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Posts Tagged ‘colorism’

57. “Who Fears Death,” Nnedi Okorafor

August 11, 2010 Leave a comment

In a post-apocalyptic Africa where oceans are a thing of the past, technology has given way to powerful juju, and racial wars rule, Onyesonwu is a young and powerful sorceress charged with ending the war between the Okeke and Nuru.

I definitely want to re-read this. The first third or so was slow going for me but after Onyesonwu begins training in earnest, the book became urgent and fast-paced.

(Despite the dire tags, this book isn’t really depressing. It’s dark, to be sure, and if any of those things are a major trigger for you, skip it, but Okorafor manages to weave a book where rape, racism, and genocide are central and important but not soul-crushing.)

Page count: 387
Page total: 15,617

52. “Hair Story: The History of Black Hair in America,” Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps

July 29, 2010 Leave a comment

A historical and cultural examination of the meanings assigned to Black hair in the US.

This was a really interesting and enlightening book. I did have some understanding of Black hair care (and myths, mythos, superstitions, and general bullshit) before reading, but this book was lush with first-person accounts and extremely balanced in its reporting of history and the meanings of history.

When I was younger, I had long, very textured and curly hair and if left to its own devises, my hair would dred a little. But this book really argues that it’s not the hair itself as much as it is the history of the hair that makes it so fraught. In most West African societies in (and long before) the 1600s, hair care and styling was incredibly ritualized, with different hair styles holding symbolic meaning and the creation and upkeep of them a cultural affair. When Africans were kidnapped and enslaved, their kidnappers shaved their heads, stripping them of their identities. After months in the belly of slave ships, they emerged with dirty, matted hair incomprehensible to their slavers. In a new continent, new climate, and inhuman (not merely inhumane) conditions, slaves had to come up with new ways of caring for, or more often, merely taming or containing their hair.

Enter the hot comb, grease, do-rags, followed up by relaxers, braids, Afros, Jerri Curl, weaves, cornrows, perms, dreds, and blow-dryers.

Along the way, White people, of course, have had a lot of shit to say about Black hair, such that smooth, silky, combable hair becomes good hair, worthy of both envy and derision, and textured, kinky hair is “bad” hair (but sometimes afforded a sort of grudging respect at particular political moments).

I mentioned my own hair earlier because it has always been kind of difficult for me to understand why many Black people are quick to snap that their hair is not curly, it’s kinky and that White people don’t really have dreds even when they, well, have dreds (because White hair usually requires intervention to make it dred, while kinky Black hair doesn’t). But reading this book helped me to understand the cultural meaning of kinky hair and how it probably feels like white washing to have it euphemized by White folks as curly. And White surfers with dreds, or me pointing out that my hair used to have a lot of texture, too, definitely smacks of appropriation of an extremely loaded topic by someone who simply doesn’t get the same cultural baggage with the hairstyle.

So, as I said, a really interesting book, and, I think, a good one for White people to read. Because the average Black person definitely knows more about caring for White hair than the average White person knows about caring for Black hair and that’s not comfortable to me.

Since it’s my favorite axe to grind with this genre, there were a few organizational/editing problems, though. Parts of it were set up almost like a magazine with vocab lists, profiles of five Black men who changed hair, a bio of Jesse Jackson (I didn’t know that his bouffant was originally cut and styled by his mentor and surrogate father James Brown, who made him promise to wear his hair like that until Brown died), and other interesting asides, but they are plopped in sort of randomly. Also, the time line kind of jumped around so that it wasn’t always in historical order, or we’d get an in-depth profile of Madam CJ Walker and her business and then, twenty pages later, have her explained again.

Overall, a solid B+.

Page count: 198
Page total: 14,376
Call number: E185.86.B96 2001x

40. “Caucasia,” Danzy Senna

June 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Two biracial sisters– one who looks white, one who looks black– are torn apart by the social unrest pervading 1970s Boston and their mother’s dangerous choices.

This book was wonderful. I found it in the young adult section, but I don’t think it is. I follows a girl between the ages of nine and fifteen and is extremely lucidly written, and those two combine to mean middle grades. The narrator writes with such understanding, though, that it feels like there must be space between the events and herself. The book as a whole feels wonderfully real and intimate. I felt my world expand when reading this book, which is a sensation I have got from very few books (“Stone Butch Blues” comes to mind).

Here I had a thoughtful summary, but WordPress lost it. Nothing more for now, aside from the earnest recommendation that you buy (not just read!) it.

Page count: 432
Page total: 10,149
LOC call number: YA fiction Senna 2009

8. “Push,” Sapphire

December 26, 2009 Leave a comment

I let this review sit for a few weeks, for reasons that will probably become clear.

I saw “Precious” for a paper I wrote for my Feminist Film class and my reaction to the film and the book are closely tied (surprisingly enough). It’s not a story one can claim to like, of course, but I wish my reaction were something other that reserved blankness. In case you don’t know the plot, Precious is a sixteen-year-old middle school student who is illiterate and pregnant with her second child. This child, like the first (who has Down’s Syndrome and lives with her grandmother) is product of her father’s repeated rapes. This book, which is written in the first person, begins when she is kicked out of middle school for being pregnant again. She enrolls in an alternative school where a supportive teacher helps her to learn how to read and to tell her story. In doing so, Precious gains the strength and self-worth necessary to escape the home of her physically, emotionally, verbally, financially, and sexually abusive mother. She has her second child and evntually takes custody of both her children and, with the help of a social worker, removes her mother from her live once and for all. But not before finding out that she has HIV, which she got from her dad. And then the story’s over.

This is a really loaded book. The paper I wrote was about reception theory with my own reactions as a white man watching this film woven in with the reactions of several Black women bloggers. I was trying to reconcile their differing views and receptions of the film with my own, starting from the belief that we are approaching a story loaded with issues of race, class, and sex from two very different points. This reading was touched off partially from director Lee Daniel’s invitation to “the beautiful white people” to laugh at the darkness of the film.

Because of how loaded this is, I’m not sure that my reactions to the book are entirely relevant, as I don’t think it was written for me. More than that, I think it was specifically not written for me (or people like me). So when I read it and feel uncomfortable about the (constant) aspiration to have light skin, I do so not from a space of identification (as a dark-skinned Black woman who has constantly seen lighter-skinned women get it better than they themselves do), but from an almost colonizing discomfort, a space of superiority that wants to say, “hey, you shouldn’t have to want your skin to be light (like mine).”

I think the book was written for Black women who either can identify with or are identified with with Precious’s status as a poor, abused, “stupid” young woman. So while I can say that I didn’t particularly care for this book and I didn’t really know what Sapphire wanted me to get from it, I will do so with the acknowlegement that this is probably because it wasn’t speaking to or about me.

I will, however, say that I did appreciate that the story didn’t end with Precious having a GED and headed to college, all happy and healthy. It ended better for her, but still damn hard, which I think is realistic.

Page count: 194
Page total: 1,603