Making Space

IMG_3028

My new mantra is “Make space for myself.” It has been nearly 18 years since I intentionally embarked upon this self-care journey and I still have difficulty putting my health and well-being ahead of the needs and desires of others. I often overfill my schedule and to-do list with meetings, projects, and activities that are largely for the benefit of other people. I say yes to things when I should say no, because I don’t want to disappoint. And I feel guilty about taking up space and time that I think should go to others.

I even feel guilty about how I utilize space in my own home. Last year, my mom moved out of our house, which left us with another (we already had one) spare bedroom. In a classic case of what my therapist calls “shoulding on myself” (say it out loud really fast), I decided that we should only have a house with a spare room if we used it to provide hospitality to other people. So I began making plans to refurbish it into a guest room. Mind you, we rarely have overnight guests and we already had a room that served as a guestroom/crafting space/gaming area/husband’s closet. But a “proper” guest room would let us offer better space for longer periods of time. After all, you never know when a friend or family member might need a place to stay for a while. And considering that we were so privileged to live in a house with more bedrooms than people, I figured it was the right thing to do.

Then came COVID-19. It quickly became clear that we would not be having guests anytime soon. And now that it was the only safe space for us to be, the guilt over being in a too-big house turned into relief that our family of introverts would be able to spread out enough to maintain our sanity while being stuck in the same place WITH PEOPLE every hour of every day.

When quarantine went into effect, I was preparing for a writing retreat at the Collegeville Institute (I name-dropped that for a reason so look them up!). I was planning to spend 25 days in an apartment by myself, with no duties other than writing and recovering from the cancer treatment journey of the past two years. I had anticipated being able to practice meditation and yoga on a more regular basis in a place where space and time were my own.

Ironically, I had originally been scheduled for this retreat in October 2018, but received news of my second breast cancer diagnosis less than two weeks before I was to leave. So it is an understatement to say that I was bummed when quarantine forced cancelling the rescheduled retreat. Given the careful planning that had been done to allow  a retreat in the middle of a semester, I asked myself whether it would be possible to “retreat at home” and what I would need for that to happen.

I decided that I would need a space that felt like a getaway, a place where I could meditate and do yoga and spend hours reading and writing. So I created one. I moved my meditation altar, cushions, salt lamp, and yoga mat out of the corner in the master bedroom, and made them the focal point of this new space. I put up the relax/renew/refresh sign that I had made months earlier but never hung. I made new wall art and grabbed the Ma’at poster that had not found a place since we left Durham nine years ago. Instead of outfitting the room with a bed that would rarely be used, I added a papasan chair and ottoman. But the créme de la créme was the wall hanging.

Having an inviting space for meditation and yoga has turned out to be invaluable in maintaining a consistent practice. But it turned out to be only one of the many ways that I have been learning to make space for myself over the past few months. I have made literal space in a room in my home, yes, but I am also learning to make space in my schedule, to prioritize health practices in my daily routine, to protect time and energy for gardening and canning and cooking healthy meals. And I am learning to feel less guilty about using my privilege to make space for my health. Because health and well-being are human rights. They are my right and my responsibility and ultimately no one will make space for them on my behalf except me.

How might you make space for yourself in your life? Where do you need to show up better for yourself? What resources might you already have at your disposal? What permissions do you need to give yourself to use them?

 

I Am Not the Woman You Used to Know

The following is a public service announcement. Ignore at your own risk.

I am not the same. I knew that I wouldn’t be. Somewhere under the shock, grief, and anger of my breast cancer diagnosis, there was curiosity. Who will I be when I emerge from this experience? Because I knew that I would emerge. And I knew that I would be different.

Many of my friends, colleagues, and students may be surprised at some of the changes. My family probably won’t. They already knew what stock I came from. The same genes are there. It’s just that the Greene family sweetness has taken a back seat to the Walker and Allen frankness. That Johnson sass has turned all the way up. Plus, I’m borrowing some of that “Don’t come for me ‘less I send for you” from those Barnes and Evans clans. Yeah, I’m finally living into the nickname that my grandfather gave me: Mess.Breast cancer journey

In the past 421 days, I have been through four surgeries and four rounds of chemotherapy. I have spent nine months with temporary implants the size and weight of baseballs in my chest (and no, there was never a moment where I wasn’t aware of them). I have had more needles stuck in me than I can count. I lay on a doctor’s table fully awake while he made a one-inch incision in my chest to remove my chemo port.

You better believe that I am not the same. I have looked a potentially fatal disease in the face and told it, “F*** you all the way back to the pit of hell that you came from, and when you get there, tell Satan that I said f*** him, too.” And while all that was happening, I celebrated the release of my first book and got tenure. I learned to use my voice on social media to make a clarion call for justice even while I was sequestered from the danger that simple illnesses could pose to my weakened immune system. And even though the battle is not over, I have changed immensely.

