“I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth.” –Lauryn Hill, Miseducation
For me (and I suppose for some of you too) true love is an act of intense courage.
This first occurred to me in high school when one of my classmates called me brave for wearing my naturally textured hair. I simply let my hair grow the way it naturally grows from my scalp, as it always has since birth. And for that, I was considered… brave. Even as recently as this year, people still refer to my choice of personal style as an act of bravery.
While it seems to defy gravity, my hair in its natural state (and especially when I cut it really short) also defies the norms of this society—a society filled with fairytale princesses like Rapunzel who are called to let down their golden hair, time and time again. Even I remember literally praying for long, straight hair that stretched down my back when I was a little girl.
Yet despite the constant propaganda of long-haired beauty and my former girlhood fantasies of long flowy hair, I came to love my natural black hair. When I cut it “all off,” I was shocked by how good it looked and how good it felt, both to my hands and to my spirit.
But, no matter how much we like what we see in the mirror, we are constantly confronted with the reality that the world does not reflect us.
Anyone who dares defy social norms is bound to suffer social punishment. So we must ask ourselves every day whether or not it’s worth the trouble.
Is my very short, natural hair worth the puzzled looks, stares, smirks, speculations about my sexuality, mistakes regarding my gender (“Mommy, is that a girl or a boy?” or “Yes, Sir… I’m sorry, ma’am”), interrogations (“Why don’t you let your hair grow out?” or “You sure you want it that short, like a MAN? Why you wanna do that???”), rejection, guffaws, the risk of not looking the part for the job, being dismissed as militant, being told your hair (the way it naturally grows from your scalp) is just a misguided political statement (it seems as if black girls and black women make a political statement every time we wake up, just by existing in a world that doesn’t seem to care whether or not we do), or just being overlooked, ignored, invisible.
In addition to natural hair, my personal style, especially throughout high school and college, often consisted of eclectic combinations of clothes. Skirts over jeans. Dresses over pants. Mix-matched prints. Mix-matched earrings. Loud colors. Layers of second hand pieces. I remember days when I’d pause at the door, my hand hovering over the knob, and I’d have to choose. Do I want to do this? Do I want to go out into the world in this conspicuous, quirky expression of myself? Is it worth having derogatory statements thrown at me from a third-story balcony? (That really happened, btw, but of course the offenders were literally hiding behind a curtain the whole time.)
And then there was colorism. This issue may seem most acute when we are young. I struggled with this mostly alone and in silence my entire youth. I did not find the courage to speak about my experiences and observations until I was in my mid-twenties. We are often told, in subtle and not so subtle ways, to suppress our voices and truths so others won’t have to feel uncomfortable, so others can remain the center of attention, and in order to protect others from pain, blame, or guilt.
You may be very aware of how society and many individuals in it go the extra mile to instill in us that we are ugly, unworthy of human respect and dignity, and less valuable than others. They try to bring us down with what they do and don’t do, say and don’t say.
It wasn’t just what other people of all races said to me or about me that was prejudiced and hurtful (with a major stank face: “Ew! You’re so black!” or “I like your sister better than you because she’s white and you’re black,” both real statements made by a black girl and white girl respectively). It was also the moments when they did not say anything about me that hurt me and exposed their prejudice. You know, when the colorstruck woman (related to you or not) dramatically praises and goes on and on about the lighter skinned sister, cousin, friend, or neighbor and is conspicuously mute, obviously silent about the darker skinned girl(s) present? Yeah, that happens all the time…
And we’re certainly not supposed to notice, call out, or try to change patterns in the media that over represent lighter skinned black women in certain kinds roles. Because if we do, we’re just hating and being petty. So as a dark skinned girl you’re supposed to just passively and silently accept the status quo, cus “that’s just how it is.”
But brave love compels us to speak our truths and stand up for the causes we believe in no matter how others might respond. Brave love means knowing and believing in our beauty and brilliance no matter how many girls call us ugly, no matter how many guys laugh at us, no matter how invisible we seem in movies and television, and no matter how many times we’re outright attacked or outright ignored.
