African American

Bait

It was my fault. Mama always said, “Don’t leave the baby alone. Night time is pretty to look at, but don’t you go out and leave that baby alone.” I never knew why I had to watch after her, but when Mama made a rule, I followed it.

There was a big party in town for the Mayor’s birthday. Big Sir took Mama with him because she’s so pretty and he likes to show her off. She could pass for one of those Creole ladies on a good day. I couldn’t go cuz’ I was too little and “too nappy”. I ain’t wanna go no way, cuz it was a pretty night and I wanted to go look at the moon dance off the swamp. But I knew I wasn’t supposed to leave the baby, but the baby was fine. She was sleepin’ so good cuz the breeze was blowin’ the wood chimes against the whippin’ post, making a soothing noise to sleep to. She was gon’ be fine.

I kissed her sweaty forehead and snuck out of the shack. It was easy that night, cuz all the white people were gone and all the niggas was asleep. When I got outside, I heard the bugs screamin’ and followed em down to the water. Then I heard some screamin’ of another kind. They were little screams, whimpers like a puppy. It wasn’t no words, but scared yelps echoing through the bayou.

I thought an animal was hurt or somethin’, so I went to see what’s the matter. Down this muddy hill, near the river, I saw a rusty cage. The little screams were coming from it. Then I saw a white man, and some rope. Another white man with a flashlight. Another white man with a gun.

I got closer and hid behind a willow tree, being as quiet as I could. It’s not so bad being dark skinned when it’s night time cuz people can’t see you.

I saw what was inside the screaming cage. It was full of negro babies, naked and crying. There was a bucket of pig fat next to it. The white man grabbed a baby girl out of the cage, greased her up, and tied the rope around her neck, really tight. The moonlight made her shiny skin glow as she screamed as loud as she could. The white man threw her into the water and she tried to swim for a minute before she started to drown. I had moved to the other side of the tree by now to see what he was fishing for. The white man just stood there, spitting snuff and making small talk with the other white men. “That party’s prolly a lot more fun than catchin’ gators.”

“Yeah, but dis’ enough to hold us over til the next one.” Another white man held up a brown jug of liquor and took a big gulp.

Then out of nowhere, a giant gator came and snapped down on the rope. Hard. “Shit!” the white man yelled. One of his buddies took the gun and shot the gator straight in the head. Like a habit. The water stilled and the gator waded until the white man went in, opened its dead jaws and took what was left of the baby out. He threw her out into the swamp.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying after that. I didn’t realize that I was screamin’ now too. I ran as fast as I could toward the shack. They didn’t chase after me though. I turned and saw that they was still just standing there, doing their business. I started screamin’ again, but nothing was coming out. They ain’t hear me the first time, neither.

I ran to check on the baby. But she was gone. They took her while I was gone! I ran back outside and couldn’t see anything cuz my eyes were burning. I ain’t wanna go back down to the swamp so I just fell to the ground and cried.

A second later, a sweet voice startled me. “Child, what you doin’ out her makin’ all that fuss for?”

It was Mama! She was holding the baby, still sweaty and sleepin’.

I got up and held onto my Mama. “I went to the swamp, you told me not to! I saw what they did to the babies.”

“Hush girl!” We went back into the house and Mama sat me down on her lap, with the baby in her arms.

“Ms. May caught you runnin’ down, so she came and took the baby to her shack.” Mama was calm, but still scary to me.

I wiped my eyes and tried to catch my breath. “I’m sorry Mama.”

“What I tell you? Don’t leave that baby alone. Now you know why, dontcha?”

 

Zuri McWhorter

Forbidden Fruit

You gloried in the consumption

Of my Black cookie crumble/

That Milkshake

You beckoned to tame/

From that 50 Cent music video.

While you watched with self-indulgent eyes/

Your mind quickly sifted out the gold from my chains

And sucked off my bubble gum lip gloss.

Your mother arrived through the foyer/

You turned the channel

To Gilmore Girls,

As(s) the memory of those

Candy girls shook their “Black Cards”

Back into the void of MTV.

 

Aurielle Akerele

 

Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

How God Kept the Black Woman

I haven’t spoken a word today, but a day for me is a decade for you.

I’ve been listening and feeling. I can’t put a finger on it; a voice spits sentences of passion and wisdom that enchants me. So for this day, I’ve not spoken.

I am to assume that this voice is a He, one almost as old as I. I have yet to be blessed with the knowledge of who He is; therefore, I will not bestow him with the improper nomenclature.

I’ve wandered for centuries, building an immunity to the rebellion I was born with. He unlocked my submissiveness; the girth of His power claims my soul and mind every day. We began this journey centuries ago, when the Universities were built and the Enlightenment was upon the Ottoman Empire. In secret, we would read and write, learning as one. My mind was His canvass, and He painted it with the colors of change.

