To punctuate this overflowing river, and end the scene, the Sisters seated at the table,
slowly, finally, unwrap themselves. Braid by braid. Lay their hair on the table, get up and
There were no words, but we heard it all. Breathed in. I was alone and I was with every
single body in that space. I am still with them.
On the evening of July 7, 2018, on the north side of town, in a renovated cotton mill, we
were brought to our knees, where we have remained and may remain for some time.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It's the next day, Sunday. I am hungover and groggy, thirsty. Last night we feasted. We imbibed. A true Dionysian experience. We drank in the night, the people, the music, and the word of Ashley Johnson. But now, the breakfast table is silent as we try and pull ourselves into the day.
“So what’d you think?” and we are speechless again.
We haven't yet found the words, and we don't dare use the wrong, less deserving ones, so we open our eyes wide and shake our heads and look at each other in silent agreement.
Last night was a moment. A life experience. Something we know we will not get over for a long while. Something we must come to terms with. Something we will slowly begin to define for ourselves. Something we will try our hardest, but most likely fail, to define for those who were not there.
I am living through others. Desperate to hear their thoughts. To live it again.
My mother is in tears, sharing memories from her childhood. “It dredged up things in my childhood, about my hair experiences. My mother wasn't satisfied with me because my hair was straight. Putting my hair in pin curls with clips. She would do it Saturday night before Sunday church and I’d have to sleep with them in. She’d get mean when she was doing it, SIT STILL! Sometimes I just silently cried. You're not going anywhere with me with that stringy hair. You look like a tramp! When she gave me that perm the night before my 3rd grade picture, that was the end.”
My mother telling a friend about the experience, led her friend to tell a story:
As a child, her mother let her cut off her long hair and her father wouldn't speak to her or look at her for over a week. She was shamed by her own father because of her hair. Trying to swallow her shame, she says it went back to his people being Pentecostal. Women aren't supposed to cut their hair. What else are women not supposed to do?
The town is pulsating, we are connected. The emotion is palpable. I knew it would happen, I was living in anticipation. I have been since I saw Ashley’s first photographs two years ago. It’s a gut feeling. You know when you are in the presence of something special, when you see the presentation of good thought inside good aesthetic, oozing out of genuine.
My sister-n-law struggles to voice the pain it underlined for her, pain maybe she didn’t understand until now.
Person after person breaks down upon first entering the gallery where Ashley’s pieces still hang. And we don’t quite know why. Not yet. We have a feeling.
“It’s about not loving yourself. Having been trained that we are less than. And that we always need to be.”
“There were quite a few of us that were holding back tears.”
“Why is this a female issue that connects to self-worth and beauty?”
“I can’t tell you how many conversations I had with the black women in the room about hair issues.”
“Why am I crying; I don't even understand this yet, it’s gonna take me longer.”
“Why am I emotional ...this isn’t about me, I don't have black hair?”
“We both talked about cutting our hair off. It was an act of defiance. She said the same herself. I’m not gonna play this game anymore.”
But I’d like to bring us back to what brought us here and what always brings us here. Isn’t it always black women who show us who we are, who are there for us, who speak with us, guide us, mother us, become our sisters, love us back into ourselves and light the way forward for us all?
Right now, inside an old cotton mill hangs a series of photographs. And a table is set. A table is set for a scene that was, and a scene that is still unfolding. A table is set, asking you to gather. A southern setting, always ready to receive you.