet to see what’s on their minds.

It is difficult for me to recall a time when the internet wasn’t full of ire. There is much I pay attention to, especially when it comes to Black women, what their endeavours are, and how they are perceived by others.

It doesn’t look good: there is little to no wiggle room outside of expectations (sometimes developed by stereotypes), and commonly I see many transphobic, racist comments made about them should they strive to do a little living for themselves. They’re not allowed space for anger, anguish or much in the way of assembly without being considered suspicious. The assumption I see a great deal of is that women in general are supposed to be meek, feminine, and appealing to men — even via online comments in allegedly progressive communities!

Salt-N-Pepa.

I enjoyed growing up in the 90s, for the most part. I was exposed to a fair deal of music with Black women at the front, addressing issues of responsibility, sexual independence, and a general sense of women going out and doing their own thing. The songs were catchy, and carried important messages for me as a young lady. I was expressing myself very freely then as a tomboy, which I did not realise until later was rather a lucky thing.

MissyElliott

 

Missy Elliott by far was the most influential rapper of my teens. A talented writer and producer of many popular hip-hop / R&B tracks, Missy always appeared to have a heart of gold, and so much love for her fans, and artists that she was working with. Her videos have been amusing, bright and colourful, and quite often memorable.

Girls, girls / get that cash / if it’s 9 to 5 / or shakin’ your ass / ain’t no shame, ladies / do your thang / just make sure / you’re ahead of the game would often be sung with gusto whenever ‘Work It’ entered the song rotation in my library. Again, messages of women doing for themselves — at least, that’s how I saw it, in any case.

However, the late 90s is when it started: I began to notice the buzzing of judgments. Wouldn’t Missy be nice if she lost some weight? Wore a little something girly? I wondered why these images mattered more to the people talking about them than how incredible it was to observe a lady making it to the top and controlling her image.

Skin of Skunk Anansie (wiki). Not an R&B artist, but a remarkable musician nonetheless.

Don’t believe the judgments stop at music. This form of behaviour permeates virtually every form of media there is, as well as other fields. Serena Williams, a professional tennis player with several notable victories under her belt, is an example of a Black woman exceeding unexpectedly, and a receiver of various crap comments because her figure isn’t appealing to some straight men looking for eye candy in the tennis world. World class athletes are not exempt from this sort of harm, nor are those of different professions who brave the world as their authentic selves.

In adulthood, I have noticed that there’s loads of work to be done in checking one’s assumptions about what kind of person a Black woman might be, just based on her appearance. These are things battled with on a regular basis. This is absolutely a problem for feminine Black men as well as those who are of colour and fall outside of the binary; it’s almost as though the shaming is intended to magically change a person to suit another’s preferences somehow.

That is not how it works. Some harder conversations need to be taking place about the beauty in diversity among Black people (especially women), which should extend to remembering that each person has autonomy and is deserving of expressing it as they wish without the peanut gallery passing judgment without invitation, or inciting violence.

Respecting people who may differ from you is not a plea, and should not be treated as such. It is a demand.

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twisted and tangible

It’s been a little over a year since I jotted down some stray thoughts and observations regarding the voluntary changes in my hair’s appearance.

The impetus to write came from someone I once knew, who found the photos I was sharing of my hair at that time to be remarkable. He felt that I was more in touch with myself when I ditched the straightening comb and hair dye.

I had some reservations about the message I received from that person, but have not voiced them until now. While I’d be hard-pressed to deny the striking physical shift, not much else changed beyond the surface. Not immediately, anyway.

March ’11, Seattle Center – photo by Gary Kornheiser

about five months of new hair growth

I’ve had the natural hair on top of my head ever since I can remember, save for a couple of experimental chemical relaxer incidents in my preteens that went sour without delay. My hair was often unkempt and dirty. It was considered an afterthought, because my mum was a single businesswoman with a single kid. There was only so much ground she could cover.

Years of being teased by other black kids got old quickly, and I developed a thick skin. High school came round, though, and that dramatically changed things for a solid while. I was in a new area of town where no one knew me. I got made up like a little princess, my hair in carefully pressed curls and sealed under a headband. A little darling for show.

From the last good drops of high school ’til college and a bit beyond, the straightening of my hair endured. I’d fallen into a pattern with it, as most would, and it seemed to placate the folks in the neighbourhood where I lived (which was predominantly black).

