You Must Learn

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Denisio and Mwende / Our Closet / Patrick Melon / Uncategorized

Photos by Patrick Melon

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Post Soundtrack – You Must Learn (KRS1)

Crescent Park: Crescent Park has a beautiful cityscape in the background showing the layout of the central business district. Its simple and clean cut design in stone is appealing to me in and of itself. My subjects wore their more easily identifiable ‘ethnic’ clothing in this area which I feel is fitting considering the existence of the park. Although the area is beautiful and I certainly appreciate it, it would seem no one thought it necessary to create some vast improvements to the neighborhood until the extreme wave of gentrification that is sweeping over the ‘Bywater’ began taking place. The insinuation to me is almost as if the original residents weren’t worth the effort.

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DENISIO TRUITT

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HEADWRAP: is really a large piece of jersey fabric wrapped with a vintage caftan. I like to double time my head wraps for extra volume. GLASSES: were thrifted goodies. SHIFT DRESS: was made by me. BANGLE: was found in Mwende’s magical jewelry basket she brings to our shoots.

Denisio: The first time I wrapped my head as both a fashion and cultural statement was in college. It was the early 2000’s where hints of neo soul still framed the outer edges of Hip Hop and R&B. I got up one morning in my cluttered dorm room, popped Jill Scott’s album into my computer and grabbed two large pieces of African fabric, wrapping one, and then the other around a messy bun of heat damaged hair. I arrived to my 8:30am English class, wearing a sky high wrap, large hoop earrings, a vintage camo jacket, and black shirt, jeans, and boots. One of three black girls in a sea of white gaze. This outfit was intentional, and it was probably the first time I consciously put together an outfit as both statement and armor. That was also the day I would tell off a racist classmate in a short essay I prepared the night before and brought to class.

College was never an option for me, it was a given. All of my aunts possessed higher learning degrees, masters and doctorates. They spoke of their college years with nostalgia and pride. Even my mother who married barely out of  high school eventually returned to school and graduated from The University of Maryland in my teens. I knew I had to go. It was where I wanted to go that was the problem.

I had different ideas of college than my mother. I fantasized about going to school somewhere in New York, perhaps majoring in Studio Art or English at NYU or Finishing up a Design Degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology or Parsons School of Design. My mom, like most African moms had dreamt of having a doctor or lawyer for a daughter.

When my mother and I couldn’t come to a consensus on my future money decided for us. I applied to exactly seven schools and got into all but one including my beloved NYU (partial scholarship) and Oberlin College (partial music scholarship). It was the college that I never heard of however, Washington and Lee University (named after a slave owning president and General Robert E. Lee who wanted to keep us slaves), that offered me a full academic ride for all four years. An added bonus: one of my closest friends from high school was given the same scholarship. We decided to go together and look out for each other.

It sounds ridiculous to say now but I didn’t fully realize the implications of attending a school named after a confederate soldier in the south.  But going to high school in the North, with rich kids who know how to politely tuck in their bigotry will do that to a Black Girl. It started to sink in on the third day when four other African girls and I  attended a fraternity party and were asked to show our student ID’s at the door because we “didn’t look like Washington and Lee Students”.  No one else was carded. The first time I saw a white person in full blackface was about a month later while eating a sandwich with a friend at the campus Co-op on halloween night. And then again at a “Ghetto Fabulous Party” hosted by none other than the infamous Sigma Alpha Epsilon.  By November I was applying to be transferred to the University of Maryland.

My mom wouldn’t have it. UMD wasn’t offering me a full ride, Washington and Lee was. My mom knew firsthand the crippling effect of student loans and she didn’t want that for me. She pleaded with me to try and stick out for at least the rest of the semester.

I was silent when many of these incidents occurred. Mainly because I was painfully shy but also because of a fear I couldn’t name. Something in me was scared to speak out because of an imagined consequence far worse than what was happening.

Then a shift happened one day in my English class. We read aloud a poem by Francis Harper, which our professor asked us to analyze.  I noticed the girl next to me, with her brown bob and frosty blue eye scowling, and I guess the professor did as well because she asked her if she had any thoughts. Her response? “I mean I don’t get it. Like, its not even that well written. Like, I could write a much better poem based on what I know about slavery.”

The next class, I arrived in my headwrap battle gear with that five page essay.  It felt so good. Something about the way the cloth secured and weighed down my head felt comforting, like a hug. I felt secure and safe enough to speak out and I did. And in that moment something shifted in me. I found a voice in embracing my culture and protecting it.

My memories of college are conflicted because while I both witnessed and experienced a great deal of racism, sexism, and other traumas, I also experienced a sense of community and camaraderie with the black students there that I never had in high school. Through our struggles and battles, our victories and losses, our tears, our laughter, and our channeled rage we discovered so much about ourselves as young black people navigating white supremacy. More than the discovery of Rita Dove’s poetry, costume design, and writing my first play were the invaluable lessons I learned from our small  community at Washington and Lee University .

