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Essays/Nonfiction

skilled black hands braid geometric insignia as poetry

 

A comment on the precision of a geometric line, the craft of the skilled black beautician, could be heard as sublime recognition of a distinctly embodied black poetics.1 All beauticians do different work, just as all poets do different work. There is the line and a matter of breaking the line, of bending it. When the line stops its monotonous straightforward projectile trajectory into space, when it folds back on itself, opens a new world, when it bows outward, when it appears to arrive and depart at the same time, this is its curvature. Then there is a black stylist’s hand fashioning the line as formations of hair, grouping hair as bends of braids, rendering braids as geometric ornamentation. 

Or bent hands curl onto themselves, spider a vine of follicle. Or, twisted fingers manipulate woolen tentacles. The daily performance, the manipulation of a full crown of hair, woven into intricate mathematical dimension, suggests an insinuation of quantum mechanics. What the black beautician’s hands are able to do, out of necessity, is derive an asymptotic dance within undulating rows of hair. The line dips in the formation of a braid, spirals, radiates outward to indicate a curl. To braid another black person’s natural hair, the skill, the years of practice, detailed in the protective styling of the braid, is a matter of fine arts fingering, not mastery, the refusal to let go of an old West African tradition. 

The technology of the Africans, iron-working, wood-carving, 
weaving, etc., died out quickly in the United States. Almost every
material aspect of African culture took a new less obvious form or
was wiped out altogether.2

It’s the texture of a black line.3 The clean line precision of a black hair stylist who braids tightly coiled hair is not the same precision a poet hopes to accomplish in their lineation. There really is no comparison between what a black beautician does with their hands, the type of public recognition they receive (if they receive any at all), and what a publicly acknowledged black poet does with their hands. And, only comparison. For the black hair stylist, as for the black writer, there is a choice to attend school, to train, to develop further a craft as mundane, beautiful, and necessary as braiding black hair, as writing black poems. It is not really a choice as much as an obstacle or imposition. If money is an issue, as money is always an issue, is it really a choice to attend school for the purpose of developing a craft in order to make money? Some black hair stylists attend school; others do not. Some black poets attend school; others do not. It is a matter of practice, paired possibly with skill, protracted practice in making the handiwork beautiful. It’s a matter of excess time, who has access to it, what is made through it. 

 

  • ________

 

I walk outside and see three young black girls across the street on a porch. Today their long box braids are fuchsia, red, turquoise. Each girl adorned fantastic. To the left, my neighbor, the same age as me, sits on her porch in between the legs of her friend who braids her maroon and black hair. I drive around the corner, see an older black woman whose graying hair is twisted in the fingers of some beloved. On the next street over, a black beauty salon. This world of braids and hair braiding is all around me, has always been around me. When I was a kid, my mother tried to teach me how to braid hair, but I was never good at it. What my cousins could do, probably still do, with their hands is the type of unremunerated practice they do out of love, sometimes for compensation too, though they have never received any type of monetary public recognition for it. 

Hands, 

how many?

There are hands that hold

nothing but light, and hands

that stake claims as if staking were logic.4

The fine finger manipulation of the black beautician, whether trained or not, whether paid or not, is a matter of deft work, breath work, what is done for the purposes of craft, what is done to strengthen a skill, a daily demonstration of beauty, serially drawn out. I wonder if a black person who braids hair, who styles hair with the same type of bold geometric precision (bending, breaking) celebrated in contemporary poetry, someone who braids hair on their front porch in the summer heat, if they have ever received the annual $100,000 braid prize or the $625,000 MacArthur braid grant, and if so, what they did with the money? There is no comparison between black beauticians and black poets in terms of money. If it’s a matter of numbers, for all the black beauticians inside this country, all the black poets inside this country, whether acknowledged or not, beauticians possibly have an opportunity to make more money. But it’s not really a comparison with what a black beautician can make, in terms of money, over a lifetime. More an engagement with what the hands make. I am interested in how both handicrafts, though similar in dexterity, are not often thought of on the same terms when it comes to what is thought of as art.

