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The Big Chop | Beneatha, 2019 Recap

In the penultimate episode of Black Enough’s first season, “Beneatha, 2019,” Amaya has finally worked up the courage to do what has been on her mind since she first concocted the idea of a Black Girl Magic Potion in episode 1: The Big Chop.

For those that are unfamiliar with the term, The Big Chop refers to the haircut one gets to go from relaxed hair to natural. The Big Chop comes in a variety of packages. Some folks transition for a few months (or a few years) before cutting off their relaxed ends; some make the decision and the hair is gone days, even hours later. Some people go into salons, and some do it themselves in the bathroom mirror.

The reactions to chopping one’s hair is equally varied. It stirs up feelings of joy, release, anxiety or shame– sometimes all of the above and more. As Watson has explored over the course of this season, there is a lot of value and significance tied up with Black hair. It was never just hair. And for some of us that eventually undergo the Big Chop, we do so because we realize that we have little or no memory of our hair in an unaltered state. Though it’s unclear from the narrative, one might assume that Amaya falls into this camp.

As she waits for her turn in the salon chair, Amaya pulls out Ntozake Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo to read while she waits. This choice is all too appropriate. Amaya is about to undergo one of the most important, most magical transformations of her life, and she holds in her hand a book about and made of magic. (Remember that first line: “Where there is a woman there is magic.”) Shange’s novel, like much of her writing, weaves together forms and stories to create Black women’s narratives so that we aren’t run into the ground under the weight of the narratives society tells about us. It pulls together pieces and bits to create something new, much like how Amaya has been quietly adding and crossing off ingredients to her Black Girl Magic Potion over the course of the season.

The salon becomes a cocoon, an incubator, for Amaya, as does the book. Both are spaces of retreat and refuge where one might turn inward, but also that of unbecoming in order to transform. When Amaya steps out of the salon, she is not, and cannot be, the same person she was before.

And that feeling of knowing that you can’t turn back is heavy. It’s mixed with things you didn’t even know you could feel. Amaya has to sit with the realization that she is different, the feeling of not immediately recognizing yourself when you look in the mirror– and dealing with why that is.

Anyone who has ever Big Chopped knows the struggle. It’s that awkwardness of trying to make your outward appearance match what’s going on in your head and in your heart. It’s that discomfort of stepping out what you knew and into the unknown. It’s the realization that you’re going to have to learn yourself all over again.

It’s all of that and more.

It was never just hair.

Further Reading

Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo by Ntozake Shange

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry

“My daughter is the reason I wear my hair curly,” Taylor Harris, Washington Post, Feb. 2017

Ravynn K. Stringfield is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at William & Mary. Her research focuses on Black women and girls as creators and protagonists of futuristic, fantastic and digital narratives in new media. She often likes to say she writes about Black girls flying. When she’s not researching, you can find her writing for her blog, Black Girl Does Grad School; learning new yoga poses; or bullet journaling.

Black Love Night | The Funk In Your Right Recap

Who was your first love? Episode 11 of Black Enough, “The Funk in Your Right,” takes up the question as Amaya and the crew attend BSU’s “Black Love Night.” The event features artistic expression around the theme of Black love. Judging by the expressions on several of the audience members faces, the first performer we’re introduced to (“Zora Assata Baraka X”– admit it, you giggled) is a little lackluster, so expectations are low.

But when Nora Obi (played by guest star Hanna Watson) takes the stage to perform a spoken word called “Second Love,” a whole new world, full of new relations and wonder, unfurls before viewers’ eyes. While many in the audience are enraptured by Nora’s words, Amaya begins to curl into herself, literally and figuratively, seemingly attempting to distance herself from the rush of emotions Nora is awakening for her. Ember and Jaheem are appreciative of the performance, but Dre takes the opportunity to steal glances at his ex, Hadiyah– even though his current girlfriend is using his shoulder as a pillow. And before the performance even begins, Tryston responds to an inquiry about Amaya from Dre (“That you?”) with, “Somethin’ like that.” The map of relationships between characters has gotten messy in a matter of minutes, all thanks to Nora’s mastery of wordsmithing.

The episode is bookended with interviews from both Kemi Layeni and Freda Assuah. Kemi discusses how her expectations of college and love were shaped by the popular show A Different World. And in truth, what Black college student who watched A Different World before or during college didn’t have unrealistic expectations about what the undergraduate experience would hold for them? (While ADW had a profound impact on my expectations of love, my parents meeting at ages 5 and 6 was the relationship that really shaped my ideas about love.)

This episode also calls back to a moment from over four years ago for me, from the first Black Monologues at the University of Virginia. The script included three Love Letters, written by Black women in the cast and crew, to their loves, one night stands, and to Black men at UVA at large. Four years ago, I remember watching friends perform Love Letter Number 1, which was written by my now dear friend, about her Black Love, and this September, I had the privilege to watch those two embark on a lifetime of adventures together in marriage.

Watson’s long standing interest in depictions of Black love do not stop at romantic love. They also involve friendships (“Celie’s Rites” and Canaan [2018]), love of Jesus (a thematic arc through all of Watson’s work), and love of self, as we see in the final interview of the episode with Freda Assuah. Assuah reminds us that coming to self-love is a process, a practice that is often learned and cultivated.

Black Enough does a beautiful job grappling with all of these different layers to love over the course of the season, and in this particular episode. What is striking is that all of these components are equally important, no one overshadowing the other, working together in harmony. It points to the multi-faceted and complex nature of us as Black folks, as humans, and allows for us to be and feel everything all at once with no fear.

