Throwback Jam: "Sister, Love Thyself"

Photo by United Press International, 1956

Dear Y’all:

I first wrote this blog post (see below) almost two years ago, when my blog was just getting started and I had just a few readers. One of my dearest friends in the world had kept asking me when was I going to write something just for Black women, and “Sister, Love Thyself”  is what was placed on my spirit. (I’ve added a dedication for my friend, but other than that and the correction of typos and mistakes, it’s the exact same post.) For a couple of months, I’ve been thinking about running this post for my newest readers; this week seems to be the perfect time for it.

Love,

Honorée

PS

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November 16, 2009

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“Sister, Love Thyself”

………….for Crystal Wilkinson

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It’s the Rosa Parks syndrome. We Black women are taught to be martyrs, to lay our bodies on the altar of our community, in the well-worn tradition of our mothers, and their mothers, and so on and so on and so forth, so that our children—preferably, our male children—can go forth.

Before Mother Parks sat down that day on the bus, she had done all sorts of work for the community as a civil rights worker, but she wasn’t given time to speak at the historic March on Washington–neither were any other Black women, except for one lone female speaker: Josephine Baker (who had lived out of the USA for quite some time by then.)

But I can bet you all that fried chicken the male speakers invariably ate—after the March—was cooked by Black women.

Every woman of every complexion is taught—outright or by observation—to ignore her own needs for the good of others; I think that’s a universal woman thing. But I don’t know any White women who are taught that White guys just have the right to listen to songs calling them “b*tches and h*es” because it’s part of White male rage, the need for them to blow off historical steam. Unless it’s Rush Limbaugh, nobody tells White women that White guys have had it so hard in this country, so let them play their mean-spirited, woman-hating music.

And though a lot of White people, men and women, don’t believe a White woman’s testimony when she accuses a White man of rape, a White woman doesn’t have the entire White community on her back, telling her to recant.

Even Black women’s magazines differ from “mainstream” (i.e. White) women’s magazines. You never get articles in mainstream magazines advising White women to marry men who have less education than they do and/or who make less money than they do or even, to marry men who have been to prison. You don’t have articles chiding White women for being uppity, reminding them that they can’t really be too choosy about their romantic partners.

Tangent: I’ll never forget years ago, in the aftermath of that “other” March—the Million Man March—Essence magazine had this whole spread on the March. But Black women weren’t even invited by Minister Louis Farrakhan to attend the March, which was billed as a “Day of Atonement.” I kept asking myself, if this is a March for men, why is it in a women’s magazine?

And then there were my other questions: if a brother wanted to “atone” for what he had done to his wife and/or the mother of his kids, how come he spent hundreds of dollars to travel hundreds of miles away from her to say so? I mean, he couldn’t get a babysitter and take a sister out to the Red Lobster within a twenty-mile radius or something?

The notion that Black women should never occupy an uppity space means that she must feel responsible for saving the community in which she was raised; she must never get above that community, even if she hurts herself in the process. I’m all for doing the essential work to help Black folks, but it’s time for us to find a way to keep this community going without destroying Black women in the process, and one of the ways I’ve decided is just to tell other sisters, “You matter, to me and to yourself.”

In my own life, I try to give my sister-friends affirmation, what I call the “woo-woo,” a term I stole from Sinclair on “Living Single.” Remember that show? It was the precursor to “Sex in the City,” only instead of living in Manhattan, those four Black women lived in Brooklyn before it was all edgy-like.

Sinclair was my favorite character, a quirky, strange-dresser woman who looked at the world the way she saw it: through nice, sweet, loving eyes. She was the quintessential, idealized Black woman, only without the crack-addict relatives sleeping on her couch, always asking her, “Can I hold five dollars?” And whenever one of her friends was feeling down, she would pat her and say, “Woo-woo. Woo-woo.”

Whenever one of my close friends has been depressed, he or she will call me. Most have to call instead of visit, because all but two live in other states, far away. On the phone, if I hear sadness, I will ask, “Do you need the woo-woo?” And then I’ll begin my litany: “You’re fabulous. You’re so cute. The world doesn’t know your power. You are touched by the hand of God.”

Or if I’m depressed, I’ll call up one of them and say, “I need the woo-woo bad.” In this way, I can cut through the preamble, and get right to what I need, which is reassurance that I am loved and accepted, just as I am. Sort of like an emotional quickie, without the need for condoms and such.

There’s one friend I have, Kim, who doesn’t even wait for me to tell her I need woo-woo. She just knows. Kimberly is the can’t-live-without sister I’ve been friends with for thirty years. She’s the one I’ve shared every cycle of my life with. And I do mean every, if you get my drift.