the Word the Nommo

       put inside the fabric’s

  woven secret,5

Like when Fred Moten says to Renee Gladman that he thinks her ability to weave a sentence along the same lines as the fine precision of those black beautician’s hands that practice braid work. I appreciate his compliment, as someone who comes from nothing other than a host of hands that could make little to nothing in their spare time, if they had any spare time, other than small handicrafts, like a braid in natural black hair. I repeat a story about my mother’s parents, their inability to read and write and how it relates to my practice as a writer. I sometimes believe the precision I learned is all a matter of my own study. No one can teach me how to write a poem, just as no one could teach me how to braid properly. I have had to build a world of words inside the vast interiority of my imagination, practice it for at least 15 or 20 years before assuming any type of desire to share what little I can make with others. But the origins in the precision of playing, inside myself, for so long, for developing the type of protective precision with a similar manual and mental dexterity as a braid worker, came from outside. The adornment of the braid spoke to my “inner god,” to borrow Dawn Lundy Martin’s phrase, for the first time when we were young, when I sat and watched black women braid black hair, adorn that hair with beads.6

          At the upper reach of
                                            each run I
reach earthward, fingers blurred7

 

  • ________

 

It’s all a matter of time. When we talk about a black poet’s line breaks, improvisation in black jazz, the asymptotic curvature of coming close, of almost arriving, of remaining just enough far off to try again. What the hands can do in space with raw materials, metallic and plastic tools, makes time bend. It occurs to me the type of geometric braid work of a quantum black beautician is a matter of minimalism, repetition, the looping of a recurrence set in motion on the first run. In the time it takes to fashion a series of rows and sequences, a world opens up, a way inside adornment, previously unacknowledged or obscured. It’s like my student, who after I asked how and when it is possible to bend something in this physical plane, make it exist as something else, the first thought that came to her mind was the black beauty salon, the skill of the beautician who can make her hair a galaxy of someplace else, the way the entire salon silences itself in the wake of all that beauty. I had said nothing of a beautician, or a braid, the handiwork, only asked about bending and this is where she carried us. 

If poetry is a practice in minimalism, the economy of the word, adornment on a scale of nothing and everything, then what do we make of those braided adornments on the tops, sides, backs, and fronts of black people’s heads? When Fred Moten complimented Renee Gladman on her level of skill, compared her work, her fine hand manipulation, to the craft of a black beautician, a new room opened up inside me. A room with walls as curvilinear formations, cobalt stained glass windows finely recessed inside the terra cotta, warm bamboo flooring sturdy underfoot, minimalist sprawl of rugs and books and floor pillows and salt lamps and incense and tea and music summoning me up close. I was not inside a beauty salon as much as I was inside the primordial beauty salon, someone’s home, a black living room, or a way inside everywhere else. 

The fine line precision of a braid, not any braid but specifically a braid in the hair of someone whose West African ancestry is traceable in the root, unlike any other hair on this planet (specific and multiple at the same time). The fine line precision of a black beautician’s hands, to take the already remarkably dense complexity of our sacred fiber, a bundle of natural proteins sprawling from someone’s scalp, spiral it into something equally remarkable and new. It’s the same with these colonial languages, like English, what black and brown people have had to fashion through them. 

Hand heavy with the mist of your

own belated breath, as you come up

             you feel your mouth fill with graveyard

dirt, the skinny fingers of dawn8

We make beauty out of everything, with our hands, make worlds flourish through nothing other than an incessant obsession with making something out of nothing. Like Renee Gladman’s transmutation of the word, to get us out and off this language, to take us back to the crude line, to etch an entirely new composition. Like all that liquid fabulation, the juice she squeezes inside her lines. Like a braid, Fred Moten says, the entangled animation of an idea situated someplace feral in the beyond of language. Or, Amiri Baraka argues, our indigenous black traditions in this country, emerged as an amalgamation of an inherited (African) sense of style and an inherited (American) ontology. The braid is one of those remaining African cosmologies we have refused to let go, even in thinking about art, or talking about black poetry. 

The braid as protection, or protective styling, retains moisture. Maybe what some black poets are able to do is made possible through an inherited sense of braid work, whether we actually use our hands that way or not, as in an evolutionary maternal skill—our mother hands—passed down through all these years of being in this settler colonial nightmare, of having to use our hands, manipulate our fingers, the fine precision skill of years of inherited labor, reclaiming the service work of our ancestors to serve us instead. What is made moist inside the braid is fluid inside the poem. The level of moisture, as it lives in these lines sometimes, rushes off the page, rushes forth in me, in my eyes and throat and below, a feeling of liquid. I swallow before the urge takes complete hold. 

