By DAINA STANLEY
I was in creative nonfiction class when I penned an original story that turned into something like a poetic rant. Slapped right on top of my page in uppercase, bold, Helvetica font read the words: DON’T TOUCH MY HAIR! An exclamation inked to all of my white student counterparts who just couldn’t seem to conceptualize how the mane on my head could grow naturally from these roots. This is just one of the many experiences every afro wearing black chick has to experience in her time as a minority at a Private White Institution (PWI). Along with personal space violations, our struggle is minimized, our culture is stereotyped and our intellect is underestimated. Why do we go through this? Beats me.
What I do know is that when the angelic songstress Solange Knowles (younger sister of the one and only Beyoncé) dropped her new album A Seat at the Table last month, I was electrified. It’s not only because her pristine vocals transport listeners to a different dimension, but it’s also because her album is a testament to the experience of being a black chick (or person in general) at a PWI. The album brings life to our experiences, it voices the isolation we undergo, and it validates feelings that are likely to be dismissed.
The sixth track on the album, titled Mad (ft. Lil Wayne), confirms the people at a PWI tend to minimize the experience that black students have as a minority. When we are in a class discussion about racism or discrimination that exists within the U.S. and a professor asks a question, somehow everyone ends up staring at us for the answers. So, of course we are forced to speak for the entire Black community. There is usually one person who is culturally competent enough to understand and recognize our experience as real. Then, there are the 75 percent of classmates who are silent because they are too scared to say anything. But there are always those few students who don’t even know that the shoes we walk in even exist. They are either color blind or think that racism ended when Barack Obama became president. They start saying things as referenced in this track such as “but slavery happened so long ago” and “remember the civil rights movement?” … “why you always blaming?/Why you can’t face it?/Why you always gotta be so mad?/Why you always talking shit, always be complaining?/Why you always gotta be/why you always gotta be so mad?”
We respond to their ignorance by saying things like , “I got a lot to be mad about.” We then proceed to argue the relevance of historical events (e.g. slavery, Jim Crow laws, housing disparities, the educational pipeline to prison, the mass incarceration of black and brown men). And we are forced to repeat ourselves over and over again every year. By the time senior year of our college career arrives we feel like, “I’m tired of explaining/ Why can’t you just face?/ Man this shit is draining/ But I’m not really allowed to be mad.”
Her epic song “Don’t Touch My Hair” (ft. Sampha) speaks to a highly relatable incident that every fro-ed up black girl undergoes when attending a PWI:walking through campus with people staring at you like voodoo magic makes your hair stand up. One of your classmates has the audacity to walk up to you and pet your hair. You feel violated, offended and angry that someone would invade your personal space. All that comes out is “don’t do that!” But, inside you’re screaming as Solange does in this track “Don’t touch my hair/ When it’s the feelings I wear/ Don’t touch my soul/ When it’s the rhythm I know/ Don’t touch my crown/ They say the vision I’ve found/ Don’t touch what’s there/ When it’s the feelings I wear.“
The track “F.U.B.U.” expresses the cultural sacrifices that many black students make that their white counterparts don’t have to worry about such as code switching, which is taking on the dominant culture while suppressing your own. The lyrics capture this sacrifice, stating “Sometimes you gotta pay the cost/ Play the game just to play the boss.”
It can be a burden to feel like the only Black student on campus. At times you feel isolated and extremely misunderstood. The exile is felt in the classroom and at home. There are days “When you feeling all alone/ And you can’t even be you up in your home.” Sharing dorms with roommates means having to answer questions like why don’t you wash your hair everyday? Why do you wear that (satin bonnet or do-rag) on your head at night? And “what is shea butter or coconut oil?” We get asked questions about why we are in the places we call home. “When it’s going on a thousand years/ And you pulling up to your crib/ And they ask you where you live again/ But you running out of damns to give.”
The time a Black student spends at a PWI is truly unique. The struggles we face when striving to get a world class education are immeasurable. This album is an anthem that helps Black students to survive every step.Thank you to Solange for giving us some shit that is for us. This shit is a must. Some shit they can’t touch.
Daina Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org