His voice rang through my head, “Listen to me. Now is the time for you to be one of the intellects and carry yourself as a great philosopher. Challenge yourself, and I will teach you as I was taught by the Heavens.”

As time passed, He assisted in the expansion of my mind; I was becoming like no other being thus far. The absorption of written and verbal education was the simple part, then came the spirit realm. I had to learn to control every thought, every emotion. That took a few years.

Then I had to learn to release and contract every muscle; if I was feeling anxious, I could not tense. I could not cry. I had to understand the boundaries of myself and break them. Finally, I learned to combine my physical, spiritual and intellectual selves: I could control body on a chemical level. I knew which parts of me were dying, and I knew how to regenerate them. I was becoming immortal.

Zuri McWhorter

Untangling History

When I first arrived at Bard, it was a time when I was struggling with my own self-perception of beauty, a lot of which, was entangled in my feelings towards my hair and what I thought was “required” of my upkeep to appeal beautiful to not only myself, but to the outside world (where the latter proved to have the most influence). These were the unspoken aspects that I maybe, at the time, didn’t consciously realize were intertwined with a few key driving factors: my upbringing as a child, the various beauty practices that I saw being carried out regularly in my household as well as in some of my family members’ households, the presence (and unfortunately sometimes absence) of African American women and their hairstyles of choice within media (T.V., radio, advertisements), the customary hairstyling “norms” practiced by the women who looked like me in my community, and the perceptions from which these hairstyling practices arose and were perpetuated. With that being said, although I had never had a perm (my mother never allowed it), which is historically one of the most utilized hairstyling practices of African American to any other practice by far, I still straightened my hair by heat on a daily basis (which is the second utilized haircare practice by AA women). This shows that although the method of beautification was different, the ideology of what I thought made my identity “satisfactory” was still the same: that I simply was not beautiful without my hair being bone-straight.

With my focus at Bard being in history, I thought it not only appropriate, but almost necessary for me, someone who was using college as an avenue through which to not only learn more about my field of study but to also learn more about myself, to try and trace the narrative of African American hair and how this seemingly unanimous idea that natural hair is inferior to other textures spread like wild fire. Through my research I found that prior to colonialism, Africans maintained a strong sense of pride in not only their hair, but what their hairstyles communicated to their community. Hairstyles during this time were often elaborate and were used to relay messages of marital status, tribal group, religious affiliation, and other cultural markers.

After the onset of colonialism and slavery, individuals of African descent were made to not only cover and destroy their hair but also then to disconnect from a significant part of their heritage. Over time, straight hair became not only what was considered aesthetically pleasing, but also became an unspoken requirement for employment, and thus survival, which was necessary for blacks after emancipation and the integration of blacks and whites in the workplace. This, along with other factors contributed to the way in which African Americans were made to perceive their hair, which consequently created an eventual dissonance between who we are naturally, which most people would consider to be our “identity”, and what others think our identity should be based on their standards and preconceived notions beauty should be expressed.

After months of doing research that showed just how badly blacks were made to feel about their hair and the toxic hairstyling practices that ensued thereafter, coupled with the fact that I had recently cut off all of my hair and went completely natural, I started to feel deep sadness, realizing that a lot of what I felt about myself was conditioning brought on by an implementation of a certain ideology of another culture…and I really resented that. But what I also learned was that through the African American hair culture, communities were established.

The hair salon (and barbershop) was often a place of refuge and a platform on which monumental messages like civil rights, healthcare, and the importance of voting and community activism, could spread throughout for the furtherance of a people. I can say that although blacks were forced to conform to Western societal standards of beauty, some of which proved to be very harmful to the mind and body, those practices created an environment where people could come together to teach, bond, and form relationships…in other words, to create a community.

With all of this being said, it is important to note that hair in general is a fluid part of everyone’s identity and plays a significant role of how you are perceived, and is a pretty important part or constant element in most people’s lives. However, through my research, I noticed that many African Americans share a different narrative and perception of their hair in juxtaposition to other cultures. My ending point is that mass perceptions has the ability to change, and with the natural hair movement in full swing, more women cross-culturally, are becoming feeling inspired to drop societal norms and step into who they feel they should naturally be.

I was granted a unique opportunity to form a community of my own at Bard, one that was reminiscent and thus reflective, of the communities formed by African American women from the onset of the black haircare industry onward. I was happily surrounded, and even more so impressed, by the women who looked like me who were also beginning to embrace their natural hair. This community became an immense comfort to me, seeing other women (and men) who were developing a sense of pride for an element of themselves that they had maybe once been conditioned or taught to cover, alter, or even loathe. Through this community emerged a communal identity that represented progression through self-acceptance, and it is something I will take with me for the rest of my life.

 

Bria Bacon