Category Archives: Research

“Straight and Easy” | Celie’s Rites Recap

Celie’s Rites,” this week’s episode of Black Enough, grapples with beauty and depicts the creation of Black women’s community around hair. Implicit in the question that returns throughout the webseries, “what is Black enough?” is “what is beautiful enough?” 

Amaya goes to visit Ember for her appointment for braids, in spite of the catastrophe that was the Weston Crown Scholars’ Spades Night. Ember is kind and takes Amaya in, a move that is perhaps also metaphorical. The music, soft and emotive, helps viewers to understand that this space, Ember’s space, is an arena in which Amaya can be all of herself. Ember deepens this feeling by telling Amaya a little about her childhood understanding of her own hair as she braids. Amaya listens carefully, and inspired by the film the two are watching (which we are to understand is The Color Purple), she offers up her own childhood hair story. 

The two girls fall into an easy silence when Ember’s roommate Hadiyah bursts in. The girls enjoy each other’s company until Dre knocks at the door, looking for Ember. His appearance sparks a shouting match between Ember and Hadiyah, during which viewers realize that Dre is Hadiyah’s ex. Forced to answer the door and cover for Ember, who is supposed to be at a meeting, Hadiyah begins to let us in on a moment of vulnerability. She screams at Ember when she accuses Hadiyah of letting Dre run her life, pleading for her to understand that she is “trying to learn to love [herself] in private again.” 

The episode ends with the three girls creating a sister circle, sealed by the sacred ritual of doing one another’s hair. Ember continues braiding Amaya’s hair, while she helps Hadiyah with hers. They are quiet after realizing they’re each going through something: Ember appears to be on a weight loss journey, Amaya is searching for God in herself, and Hadiyah struggles to remember how to love. They are all exploring what beauty means, and specifically, what it means to Black women. 

The creation of the sister circle around tending to hair is a theme that appears in other works by Micah Ariel Watson, most notably, in her production for stage, Canaan (2018). In Canaan, protagonist Louie’s affections are split between church going, good girl Lisa and activist and revolutionary Camille which causes a rift between the two girls before they even have a chance to meet. After Camille leaves a protest that turned violent, she runs into Lisa, who extends an olive branch in the form of offering to help Camille with her hair. We understand that a sisterhood is forming in that moment, much in the same way we see it in this episode of Black Enough.

Watson is in a long tradition of Black women who are interested in the way community is formed around hair, and also in beauty shops. The beauty shop becomes a public sphere for Black women, in which they can gossip, talk politics and church business, in one of the few spaces that was often for them and them alone. It also is the site where familial bonds are forged. For many, visits to the salon with their mother, auntie, grandmother, sister or cousin, became time that they belonged only to each other and could honor that. I remember always having mother’s full attention on our Saturday morning drives to the salon, as I prattled about nothing and looked forward to the inevitable stop at Dairy Queen for dinner on our way back, as I tossed my long, shiny, relaxed hair just to watch it move. As much of a Daddy’s girl as I’ve always been, I could always count on a good long conversation with my mother as she sat me between her long legs and pulled my hair into whatever style she thought was cute on those days in between our Saturday adventures to the salon.

Though Ember characterizes having relaxed hair as “straight and easy,” there are always complications with even the most seemingly effortless styles. In this case, it comes with identity questions– is it really you if your face is half hidden behind a curtain of hair that was often was never meant to hang that way? Black girls explore our inner, and outer, worlds through our hair. 

What will Amaya discover?


Further Reading:

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

Poetic Justice, directed by John Singleton

The Virtual Beauty Shop: Crafting a Digital Black Feminism in the Blogosphere, Catherine Knight Steele

Black Hair, Black Voice,” Ravynn K. Stringfield

Hair Story: Understanding the Roots of Black Hair in America, Ayana Bird & Lori Tharps

 

Black Excellence & Hip-Hop? | Talented Tenth Recap

Amaya tries out a new look in this week’s episode of Black Enough, “Talented Tenth.” In the last three episodes, viewers became accustomed to Amaya’s casual look, either clad in yellow shirts and dresses or decked out in her dancer gear. Lena picks at her for buying a whole new outfit to hang out with an old flame (?) in a new context, but in the end, Amaya arrives to play spades with the Weston Crown Scholars in a dashiki and earrings in the shape of the continent.

The Weston Crown Scholars are varying degrees of welcoming to Amaya. Once the game starts, the conversation turns to Barack Obama, the first Black president. The debate is lively, and revealing: Dre questions whether Obama did enough, Ember defends him and his policies, while Vaughn lands on the side believing his very presence in the White House was a political statement in and of itself. Dre accuses Vaughn of engaging in “respectability politics,” when she states that “Black Excellence” has to account for something. Eventually, they ask Amaya to weigh in and she carefully notes his introduction of ObamaCare. When the conversation spins out even further, she cites her Diaspora Studies class as the basis for her interpretation of Blackness as subjective– a move that causes Vaughn to lash out.

After Vaughn’s verbal dressing down, things move on smoothly…until Amaya reneges.

How many of y’all play spades? If you do, and even if you don’t, you probably know that reneging is one of the most telling signs you don’t know how to play. In Amaya’s case, the example is that she played a spade when she had a heart she could have played.

Yikes.

 

The Weston Crown Scholars are unforgiving, particularly Vaughn and, surprisingly, Tryston. What should have been just a game turned into yet another moment in which Amaya felt as if she did not belong.

