Redefining Sexy

sesy

It kinda all started when Blake Shelton was named Sexiest Man Alive 2017 by the authority of authorities on sexiness, People Magazine.

So me and a friend started talking about what has been universally accepted as sexy these days: What images proliferate in our media. Think pieces on how Beyoncé, Kim K, or Rihanna have “changed” the way women experience their sexuality and sensuality. Does personality count? The ways in which strip club culture has altered the conversation on Sexy.

Lately, I have been paying closer attention to my body in the world. When it expands. When it contracts. When I feel that anxious tightening in my chest or clamping down over my ribcage. When butterflies start. And stop.

During our text conversation, I felt my body constrict, like a dozen thin ropes were wrapped around my mid-section. In the past, I would have ignored this tell-tale signal and blustered forward in intellectual conversation. But, yesterday, I stayed with my body.

I started to think about what I had been told was sexy, the images and attitudes that came into sharper focus once I got to junior high. I thought of Beyoncé in the Baby Boy video. I thought about rappers comments about their love for “honeys with the light eyes” and the current hyper-fascination with big asses. I thought about duck faced selfies and hour-glass silhouettes. I thought about how American-made porn dictates much of what the world is supposed to find sexy.

Sometimes, I think about how I should “already know this”.  Shouldn’t I already have accepted that what I believe doesn’t always jive with what the culture sees as sexy? Haven’t I read enough feminist theory, books about sexuality, blog posts by sensuality coaches? Haven’t I browsed Babeland and She-Bop enough in my lifetime? Shouldn’t I already have an expanded view of sex and sexuality and how I fit into it?

Earlier this week, I read this quote from Bethany Webster:

“Cognitive understanding is very important but it isn’t enough to transform us and create lasting, meaningful change…Concepts are like seeds of transformation, that when dropped into the body can take root and begin to transform us on the deepest levels. When we gobble concepts it is a superficial action. What creates lasting transformation is fully digesting the concepts and allowing them to sink deeply into our bodies, where the alchemy takes place.

Transformation has its own organic timeline that is out of our hands. It cannot be rushed. We cannot control or predict it. This truth can be hard to swallow, especially because our culture sends the message that success is equivalent to control and timely “results”.”

I had been “eating” up the truth about what sexy was for a long time, but the deeper understanding of it was not connected in any real way to my body. So while I was espousing a belief that sexy was more than gyrations and “acceptable” hip-to-waist ratios and long hair, etc. etc., the truth was that deeper in my body, I didn’t really believe it.

The truth is that my views are very much aligned with what the culture has declared as Sexy.

Even now.

This can be traced to living in a culture that devalues women and their experiences. If we are taught that men are superior to women, then it follows that male opinion is more important than what women opine. It is therefore imperative to focus on what men, especially the most powerful men, define as desirable and good and oh-so-sexy. Women must take their cues from their desires and fall in line.

And so, if the idea of Sexy is Kim K and women who look similarly and a handful of Victoria Secret Models and the “hot” yogi or what have you, then this is sexy. End of story.

The rest of us are just there.

I do know that sexuality and sensuality and attraction to who we name as the Sexiest People in our society isn’t a neatly drawn line between women and men. I know that “not all men” find the same women sexy.

However, I also know that there is still a very narrow definition of what constitutes sexy: it is young and immaculate and usually white-or-near-white looking. It is often performative. It is frequently divorced from how women actually experience their bodies. It is sterile and open mouthed and always eager to please.

Part of my journey in revising my relationship to my body, untying myself from the patriarchy is really digging deep in the most common assumptions I make about the world. This includes what I have define as Sexy.

Taking a moment to center.
Taking a moment to center.

The largest leap I made when entering the world of burlesque was not physical. It was not the tassel twirling or the hip shimmies, the bump-or-grinds or the standing split (which my ass can’t do without killing myself anyways.)

It was learning to see myself as a sexy woman.

More importantly, it was feeling sexy.

For so long, despite my reading of Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic, I had pretty much accepted that only certain types of bodies and women could be seen as sexy. I was more comfortable being funny and theatrical, because that was where I saw myself. Girls and women like me, weren’t seen as inherently sexy and feminine.