Kim was the one who insisted that I start this blog. Really, she pushed me to start it because she knows that I needed to say certain things out loud, in public, even if it makes other people uncomfortable to hear them. She’s not in this crazy, writing world of mine, where the publication of a poem in a journal that only a thousand people read—out of the three hundred million people in the country—can define a person’s self-worth, and can determine whether your peers will speak to you at the annual Associated Writing Programs conference.

And because Kim and I go back so far, have grown up together, we know that when you’re a young girl, you say you are never going to ignore yourself for others; you promise yourself you’ll never be your mother. Kim and I talked about that–laughed about it– just a couple of weeks ago. It has been on my mind ever since.

If you’re a Black woman, in your secret heart, you insist you’ll never sing your Black mother’s blues song–but then suddenly, you are your mother, for better and worse.  Sure, you’ve inherited the good things, like her great skin, her cute and (mostly) firm breasts, her love of God and her recipes for cream biscuits and peach cobbler. But you’re carrying her emotional loads, too.

You’re taking care of others who can’t or won’t take care of themselves. You’re waiting in vain for somebody to say, “I appreciate you” for the work you do at home or the office. You have an inability to stand up for yourself because “ladies” just learn to suffer with grace. You’re depending on God to change the hearts of others because Jesus can work miracles on even the worst person. (We ask a lot of Jesus in this community, don’t we?)

Everyday, you’re driving yourself crazy while repeating that same “keeping it together” mantra that your mother did– and you’ve probably also inherited at least one of her health problems, too. The same extra thirty pounds.  Her grapefruit-size uterine fibroids. Her high blood pressure. Or her diabetes.

Usually, I blog about something that strikes me that I’ve read about in the news, but this issue with Black women and self-love is something I don’t need to read about, because it’s going on with me every day—in my body, in my life, in my family, or on my job. It’s also going on with all my Black female friends, whether they are married or single, child-free or mothers, and I see it with sisters I meet when I travel or who email me because they read a poem I wrote somewhere.

As a Black woman, I have to give the woo-woo to myself, if I want to do more than just survive–if I want to thrive.  And I am determined to do that. No disrespect to the mothers of our past, because they’ve given us some real gifts. But I decided this year that the Black Woman Martyr Look ain’t cute for me. I want my reward now, not in heaven, and I don’t care who thinks I’m selfish or unloving or  “un-Christian” or too loud or too pushy.

When I say “reward,” I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about peace of mind. I’m talking about health of spirit and body. I’m talking about self-love.

I understand now that sometimes, you have to fight for self-love. It just doesn’t get handed to you–not when you’re a Black woman. I strongly suspect it doesn’t get handed to anybody.  And people can stand in the way of your self-love. If you can’t be ladylike and just calmly walk around them, then sometimes, you got to learn judo in order to kick people’s you-know-whats. Then you carefully roll them to the side of the road, so you can walk peacefully on your way.

The lesson about claiming self-love and leaving some people or causes to the side is a difficult one, because we sisters want to help and maintain our community and also, honor our mothers who kept this whole thing going for so long. And also, let’s face it: co-dependence has been going on a long time in the Black community under the guise of “No brother or sister left behind.”

The girl-children–even the grandchildren– of those Black women from Mother Parks’s self-sacrificing generation are grown now, and some of us are even mothers. For those of us who still need to learn self-love–and that’s a whole bunch of us–we can’t say that we’ll start valuing ourselves only once we’re fully valued by others, love ourselves only when we’re fully loved by others, because that time may never come.

We can’t wait for God to give us our reward in heaven or for someone nice to hand us glory now. Remember what even the most self-sacrificing of Black grandmothers used to tell us, back in the day?

“God helps those who help themselves.”

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I Need To Read Some Country Hair Stories

I was in Kentucky over the weekend, talking to my girl Crystal Wilkinson, the sassy fiction writer/novelist, and fabulous co-editor of Mythium Literary Magazine (along with her partner, the brilliant and kind artist Ronald Davis.) Click here to read a past feature I did on Mythium.

Crystal had brought me to Kentucky for a poetry reading at Morehead State University, where I read from the Phillis Wheatley project. I think I did all right, judging from the audience’s reaction. I had another  reading at Western Kentucky University as well, kindly hosted by the poet Ricardo Nazario y Colón and the Office of Diversity Programs at WKU. And I read some OTHER poems there, including a few new poems from another project; I do actually write poems that aren’t about Miss Phillis, believe it or not.