She runs out crying, only to be discovered by Jaheem as he walks home from work. He consoles her with music: back to back, they listen to music in a shot that draws directly from the original cinematic love letter to hip-hop, Brown Sugar (2002).

In a beautiful moment, deepened by “Loveyou” by KAT ft. Deja, Jaheem reaches for Amaya and tells her, “You good.” And in that moment, in the space between beats, we believe Amaya is safe.

While it would be easy to attribute that safety to Jaheem, I want to complicate that notion and consider that it’s the music, hip-hop, that throws Amaya the life line. Amaya is a dancer– music is the backdrop of her entire life. Music is dance’s soul sister, so it follows that with this song Jaheem is able to speak Amaya’s language. For once, she’s not worried about being “enough” in any capacity. Instead, she’s whole.

This is what hip-hop can do for us.

 

Further Reading:

The Talented Tenth,” W. E. B. Du Bois (1903)

My President Was Black,” Ta-Nehisi Coates (2017)

Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women, Brittney C. Cooper (2017)

Brown Sugar Is Still A Love Letter to the Golden Age of Hip-Hop,” Tari Ngangura (2018)

Writing (and Defending) A Prospectus

In my Ph.D. program, after successfully completing your comprehensive exams, you then produce a prospectus. The prospectus is, in many ways, a speculative document. Think of it as a proposal for the dissertation: you are creating something that outlines the main research questions, the methodology, the existing literature, and your proposed intervention, while also giving your committee a sense of your timeline to completion. A prospectus is multi-faceted and multi-functional, thereby making it one of the most difficult genres of writing.

To start writing my prospectus, the first thing I did was check my handbook to see what the parameters and expectations were. These were the instructions given:

“The prospectus will give a full description of the inquiry to be undertaken. It will identify an issue or problem, explain how this bears upon or intervenes in a particular field of scholarship, relate the topic to previous and on-going works, detail the several parts of the project and show their interrelations, name the key primary sources, outline the principle methods, and suggest a timetable for completion. Such a prospectus should run between 3500 and 5000 words (approximately 14-20 pages) and should include as a supplement a bibliography of the principal primary and secondary sources.”

 

Next, I broke this up into sections that I knew I needed to answer:

  • Description of the inquiry
  • Identify an issue or problem
  • Explain how this intervenes in a field of scholarship
  • Relate the topic to previous or on-going works
  • Detail the parts of the project
  • Name the sources
  • Methodology
  • Timetable to completion

After I had the barebones structure, I reached out to a few trusted colleagues who were ahead of me in the same program, hoping to see their prospecti. I asked for and received about three prospecti to examine. Looking at their documents gave me a sense of how to structure my own.

Admittedly, I did something a little unconventional in terms of writing my first draft. The week after my oral comprehensive exam, I did a week long writing retreat sponsored by William & Mary Libraries, and spent five entire days just writing. I simply worked on drafting responses to each of the sections, and took advantage of being in the library to help build my bibliography and source material. By that Friday, I had a 20 page outline for what would eventually become my prospectus.

Following the retreat, with the exception of adding a section about the creative component I wanted to produce, I left it alone for almost the entire summer, coming back to it just before the start of the fall semester. Being able to leave it was a Godsend because I was able to reapproach my questions and methodology with fresh eyes and new ideas. I spent about two weeks stitching together my blocks of text, smoothing them out, connecting them more seamlessly until the document flowed as a cohesive unit.

Once I was happy with the way it read, I started to send it out to my chairs. Both offered substantive content and structural edits, which I took to heart and used to make my prospectus stronger.

After making the appropriate edits, I emailed the professors who would serve as my committee for my Prospectus Colloquium. In many programs, the defense of the prospectus is a much bigger deal than it is in mine. For some, one is not considered a candidate or “All But Dissertation” (ABD) until successful completion of the prospectus defense. In my program, we don’t even consider the colloquium “a defense;” it’s much more of a conversation about the project, a low key way to offer feedback that should propel you forward and help mold your path further.

Indeed, my colloquium was just that. Everyone was pleased with my proposed project, my methodology, my conversation with theorists, my proposed research and the creative component. They offered a few suggestions of note which would help me structure my chapters and overall narrative. Despite the project being “innovative” and “trail-blazing,” one of my chairs had very valid concerns about my work being legible in a way that would secure me a job.

I’m not sure I allayed her fears when I informed her that I’m not worried about being legible to older, white folks on search committees. My work is for Black girls that were and are like me. As long as I’m writing for them, I’m walking in my purpose and that is all I can ask for. Like I told my mother after the colloquium, I’m at a point where I’m no longer super concerned about landing a job in the Academy after I finish the Ph.D. I have so many skills and passions that something will turn up for me. That said, I have never been one who believed in simply waiting for things to fall in my lap. You must stay sharp and prepared so when opportunity comes knocking, you are ready. For me, that means getting my work out there in a variety of ways so that when the right opportunity comes, I can take it.

For the time being, I need to consider my next steps, which includes making an obnoxious, color-coded outline for my dissertation; pasting a timeline (also color-coded) to my bathroom mirror; creating a dissertation hashtag; and opening a new file in Scrivener. So that’s what I’m doing this weekend.

I’m ready to begin in earnest.


If you are a graduate student in American Studies or a related field, and need help formulating your prospectus, I am happy to send mine along. Just reach out via email or DM and say a little about who you are, what your project is and how you think seeing my prospectus could help you along.