The way a person’s hair grows from their head is purely genetic. It’s not a curious wonder. It’s not an oddity. It’s just hair. We can wear our hair in any style and it’s perfectly fine—it’s an exciting and purely personal choice.
My hair journey goes a little something like this: Growing up a tomboy with little patience for sitting still meant I either wore the same style for days or I sat on the kitchen floor for hours while my hair was washed, dried, and pressed for the week. Neither scenario made me happy. I grew up, but I didn’t really change my process, except that I went from getting my hair pressed every week to getting a perm. Still wearing it straight.
The decision to wear my hair natural was actually pretty easy. I made it because I was tired of sitting in a salon chair every two weeks to get my hair permed and cut into the style that I wore, and I was preparing to train for a marathon. I needed the least amount of maintenance and the best style to accommodate my new healthy lifestyle choice. Up to that point I had been perming my hair and wearing it straight for over twenty years, and I had no idea what it would look like unprocessed. But I couldn’t afford to sit in a salon for hours only to have my hair fall apart after a long run, so my decision was inevitable. I did the “big chop”—a process of cutting off my permed hair and leaving behind “virgin,” or unprocessed, hair—and I’ve never looked back.
Quite frankly, this was the best choice I’ve ever made regarding my hair. I love the idea that I can go from curls to straight to braids to afro. But this was a choice I made without thinking about what it would look like in an office environment, a choice I didn’t always see as revolutionary. Why should it matter?
Navigating the workplace with natural hair was an interesting experience. My white coworkers showered me with “oohs” and “ahhs” when I came into the office the Monday after I did the big chop. The tiny bit of insecurity I might have felt was met with acceptance by all but one older black coworker. She pulled me to the side in the bathroom and said, “Why did you cut your hair? No one is going to take you seriously anymore.” Words that cut. I tried to reason that she was from another generation, but she was the resistance I had anticipated—I just hadn’t expected someone who looked like me to deliver it.
I understood why she felt the way she did. Despite her comments, I felt secure in my choice to represent myself as my best self until the day I was touched.
As my hair grew, I began wearing it in various styles. Depending on those styles, I would often add extensions to make the braids fuller or the buns bigger. One of my colleagues stopped me in the hallway one day to comment on how much she loved my hair, and then she leaned in and touched me.
She didn’t ask to touch me, she just did it.
As she was petting me—because that’s what it felt like—she said, “How do you get those braids? Are they extensions?” My smile turned to a frown, and I backed all the way up. I looked at her with confusion, anger, and violation. I knew she was just curious and had no malicious intent, but it was also a teachable moment. I stepped back and said: “Yes, they are extensions. Thank you for the compliment, but please do not touch me.”
Now she looked confused, too. She hadn’t meant to offend me, she explained. She was just wondering how my hair felt. “Yes,” I said, “but it’s attached to me, and you didn’t ask.” She apologized and walked away.
There was a lot more I could have said to her about why it’s offensive to touch someone without permission, and especially offensive in the corporate environment. What I ended up saying to her was that it’s just hair. In the same way that her hair grows from her own head and she’s able to style it as she sees fit, my hair does the same.
Both the older colleague and the one who petted me placed me in a situation where I had to defend my personal choice. There was a bigger message in this. I learned that resisting the temptation to conform is an expression of revolution, and one I walk away from in confidence because I don’t address the “why” so much as I ask the question: “Why not?” Why I wear my hair in braids, for example, is not up for discussion, so much as, why does it matter? Owning my choice is how I stand in my confidence.
Each colleague took my personal expression as an invitation to violate boundaries, to overstep, and to have an opinion about something that truly has nothing to do with them, but my ability to look beyond that and continue expressing myself as I saw fit was a way to take that power back, because at the end of the day, it’s just hair, and aesthetics has nothing to do with genetics. It’s personal.
The best I continue to have, to enjoy, and to love is Toni Morrison. But I don’t read her: she reads to me.