I am more confident, more outspoken, less tolerant of excuses and complaints, and less willing to spend time and energy on things that don’t matter. I have less of a filter and I curse in public. I might even be willing to dance in public without really giving a d@%^ if you think I move like a White girl. And I’m only filtering the curse words in this post because I want to make sure all my “good” Christian friends don’t get so caught up on those that they ignore the rest of what I’m saying here. But in real life, there is no backspace, no edit feature. So be forewarned.

I am even more determined to be an agent in God’s mission of justice and reconciliation, not just in the great big world out there, but in the spaces that I inhabit on a daily basis. If this is my “for such a time as this” moment, I am going to use every bit of it.

I am also more committed than ever to loving myself fiercely. I have ended my decades-old war against my body. I love every bit of my flab, every one of the 11 surgical scars that mark my torso. And no, I do not want to let my hair grow out to see if the texture has changed because I had learned to love that wiry hair with no discernible curl pattern. Even more than that, I love not letting my hair define how I feel about myself.

I am committed to enjoying as much time as possible with my husband and son. Ironically that means that we’ll probably never get furniture for our living room because we’d rather spend that money traveling. Plus, that leaves more room for train sets and dog races and folding tables for family dinners. We like all those things better than rooms with nice furniture that people never sit on.

This is me now. I am not the same. But, hopefully, I’m better.

Recent Articles on the StrongBlackWoman

Breakdown: The StrongBlackWoman in Crisis
This week, I guest-authored an article, “Breakdown: The StrongBlackWoman in Crisis,” for ForHarriet.com. In the article, I narrate the true-life story of a StrongBlackWoman who arrived at the point of physical breakdown after failing to care for herself in the midst of crisis. Here’s an excerpt:

Without realizing it, Veronica had been caught in the vicious stress-health cycle of the StrongBlackWoman. Rather than giving herself the space to feel and express her emotional distress, she repressed it. She distracted herself by directing her energies to taking care of the needs of other people and institutions. She crammed even more activity into an already hectic schedule. And she devoted even less time to engaging in self-care behaviors. She had already had difficulty getting an exercise routine going. When cries set in, she began skipping meals and when she did eat, she relied on fast food and sweets. She sacrificed her sleep and leisure time to keep up with all that she had going on. Together, it was a perfect recipe for breakdown. With no outlet, her emotional distress became embodied in physical form. Her existing health problems were exacerbated and she developed new ones: headaches, dizzy spells, fatigue, fainting. 

In Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, I devote a chapter to describing the link between embodying the myth of the StrongBlackWoman and health problems among African American women.

Farewell, StrongBlackWoman
 
Be sure to check out Christena Cleveland’s excellent article, “Farewell, StrongBlackWoman.”  Cleveland is a social psychologist and the author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart. In her article, Cleveland reflects upon her own embodiment of the StrongBlackWoman and her commitment to healing.  She writes:

My name is Christena and I am a StrongBlackWoman. I am beatable and human, and I am okay with that.  I give myself permission to scream when I am angry, cry when I am hurting, ask for help when I need it, and remove myself from communities that can’t or won’t care for and nurture me as a black woman. Every day is a struggle to put down the StrongBlackWoman façade and take up authenticity, true strength rooted in God and community, self-love, and mutual love. But today I choose to face that struggle and receive the help I need to overcome it.

What’s your commitment to healing as a StrongBlackWoman? Or to supporting the recovery of a StrongBlackWoman? Join the movement and claim your right to a life of authenticity, love of self, and relationships based upon reciprocity. We can do more than survive. We can thrive!

Relinquishing Selflessness: A Lenten Journey


I’m giving up selflessness for Lent. That may seem counterproductive to the Lenten focus on denying self. I should probably do something more…spiritual. Like committing to fast. Or getting up before dawn to spend an hour in prayer. Or giving up Facebook, Twitter, and television so that I can spend more time reading Scripture. Even something seemingly as mundane as giving up chocolate might be more high-minded than giving up selflessness.


Trust me, I tried to think of something else. I was really thinking about giving up social media. That’d be a tough one for me. I will try to curtail my compulsions to check Facebook. But that’s not my Lenten discipline.


Nope, my discipline is being less selfless. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines selfless as “concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with one’s owns.” The chief antonym for selflessness: unselfish. New Oxford has nothing positive to say about selfishness.


That’s problematic. It would seem that a certain level of selfishness, or self-centeredness, is necessary for the preservation of the self. By the way, New Oxford seems to approve of the idea of having a self, “a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, esp. considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action.”


