BOX BRAIDS, 2020
"...a celebration of Black hair and its artistic magic. The poem highlights the experience of getting a protective hairstyle, painting it as a powerful and intimate endeavor between Black women by zooming into the particulars: fingers, the braiding hair, the comb, the shea butter. The poem posits that our hair -- in all its forms -- allows us to stand in our beauty but also to take up space."
VERONICA ELIZABETH THOMAS in conversation with FOLA ONIFADE
THOMAS: Is there a moment, or series of moments, you can recall from childhood, that has shaped the ways in which you engage with your hair?
ONIFADE: As a child, I didn’t interact with my natural hair if I didn’t need to. It was either relaxed or in box or crochet braids. I felt most beautiful when it was straightened and capable of a flip, here and there. I do not remember ever running my fingers through a bed of tight curls except for the peas that didn’t make it into a braid or a cornrow for a weave.
I didn’t truly meet my hair in its natural state until I was in college, and even then, I was reluctant. I didn’t feel a sense of liberation or ecstasy when I cut off my relaxed hair. I felt major anxiety about how exposed and un-beautiful I felt. I decided if it wasn’t going to be relaxed, it was going to be hidden, well out of sight. I did not associate my natural hair with beauty or attractiveness, and I compensated with a full face of makeup. I firmly believed my hair was faulty or wrong. If I wanted to be beautiful, I needed to be different. I needed to be more like the beautiful girls.
Today, I marvel at how my coils defy the force of gravity. I shaved my head a year ago and stepped into a confidence I’d never known. In blatantly defying the standard with my bald head, I realized that my hair does not define my beauty, my womanness, or my right to take up space. I’ve been growing my hair back out because of quarantine, and for the first time, it’s just me and my unadulterated coils. No fancy curling gimmicks. No stretching methods. Just water and a deep, deep love.
THOMAS: PEASY is an homage to Black womxnhood. What does honoring your Blackness and womxn-ness in your everyday rituals look like?
ONIFADE: Honoring my Black womanhood means living from the inside out. Audre Lorde teaches us in “The Uses of the Erotic” that when we are in touch with our innermost capacity to feel, we become conscious of the world around us and we become “responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense.” For me, this means growing in my meditation practice to strengthen my awareness of my mind as well as my surroundings. It means listening to the wisdom and the Spirit in my gut that communes with Truth — and trusting it.
Lorde says trusting this erotic knowledge empowers us to “scrutinize all aspects of our existence” and to honestly evaluate their relative meaning in our lives. For me, this means a daily unlearning and unshackling myself from the negative beliefs I have about my natural hair. I carry this unlearning across other parts of my body: my skin color, my weight, my inability to etch a six pack in my abdomen.
THOMAS: In what ways does your practice elevate your intention?
ONIFADE: Today, my self-love practice is rooted in the power of turning away from the white male gaze and instead setting my eyes on the women whose bodies look like my own. I think about the shape of my mother’s body, and I extend the love I have for her to her physical body and appearance. I meditate on the physical appearance of my grandmothers and their mothers. I know the people I come from are wide in the hips, I know their bellies are round and full with love, their thighs and their arms muscled with strength. I honor them instead of nitpicking my body in the mirror or when I catch my reflection in passing. This is the body of my ancestors. To honor my Black womanhood is to love myself.
THOMAS: PEASY asks its audience to look beyond the imagery and into the soul of what it means to be a Black womxn - what does being a Black womxn mean / feel like to you?
ONIFADE: Being a Black woman feels like a woven basket. What I love most about Black women is the way we intricately link ourselves to one another in community, love, and protection. The strongest, fiercest, deepest loves I’ve been wrapped in come from the Black women I’ve been blessed to know in this life.
Being a Black woman feels like a whiskey neat. It hurts to be in this body, but it feels so damn good. So damn brown. The Black woman — with one hand praising and the other one wiping away tears — knows that pain and pleasure are almost never mutually exclusive.
THOMAS: Is there any message, feeling or intention you wish to communicate about your experience of Black womxnhood?
ONIFADE: Black women know a thing or two about duality. We are always at the same time, an object of oppression and a source of power. By no choice of our own, we learn to build beautiful, full homes at the intersection of life and death. Within the Black woman is the full range of the human experience. The Black woman is God’s reminder that joy and suffering are sisters, markers of the Spirit dwelling in the flesh.