The power in her narrative, the pain she digs out of your insides, the metaphorical genius that cuts through the literal mind and forces you to search for her meaning, the unmatched concision of her speech—with not one misplaced thought or misdirected angle, not a single sentence overrun or a phrase understated.
She is the reason I write. She is the reason I embrace my own pain and attempt to transcribe it into words.
My relationship with Morrison began in my freshman year of high school, over a decade ago, when I was required to read The Bluest Eye. I had never read anything so figuratively convincing before. I had never read something that addressed the most intensely personal situations and deep-rooted conflict from the eyes and mind of an eleven-year-old girl.
Upon reaching the conclusion of Bluest Eye, I remember having a tiff with a classmate about whether the color of Pecola’s eyes changed. My argument was that the color of Pecola’s eyes changed because she believed it, and no further explanation was required. A “what is real to me versus what is actually real” debate commenced ,and it was fantastic. Morrison’s style is so poetic, symbolic, and majestic that she eliminates the distinction between the two, and as a result, what is real to me is actually real.
Morrison transformed my way of looking at the world. She changed the lens with which I viewed my surroundings, and this transformation felt incredibly emancipating.
I began to delve past the façade of pasted-on facial expressions and rehearsed laughter for that deeper meaning behind closed eyes and mute tongues. I am that person who wants to hear your story from beginning to end: I gasp, ooh and aah, I tear up, I become angry when you become angry, I smile when you pour your heart out, I feel the love you declare.
I always enjoyed listening to people’s stories, especially those of the elderly and the traveled. Morrison taught me to find the pain and struggle in the untold parts of their stories, to piece together the meaning of their incredible journeys, and, finally, to tie it all back to the unbelievable strength of the individual.
I am a bit of a history buff. Even now, my DVR is overrun with History Channel pieces. This interest in history led to my discovery of sociohistorical fiction. When learning about the sequence of events that led up to major conflict across borders, involving key political figures and nations, I wanted to travel back in time to ask the people of that time and place how they felt. I wasn’t solely interested in the decision-making process: I wanted to have a lengthy conversation with a layperson and his or her family. Sociohistorical fiction allows an inside view of the social impact history had on families, kids, lovers, and leaders. Although some literature and personal reflections have been preserved, we don’t have social media, blogs, and limitless creative expression from people of other time periods. Without these sources, it is nearly impossible to fathom the feelings and sensations of a people through uprising, turmoil, political upheaval, famine, disease, and loss. These unknowns spark such an interest in me. I want to do the research and be the historian. I want to be able to feel, somehow, or get even the slightest glimpse into those minds.
Although I read some historical fiction prior to Morrison, her style was unlike any HF I had encountered to that point. What is magnificent about her way of writing is her ability to tell a story within a story. This is where metaphor meets sociohistory. The exploitation and dehumanization of blacks throughout history, and still to this day, is the backdrop of her novels. She presents perfected characters with their socially labeled “imperfections,” an underlying civil issue sets the tone, and she brings in perspectives from the old and young, the brave and the forgotten, the now and the then. It is literary brilliance the way she agilely impels the reader to come face to face with the grueling catastrophes of black history, from slavery to torture to rape to liberation, seclusion, domination, and debasement.
For me, the literary agony in Beloved was unbearable. I’ve cried many times during a good read, but this was the first time I actually had to close the book about halfway through and put it away. I was solemn for days and could not get myself to pick it up again and finish. Never before had words stabbed at my soul so deep. I tried finishing it later that year, yes, I tried many times that year. Peeking at the next page, skimming it over to see if the bad was gone and some good was on its way. I read a few lines but felt the wounds reopening. I had to close it yet again and reshelve it until I was at a different, more mature stage in my life, about eight years later—at a point when I had seen and experienced a little too much, but enough to solidify my spine.
My familiar tears resumed, my heart stiffened and clenched through to the very last word. It almost felt like I was holding my breath through the remainder of the book. Upon concluding this masterpiece, when I could breathe again, I was ready to write.