But what about Scripture and Christian tradition? Scripture is a pretty strong advocate for self-denial. In each of the synoptic gospels, Jesus tells his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them” (Luke 9:23-24, see also Matthew 16:24-25, Mark 8:34-37). A whole host of monastic movements and practices of asceticism have been based, in part, on such teachings.


However, denial is not the final word that Scripture has to say about the self. Embedded in the Great Commandment is an often overlooked element: Christ’s assumption – in fact, his command – that we love ourselves. In response to the legal expert who asks which commandment is the most important, Jesus responds: “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these” (Mark 12: 28-31). It turns out that Jesus thinks that loving oneself is connected to loving one’s neighbor.


For Christians, then, self-love and self-denial live in an

dynamic interplay. It’s a tension, to be sure. Straying too far into self-love can lead to all manner of sin, not the least of which is idolatry. But excessive self-denial is just as problematic and can also be a form of idolatry. For some of us, self-denial comes easily precisely because we don’t have a strong sense of self to begin with. That’s often the case for women and girls, who are often taught to put others before themselves. The helping professions (including ministry) also tend to attract people who are good at putting the needs of others before themselves.


So being a woman in the helping professions (both a psychologist and minister), self-denial comes easy to me. To make matters worse, I’m the eldest child of a single mother. By the age of twelve, i was a full-fledged parentified child, taking care of my younger brother while my mother worked long hours, often on the night shift. My mother, coincidentally, was the eldest of eight children. And her father had to drop out of elementary school so that he could take care of his younger siblings while his parents worked on a sharecropper’s farm in Mississippi. That’s at least three generations of training in self-denial culminating in one package…me.


I’m always looking out for the needs of other people, whether they be family, friends, or strangers. I don’t even wait for people to express a need; I anticipate it. I’m the person who sees a problem, develops a solution, and assumes the responsibility for implementing it so as not to add a burden to anyone else. Even when I’m driving, I look out for the needs and feelings of others. If my turn approaches too quickly and I’m in the wrong lane, I’ll miss the turn rather than cause other drivers to slow down momentarily. For some reason, one of my chief driving rules is that it’s wrong to inconvenience other drivers. I have no idea where I got that from, but it’s paradigmatic of my life.


Selflessness has gotten me in trouble health-wise. About ten years ago, my body sent a not-so-subtle message: “You’re doing too much for other people and you need to take better care of yourself.” I listened, at least until I went to seminary, where the workload and content taught me that good Christians (and good students) take up their cross by pulling all-nighters, living off caffeine, and putting off health until they graduate. Moreover, they should do this without uttering a complaint, otherwise their professors might accuse them of having the wrong priorities.


There have been plenty of reinforcements for the message that I should focus less upon myself than upon others. The devotional that I use, with its heavy emphasis upon social justice, instructs me to direct my prayers toward others. Save for the Lord’s Prayer, there is no space within its daily liturgy to bring my own needs before God.


And sometimes churches add fuel to the fire. One night during a church committee meeting, I tearfully shared my struggles with balancing my teaching position, being a new parent, and serving the church. Several committee members responded by telling me that I needed to get better childcare so that I could do more for the church!


It turns out that my body’s early signals of physical distress were roadside signs warning me of the all-out roadblock up ahead. I now find myself living with a chronic illness that could possibly have been prevented if I had put more focus upon myself than upon others. Fortunately, or perhaps not, the condition can be managed if I finally learn to do what I’ve been so horrible at doing: loving myself. Hence, my Lenten discipline.


It’s not the easiest discipline to observe. There is no clear checklist or set of rules that I must follow on a daily basis. Right now, I’m beginning with something simple: praying for myself. Each morning, I pray the Psalms. After I read the Psalm through once, I pray it through, putting myself in place of the petitioner, even altering the words to reflect my situation. It makes me feel less guilty to pray for myself if I’m following a Biblical precedent.


So kudos to those of you who are practicing some form of self-denial this Lenten season. As for me, I’m practicing self-love.

Loves Roundness

From the third definition of “womanist”: “Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.” – Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983)

“Girl, where you been hiding those legs?!” my high school classmate shouted. It made me regret the decision to wear my favorite outfit – a purple mini-skirt and matching top, ironically chosen because the long gold-flecked shirt covered what I considered to be my worst asset. Until that day, I hadn’t realized that my thick, muscular calves were just as capable of eliciting attention. I tried to hush my classmate, but he was unhushable. His appraising stare and loud mouth followed me down the walkway and onto the bus.

