Soul Food | Black Magic Recap

“I’d be spirit. I’d transcend space and time and physicality. I’d be soul because nobody can capture that you know…”

This week’s episode of Black Enough, Black Magic,” explores one of the most essential sites of transcendence in Black culture: the kitchen. After the beginning of a poem that asks the question we work to investigate over the course of the episode, what is magic?, we enter Professor Rekia’s class. Rekia gives a rousing lecture on the place of food in the Black intellectual and cultural tradition, invoking the innovation and ingenuity our ancestors poured into their food, performing transfiguration on scraps and creating feasts. She ends class with an invitation to her students to create their own soul food meal for extra credit.

As Amaya prepares to make her dish back in her apartment, she encounters Lena, who, due to her frustrations with her school work in the engineering school, is about to break at the seams. She lashes out at Amaya, taking out her anger on her friend and Jaheem, who arrives mid-fight, and ends the conversation with the decision to take space from Amaya.

A little later, Jaheem and Amaya prepare their dishes in the kitchen, playfully engaging in some verbal sparring about greens that turns into a deeper conversation about what, and who, both of them want to be in the world. When confronted with the question of what would she like to be if she could be anything, she finally says aloud that she would be a dancer. It is no longer a hobby– her decision to put that energy into the universe marks her decision to walk in her purpose. Amaya volleys the question back to Jaheem, asking about his mixtape, and we see Jaheem falter.

Their soul searching moment ends as Ember and Hadiyah arrive with their contributions to the meal. The four of them connect and find joy in the food they have prepared, and we see the magic, feel it even, as we see that moment they share.

Woven into the story of this episode are interviews from myself and Kemi Layeni with our personal recipes for what we think of as a Black Girl Magic Potion. It speaks to the uniqueness of our magic that the contents of our respective potions are so different. Layeni focuses more on the feeling of the magic and the things that make her feel like magic– she adds her favorite foods, confidence, humor, loyalty to Black people, and a cup of grace. I mix together more physical objects and a sensation: sunflowers, gemstones, water, coconut oil, vanilla extract, a nameplate necklace, hoop earrings and the first few notes of a Lauryn Hill song.

This question of magic is an important one to Black culture. Its traces are in our literature and the residues live in our music. We can taste it in our food and feel it in our bodies. I often think of the talisman that Frederick Douglass has which protects him from being beaten and gives him the strength to fight off Covey. I think of Zora Neale Hurston and her interest in hoodoo. I think of Charles Chesnutt and The Conjure Woman And Other Tales. I think of Solomon the Flying African. I think of the way spirits move across our literature like in Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Our magic is as large as generations and also exists in the confines of one kitchen at Weston College. That they find it themselves and one another is a gift that they can share at the kitchen table.


Further Reading:

Michael Twitty, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South

Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men

Charles Chesnut, The Conjure Woman and Other Tales

Jessica Marie Johnson, “Fury and Joy: Feminism at the Kitchen Table

 

Metamorphosis | Butterfly Wings Recap

This week’s episode of Black Enough, “Butterfly Wings,” showed many of the characters in struggle– or in the words of creator Micah Ariel Watson, in metamorphosis. Amaya endeavors to find a new look that encapsulates who she is becoming; Jaheem finds that his big bro, Dre, doesn’t rock with his rapping; and Lena stumbles in her engineering classes. Even supposedly self-assured Vaughn lets Amaya in on a little secret– she’s been rejected recently, too. The poetry that provides a narrative through line in this episode is about becoming, and it is decidedly not pretty, easy, or smooth. It is difficult and complicated, and we have to believe that it will make us into something better, otherwise the process will break us.

Perspective is hard in that moment when you are flooded with sadness, anger, anxiety…all the feelings that course through “Butterfly Wings.” In the moment that Dre tells Jaheem that perhaps rapping isn’t for him, he can’t hold on to the feeling of limitlessness that he associates with music and that viewers see just moments before in a bright shot of Jaheem rapping, surrounded by greenery like a Kehinde Wiley portrait. Lena cannot find the self-assuredness she normally exudes when thinking about her path as she cries in the bathroom after class. Only Vaughn manages to find a little perspective when Amaya compliments her hoops during their check-in, and seeming to remember herself, she replies, “You’d be surprised how much power they hold.”

Butterflies grow wings, but Black girls? We grow hoops. Gold ones.”

 

This episode is about growth; it’s about detaching ourselves from notions about who we believed we were and giving ourselves completely to the journey towards who we will become. It is about sitting in that hard, uncomfortable space where there is no one but ourselves and God, and being still. Then, we work to understand the power of everything that came to a head for us to be who we are in that moment. As Dr. Stephanie Crumpton says so poignantly in her interview, “your grown woman self might be like ‘I remember when I was little I wanted to take over the world’ but your grown self is the one who has to show up.” Dr. Crumpton is insistent on the battle to become– it is not magical, it is work, and one cannot forget that.

And I’m interested in that, as a scholar– how we understand, communicate and transform the battle to become. In my interview clip that’s used at the end of this episode, I discuss my interest in how we as Black people, and especially Black girls and women, take the weight, the chains, or the battles that create us and turn it into wings. I think Dr. Crumpton is absolutely right to insist on making our battle to become visible, but I want to push past this into an even more beautiful plane of existence. Where can Black girls go to become the fullest version of themselves? Where can we exist beyond our wildest dreams, and then some? Where can we take all the battles that make us and craft them not into anchors but wings that propel us higher and further? What are Black girls in our imaginations, when our imaginations are not forced into one conceptualization of the world and the beings in it? When we are allowed to take up as much space as we want, what do Black girls imagine themselves to be?

In short: What does Black girlhood and womanhood look like when we can fly?

 

I think Watson takes up these questions in the entire webseries, but in this episode in particular. While we may not have comprehensive answers, I do think that Black Enough as a webseries, a form of digital Black self-making, constructs the beginnings of an answer. Despite the many shortcomings of the digital, I find the self-making possibilities in this space infinite and deeply satisfying.

So it makes sense to me that Amaya would begin her journey to feeling whole in the digital.

To modify Shange, “I found God in myself [online] and I loved her fiercely.”

Further Reading:

Check out Tanisha C. Ford’s non-exhaustive list of key texts on fashion, beauty culture and body politics in an African Diasporic context: http://www.tanishacford.com/resources/

Becoming, Michelle Obama

“Alter Egos and Infinite Literacies, Part III: How to Build a Real Gyrl in 3 Easy Steps,” Jessica Marie Johnson & Kismet Nunez

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.

“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

 

My attempt at joining the Academy