Intellectually, I knew this was bullshit, but I would literally find myself unable to do certain movements or flirtations in burlesque class due to these mental formations. And when I did, I felt stupid and silly. I was afraid people might laugh at me, that they would smell my awkward display of sensuality a mile away.

I felt like some kind of impersonator, that I was behaving like what Sexy “should” be. A kind of sexy that had no real connection to my living, breathing body.

But, I kept going. The first time I took a burlesque class through Brown Girls Burlesque, I stood in awe of these women of varying shapes and shades who so proudly flaunted their erotic personas on stage. I went to a ton of burlesque shows. I let myself feel awkward as I winked and circled my hips and was fully alive on stage. I danced alone in front of mirrors at home. I journaled about the hard truths about how I had defined sexy before. I expanded my media intake. I asked myself tons of questions:

Where did I first learn about what sexy was? How would my views on sexuality be different if I had never seen music videos or porn in my life? Why am I so tied up to mainstream’s definitions of sexy? When do I feel the sexiest? Who’s the sexiest person I know in real life? Which celebrities do I actually find sexy and which ones have I just been told that they are and reluctantly agree?

I’m still asking myself these questions, but the answers are taking on a deeper level of cognition because they are not just located within my grey matter. I realize that I can’t just “gobble” up these redefinitions. They will take time. The journey is not about what everyone else is doing or how others experience me or even their own sensuality, it is about my own truth.

So.

 I am sexy. I know that Perle Noire is my sensual hero. I know that mainstream attitudes about what constitutes sexy will probably not change much in my lifetime. I know that it is my experience and definition of sexy that matters more than People Magazine’s. I think that sexuality can be spiritual. I know that there is true power in the erotic.

I don’t know if Beyoncé or Kim K or Rihanna have really changed the conversation on women and their sexuality. Perhaps for some women, they have. Still, I think our experience of sensuality and sex is still too firmly tied to the most superficial of attributes. I want more.

I would like to see women talking more about their sexual journeys toward wholeness after experiencing trauma, I would like to hear about how women who aren’t the mainstream definition of sexy still experience themselves as very sexual beings, I would like to see a diversity of bodies of varying ages and abilities and sizes full embodied in their erotic power (but not just in a social media campaign), I would like to hear how black women have redefined sexy amidst racist and sexist expectations. I would like to hear how women came to love and enjoy their natural rhythms and love the most disparaged parts of their bodies; their periods, their menopause, their pussies.

These stories ARE happening, don’t get me wrong. I read about them. I listen to podcasts about them. New paradigms are being created. I think the journey towards redefinition starts when just one woman hears a common patriarchal “law”, tilts her head and names her own experience as valid.

Kudos to People Magazine for prodding me along.

Questions for further reflection: What do you define as sexy? When do you feel the sexiest? What struggles have you encountered in defining yourself as an erotic being? Who would you pick to coach you around feeling sexy if you could pick anyone in the world? What gets in the way of redefining your world?

Onward,

Hannah

 

3 Ways to Find the Goddess That Don’t Involve Instagram Hashtags

“An uneasy reaction to the word Goddess is common among women. Thousands of years of repression, hostility, and conditioning against a Divine Mother have made a deep impression on us. We’ve been conditioned to shrink back from the Sacred Feminine, to fear it, to think of it as sinful, even to revile it. And it would take a while for me to deprogram that reaction, to unpack the word and realize that in the end, Goddess is just a word. It simply means the divine in female form.”

-Sue Monk Kidd, Dance of the Dissident Daughter

Oya inspired art I made
Oya inspired art I made

I used to think the only way one could incorporate the goddess into your life was to don clothes of the white toga variety, be a woman who wore flower crowns in the dead of winter and frolic around in green pastures a la Julie Andrews.

I have written about how I had to face some difficult truths about how I shallowly tried to embrace the Divine Feminine (here, here, and here) in what I called my Divine Feminine Fallacy.

But, how does one incorporate more Sacred Feminine energy into their lives beyond a t-shirt screen-printed with the word Goddess Is Me in Helvetica Bold or creative hashtags on Instagram? How do we go far beyond pure commercialism, “buying” our goddess energy as it were, instead of being in it? Learning about it?