 

Beautiful Quotes from “Second Love”:

  • “But in dust he saw soil/where he could he plant himself and grow his whole world”
  • “See the earth is heavy when you don’t look to heaven”
  • “Love who sees all of me and stays anyway”
  • “Will you beatbox to my heartbeat when you think of me because you know my rhythms?”
  • “Beloved, be loved by Him”

Further Reading:

Hanna Watson, The Poet

Love Jones (1997)

A Different World (1987-1993)

Feminista Jones’ sex and love column at Zora Mag, XOXO”

Ravynn K. Stringfield is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at William & Mary. Her research focuses on Black women and girls as creators and protagonists of futuristic, fantastic and digital narratives in new media. She often likes to say she writes about Black girls flying. When she’s not researching, you can find her writing for her blog, Black Girl Does Grad School; learning new yoga poses; or bullet journaling.

A Semester in Review: My Favorite Films From Cinema and Modernization of U.S. Culture

Friday afternoon at 11:50 AM marked the end of my first semester of TA’ing. It had its ups and downs, but ultimately I learned a lot, I bonded with my students, and most importantly, I survived. (I do have to help proctor and grade the exams, but that’s just one day, so as far as I’m concerned, I’m done.)

In the aftermath of the semester, I’ve been thinking a lot about the films we watched and the conversations we had because of them. Thus, here is a list of a few films that stuck with me over the course of the semester:

imitation-of-life-still-03_758_427_81_s

Imitation of Life (1959).

This was my favorite film of the semester, hands down. Early in my graduate training, I took a class called “Interracialism,” which dealt in large part with passing literature. Though the film is filtered through Lora’s eyes, I found myself most aligned with Sarah Jane and her struggle to make sense of her “mix-matched” outward appearance and racial identity. I found the mother-daughter relationships deep and rich; the friendships complex and nuanced; and the social commentary important. Though most critics of the time referred to it dismissively as a “woman’s film,” I chose to reclaim the term. The female and interracial narratives are beautifully done, in a way that I wouldn’t have expected from a 1950s films. It was particularly thought-provoking and I believe it will stay with me for a long time to come.

this_is_thewithinourgates_original

Within Our Gates (1920).  

Oscar Micheaux was one of the only Black filmmakers we studied over the course of the semester, so naturally his 1920 silent film, Within Our Gates, gets a place on my list. We watched it in comparison to the (notorious) D. W. Griffith film, Birth of a Nation, and while that is an important way to conceptualize the film, I was also particularly interested in the way Micheaux depicts Black mobility. There’s the literal conception of mobility as Sylvia, the protagonists, makes moves from the North to the South and back again over the cover of the film; but also within lies an interesting depiction of upward mobility for the Black characters. Yes, Micheaux does include some stereotypical images of Black rural and uneducated characters, which are supposed to be a juxtaposition of the doctors and teachers shown in the film. I found it disconcerting that Micheaux’s interest in and depiction of Black upward mobility relied on classist stereotypes of Black folks unable to access education.

WOG is not excluded from critique. But it’s also a struggle when you are only presented with one film by a Black filmmaker, because then that film, by virtue of being the only example, becomes the representative of an entire body of works. It’s unfortunate to say the least. Nevertheless, I did enjoy WOG and thinking critically about it’s position in early American cinema.

she-done-him-wrong

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

I hated the ending of this film, and much of the plot, if we’re being honest, but I really enjoyed learning about Mae West. The film was based on an earlier play that she wrote herself. She’s an older, more mature film star, despite the emphasis on young ingenues. She’s witty (yes, it’s scripted), but she delivers with confidence that is mesmerizing to me. I love an independent woman in media (though, again, the ending ruins that for me), but Mae West is an intriguing figure in cinema and I would love to continue learning more about her.

filmsociety

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Sidney Poitier. Do I need to say more? No, but I will. As an active reader about Black history, I knew a fair amount about Sidney Poitier’s body of work, but had never seen more than a few clips of him acting. I was excited to see him in action. Again, this is a film where the context and learning about Poitier was more exciting than watching the actual film (it’s a gritty mystery– though a poorly plotted one…I figured out who the murderer was half way through). I thought this film was nicely supplemented by writing by James Baldwin, who was a friend of Poitier, and I enjoyed leading discussion section on this one, because most of my students had never encountered Baldwin before.

Honorable Mentions:

  1. Blood of Jesus (1941)
  2. I am a Fugitive From A Chain Gang! (1932)
  3. It (1927)

I’m now much more knowledgeable about early American cinema up until about 1970, which is an interesting thing, but something I’ve been sitting with recently. Many of the films were troubling and uncomfortable, something that one of my students picked up on and wrote about during our last class together. Having to sit through some films, like Birth of A Nation (1915) and Easy Rider (1969), and try to cobble something coherent and intellectual to say about them was actually very difficult. But as a different student pointed out, film is a representation of American history, and American history is uncomfortable and troubling, so it only makes sense that this is the sense we get from watching “representative” films. (They troubled that term and I didn’t even have to lead them to do so.)

Nevertheless, I’m always willing to engage with new modes of thinking, and this experience expanded my ability to grapple with some of my dissertation texts. I’m grateful for my students, who challenged me on a weekly basis, and the intellectual community that we built together over the course of the semester (even when it frequently involved minor rabbit holes into the plot of Paddington 2 and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

Things don’t always happen when you want them to, but they happen when they need to, and this semester’s work has taught me that– if nothing else.