This was the late 80s, when skinny black women tried desperately to gain weight so that they’d be considered appealing to black men, whose aesthetic was defined by a preference for things thick. From the waist down, I had thickness in abundance. And I hated it.

Loves love and food and roundness…Loves herself. Regardless.

My classmate’s yell was eerily similar to one that I’d heard one day when I was at my grandparents’ house. “Where did she get that butt? None of y’all got butts like that!” That time, the voice belonged to a longtime family friend. “Her daddy’s people,” was the answer offered by one of my mother’s sisters. Oblivious to my shame, the woman kept going, “And ain’t got titties the first!” Damn. Did she really have to go there? She could have won the top prize in how to crush a teenage girl’s ego.

It was true, though. I was the inverse of my mother and her sisters, who tended to be heavy up top and narrow below. I was built just like the women in my dad’s family, more like an inverted P, the small of my back ending abruptly in a large mound. I once had to whip out my school ID on a clearly-too-old-to-be-talking-to-me man who refused to believe that those hips, those thighs, that ass belonged to a sixteen-year-old.

Being a natural introvert, I hated the attention that my lower half brought. It probably didn’t help that I spent my early adolescence in nearly all-white schools, where skinniness was in and thickness was sin. So as best as I could, I tried to camouflage it – loose pants, shirts that hung below the waist, ankle (or at least mid-calf) skirts and dresses. For most of my life, I have been incredibly uncomfortable with my body.

Strangely enough, while I have deplored my own thickness, I love it on other women. Beyonce is beautiful, but Jill Scott and Marsha Ambrosius are downright breathtaking! The irony is never lost on me. I watch them in admiration, wondering why I have had such a hard time appreciating that same roundness in myself.

Loves love and food and roundness…Loves herself. Regardless.

This month, I enter the last year of my third decade. Looking ahead to the big 4-0, I have decided that the next two years – preceding and then entering my forties – will be dedicated to celebrating me, loving me. And that requires me to learn to love roundness…my roundness. I have realized that 20 years from now, I will look at images of the 38-year-old me and wish that I had enjoyed this body while I had it. I have realized that it is time to do with my body what I learned to do with my hair – delight in it and all of its big roundness – rotund belly, ample derriere, thick thighs, and boulder-sized calves.

Even as it flagrantly violates the societal ideal of beauty, as it repeatedly sidelines me with chronic illness, and as it requires medication that causes it to regain much of the 35 pounds that I worked so hard to lose, I am committed to loving this body…this flesh…this round, brown flesh. And guess what? On more and more days lately, I actually do. Regardless.

Time to Unplug

Two weeks ago I discovered a writer’s haven – an internet café at a public library. It’s got tables, plenty of power outlets, restrooms, vending machines, and even a microwave. Walled off from the rest of the library by glass doors, it opens into a private courtyard, with benches, picnic tables, and yes, more power outlets! It’s been a great spot to work. Armed with a thermos full of coffee, a lunchbox, and a laptop, I can work there all day – without spending any money!


This morning, though, my haven keeps getting interrupted. Every few minutes, a young man dressed in a sports store uniform, pops in with his cell phone to his ear. A longtime lover of library silence, I’m impressed that he is respectful enough of the patrons in the main space to take his phone conversations elsewhere. I just wish that “elsewhere” was somewhere else. Doesn’t he see me working?!


Cell phone conversations are loud, even when people think they’re speaking quietly. So it didn’t take long for me to get a sense of what was going on. He was being called repeatedly by his job. More than three hours before his shift was supposed to start (like I said, cell phone conversations are loud), his co-workers were tracking him down, asking him when he was coming to the store. By the fifth call, he walked straight through the café to the courtyard. Even with the doors closed, I could hear him giving instructions to someone. By that point, my frustration with the noise had turned into sympathy for this man, who couldn’t enjoy his morning off without constant interruptions.


I couldn’t help but think of a few of my friends in ministry. I have been to a few ministry retreats and conferences this year where I’ve watched colleagues who could not get away from issues back home. Every few minutes, they got a call, text, or email from someone who ostensibly needed their help. And every few minutes, they were responding. It was nearly impossible to have conversations with them without them pausing to take a call or answer a text. “Hold on, I need to respond to this” was the frequent refrain. Their busyness took on a manic element as they rushed from task to task.


If it were just conversations with me that were being interrupted, I wouldn’t be bothered. But I knew that their addiction to busyness was all-encompassing. It impacted their health and their relationships. Is it ironic that it happened most, actually always, with African American men and women? Probably not. My guess is that it’s the StrongBlackWoman/StrongBlackMan thing rearing its head. Layer that with Christianity’s emphasis upon “bearing the cross” and you’ve got a full-scale case of ministry overload and eventual burnout.