How we start to unwind from the conditioning we have all faced in terms of this word and its associations?

There are times I fear the we are having a reoccurring “girl power” moment, one where we shallowly praise women and barely graze the deep-seated misogyny that undergirds most of our society. We make peace signs and yell GURL POWA and call it a day.

I want more. I want this damn world to be transformed by this energy. And part of that change starts with us.

This is by no means an exhaustive or total list, but I hope it can be a guide for you, Goddess. I really do.

  1. Explore and Accept What You Truly Feel When You Hear the Word Goddess

Do you cringe? Sideways laugh? I remember having to stifle a major orb shifting eye roll when I would first hear the word goddess. Granted, I was living in Portland, Oregon AKA Land of the Rainy Earth Mother. I was working with a holistic health counselor who was based in NYC and when she started incorporating goddess stories into her telephone work with me, I was like Et tu, Brute?

I was a girl who played basketball, went to military school, a black woman who was often expected to be tougher than who I was. I heard the word “goddess” used to describe beautiful women, but could not see how this word actually related to my day to day existence.

Now, I see that my inner discomfort at hearing this word was revealing some deep seated stuff. The ways I felt estranged from fully inhabiting my femininity. The ways in which I was raised to see God purely in masculine terms. The ways in which I equated anything associated with the Feminine with a certain brand of weakness and silliness despite my feminist leanings.

Yemoja inspired art by moi
Yemoja inspired art by moi, those boobs are shells

So, be honest about how the word makes you feel. Write it out. Talk with your friends about. Dig deep. Does it feel gimmicky? Do you worry your priest will find you in your new neighborhood and dole out 500 Hail Marys (how ironic) if you were to use it? Sit with your feelings. Notice what emerges. Live the answers.

2. Explore Your Own Cultural Path of the Goddess and read some books 

Part of the reason I was a little disenchanted with the Rainy Earth Mother Goddesses of Portland, OR was how some of these women seemed to be picking out goddesses to “invoke” like they were putting together a celestial grab-bag: A little Kali over here. A dash of Brigid here. A smattering of Athena and Hera over there. And when I heard there was a small group of uninitiated women who were worshipping the deities Oya an Osun, I was even more annoyed.

This is not to say one cannot study or learn from goddesses that do not necessarily “belong” to your culture. I will forever have a crush on Greek mythology, I love the stories of Amateratsu and Guanyin and Isis.

As a second-generation Yoruba woman, I know that my lineage contains stories of Oba, Osun, Oya, and Yemoja to name a few. They are not necessarily goddesses, but they are divine and they are female. Not every black woman in the diaspora has the gift of knowing where she came from, but there are many goddesses to  know (Abiola Abrams has an awesome starter pack of Goddess Cards only featuring those of black/African descent!)

Still, I am clear that I do not worship any of these deities. I do not invoke them or make altars in ways that are solely for the initiated. Perhaps one day this may change, but as of now, I am okay with being a student of the goddess.

What’s your lineage and what are the stories of feminine deities that are located in your own history? How do those stories make you feel today?

And if you like reading, well….

A Couple Books All About the Goddess/Sacred Feminine : Finding Soul on the Path of the Orisa by Tobe Melora Correal,  The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Elser, Pussy by Regena Thomashauer, Woman Who Run with the Wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, When God was a Woman by Merlin Stone and Divining the Self: A Study of Yoruba Myth and Human Consciousness by Velma Love.  (Just to name a few!)

Osun inspired art by Hannah Eko
Osun inspired art by Hannah Eko

3. Find a Your Own Goddess Journey and Walk It

When I first started reading about the goddess, I wanted to ape the journeys of women like Sue Monk Kidd or Meggan Watterson or Clarissa Pinkola Estes. I didn’t think my journey was all that interesting. I needed to travel to an ashram, become some sort of priestess, have the same exact synchronous mystical experiences as these women did.

I could not be a tall blerd* reading Dance of the Dissident Daughter on the R train and journaling in 54 cent composition books.

No, that was not intense enough.

