Threshold (From the series “Blaxploitation”):

Delali Ayivor

I was nine years old when my mother came to me,
told me of her
designs for the modern black woman.
“No more pain,” she said. The wailed
refrain of so many heartsongs,
so many six year olds trapped
in the high backed chairs of a hair salon
twisting while another pair of work-rough hands
delved into the thicket of coiled black at their
crown, their nape.
She slapped their hands, told them
“There is dignity in suffering,”
smoothed away the slick of tears running over
rounded cheeks with the pads of scratchy,
chemical-smelling fingertips.

She gestured to her own hair,
had me stroke its waist-length smooth,
so different from the two spools of felt
curled right above the ears
I’d seen in pictures of her.
Then went back to the tin sink where it all started,
pointed out the spots where test batches
ate through the metal.
“It took me awhile,” she said,
with weak smile and crumbling touch
“to get the right formula.”

I asked her if she knew what she was starting
the first time she straightened hair,
why she wanted so badly to be
that little bit more normalized,
asked her why, afterwards, she changed
her name from Sarah Breedlove to
Madame CJ Walker.
She told me “I was an iconoclast.
The first female millionaire,”
then tucked me back into bed.

This was my bedtime story,
the smell of something living burnt
and the sense that maybe my mother
was Delilah incarnate,
teaching any woman how to
lessen her curl, how to
betray herself without so much
as a single snip.

That night, listening to the hushed silence of sleep
an elegy formed on my lips—
here’s to Sarah with the
motor oil drip jerry curl
and to my father and the
four foot afro.
Madame CJ,
means nothing to me.

This pulls in the reader with its strong sensory detail and setting. It offers emotional resonance, a reversal. The juxtaposition of pride/identity versus mainstream images of beauty/selling out leaves us with much to think about.
—Cynthia Leitich Smith, 2011 Hunger Mountain Prize For Young Writers Judge

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