Catching Back Up With Artist, Kenya (Robinson), And The Luck, Or Lesson Of, Finding What You Seek

20 Nov

Artist, Kenya (Robinson)

“We can’t just jump into one another’s lives, and expect to know each other right away…”

That was artist, Kenya (Robinson), at the pre-reception for her lecture at the Providence Public Library’s HairBrained Exhibition, held in 2018. HairBrained was a look at the ways in which hair defines and reflects culture, self-identity, agency, and politics. Kenya’s talk, as stated in the library’s announcement, “offered a critical analysis of blondness, baldness, and beauty related to our collective hair politic, identification of gender, and normalization of whiteness.”

A small group of mostly white women stood around the oak library desk used to display a variety of blond hair bundles, which included: two-inch snippets of corn-silk smooth locks tied at their tops with elastic bands, long, textured ponytails with combs provided nearby, and a wooden hand-mop whose bristles were replaced with lengths of bleach blond hair. Kenya, who reminded me of how artists so well model the example of dress as self-expression, and whose outfit I envied, wore a white cowboy shirt with fuchsia fringe, similarly colored-velvety leggings, and high-heeled, sleek ankle boots. She did not have,  or wear, as we’d later learn of Kenya’s penchant for wigs, blond hair, but instead sported a short, natural style. Her comment about jumping into another’s life was in response to a woman who was yanking at one of the textured ponytail with a comb, creating a snarl midway through that seemed to be impossible to comb out.

“If that hair was attached to your child’s head, you wouldn’t be tugging on it that way. That would hurt, right? With our hair, we start at the bottom, and hold the hair above the snarl so that the person doesn’t feel the pain..well, sometimes people do pull like that, and the child complains, but you get what I mean?” Kenya said to the woman. The woman acknowledged Kenya’s comments, and moment of education, and re-arranged her grip on the ponytail and carried on with less resistance.

I attended Kenya’s talk and was struck how she managed, aside from her endearing vulnerability and sense of humor, which was a gift in itself, to ask us to think about inclusion, exclusion, racism, gender, and all the other “isms” as Kenya called them, without necessarily naming them. Instead, she challenged us to believe someone when they shared their lived experience with you. And, by the existence of her work dissecting “blondness,” and in turn, femininity, gender and racial identity, she asked others to see her and her work for what it is, and not through the gaze of gender or race. Kenya shared there were, and still are times where she has felt literally rendered voiceless, or her work not seen as intended, because of her gender (she did not clearly say, also because of her race) until she erased herself out of it. I cannot do Kenya, or the experience of her talk, as well as her work justice, but please know, that I was deeply moved and inspired by it, and thank her for that.

Another event I attended was Dr. Quincy Mills‘ talk which focused on the book he wrote on the history of Black barber shops from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America. Dr. Mills is currently Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland. I learned how black barbers during slavery and shortly after emancipation, were employed to service white men with shaves and cuts, as white men liked to have their domestic services performed by black men and women, and as the role of the barber was looked at as too inferior a service for a white men to perform. Mills also asked us to look at the fact, in allowing black men to be their barbers, they had to trust that an enslaved, or freed man with a razor blade in his hand, was still inferior, in order to dismiss any internal inkling that he would ever consider slitting the throat of the very man that once enslaved him.

We learned of the prominent black barber, George Meyer who served President McKinley, and how doing so, made him a central figure in Republican politics, as he was seen as a gateway to the political office, and the associated favors that came with voting the President in. Of course, white clientele in the newly developing Jim Crow laws years didn’t want to sit side-by-side with black men, who they considered less than them, so black men were shut out from black-owned barber shops, until black barbers started to open shops in black communities beginning in the 1920’s and 1930’s. With the Depression era upon them, the black-owned barber shops became a space that was much more than a place to get a haircut and a shave, but a free, public space, or cultural center, where the politics of the day could be spoken about without worry, pass the time talking about the joys and struggles of daily life, and coming-of-age life lessons for young black boys.

Aside from the great interest I had in learning about the history of the shops, Dr. Mill’s talk brought back to the surface for me the time I spent working in a black-owned barber shop and salon in Boston in 1980-81. In a city, highly segregated, and rife with racial tension at the time, Danny’s His and Hers Salon was situated on Massachusetts Avenue, in between the bordering black neighborhood of Roxbury, and the more affluent, white neighborhood, the Back Bay. I got to experience firsthand the cultural space and conversation that Dr. Mills speaks of in his book, and from the customers’ perspective, too. I wrote a little about that experience in the 2012 post, Black Beauty Back In The Day: What I Learned About Jheri Curls From The Grown-Ups, And Interracial Marriage From A 5-Year Old.

As I revisited this piece, I see how much there would still be to say about the social atmosphere of this space, as well as how I’ve grown to more understand the how and the why of the much deeper, necessary teachings about the relationship between black men and white woman that showed up that day in the presence of a five year-old Black boy who was a teacher I did not yet fully recognize as such.

Kathy, me, Kim at Danny’s His and Hers Salon, 1981. Where I learned more than a backgammon lesson from the 5 year-old boy noted above

Inspired by this artist and scholar, I had to attend to my own craft. I went to the HairBrained writing workshop led by local writer, Mary Kim Arnold, and had lunch afterward with my writer/artist friends. I was reminded how artists really break down life, and their experiences, and even though I suppose I do that very thing in my writing, when in conversation, I always feel much more surface and superficial, and much less of a critical thinker when I hear my friends’ critical thinking, reflections and making meaning of an experience–whether it be a book, movie, art exhibition, or the writing workshop we just attended.