Oh, I didn’t want to leave Crystal on Saturday morning! I wrote her a poem on the plane, and then called her when I got home and talked until I ran her battery down on her cell phone. She’s such a wonderful person.

Crystal and I had a long, lovely ride in the car to Morehead for the reading, and I was talking about how I am growing my hair out as long as it will grow—this one, last time. I told her that I only get my hair cut on the “growing moon.” Crystal knew exactly what I was talking about, and she also knew what a “growing hand” meant when I described my hairdresser as having one of those.

When I’ve mentioned “growing moon” and “growing hand” to some other sisters, they look at me with blank stares, and then, they laugh at me and say, “You sure are country.” That is true. I am country, although I’m what another friend would call “Striver’s Country.”

So I wanted to ask y’all to share your country hair story with me in the comments section—I promise I will not revise it and put it in my novel! I already have my own hair stories that I’ve written about. My friend Tayari Jones has shared some wonderful hair stories on her blog, too, but I am looking specifically for COUNTRY hair stories.

If you’re a White lady, and you’ve got something country to talk about concerning your hair, share that, too! Believe me, I’ve seen some White ladies from Texas, and all I can about their hair is “Dang.”

Ok, let me give you one of my own: my grandmother Florence (my mother’s mother who lived in Eatonton, Georgia) used to grease my hair with medicated Vaseline while she yanked through my long curly hair with a comb–curing me of being “tender-headed” and then, and put it in two braids.

The yanking will be familiar to many who are reading this, but I don’t even think they make medicated Vaseline anymore. For those of you who remember it, it smelled horrible and nasty–much worse than Sulphur 8. By the way, did you know that Madame C.J. Walker’s original formula was sulphur-based?

After Grandma fixed my hair, I would stink to high heaven. My hair would be looking all shiny and glorious, and I would trail the awful scent of something dead and decomposing behind me. I was too scared of my Grandma–she was a very scary person–to complain, but she tried to send some of that stuff back home with my mama when she came to get me at the end of the summer. I cried and told my mama, I didn’t want to be laughed at when I went to school. We lived in Durham, North Carolina, the mid-size capital of Black Bourgeoisie Negroes.

You know writing about hair for a Black woman writer is like a Brother writing about basketball, though I have noticed that a lot of short and tall uncoordinated Black men want to talk about what monsters they were “back in the day” on the basketball court. That’s like when Sisters want to tell you how their hair was all the way down their backs when they were little but now, it just won’t grow and they don’t know why.

I think the basketball and hair stories are the equivalent to White men’s fishing stories. Yes, my hair was several inches below my shoulders when I was a child, so I guess that is sort of down my back, but I will not tell you that my hair was the length of Janie Crawford’s when I was a little girl. No, I could not sit on my hair, ok?

I don’t believe in lying about the beauty. Like, I will tell you right now, I was cute for the first nine years of my life, and then, it took me twenty-six years to get back to cute again. My mother disagrees with that last statement; she says I have been incredibly beautiful since I was a baby, but if you can’t depend on your mama to tell a “got that wrong” to you about how pretty you have always looked, who can you depend on?

Anyway, I am jones-ing for the Country South and all its strange wonders, so help me out here. Please leave your “country hair” stories in the comments below. You can be from the city, and this can be a “when I visited my granny Down South” story, too. But just keep it country and honest.

You Gotta Read This: Mythium

Front Cover of the First Ever Mythium Issue!

My first “You Gotta Read This” feature is on Mythium, a brand new literary journal focusing on writers of color, founded by Crystal Wilkinson and Ron Davis. When I say you gotta read this, I’m serious as some gumbo from the French Quarter.

Wait a minute: before you get turned off by the words “literary journal,” I want you to go back and read the blog posts I’ve put up over the past almost two weeks. In your short history with me, have I ever not kept it real with you? Enough said.

As a “poet and writer,” I read as part of my job; but as a certified “stone-cold regular sister” I want to read literature because I want to enjoy the writing, too. I don’t want to read literature because I’m supposed to—because it’s like oatmeal and good for me and will lower my bad cholesterol. I want my literature to make me feel good (and not just because my doctor says it will.) I believe there are a lot of people out there like me—of all complexions—who love good literature wherever they can find it, whether they are people who are writers or people who just love to read.

But you don’t just read great literature, you buy it, at the bookstore or online. Or at least, we writers really hope you do. Why? One word: bills-to-pay. (That was a compound word, but you get the message.) And you spend your money on literature, the way you do most things you think are worth it. Plus you know it’s worth it when when you read it, so when you open up Mythium, this fabulous new journal, you’re going to say, “Dang! Honorée was so right.”