A few months ago, my husband and I imposed a blackout period on electronic devices in our household, a two-hour evening time slot in which we would not utilize our cell phones or computers. Miraculously, it was doable. The world didn’t come to an end. Our lives did not turn upside down. Instead, we had two hours each evening when we read, talked, or played games rather than checking Facebook and playing Angry Birds. Over the past few weeks, though, there’s been a gradual erosion in our observance of the blackout. It probably began around the time of a deadline when I “just had” to work on something for a few hours. It’s a slippery slope. I better scramble back up before I fall too far. I encourage you to do the same. Make a commitment to “unplug” for part of your day – even if it’s only one hour. And for that hour, be present to the world in other ways. Spend time with your partner. Play with your kids. Read a book. Take a long, hot soak in the tub. And trust that God is in control of everything else.

Going Natural

This article appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Geez Magazine.

It started in front of the mirror. I was in the bathroom, trying to figure out how to squeeze the next appointment between classes, a dissertation, and a research assistant gig. I’d pulled off some impressive scheduling maneuvers before, but in the final stages of my Ph.D. program, it was increasingly difficult.



My weekly salon visits began in my junior year of college. During a visit, my mother looked at me and asked, “When was the last time you got your hair done?” I’d mostly done it myself since freshman year. “You need to get it done every week.” Was she kidding? It took a minor miracle to stretch my paycheck for groceries and textbooks. “I’ll pay for it.” But not tuition, groceries, or books? Just like that, my priorities were ordered.



In the bathroom six years later, I estimated that I spent at least fifteen hundred annually on my hair. My graduate stipend was eleven thousand dollars. That means thirteen percent of my income went toward my hair, toward salon visits and the cabinet full of products bought in my ongoing search for the bottled miracle that would keep my always-reverting hair straight. No wonder I couldn’t give to the church. I was tithing to my hair dresser!



Suddenly I heard a voice. No, not God’s. It was my hair: “Isn’t it obvious that I don’t want to be straight?” Ridiculous, I know. Of course, my hair wanted to be straight. Why else would I endure costly and corrosive chemicals every five weeks and pay to have someone shampoo and style my hair each week in-between relaxers? “That’s the point! You have to keep going back because I don’t want to be straight!”



In some lost book of the Bible, African American women must have been given a new Decalogue. The first commandment: “Thou shalt keep thy ‘do nap-free at all times and at all costs.” African American women are likely the only racial/ethnic group in the world where the majority do not wear their hair in its natural texture. In a society gripped by racism and sexism, we are strongly discouraged from doing so. Some corporations actually have policies forbidding “ethnic” hair. An article in the August 2007 edition of American Lawyer magazine reported that a Glamour magazine staffer did a presentation for a New York law firm on the “Do’s and Don’ts of Corporate Fashion,” in which she deemed black women’s natural hairstyles “shocking,” “inappropriate,” and too “political” for the workplace.



For Alberta, a UCC minister, potential professional consequences were key in her consideration of going natural as a corporate employee twelve years ago: “To be natural was a radical approach.” Comedian Paul Mooney puts it bluntly in Hair Show, the documentary directed by Chris Rock: “If your hair is relaxed, then white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, then they’re not happy.” And if the professional costs aren’t high enough, there are also personal consequences. Alberta reports, “My family was against natural hair because of the stereotypes that had plagued the black community. We had to look like the ideal model – the Barbie doll – and not embrace our culture.” Another minister, Dionne, who works for a Pittsburgh community development organization, first tried going natural as a college freshman; a noticeable decrease in romantic interest from guys sent her back to the salon after just seven

months.



It is no wonder, then, that most African American girls are subjected early to harsh processes designed to break the bonds of naturally kinky hair and to transform it into straight, socially acceptable hair. According to the authors of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, sixty-five percent of African American women use chemical relaxers or hot combs to straighten their hair. In recent years, these processes have been supplemented by methods of integrating commercial hair, including extensions, weaves, and wigs. The popularity of extensions and weaves among African American women has risen so dramatically that one comedian joked that the current generation of

Black children will never see their mothers’ real hair.



When I was six years old, I got my first relaxer, beginning a twenty year odyssey of chemical processing (which doesn’t even include the hot combing of my early years). The results were often disastrous – burns on my scalp, neck, or ears, and damaged hair. At 27, I’d had enough. Since high school, I’d expected going natural when I was older. I imagined myself sportin’ a silver afro, not because of a dye job, but because I couldn’t fathom having the courage to do it before I was sixty.