I know at my core how hard it is to face negation and hostility every day, how scary, frustrating, and wearisome it is. But that’s how I know that deciding to love yourself anyway is often not so easy. It’s a choice we have to make every day. It’s a choice that requires a significant store of strength and courage.
Every day we have to answer for ourselves, yes it’s worth it, or no it’s not. After several years of this and having just turned the corner of 30, I can look back and say: Yes, it was all worth it. And it still is.
“Whenever we submit our will to someone else’s opinion, a part of us dies.” –Lauryn Hill, Unplugged
You see, the most important thing to remember about courage is that it’s the only route to freedom. And freedom is fun, even though the process of winning that freedom isn’t usually fun or easy.
We humans are constantly tussling with the chains of other people’s opinions, expectations, and rules. It takes a bunch of mettle to break that metal—especially for us as girls and women constantly pressured to fit inside a ridiculously tiny box of lady-like behavior and physical attractiveness. Out of fear, many of us go to great lengths to fit inside that small container, usually cutting off significant parts of ourselves so that we take up less space.
“I get out. I get out of all your boxes. I’ll get out. You can’t hold me in these chains. I’ll get out.” –Lauryn Hill, Unplugged
So I empathize with the girl who really wants to experiment with short hair, but is too afraid or anxious about it. Or the young woman who wants to try a brightly colored print, but doesn’t dare stand out in that way. Or the girl who doesn’t want to wear heals, but believes she has to in order to become a woman. Or the young woman who’s nervous about standing up to the guys or girls trying to tear her down. I see you, and I see myself in you. Everything I do now as an adult is for you (and for that younger version of myself that travels through time to check on me every so often).
As a black teenage girl, I was blessed to have something which I’m afraid this generation of young girls doesn’t particularly have—popular images that show them alternative ways of being. I was fortunate to grow up in the “neo-soul” era. People compared me to India Arie before I even knew who she was! Erykah Badu quickly became my idol. Angie stone and Jill Scott graced TV screens, airwaves, and magazine pages all the time, back then. And even though they came before the neo-soul era, I really can’t say enough about Zhane! (It’s a Groove Thang!) I benefitted tremendously from having the “neo-soul” wave swell during my adolescence; and though that wave eventually crashed, its effects had already been deeply planted in my psyche and spirit. I often tell folks that a VHS of Lauryn Hill’s MTV2 Unplugged recording helped get me through my senior year of high school. I’d watch/listen every morning before leaving the house. She spoke to me like no one and nothing else at the time.
Today it seems these types of women are completely marginalized in the media. Even so, I’m encouraged because I continue to witness the bravery of young girls and young women who dare to be themselves in a society that relentlessly disavows their minds, spirits, bodies, and identities. I witness them loving themselves but also loving and supporting each other! That’s the double helix of Brave Love: loving yourself as you are and loving others as they are, knowing that igniting another fire doesn’t extinguish your own.
For every few people who tried to diss me, there was at least one other person (besides me) who thought my style was dope, and maybe more who just never told me. And I realized that courage is contagious. Every time a person chooses to walk in courage, they broaden the path for others to follow (or depart from) just like the women of neo-soul did for me.
I’ve been blogging since 2011, and I’m sure this is the most personal piece I’ve written so far. People often talk about self-love like “I woke up like this.” But for me true love is an act of intense courage. On some level, I wanted to share this because of the women who call me brave, strong, confident, etc. I think it’s important to remember that bravery is not an inherent quality. It’s a choice that we must make every moment of every day. And mostly I just want to acknowledge that it’s often a difficult choice.
Courage is like a muscle. The more we use it, the stronger our courage becomes. When we pass up the smaller, everyday opportunities to be courageous, we let our courage atrophy and find ourselves lacking courage just when we need it most. I believe all of the small, daily acts of courage prepare us for even greater moments.
For the young girls and young women still trying to figure out if expressing their uniqueness is worth the hassle of possible ridicule and rejection, I encourage you to try on a little Brave Love. You might be surprised at how great it looks on you.