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MWENDE KATWIWA

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SHIRT: Got it at Salvation Army. I love sleepless shirts with full necks! I usually cut all the necks off my T-shirts unless they’re sleeveless which as I’m writing I’m realizing doesn’t make any sense but whatever, youll live 😀 SKIRT/EARRINGS: bought from a vendor at the Maasai market in Kenya

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HEADWRAP: I think I “borrowed” it from my mom or sister or some woman close to me… GLASSES: They’re from Costco, great prices and good frame selection in case any one cares! No…? No one? OK then , let me crawl back into my nerd hole

Mwende: It took a long time for me to discover the differences between education, knowledge, academia and learning. The daughter of two immigrants who left Kenya to study abroad with plans of soon returning home only to be caught in the “brain drain” whirlpool of the promise of a better, more rewarding life abroad, I always had an intimate relationship with academia through my parent’s close relationship with it. In fact, if it wasn’t for the opportunity to travel that both of my parents received through students visas, its very likely that I would not be sitting writing a diasporic blog, because I likely would never have left Kenya. And while I recognize the tangible social and material benefits being in academia has given my family in terms of upward mobility (my parents went from delivering newspapers and doing hospice care and other odd jobs while in school to being tenured professors in about two decades), my relationship to academia is increasingly conflicted the more I learn about education as as an institution, and how, like so many institutions, it is a site for continued oppression and the maintenance of a (white/Western dominated) status quo. I also started at some point to attach a sense of loss of family to educational pursuit as it was the one thing that consistently split my family up, from the first initial move from Kenya to the states that separated me from the majority of my family in a way I am really feeling in my young adulthood, to the times my siblings and I lived with just one parent either in Kenya or here in the states because the other was in a different state pursuing a degree. 

I don’t think my parents ever spoke to me about college before it was time to think about applying, it was just another unspoken expectation in a household of silence and success. My parents were the first in their families to go so far with their educational pursuits, and I suppose because they did so fearless and furiously, I felt like I not only had to match them, but surpass them with my achievements (which to be clear was stupid. My parents came to the states with almost nothing their their pockets but their dreams and ambitions, three young kids and somehow are both now tenured professors who own a home. WHAT CAN I EVEN TRY TO DO TO SURPASS THAT?? Nothing. That is what lol). There was also always a sense of guilt that pushed me to do well in school. Often, when I would not want to do work on consider not going to school, especially when I left my parents house, I would think about my cousins back home who are my age mates and the genuine hunger they have for a “quality” education that if often out of their reach.

In middle school, I stared to question the increasingly positive narrative I had been fed about academia/the institution of education as I became more involved in activism. I started to question what was being taught in school, how and by who, but more importantly, I began to realize how much wasn’t being taught in schools and how what was often omitted almost always had to do with the history of people who looked like me , in this country and across the world. But even though I began questioning the institution of education, I still had a deep sense of commitment to it because of all it had done for my family. By the time I got to high school, I was a shining example of a student academically (so shiny some may have even called me “Token”…”Oreo” was another favorite nickname Black kids gave me growing up, cuz you know my love for reading and my good grades made me “white on the inside, Black on the outside” which is so fucked up when you think about it, how as Black kids we would put each other down for being smart by separating it from our Blackness accidentally painting a distorted picture of what Blackness is… More on that in next weeks post…), but behaviorally I would act out. I showed up late all the time, would leave class early, and I was more or less known for unnecessarily question teachers and authority figures. It was during this time I discovered just how tangible educational achievement can be for a person.  I was admittedly unnecessarily an asshole in high school, but part of it was because I saw my grades actually shielding my from the consequences of my actions in a way they did not for so many of my Black and brown friends who couldn’t leverage their achievements. I remember a week before graduation I had 45 detentions left to serve (what? I told yall I was an asshole lol). There was quite literally no way for me to serve them before graduating, and it was rule that you couldn’t graduate without serving all of your detentions. Instead of even trying to serve the detentions as a show of good faith and then begging to be able to graduate, I walked into my deans office, and after a conversation, I found myself happily walking the stage the next week having served none of those detentions.

I ended up going to college in New Orleans at Tulane University and was duped into thinking I could have a good experience there. See they did that sneaky thing PWIs do where they host multicultural preview weekends and invite all the Black and brown kids and convince them they will have community at the school, only for them to show up in the fall and realize that those 100 people they met were actually pretty much all the other POC at the school, except now there’s also 7000 white kids, some of who affectionately refer to your college as “Jewlane” there now too.

From the moment I got to campus in the fall of 2010, I knew it wasn’t the place for me. The first party my friends and I went to, we were stopped by some white guys  at the door and told us “no fags allowed” (us = me , my Latino boyfriend at the time, and a Queer Latino friend of mine I had met at multicultural preview weekend). Another time, a boy in the cafeteria asked me to serve him soup because I was wearing the same color as the serves who all were Black. Another time white boy called me ‘nigger’ and when he was fired, my supervisor threw him a party with confederate flag invitations. Another time my entire staff laughed at me because they assumed an anonymous story about getting malaria was about me. Another time a white girl told me that I was too loud and angry. That happened again. And again. And again…