But standing in the bathroom that morning, something came upon me. I’m not sure if it was courage; it may have been plain ol’ fatigue. The next day, I was sitting in my stylist’s chair as she trimmed away the chemically straightened ends, leaving me with the half-inch of new growth. Seeing my hair for the first time in my adult life was daunting. A persistent thorn in my flesh had been my hair’s refusal to show any sign of the racial miscegenation evident in my caramel complexion. The stuff on my head was thick, coarse, wiry, and tightly coiled. I put on a brave face, smiling in response to the stylist’s pleased expression. I walked to my car, donned a baseball cap, drove to the nearest beauty supply store, and bought a wig. It took five weeks for me to adjust to the sight of my own hair and to feel comfortable exposing it to the world.



When I did, it was like being emancipated. I was freed from a daily twenty-minute hair ritual and a weekly two-hour salon appointment. Freed to exercise anytime I wanted, not just when I could spare an hour afterward to get my hair back in shape. Freed from fear of rain (a relaxed head’s kryptonite) and the weight of the umbrellas and ponchos I carried everywhere. Freed from the bondage of constantly striving to make my hair conform to an ideal that I could never attain.



Alberta experienced a similar kind of freedom when she went natural at the age of thirty-three. “This was a spiritual journey. I embraced who I was. I began to love African American culture and history. I realized that on this journey I had a voice as an African American female. My hair was a symbol of power.”



For some African American women, going natural is just a temporary style preference. But for others, especially

those of us rooted in the traditionally conservative Black church, letting our hair exist in the way that it grows out of our head is revolutionary. It is a countercultural move, an intentional act of personal liberation from the sociopolitical powers and principalities that tell us that we are “less than.”



After her first transition to natural hair, Dionne returned to relaxers for over three years before making another attempt to go natural. “My reason for going natural the second time around was this deep desire I had to really appreciate the grain of hair that God gave me. I had been thinking a lot about what it meant for me to be made in the image of God.

One of the things I concluded was if God took the time to create me with my specific grain and texture of hair, why couldn’t I take the time to appreciate my hair in its natural state. In addition, I wanted my hair to serve as a source of inspiration for other young, black women who struggled to appreciate their hair. I wanted my hair to spark conversation that would allow me to empower women to wear their hair natural. I prayed that prayer before cutting my perm off and I can’t tell you how many opportunities I’ve had to minister to women about their hair since I’ve gone natural. I can honestly say that after three years of wearing my hair in locs, I absolutely love my hair and would never consider perming it again. I’m so proud of my God-given hair and I’m learning to appreciate it more and more!”



Although I had not anticipated it at the time, that last visit to the hairstylist marked the beginning of a journey of spiritual transformation. A few months later, I had different experience in the mirror. Arriving at work one morning, I pulled down the visor to look in the overhead mirror and discovered a pair of beautifully enormous brown eyes. For most of my life, I had spent so much time obsessing over my hair that I had never noticed my face. That morning, I drank it in, recognizing the reflections of my parents in my face, realizing how much I looked like the aunts whom I admired. In going natural, I saw myself for the first time. I realized that I was beautifully, wonderfully, and intentionally handknit by God. And I was good.

We Got Mad (Hair) Issues


Recently it occurred to me that I’ve been that I’ve been fairly silent on a topic about which I’m fairly passionate and that has considerable significance to Black love – Black hair. Or more specifically, our personal and cultural hang-ups about Black hair. Maybe my silence has to do with its potential explosiveness. Conversations about Black hair tend to devolve into a sort of war between two nations – those who wear their hair relaxed and those who wear it natural. It’s a touchy topic. But fully loving ourselves also means loving our hair in its natural form.

That’s an assertion that usually rubs relaxed heads the wrong way. Keep in mind that I don’t think it’s wrong to relax or straighten one’s hair. My issue (really our issue) is that the vast majority of Black women have been straightening their hair for so long that we don’t actually know what our real hair texture looks like. We are afraid of our natural hair texture. We don’t want to see it and we don’t want anyone else to see it. So collectively we spend billions of dollars each year on hair care products even though we are among the poorest group of people in the United States.

Imagine if every Black girlchild, around the age of 8 or 9, went to a plastic surgeon and had her skin lightened because she lived in a country in which light skin was considered beautiful and brought considerable advantages in terms of education, income, and marriage (Oh wait, it does.). And then for the rest of her life she avoided the sun and went back for regular “touch-ups” every six weeks to ensure that her skin stayed light. I suppose we could argue that doing such a thing has nothing to do with race-based beauty ideals. But we’d be lying to ourselves. The good news, though, is that it will be easier to lie to ourselves after several generations of Black women and girls have been doing it. Then we can pretend that it’s just the way that things are done.