But, really, the Goddess is wherever we are. Some find a closer relation to her by examining the demographics of their churches. Some find her by getting in touch with their bodies though a Wednesday gentle yoga class. Some find her when they are walking home from a party and take care to notice their breath and the ways they are connected to all that is life. Some find her by exploring their sexuality or reading female empowerment stories to their grandchildren of any gender.

There is no special certification or pre-requisite for exploring the Goddess. No timeline or six-week course. You don’t have to wear a toga or change religions. You can be who you are, committing to explore the Goddess in a way that works for you. You can be any gender and any age.

You can be you.

In my gradual acceptance of who I am, I have been able to host goddess groups with willing (yay!) friends, performed goddess ceremonies twice this summer, and last year I went to Nigeria FOR FREE to study (but what else?) the goddess in the form of Oya, Osun, and Yemoja. I have talked to strangers about the assumed gender of God and about once a month, some person I barely know calls me a goddess.

That girl on the R train who was aching for a deeper connection to the Sacred Feminine would be so proud. But, I didn’t know HOW any of this would occur. I just wanted it.

And here it is. Right on time.

I wonder what your goddess journey will look like for you. :)

Onward,

Hannah

 

*black nerd. (And proud.)

 

 

 

 

Feelings Are Not Milk

“There is one thing that, when cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and to the culmination of wisdom and awakening. And what is that one thing? It is mindfulness centered on the body.”

The Buddha, from the Satipatthana Sutta

Art2

What Happens: Your very close friend of forever tells you with happiness that she is engaged to a Good Guy.

What You Want to Feel: Exuberant joy and effervescence for her good fortune.

What YOU Do Feel: Bitter, slow churning anger in your gut. A heavy dollop of sadness that coats your entire chest. A severe jealously that you are 100% sure is blaring from your eyes and forced smile.

What You Do: You hug and congratulate your friend. Joke about ugly bridal dresses all while entertaining a raucous inner dialogue of Why Am I Such a Bitch? Why Can’t I Feel Happy for My Friend? What is Wrong With Me?

And maybe you go home and you try to shake these bad emotions from your mind as if they are raindrops along an umbrella. You reason: you should be happy. He’s smart and deep and treats your friend with grace. You love your friend.

Still the feelings persist no matter how much you talk yourself out of them. They follow you from bridal shower to wedding day, only dulling with time but never truly moving.

We all have feelings that seem to land on us from out of nowhere. Emotions that are ways away from what we want or expect to feel. A gleeful happiness when a colleague announces they didn’t get a prestigious grant. A welling of grief when we say goodbye to that one really toxic friend. Comparing ourselves to supermodels even when we know it’ll only depress us.

Sometimes, I think we forget that feelings are not milk.

They have no shelf-life, no labels detailing how many servings to ingest. They don’t stay neatly inside a container.

Emotions have a wisdom of their own–even when it feels like quite the opposite.

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In our feelings-averse, feminine-hating society, emotions get a bad rap. Especially the strong ones. Especially the strong ones when experienced by women: Jealousy. Anger. Grief. Frustration. Raucous joy. Sexual abandon.

We are told to “calm down”. To “think positive”.

(As if that shit always works, as if it is healthy and wise to stuff down our most intense emotions with twee platitudes of JUST BE HAPPY.)

What we not told is that feelings are truth. We don’t need to act on them, express them (like, yeah, no need to tell your newly engaged friend I HATE YOU BITCH AND WISH IT WAS MEEEEEE!!!!!!). We are not told that once we began to greet our feelings with curiosity, openness, and a hello, we start to learn and engage in the world more honestly.

So, how do we do that?

One way I have been learning to engage with my feelings in a real, tangible way is dancing.

Yes, dancing.

I don’t slip into choreography the minute I have a feeling, cuz, well, I do need to keep a job and my students might be just a bit confused if I started to gyrate in the midst of a lesson on writing closing arguments.

I have playlists for certain emotions.

Pissed AF.

SAD!

Hey, Jealousy.

Perk Me Up.

(One of my favorite tasks in the world is making themed playlists.)