Bet.

Full disclosure: I’m in this inaugural issue of Mythium, but so are twenty-seven other writers—way more fabulous than I am, for real, and this is no false modesty—including Michael Harper, Opal Palmer Adisa, and Reginald Harris. (If you haven’t heard of those writers, don’t be ashamed. But you do need to get to a library, like, immediately, post-haste.)

Now, back to the founders of Mythium, Ronald Davis and Crystal Wilkinson. Crystal is the author of two books of fiction, Blackberries, Blackberries (2000) and Water Street (2002), both published by Toby Press. Water Street was a long-list finalist for the prestigious Orange Prize and short-listed for a Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation Legacy Award in fiction. Blackberries, Blackberries was named “Best Debut Fiction” by Today’s Librarian magazine. Crystal is a faculty member in Spalding University’s low-residency MFA writing program and is currently serving as Visiting Professor and Writer-in-Residence for Morehead State University. She is a member of the Lexington, Kentucky-based writing collective, The Affrilachian Poets. Ronald (aka: upfromsumdirt) is a lauded visual artist, graphic designer, poet and full-time hermit influenced equally by lies, half-truths, mythology, politics and candy. He is currently photoshopping a host of prestigious credentials in preparation for a 2016 run for the presidency as the founding member of the political party, the right-handed gris-gris guild (anansi is its official mascot). Supposedly, he types pretty fast for a fat guy, the relevancy of which is being hotly debated. Also, he is au pair for secrets & shadows. And in the tradition of the athlete when confronted with the camera: Hi, mama; I love you!

Ronald and Crystal

Ronald and Crystal

Honorée: What made the two of you decide to start Mythium?

Mythium: Toni Morrison said once that if there is a book you want to read that isn’t out there yet, then write it. We found that after we had read journals [that focus on writers of color] like Callaloo, African American Review and a few others. And we spent a lot of time pilfering through mainstream literary journals in search of the writers of color.

H: Yes, it’s hard to find “us” in the literary journals. Sometimes you have to search very hard. On your website, it states that Mythium has a focus on “indigenous and diasporic” voices. Why did you both believe this focus was important?

M: “Indigenous” often equates to “non-white” or to plant and animal life in the academic realm; you never hear the phrase “indigenous Parisians.” So that is our collective call-for-fellowship to those cultures and “diasporic” for those of us honoring our ties to places of our various Origins.

H: The journal has a funky, quirky aesthetic—the artwork is just beautiful. How did you decide on the look for the journal, and who is the artist?

M: We are funky, quirky folk. No doubt about that but the visual aesthetic (with a bit of pinching and prodding from Crystal) is pure upfromsumdirt (Ron Davis). He’s our art director and the style is reflective of his personal aesthetic.

H: Well, I just love it! What sort of “feel” did you want for the literary selections you included in this inaugural issue?

M: Variety! Works that reset the baseline for literature from the gaps. We felt as though we had fallen into this vast pot of excellent literature that was guaranteed to be passed up from our mainstream counterparts. We have no doubt that this inaugural issue is full of not only prize-winners but work that holds up the banner for how diverse writers of color are.

H: There are a lot of literary journals out there. What do you think sets Mythium apart from those other journals?

M: We are not really trying to set ourselves apart. We are trying to bring it all together. Sort of glue (hopefully) that skillfully fills the vast gaps especially where the celebration of the cultural voice is concerned.

H: What are your goals for this journal?

M: It’s our child, we just want the best for it… for it to be happy and find a loving relationship with someone who respects it.

H: When does your submissions period start, and what sort of work are you looking for?

M: We accept submissions on a daily basis, but we do place limits to our reading periods. The reading period for Spring 2010 began October 1, 2009 and will last for 3 to 4 months. Writers should always check our website for submission updates.

H: Where can we find the journal?

M: Ideally, wherever you look! Amazon and Barnes and Noble carry us, and your favorite online retailer should have us or at least be able to order us, but readers can always subscribe directly for the best rate by going to the website. And make sure your local bookstore and library have Mythium. Ask somebody to order it!

H: Is there anything else important that you want us to know about Mythium?

M: That it goes good with plantains and coffee. Plus, we’re very grateful for the feedback, interest and support we’ve received from the Literary Community – authors, students and the voracious reader. Thank you.

Note: Because there are so many great people in the inaugural issue of Mythium, it was impossible for Crystal and Ronald to choose which selection from the journal to excerpt. Click here for a list of the writers appearing in the inaugural issue of Mythium.