January ’06, Los Angeles

To be honest, I don’t know why all of that mattered so much, because I never really interacted with anyone around there. I was usually somewhere else – schlepping around with gamer friends or lovers, or lost in any Douglas Adams book I could get my hands on.

I didn’t start considering ‘going natural’ to be A Thing until about summer 2009. My roommate’s sister had these artistic wonders in the form of hair on her head. She took good care of it each day. The texture was ever so tempting to touch, but I never did, nor did I dare to ask. It had a delightful amount of thickness, yet appeared light and fluffy. It defied anything my hair ever was, and I believed I had done everything under the sun!

There was a sense of culture and confidence that was positively bubbling, and I’d been blind to it. It came as a real shock. I couldn’t have imagined that not only were there people out in the world who were comfortable with the natural look and feel of their hair, they were celebrating it, and sharing it online. I gobbled up personal stories, photos and videos.

April ’10, Ballard Locks, Seattle – photo by Greg Stonebraker

six months prior to chopping off & starting fresh

Seattle became my home in the fall of 2009. It didn’t take me long to acclimate to the cooler weather, the many bodies of water, the mountains and the trees. The new, wet environment was perfect. I put some serious amount of time and consideration into not only returning to my nappy roots, but toying around with items with few to no chemically altering ingredients.

I had to transform the idea into action. This took a year; I’d grown attached to my fun, loud hair dyes. I managed to whittle down the use of them to absolutely nothing, got my head shaved (which wasn’t my first time), and went right to work on my first manageable ‘fro. I had support from my partner and friends, which I credit in part for my going forward.

December ’10, Skagit County, Washington

two months of new hair growth

It’s been a worthwhile learning experience thus far. I have attended natural hair workshops, purchased homemade natural hair care materials, and have even created my own. I can achieve an amazing amount of length when I remove harsh elements from the mix. I have returned to a mode that I grew up in, with a higher level of understanding and satisfaction.

keep in touch: black hair, representation & question marks

I’ve been dabbling in different hairstyles and colours ever since I felt I could safely get away with it. For me, the start of the experimentation began several years ago, long after I’d moved away from living with parental figures in the ‘burbs, and during college studies in a big city. I also happened to work in an environment that allowed for me to explore various hair dyes and lengths without being fearful of losing my position.


As I am living out the last few years of my twenties, I decided to go in a new direction – that of natural promotion of hair growth, and no more breaking down of hair via chemical straighteners such as relaxers. (I am undecided on hair straightening combs.)


Early last fall, I hacked off most of the hair I’d dyed purple previously and since then have been developing a small afro. I shop around for different conditioners suited to curly hair, various earthy balms and oils to massage into my scalp, etc. Only recently have I decided to share my progress in picture form on some of the more known social networking sites. It yielded a rather interesting message from someone dear to me in the past:

for much of the time I knew you (especially the earlier years) I always sorta had this feeling like you were somehow repressing/ignoring/whatever your race/ethnicity/heritage. I get the feeling these days that you’re more in touch with yourself (and, for better or worse, that tends to be a part of it), and I’m happy for you for that.

My initial reaction was to smile about it and say thank you. Days later I still feel as though that was the proper action to take, while also admitting that there were some elements of me that I was hiding within the jars of Manic Panic/squeeze bottles of Special Effects dye.


To be honest, it’s difficult for me to attempt to represent what my nationality seems outwardly because I don’t truly know it. I’ve been so curious about it at times I made up stories to suit me, which understandably led to a bit of trouble.


I was adopted at age six. I’ve no clue about the people who contributed to my birth, nor the alleged siblings. Usually, tackling serious life constraints have taken precedent over finding out any of this information, but now that things seem to be ironing out again, perhaps I can trudge forward with at least obtaining papers on medical information.




Back on point to the note I received. I DO feel I am more in touch with who I am as a person. I am definitely less introverted, but I have a long way to go before anyone will call me outgoing.


I don’t think I need funky hair colours to represent anything or get people to pay attention to me, but I still think of dyed hair as a lot of fun (and like most hair decisions, a pain in the arse to maintain)! Perhaps I’ll return to it in a while; I don’t pretend to know. I enjoy where I am now, and that’s enough.