I put on my music. Loud. If my boyfriend is sleeping soundly or I am away from home, then I slip on my ear buds. And I move.

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I got this technique from Mama Gena and Jess Grippo, two women who know that our feelings are nothing to run from or interrogate away.

When I first started Dancing with My Feelings, I felt all kinds of silly. Sometimes when my boyfriend would amble out of the bedroom all bleary eyed to go to the bathroom, I would freeze like I was caught doing something indecent.

No more.

Sometimes we forgot that we are not just heads attached to clouds. Emotions are called “feelings” for a really good reason: they show up in our bodies. This is part of the reason we try and run away from them, the discomfort is not solely located in our racing thoughts and attitudes, but in our chests, stomachs, shoulders, backs, and jaws.

Dancing helps me to move with the feeling. To give it a language beyond reasoning and meditation. I let my hips circle through envy and my arms snake their way through confusion. I get on my knees and pound the floor with my anger in beat to a headbanger.

We are not taught to do this. We are taught to bottle up and be Appropriate, to be a Nice Girl, and to pretend that all we have what Mama Gena calls a “vanilla emotional life”.

I say no more.

When I hear of another unarmed black person shot, I dance out my feelings of powerlessness and fear. When I am mired in creative self-doubt, I take a break to shimmy. When anxiety threatens to dull my message, I close my office door and I dance.

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I think dancing with our feelings is especially important for black women and women in color in general. We have to police our emotions even more vigilantly in a racist society that refuses to see us as full human beings.

Dancing can help us be truthful with ourselves, to give ourselves a gift of deep honesty.

And usually, something beautiful happens: my feelings reveal their wisdom to me. They tell me of my deepest insecurities, they speak of actions I can actively take, they assure me that I am still worthy of love and celebration.

Sometimes I end up crying. Or laughing hysterically. Or I sit in a quiet self-satisfied glow.

Everything is welcome. I may look crazy but I feel so free I don’t really give a shit.

The next time you experience a feeling you “shouldn’t” be feeling: dance that shit out. It will feel counterintuitive at first but whatever your body is called to do, let it do. You don’t have to best Ciara or even dance on beat.

If you want to sink to the floor in despair and shake your wrist limply, because you feel like a loser compared to all your “30 Under 30” friends, do that. If you want to twerk in front of your hallway mirror after seeing your ex all hugged up on someone new, do it. Write big and loopy in a journal in blood red ink. Wind up the windows in your car and scream like a banshee.

Let your body lead.

Feel.

Move.

Onward,

Hannah

Art: Oresegun Olumide, Mahmahmoud Said, S.C. Versillee, Dion Pollard More

Here’s What It’s Like To Date As A 6’3″ Woman: BUST True Story

Hello there, I recently found that an article I published with one of my favorite magazines, BUST was available online. For those of you who did not line up outside of Barnes and Noble to snag a read  in December 2014, here it is!

Romance can be tough for anyone—but just imagine what it’d be like if you were taller than the average WNBA player. Here, a vertically gifted woman talks standing out and “dating down”

I used to wish I were an okapi. In addition to resembling adorable hybrid giraffe-zebras, female okapis are typically larger and taller than their male counterparts. So, as a 6’3” woman, living in the okapi world would mean that it’d seem normal when I tower over my male peers. I’d also get to live in an African rainforest, so that would be pretty awesome, too.

Our culture suggests men should always be taller than their female counterparts, and heterosexual pairings are usually depicted with a woman standing on tiptoes to kiss her man. (Some of my average-sized friends have been known to eschew heels for photo ops, just so their male partners would tower over them even more than they already do.) That’s easy when the average American female is 5’4”, well below the standard male height of 5’9”. In fact, according to U.S. Census records, less than 0.5 percent of women are six feet and higher. A tall woman wishing to find a man who eclipses her in height should either move to the Netherlands (where average male heights are in the 6’ range), or become a member of the Dinka, a tribe in South Sudan thought to be the tallest in Africa. Statistics are so not on our side.