…I could sit here and list the rest of the racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic things I endured when I was at Tulane but to be honest, I’m still very raw about so much of it and still angry at myself about how silent I was for so long on campus. My first two years I basically shut myself down inside in order to exist in the overwhelming whiteness of life at Tulane , and it wasn’t until I returned from studying abroad in Kenya (studying abroad = hanging by my mom and dad/not being in a country where whiteness is default for 6 months) that I stepped back into the fullness of myself because of a conversation I had with my cousin. When I was home last, I had a series of intense conversations with my cousin William about education, education abroad and what it even meant to get an education in different places. I went back to Kenya at a time I was feeling especially defeated by academia through my time at Tulane, and continuously hearing his dreams of studying abroad and how much it would mean to him were primarily what propelled me to come back to the states and not waste away the last two years of college the way I had in the first two years, hiding myself and my feelings behind a bright smile or at the bottom of a can of beer. I moved from my childhood guilt of having access to education to my current state of using what’s in front of me to bring everyone else along with me. I started to organize on campus and began to name the unjust things I saw around me the way I had always been known to do, except for the first time, I felt like I was doing it alone. I very quickly realized that people were a lot more willing to quietly thank you for using your voice than to join their voice along with yours to speak out.

My time organizing at Tulane sent me into a spiral of depression. Daily I faced growing and intense feelings of solitude and social rejection as a result of speaking out, and it was not all in my head. I lost a lot of friends my last two years of college, and if I didn’t have an academic advisor who was looking out for me and understand what a toll my activism was taken, I may not have actually graduated on time. On the surface though, no one knew any of this, not even my parents, so all they knew was that I was graduating at the top of my class, receiving top honors in both my majors and awards from every institution I had been affiliated with during my time on campus. But after spending two years fighting against Tulane and how it treated students like me, it felt like an insult to leave as one of its most decorated graduates. Like they used those awards to muzzle my message. More people wanted to talk to me about my awards than what about what I had fought for that got me recognized. I remember hating the week of graduation because all I wanted to do was spend time with my family who I hadn’t seen in a while, but having to attend an award dinner or ceremony almost every night. I wanted so bad to finally tell my parents how much I hated school and how it felt like everyone was trying to silence me one last time by making me the shining star of the very place I fought against, but yall, I’m telling you, there is nothing as pure as the sheer joy and pride in an African parents face when their child succeeds academically. Their joy silenced me even faster.

So here I am today, one year out of college, and I still haven’t ever really been honest with my parents or with most of my (white) friends from school about my experience at Tulane. I left college without a lot of white friends I started with because of what I chose to speak out about, and I realized after graduation that even the few I retained barely knew anything about me and my time at Tulane and how I struggled so much as a Black woman in that place. I tried to open up to a few of them but was mostly met either with white guilt, white women’s tears, white men’s political observations on the importance of focusing on class not race, or what was the worst for me, silence as if they had never even thought of my experience as different. It led me to not only be intentional about being around people who knew and could speak to and support my experiences, but also about trying to make sure that other women of color did not feel the same way on that campus. Before leaving college, another Black girl named Ghiya (who has since become one of by BFFs, though we barely spoke in college) and I started a Women of Color Collective that from what I hear is thriving today. We also, along with some other Black and brown college aged girls formed a group called Year of the Brown Girl where we made a choice to intentionally and unapologetically center ourselves and work on our relationships to one another as Women of Color in the face of institutions and affiliations that never cared to do so. 

I’ve always admired the beauty of headwraps and the women bold enough to wear them, but I myself have always been too shy to wear them. I didn’t have the greatest relationship with my hair growing up, and after I stopped getting extensions put in, I started wearing a lot of hats and bandanas, but headwraps always felt a bit too feminine and glamorous for the Blerd I was throughout high school (I much preferred skinny jeans and cut up tshirts and backwards caps). When I started to dress more feminine, I started to look less nerdy and feel less nerdy, but the headwraps never came! Once I tried to wear a head wrap out to an event (and it was a big one cuz ain’t nobody tryna be out with a weak ass head wrap) and I swear my neck almost fell off, it was so heavy! It reminded me of the style disaster I had when I was a bridesmaid in my aunts wedding when I was like 10 and they put neck length braids in my hair and ten beads on each braid. Not only did I jingle when I walked, but I literally could not prop my head up without it falling to the side. That’s how I feel when I wear head wraps with my apparently feeble neck. I wear them so infrequently in fact that this head wrap actually lives its days out covering a small table in my house…I’ve never actually worn it before, but I might just start after seeing what it looks like actually on my head after seeing these photos!

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Noirlinians is a love story by two wandering Daughters of the African diaspora 

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The Author

Noirlinians is an AfroFashion blog exploring the complex relationship between culture, clothing & identity in the diaspora. Featuring Liberian artist and designer Denisio Truitt of DOPEciety and poet and organizer Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa, the idea for the blog emerged after a fast friendship developed between the two based on their African heritage and artistic interests.

2 Comments

  1. Jamilla says

    Wow! Of all the blog posts this was a favorite one! How WOC navigate so many oppressive institutions & ‘isms’, & yet continue to shine regally regardless is nothing less than #BlackGirlMagic. Continue to shine 👑Queens👑! 😙😊💄🎀👗👠👜

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