It’s extremely difficult to put into words exactly what Morrison did for me. She awoke a silent, creative part of me. She encouraged me to unscramble a not-quite-perfect sentence to make it right. She pushed me, in a complex, tenderly firm manner—she pushed me outside my comfortable boundaries and stood me up to face, internalize, and express. She navigated me to the darkest corners of my inner self and helped me find peace with everything hiding there.
Most importantly, she has taught me to embrace all that is good and all that is me.
The Many Different Loves of "Let's Talk about Love"
When people think of love, romantic love comes to mind. It is often tied with sexual attraction and the act of sex, seemingly inseparable.
As a result, asexual people who experience romantic attraction but not sexual attraction have a hard time explaining their identity to potential romantic partners as well as friends and family. In Claire Kann’s debut young adult novel Let’s Talk About Love the main lead is a Black biromantic asexual girl named Alice who is learning to redefine and appreciate the several types of love she experiences.
When it comes to asexuality, it is important to note that it exists on a spectrum that consists of a lack of sexual attraction as well as a lack of romantic attraction. Let’s Talk About Love features only one facet and experience of asexuality and should not be treated as a definitive text. However, there is no denying that it’s a notable book in more ways than one. Unlike most teen coming-of-age stories, this one is set in college during summer. This allows for a realistic, easygoing plot that focuses on self-discovery.
When the novel opens, Alice has just been dumped by her girlfriend Margot because she doesn’t understand Alice’s asexuality. Alice is especially hurt because Margot thinks that Alice doesn’t want to have sex with her because she doesn’t love her. Since Alice is already uncomfortable with being open with her asexuality, this breakup makes things worse. As a result, she has a hard time recognizing her feelings for her new library co-worker Takumi and dreads coming out to him.
With the help of a therapist, Alice starts to get in touch with her feelings, becomes closer to Takumi and her friends Fennie and Ryan, and starts moving out from under her parents’ career expectations. As she does this, she comes to realize the various types of love she is capable of experiencing and enjoying without giving in to heteronormative expectations. A fun aspect of this is Alice’s love for pop culture.
Although it’s not a major part of the book, Alice’s passion for pop culture is such a quirky and charming part of her character that you can’t help but smile. Thinking of love and passion in terms of how much you enjoy a thing is valuable; to see Alice do this so naturally is wonderful. She jokes about getting a degree in watching Netflix and Hulu. She cosplays as Velma Dinkley from Scooby Doo. It’s amusing and nice because it becomes something she shares with her friends and Takumi out of love for them.
In fact, Alice’s love for her friends Feenie and Ryan are just as powerful as her feelings for her love interest Takumi. In the book, she finds herself becoming a third wheel to Feenie and Ryan, slowly drifting apart from them as she spends more time with Takumi. After an incident where she feels her friends abandoned her, she and her friends become estranged until they have a talk about how they need to balance their relationships with each other.
It’s important to note Alice’s friendships.
Some young adult books focus on romance more than friendship, especially when romance is a major part of the plot. When a girl gets a love interest in a book like The Fault in Our Stars or Pushing the Limits, it feels like the girl’s entire world revolves around them. Another notable factor in this book is the rarity of having a Black female teen dealing with things like romance and friendship instead of extreme hardship. Although Alice does deal with microgressions, her personality is that of a carefree Black girl trying to happily live her life.
Meanwhile, Alice’s relationship with Takumi is notable because it evolves from friendship to romance. In fact, ninety-five percent of the book involves friendship. While this caused the romance scenes to be rushed at the end, having their friendship grow to romance works in Alice’s favor. Alice is allowed to figure out what exactly attracts her to Takumi, what type of attraction she feels for him, and how much she likes him versus how much she is attracted to him. Takumi is allowed to do the same and his relationship with Alice is all the better for it.
All in all, Let’s Talk About Love is a wonderful exploration of love in various forms. Alice’s coming-of-age story is entertaining and thoughtful because it shows that friendship, romance without sex, and personal passions are filled with just as much love as anything sexual. It forces the reader to consider what makes love special to them and why certain types of love are given a higher value than others. Let’s Talk About Love both entertains and starts a conversation; more people should be reading and talking about this book.
The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.
Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.