Interestingly, I’ve seen similar height dynamics were LeBron-sized. I pictured us meeting in a quiet library, aimlessly strolling opposite aisles. Our hands would overlap on the topmost shelf reaching for the same novel, and mad, passionate, tall love would ensue. Due to both my size and interests (military background, basketball player, self-defense classes) I never thought I needed men for physical protection. I did, however, have strict ideas about what it meant to be feminine. As a tall, black woman, my femininity has been constantly questioned; I’ve been asked point-blank what my gender was by complete strangers. And it was hard to ignore that when tall women like Julia Child or Janet Reno were impersonated by comedians, they were always played by men. Coupling with a taller guy seemed the perfect way to increase my feminine caché.

Illustration by Natalie Andrewson
                                  Illustration by Natalie Andrewson

“I completely understand the desire to feel small, because this is what I was taught to want,” says Virgie Tovar, MA, a body-positivity activist and sexuality educator. “[Having a larger male partner] becomes something that we can use to validate our gender.” The idea that the right man will augment our femininity is an idea that many women share. But as I questioned my reluctance to date down, I playing out in queer relationships along the femme-butch spectrum. And I’ve had shorter guys confide to me that it’s not only tall women who have it tough in the dating pool. In a 2014 study by Rice University and the University of North Texas, 55 percent of women surveyed said they’d only date a man taller than they were, compared to 37 percent of men who said that they’d only partner with shorter women.

” Coupling with a taller guy seemed the perfect way to increase my feminine caché.”

Of course, some very tall women have pretty normal dating lives. I was not one of them. Picture me at school dances, an oak among seedlings, well out of earshot of the important conversations occurring at the 5’3” level. In high school, I spent my time writing anonymous love letters to jocks who hooked up with girls half their size. The men interested in me during my college years were often 45, or saw me as a potential dominatrix—yes, dating as a tall woman also invites the potential for being fetishized. I’ve had several awkward run-ins with men who were fixated on my Amazonian proportions, and online dating made this even more obvious. “Looking for a tall, powerful black woman for relationship” was a request I received four times from one potential Match.com suitor, who clearly wanted me to participate in his noir Xena fantasies.

Gracey Pankey, a six-foot-tall lifestyle and fashion blogger at the appropriately named site Fashion for Giants, has a clear preference. “I’ve dated men both six inches taller and six inches shorter than me. My relationships with the shorter men were definitely more difficult,” she says. “I didn’t feel safe or protected. I was also unable to stop making jokes about the height difference, like offering to lift them up to see things.” That may sound superficial, but the top two reasons women cited wanting a taller male partner in the aforementioned study were “protection” and because it made them feel more feminine. And though I wish I could totally distance myself from this type of sexist and stereotypical thinking, I used to want the same things.

There was a time when the only guys I let myself crush over were as tall or taller than I was. Yeah, it was important that they be super smart and hilarious, but it was much more important that they saw it was intensely out of step with my beliefs—I was the kind of person who questioned gender roles, but I still believed in the taller-man paradigm. I also found out that men being taller than their lady partners is neither a universal, nor a natural phenomenon. Taller women in the Mundari tribe of Sudan command steeper dowry prices than their shorter counterparts. And one British study found that if straight couples were randomly partnered, taller-woman pairings would actually occur much more frequently than they do—7.8 percent versus the actual occurrence of 3.8 percent.

It took me a long time to get comfortable with my body and evolve my own ideas about being feminine. It began after graduating military school, when I felt an almost supernatural pull towards all things self-love and feminist. As I read books about how society perpetuates damaging norms for women, I also started working with a holistic health coach. I learned that my body deserves care and acceptance, no matter how unconventional my height may be. Sure, it would have been much easier to “date up” than engage in this emotional body-image work, but all this self-reflection has actually been rewarding. It finally led me to the realization that it’s much more important for me to be with some-one who shares my values than my inseam; I’ve been with my current boyfriend, who’s about four inches shorter than me, for three years. He has never begged me to wear flats or made Kidman-Cruise jokes, and he likes that he can easily find me in a crowd. And while I rarely see couples that look like us, there haven’t been any public upheavals over our height difference. (Though this could also be because I live in N.Y.C., the city whose motto could easily be changed to “No One Cares About You.”)