In reflecting on making meaning, and understanding myself better as a white woman with a strong desire to connect across race, and to be able to communicate without over-analyzing, or worrying about how I’m coming across, which gets in the way of being myself, and in the way of a true connection, I reconnected last week with Kenya (Robinson)’s work, this time, on Instagram. I listened to her video, titled, WHITE BITCHES IS CRAZY (or the creativity of passive aggressive language) Another tool for hacking the IZM

In this video, Kenya shared on the concept of the lexicon of passive aggressive language, and in particular, on her experiences with this language exchange with white women, both recently, and in her past. These experiences, she said, left her at first confused, unaware it was happening, or knew and sometimes would let go, but, most often, got her mad.

Kenya began by making it clear, with what she called her “pure positive love energy miracle tone healing music” playing in the background,  that her aim in this talk was to approach these lexicons as a language which we are acculturated into, and to personally, get away from a judging framework, so that her vibration and energy can stay high, and won’t get trapped in judging, which brings her energy down. Kenya generously wanted to share the tools of creativity with others, so they could use them to hack these languages, and have the ability to open up to the infinite creative possibilities that lie within us.

Kenya looked at the etymology of the words, passive and aggressive. She shared how while Black people’s style of communication is said to be ‘real’ or ‘authentic,’ as if it is compelled to be so due to feeling safe or comfortable, it is actually a tool of survival, learned by always being surveilled, being watched, so that Black people feel they need to respond, to give answers, to be reporters.  It is an acculturation learned as a response to a stressor; a survival tool. White women, in their closeness to white patriarchy, are acculturated to conform their communication in response to the stressor of patriarchy, yet Kenya wanted to also be careful to not  give all credit to that idea because it can get in the way of the creative possibilities that can come from the investigation, dissecting, and understanding of this behavior, which is more complex than stemming from a single source

Kenya believes by working within that middle space between the dichotomy of passive and aggressive, and understanding how acculturation of Black people’s and white people’s lived experiences under the framework of all the isms, impacts our language and styles of communication, we can practice using creativity to hack our communication, instead of the survival technique which we were programmed to use. This will open up tremendous possibilities for connection, and to those places inside of us where our cores, our entity, our energy, is the same, and where we can learn and grow and help one another.

I listened to her talk twice to absorb and process all that she said, and will listen to it again, I’m sure, to have it soak in even more. There is definitely more detail about how and why passive aggressive communication shows up, about our inner and outer racialized “programming” and how to creatively hack our communication, so I encourage you to listen, one, two, three, or however many times you wish to so that you, too, can learn and grow through Kenya’s offering.

 I know for myself, as a white woman who has always considered herself definitely passive, and indirect in my communications with others, I have not considered the impact, and the how, when, where, and why, of my own passive or passive aggressive style of communication with Black women or men. I will here on in, be alert to this, and as Kenya asks us, will begin with the outer creative hack every time, and the longer term inner-programming of acculturation under all the isms, every day, every time. That is the only way to open up creative possibilities, to open up a new way of being together in this world.

Kenya finished by saying that in practicing this creative language hacking tool, she, and we, can be responsible and active in our communications, and she finds when she doesn’t allow this passive aggressive communication to be heaped upon her, to burden her, she feels more power, and more energy and positivity, which allows her to be more creative, and more engaged with her creative process.

To put it more beautifully, I will share the closing words of Kenya’s talk: “I need to talk to whoever, I need to be creating with my fellow human beings because this is going to make me…so I can tap into that source inside of me. (Holding up fortune cookie fortune) “If you seek it, you’re going to find it.” You’re going to find creative ways to interact with other people. And, you’ll find creative ways to make beautiful things happen. Its going be gender non-specific, intergenerational, non-binary, transracial, cut across class, geography…none of these things are going to be impediments because it comes from a source that is timeless, that is ultimate creativity, that is unknown, in the most beautiful ways.”

I have deep gratitude for finding my way to Kenya’s talk this day. If you seek it, you’re going to find it.

To follow Kenya (Robinson)’s work, visit her at www.kenyarobinson.com, and on Instagram @kenya9

2 Responses to “Catching Back Up With Artist, Kenya (Robinson), And The Luck, Or Lesson Of, Finding What You Seek”

  1. Sarah Grossman November 20, 2020 at 11:07 am #

    Nicely done, Wendy. As far as passivity, wonder in our instance, how much is societal culture versus familial, growing up with, “you’re so serious” in my case and a general family saying of, “lighten up”. Thanks for your writing! I’ll check out Kenya’s work, though the link didn’t work in your piece. Keep on pondering and writing!

    • Wendy Jane November 20, 2020 at 12:36 pm #

      Hi sister!

      Thanks so much, and thanks so much for reading and sharing your perspective. I agree that our families that we grow up with “teach us” also how to interact with others–I was actually just doing some jouralling about our family and the use of humor to avoid discomfort, and then I see how the way we are brought up was influenced by societal norms, and us being white, and what us white folks saw as proper way to acculturate ourselves in how to behave and communicate with one another, and what was the order of those things, and what was behind the hierarchal ordering of those things, and then, when we are thinking of our connections with people of different race, ethnicity, gender identity, etc. how are we communicating, and how are we “getting” and not “getting” one another…it’s a lot to think about, and Kenya certainly got me thinking. Yes, you should definitely check out her site. The links from the blog and my instagram worked for me, so I am not sure why you could not connect.

      Love you, sister!
      xoxo
      Wendy

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: