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