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

 

 

 

The African

African and Black. I first learned of the difference most saliently when I went to high school. Jokes were being made and I joined in and offered my own take on things that all black people do. This dude I barely knew scoffed, “You’re not black. You’re African.”

We could go deep into the semantics and the divisions inherent in most American black communities with just this one statement. When that comment was said to me about fifteen years ago, I was left in s silent confused hurt. He was kinda right, but were the two mutually exclusive? (Nope.) He was kinda right, but did he have to ostracize me? (Nope.)

His words did not begin an identity crisis. But, they did make me see that black people weren’t some jolly we’re-all-in-this-together mass all the time. And I wondered where I actually fit in. It didn’t seem to be with the white kids or black kids at my high school. I felt most comfortable with my Mexican and Asian friends. Our gripes about our strict immigrant parents a connector.

When people ask me what I am (and yes, this does happen to dark-skinned phenotypically black as hell people) I’ve said Black. Then I say Nigerian. They nod thoughtfully with a I-knew-it expression. Lately, I’ve been switching it around and amusedly observing the questions which commence when I say Nigerian first.

How long have you been in this country? What was it like to grow up in Nigeria? Is your entire family there? What do you think of the stuff going on? (“Stuff” is supposed to encapsulate all manner of civic disturbances I guess…)

sepia portrait of dark skinned black woman in headwrap and skirt
Grandmother

And then I have to explain that well, I’ve never been to Nigeria but my entire ancestry is Nigerian. It’s a funny conversation in a sense. I’ve had strangers shame me for not visiting as if they had previously offered to pay for my ticket and I declined. Sometimes I am ashamed of what I don’t know, considering the fact that unlike my black diasporic community, I do know exactly where I come from.

But, shame is tedious and repetitive. And in my 30th year on this planet, I am finally going to Nigeria on behalf of Pitt’s African Heritage Nationality Room Scholarship. To say I am excited is an understatement. I am also scared and curious. The greatest mix ever.

I highly doubt I will be asked what I am, which will be nice. But who knows. I am an Americanah after all.

What I am most excited about is seeing my family. My paternal grandparents have been deceased for some time (that’s a picture of the grandmother I am named after above), but I have still have a large family presence in Nigeria. My research will detail the feminine/female aspects of Yoruba culture/religion. I will be studying the female deities of the Ifa: Osun, Oya, and Yemoja.

And while this project is academic/creative in nature, I have no doubts that it will be a personal sojourn as well. I want to know more about who my people were and the ways they interact with the world, before and after colonialism. One short trip to Nigeria will not solve every question I have, but it is enough to get me started.

Onward,

Hannah

 

 

 

 

 

The Return of Oya

Small figurine of Oya orisha of the wind holing saber and stepping off one foot. She is dark skinned with long black hair and also holding a horse whip tail. She is wearing a long skirt of nine colors (purple, red, yellow, green, blue, white, gold, etc). Skulls surround the base with an eggplant and cowrie shells.
Oya from Pomona

I’ll admit that my interest in Oya intensified when I read that she was often depicted as a tall, powerfully built, dark-skinned black woman.

It’s not a little narcissistic to desire one’s own image in the face of the Divine, I get it.

I still love that her visual representation is Black Amazon :)

I wanted to know all I could about this goddess. I conducted informal research courtesy of Dr. Google, bought self-published books at Afro-centric bookstores, and even created a nine-page zine in her honor in 2013.

Logically, the the next step was to purchase a figurine of Oya from a wholesale supply store in Pomona. My mother shook her head in soft, perplexed sorrow when she saw what I was buying, no doubt afraid that her eldest daughter was officially a pagan queen.

I took her home to New York and placed her on top of my top bookshelf in my 320 square foot apartment. I loved looking up to her assertive demeanor as I typed an assignment. Loved saying hello when I came in from another trek to a local bodega.

But…then I felt silly. I was no Ifa inititate. She came from a place that sold discounted fake Persian rugs. There was probably a MADE IN CHINA sticker attached somewhere.

And I also wondered if I was being respectful to Ifa and the orisha. Was I really supposed to be buying figurines like this? Did I need to commit to the practice of Ifa before making such a declaration to Oya? Granted, I wasn’t praying to the deity nor was I invoking her name in any sort of ceremony, but I worried after the glibness of my acquisition.

Orange book bearing title and illustration of Oya figure. Oya" Ifa and the Spirit of the Wind by Awo Fa-lokun Fatunmbi.
One of the many books…

And so, with a sorry and sad heart, I decided to give my Oya figurine away. I offered some prayer that she would be found by someone who needed her and I placed a nice note at her base for the finder. Then, I exited my Brooklyn apartment and left her atop the low brick partition right out front.

Continue reading The Return of Oya

How to Learn Yoruba

“i lost a whole continent.
a whole continent from my memory.
unlike all other hyphenated americans
my hyphen is made of blood.
when africa says hello
my mouth is a heartbreak
because i have nothing in my tongue
to answer her.
i don’t know how to say hello to my mother.”
Nayyirah Waheed

My mom and dad about 30 years ago
My mom and dad about 30 years ago

My relationship with Africa is not exactly like Waheed’s, but her words continued to ring in my head. I don’t know how to say hello to my mother. I in fact do know how to say hello to my mother in Yoruba. And yet, I feel so awkward saying it. And I wonder why…

Continue reading How to Learn Yoruba