It’s hard for a person to admit that she doesn’t fully love and accept herself. It was hard for me. It still is. I’ve been natural for nearly 13 years now, after what seemed like a lifetime of conscious and unconscious hair self-hatred. Now, I’m working on getting over my body self-hatred (Seriously, do these two skinnies need to be sitting across from me eating cake while I sip on a skinny, sugar free, decaf misto?).

Whenever the conversation turns to natural hair, women with relaxed hair get defensive. Do me a favor and relax your defenses just long enough to ask yourself these questions (and don’t worry – I’ve got something to say to women with natural hair too):

  1. Do you know what your natural hair texture looks like? Most black women don’t. At the slightest sign of kinks, we rush to the salon for a new application of the creamy crack. How can you claim to love you if you don’t know what you looks like?
  2. Do you know how to take care of your natural hair? That is, do you know how to style it, moisturize it, keep it healthy? Only in the past 10 years have natural hair care products become widely available. That’s amazing in itself considering that beauty salons and beauty supply stores are among the businesses most likely to be found in Black neighborhoods. Of course, the irony is that most of these stores devote much of their floor space to selling hair – Malaysian, Indian, Asian, and European hair – to Black women. Apparently, relaxers are no longer strong enough to tame those natural kinks, coils, and curls. We’ve just resorted to wearing other people’s hair.
  3. Do you feel just as beautiful with natural hair as you do with relaxed hair? You should. After all, your natural hair is the hair with which you have been fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. And as the church folk say, God don’t make no junk.
  4. Can you honestly afford the time and money that it takes to maintain your relaxed hair? This really should be the clincher. If you’re putting your hair styles on credit or on layaway (or ignoring other obligations – including tithing – because of your hair), then you can’t afford it! Now that’s not to say that natural hair doesn’t take work; if you want to wear anything other than a closely cropped fro, it’s going to take some work. And the learning curve is steep in the first few months if you’re learning how to take care of your own hair for the first time in your adult life. But overall, I’ve found it to be much less time consuming and costly.
  5. Does your hair want to be relaxed? Not all Black hair is the same. Some people’s hair does well with relaxers. But many of us have hair that just doesn’t want to be fried, dyed, or laid to the side. For years I struggled to find the right relaxers and styling products that would make my hair stay straight for more than a few weeks (seriously, I once walked into a new stylist for a wash n’ set and she told me I needed a touch-up. My response: “I just had one last week.”). I finally realized that my hair was rebelling against the chemicals. It didn’t stay straight because it wasn’t meant to be straight.

I don’t expect women to go out in droves and do the big chop. I just want us to be honest with ourselves about the reasons that Black women are the only group of people in the world who talk about wearing our hair in its “natural” state as if it’s an abnormality. We have hair issues just like we have skin color issues.

By the way, for the naturalistas among us who have been reading this with a self-righteous smile on our faces, we have hair issues too. Many of us have made an idol out of natural hair. We act as though wearing our hair naturally automatically elevates us to a higher spiritual and emotional plane than our relaxed sisters. Please! Now, it’s true that for many of us – including myself – the decision to go natural is part of a spiritual journey (I’ll post another article about that shortly). But for a lot of folks, it’s just a hairstyle, plain and simple. It doesn’t denote self-love or the lack thereof; it’s not a symbol of spiritual growth or political sensibilities. They do it because its convenient or in style. Sometimes they do it because they’re flat broke and can’t afford anything else.

So let’s talk about hair. But let’s drop the defensiveness, self-righteousness, and all the other stuff that impedes healthy, community-building dialogue. We’ve got enough issues without it.

A 12-Step Program for Strong Black Women

If this were a 12-step meeting for StrongBlackWomen, I’d be saying, “Hi, my name is Chanequa and I’m a StrongBlackWoman. I have been in recovery for almost eight years now. But at most, I’ve probably only accrued a few days of being clean at once. I relapse constantly, maybe even daily. I don’t know if I’ll ever break free of this thing. But I’m here. And just for today, I will make at least one decision in favor of my physical, spiritual, emotional, and relational health. Just for today, I will try to let go of my need for control, to become aware of when I need help, and to ask for help when I need it. Just for today, I give myself permission to cry when I’m sad, to scream when I’m frustrated, to smile and laugh when I’m happy, and to dance like I’ve got wings when the Spirit moves me. Just for today, I will reject the mandate to be a StrongBlackWoman. Just for today, I will simply be.”