And, I know black poets are not the only ones whose lines evoke a mood of water, just as I know black people are not the only people to braid hair. I know this. It’s just the resources, what is available at hand, the fiber in the making of the matter—it’s so different. There is no other hair as specific as natural black hair, or this proclivity we have to adorn. Just as there is no other lineage that is the same as having inherited a language, or a series of colonial languages, at the same time our mother tongues were dispersed as wide as any outside might carry. Loss, the wet feeling of loss inside our throats, not only a blue sound held in the belly or the mood of solfége, but also a texture, a saliva of sensation, the held over mood of weeping lost inside all that brass. 

There is no other lineage of language the same as what indigenous black and brown people have had to make out of these metallic sounding languages, mellifluous and fertile as our tongues remain. Were it fire, were it anything other than leftover, held over, land mass—mangled inside our throats. Were it anything other than a no longer far away syntax, what we yearn for. To make beauty out of all this horror is an aesthetic no one else can approach. There is nothing beautiful inside the torment of this sound, as it haunts us, though we ride around inside it daily because we must. We play in it. After a blue note, purple is a transmutation of all that indigo made fuchsia (and I can never spell this word right on the first try, though it is not a matter of spelling as much as getting there), here we are inside an ineffable color held over in a sound of all the water inside our throats. It’s the way Rashaan Roland Kirk can take three saxophones, play them at the same time, weave together the sound and the feeling inside “Inflated Tear,” all the water in the mood of a name like that, make the horns wail in unison, a tripartite feeling of water (and more than water), the tumescence of a tear as a braid. If you catch yourself listening to this song at three a.m., then maybe you catch a feeling of a braid. If a braid is made of water, if a line is bent as fluid, if a poem is made of gas, if a hand is deft as air. 

I keep meeting people and we have these conversations about the interplay between water and air. It’s something about a Laban notation I still do not understand, though I’ll get there. There are sustained movements, and there are quick movements. Some gestures float and others sink. It’s a counterbalance. As one rises, the other spreads outward. What sprawls between us is all a matter of how the body moves in space, or how the hands move in space. Were the hand a mechanism of loiter, then the fingers would twirl as a child might, before a mirror, unrelenting in their spiral, aggregate strands of otherwise disparate hair, twirl the strands together. La Marr Jurelle Bruce might say the hands, they twirl a possible adornment on a formerly unadorned head. The twirl of the fingers makes spiral a means of elation.9 There is so little left in the wet room of recrudescence, what with the constant threat of flooding, of being flooded. What momentary flee space exists inside adornment? The way a hand might hold a pen then clasp a line by way of clutch. What water lives inside the braid is siphoned off as rainwater for a poem. No need to pretend the poetic line is arid, made of dust, especially when succulence made the full body possible. None of this means anything. In the end, what is produced is a mathematical insinuation so geometric we haven’t the words even to begin to talk about the world, as it materializes, inside the poem. 

Anubic sisters, not a harp no

           fingers pluck played on by

                                                   wind.10

 

NOTES

 

1. This essay was born inside a compliment Fred Moten made to Renee Gladman about her craft, her poetics in the sentence, in line with the deftness of hand of a black beautician who braids hair, in a conversation on the occasion of the release of Renee Gladman’s One Long Black Sentence presented by 192 Books and Paula Cooper Gallery on July 28, 2020. 

2. Amiri Baraka, Blues People (New York: Harper Perennial, 1999),15-16.

3. Fred Moten, “Chromatic Saturation,” Universal Machine (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 157.

4. Dawn Lundy Martin, Discipline (Brooklyn: Nightboat Books, 2011), 28.

5. Nathaniel Mackey, “Song of the Andoumboulou: 3,” Eroding Witness (selva oscura press, reprint edition, 2018), 42.

6. Dawn Lundy Martin, “What Money Can’t Buy,” Ploughshares 143 (2020): 64-76.

7. Nathaniel Mackey, “Ohnedaruth’s Day Begun,” Eroding Witness, 79. 

8. Nathaniel Mackey, “Ghede Poem,” Eroding Witness, 26-27.

9. La Marr Jurelle Bruce, “Shore, Unsure: Loitering as a Way of Life,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 25(2): 352-361. 

10. Nathaniel Mackey, “Ohnedaruth’s Day Begun,” Eroding Witness, 78.

portrait of woman in front of door

fahima ife teaches black studies, intimacies, poetics, aesthetics, and surrealisms in the Department of English at Louisiana State University. They are the author of "Maroon Choreography" (Duke University Press). fahima is from Southern California and now lives in New Orleans.

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