The tall-man/short-lady paradigm isn’t one that’s going to disappear anytime soon, but I do hope more people—vertically gifted, petite, and in-between—reconsider their height hang-ups. If you’re a tall lady who’s on the fence about whether to date down, try looking inward, question your culturally fuelled preferences, and give it a go. Who knows? You may find your own okapi, just like I did.

 

Honey is the Knife

dark skinned black woman with white headscarf and white shirt and braids takes selfie in forest looking upward
On the last day of the Osun-Osogbo festival

This summer I spent six weeks in Nigeria, courtesy of the Nationality Rooms Scholarship from the University of Pittsburgh.

It was life-affirming. It was crazy. It was surreal.

I’ll write more about it one day, but tonight I want to write about a phrase that has been percolating and shifting through ,my brainspace ever since I returned.

HONEY IS THE KNIFE.

(I think it’s so important that I even have to write in block letters.)

When I first discovered the feminine deities of the Yoruba, I was obsessed with Oya.

It made sense: Oya is usually pictured as tall, dark-skinned, a warrior woman, a goddess of turbulence and Amazonian proportions.

She is the archetype I find myself often leaning towards, the one who other people often associate with me because of my height, skin color, and the fact that I’ve been in “masculine” clubs for much much of my life (basketball, the military, the sign of Aries…)

book cover of oya play by lekan balogun, in front of green bush. dark skinned woman in traditional yoruba dress is on cover

I never really “got” Osun. Often pictured as a light skinned, flirtatious woman, she seemed to exhibit the kind of femininity that always seemed beyond my reach.

I told myself that she just wasn’t “my” goddess. But my life betrayed me at every turn with truth.

Dancing is my favorite way to find movement. Sensuality and soft femininity give me life where books cannot reach. Like this river goddess, I love to preen in front of mirrors (how do people not look at themselves when they walk by a shiny, reflective surface???) I am forever on the look-out for the next mass celebration.

In Nigeria, I couldn’t get away from Osun. My visit coincided with the Osun-Osogbo festival after all. I saw Her everywhere. Her devotees walked around the Sacred Grove with their white and yellow beads. I was often residing in the area of Yorubaland renamed after her. I walked alongside her river and later on, I drank from it.

dark skinned black woman with braided ponytail stands by river with hands behind back on hips and closed eyes. river is brown and trees surround her. she is wearing a white shirt and blue jeans.
Taking it all in by the River

A lot of my initial distance from Osun was due to the ways I used to believe I had to inhabit this body and this life as a black woman.

Black people fight. We had and have to in this world. Many of our images of inspiration are laden with raised fists and defiance.

I never felt I had room as a dark-skinned Amazon to be soft, to cry, to exhibit certain”feminine” traits. I was encouraged to be STRONG instead.

Who was going to take my black tears or hurts seriously?

I needed Oya for all these reasons.

But, I see now that I desperately need Osun too.

Charles Abramson, a late Black artist, built an ornate altar for Osun in Brooklyn and worshiped her there. He said that with Osun one realizes honey is the knife.* Stories abound revolving around Osun and her ability to solve paralyzing problems with the jangle of her bracelet, the upturn of  her winking smile. Her power resides in never forgetting that sweetness is also a tool for survival. He was inspired by her way of combating the ills of this world with feminine grace.

So am I.

Osun reminds me that to be sweet, to be soft, to be feminine and/or a woman is not weakness. In Nigeria, she asked me to remember that her coquettish, sensual nature belongs to me just as much as Oya’s saber does.

dark skinned black women in white ensembles sit near tree and look into camera. they also have intricate braided hairstyles and most are wearing beads
Trying to blend in…am I doing a good job?

Maybe even more so.

I remind myself of this fact when I see the headlines of yet another unarmed black person shot dead, when I feel the weight of having to squash my complexity to stand as a “strong black woman”, when I see yet another mass media dismissal of black beauty.

Honey is the knife.

Honey is the knife.

There is beauty and strength in learning to soften in a hard world.

Onward,

Hannah

*Excerpted from Osun across the Waters : A Yoruba Goddess in Africa and the Americas, edited by Joseph M. Murphy and Mei-Mei Sanford