Being a StrongBlackWoman is an addiction, a force of habit ingrained in many of us from childhood. Moreover, it is reinforced by our families, friends, co-workers, and churches – all those people who praise our strength and continuous self-sacrifice. And it’s especially lauded and reinforced by those who benefit from our caretaking. Our healing, then, is not a one-time event, but rather a lifelong process. It seems appropriate, then, to develop a 12-step program for StrongBlackWomen. Here’s my first attempt:

1. We admit that we are powerless over our compulsion to be strong — that our physical, spiritual, emotional, and relational health are suffering.

2. We acknowledge that we are not divine, that there is a Power greater than ourselves who can restore us to right relationship with ourselves and others.

3. We make a decision to turn our will and our lives, and those of the people we care for, over to the care and protection of the Divine.

4. We practice self-awareness, making a searching inventory of ourselves and our relationships.

5. We admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our compulsions and the traumas and fears that drive them.

6. We are ready to have the Holy One heal us.

7. We humbly ask the Almighty to remove our need for control and to nurture in us a commitment to self-care.

8. We make a list of all persons we have harmed and continue to harm through our excessive caretaking, and we become willing to make amends to them all.

9. We make direct amends to such people wherever possible by allowing them to assume responsibility for their own lives.

10. We continue to practice self-awareness and when we relapse, we promptly admit and correct it.

11. We seek through prayer, meditation, and journaling to nurture our connection with the Divine, praying for knowledge of Her will for our lives and for faith in Her protection and care.

12. We try to carry this message to the strong Black women in our lives and to embody these principles as an example to them and to the generations that follow us.

Vanity Fair and the Light/Dark Thing

There’s been quite a buzz in the blogosphere these days about the lack of diversity in Vanity Fair’s annual “Hollywood Issue.” The fold-out cover features nine of Hollywood’s up-and-coming actresses. And wouldn’t you know it? All nine happen to be very thin, fair-skinned white women. Notable exclusions include Zoe Saldana, who starred in two of the year’s biggest films (“Star Trek” and “Avatar”) and Freida Pinto, star of the runaway hit, “Slumdog Millionaire.”

But most of the controversy over the lily-white cover has centered upon the omission of Gabourey Sidibe, the Oscar-nominated star of “Precious.” Sidibe was not completely ignored; she appears inside the magazine. But her exclusion from the cover has a lot of folks talking about the magazine’s bias against people of color. One writer bluntly questioned whether Sidibe is “too fat, too black” for the magazine’s cover. The fact that Sidibe graces the March 2010 cover of Ebony magazine seems to underscore the charges of racism. A lot of folks, many of them non-black, are pulling the race card on this one.

But not so fast. I discovered the Vanity Fair controversy the same way that I learn about most popular culture these days – via Facebook. The posts started flying the same day as the Grammy’s, which inspired quite a few comments as well. So between reading people’s thoughts about the Vanity Fair cover, I also got my fair share of interesting tidbits such as: “Beyonce didn’t call Jay-Z by name because he doesn’t really love her“; “Michael Jackson’s kids don’t look like him because they’re not his kids“; “What is she wearing?“; and “Doesn’t Lil’ Wayne look like a cockroach personified?

Oh wait, did I forget to mention that all of the Grammy posts were by African Americans? Now, I’m not going to make the argument that Lil’ Wayne should be a contender for the male version of “America’s Next Top Model,” but a cockroach? Come on people. Let’s not get it twisted. There is only one feature of Lil’ Wayne that makes such a comparison fathomable – his blackness.

The cockroach insult is not a new one. It has been used as a racial slur for a long time. But among African Americans, it is an epithet typically reserved for dark-skinned blacks. No matter how “unattractive,” medium and fair-skinned blacks are immune from it. It is the slightly subtler version of the “African booty scratcher” insult leveled on school playgrounds. And in the vast majority of cases, both the perpetrator and the victim are African American. After all, let’s face it – the only white people who would dare enunciate such obvious racial epithets are the hood and swastika wearing varieties.

At some point in their lives, many dark-skinned African Americans have heard the term “black” hurled at them by other African Americans with such venom that it makes them feel lower than low. The color complex is the wound of internalized racism that African Americans try to keep concealed from whites. We may have come a long way since slavery, but we’ve yet to learn to love our blackness. I once heard activist John Perkins say that black people hate ourselves so much that we required an entire movement to try to convince ourselves that black could be beautiful. If the continuing (and perhaps rising) popularity of skin lighteners is any indication, that movement still has a way to go.

Oh yeah, we’re not supposed to talk about skin lighteners anymore, especially in mixed company. But if you open that Ebony issue featuring Gabourey Sidibe, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of ads for them inside, their number likely rivaled only by the number of ads for hair straighteners.

I’m not opposed to critiquing the Vanity Fair cover. But quite frankly, I’m less interested in convincing white folks to love blackness than in helping us to love ourselves.