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Realities of Submission

Realities of Submission

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Realities of Submission

4.5/5 (3 évaluations)
520 pages
8 heures
Aug 21, 2014


In this novel, internationally acclaimed author of If I Should Speak, A Voice, and Footsteps introduces us to the heart, mind, and life of Renee Morris, the narrator of this reflective tale. Told in three parts, Renee's story tells of a stringent childhood in her father's church and her ultimate submission to the religion of her nature in young adulthood. As Renee embraces Islam wholeheartedly, the spiritual tranquility of her initial conversion begins to wane as she faces the often painful realities of navigating the terrains of the Muslim experience itself.

At times humorous and at times painful, the story touches the reader's deepest thoughts and incites the familiar questioning of the human soul.

Aug 21, 2014

À propos de l'auteur

Umm Zakiyyah is the bestselling author of the novels If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife; and the self-help book for religious survivors of abuse Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You. She writes about the interfaith struggles of Muslims and Christians and the intercultural, spiritual, and moral struggles of Muslims in America. Her work has earned praise from writers, professors, and filmmakers and has been translated into multiple languages.

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Realities of Submission - Umm Zakiyyah



I have to admit, part of me is afraid to write this, to be so honest, to lay myself, my life and, ultimately, my faith so bare. My instinct is to hold on, to keep it to myself and protect it in the tattered cardboard boxes in which its ink-stroked testimonies had found refuge for so long, where I had found refuge from myself. In the basement of my home, in the dark, vacant basement of my heart. Yet, after countless tears and prayers, I’ve decided to come forward and hold onto the one thing I managed to hold onto throughout the sojourn—my faith. For part of my fear was due to those whose eyes would meticulously comb my every word and seek the fault lines, seek the hidden reason behind my struggles, a reason which, to them, was never hidden at all. For there are those who want to believe, in fact must believe, that this is an exposé of my religion more than myself. And for that, I would be heralded as their poster child for emancipation of the Muslim woman, of in fact Islam itself—even as I am, allegedly, unaware of my bondage.

But then I was, fortunately, reminded of the words of the Creator, the Most Wise, when He said, (They say) ‘What does Allah mean by this parable?’ By it He causes some to stray, and some He leads to the right path. But He causes not to stray, except those who forsake the Path.

So for those who are destined to misguidance due to their contention upon forsaking the Path, there is nothing I can say or do to lead them aright. For the kindest word and the most definitive proof of Truth will lead them astray, because it is the path they have chosen for themselves. And, truly, there is nothing I can do for them, even if it is my ardent desire to clarify the veracity of my faith.

And for those who are destined to guidance due to their opening their minds and hearts to the Truth, there is nothing I can say or do to cause them to stray. For their destination is etched in something more lasting than stone. And my only prayer is that my name is there, too.


"And nearest in love to the believers are those who say, ‘We are Christians’ because among them are those devoted to learning and who renounce the world, and they are not arrogant.

And when they hear what has been revealed to the Messenger, you see their eyes overflowing with tears because they recognize the Truth. They say, ‘Our Lord! We have believed, write us down among the witnesses.’"

---Qur’an, 5:82-83

Chapter One

He doesn’t know this, nor would it inspire in his heart any affinity for my decision, but it is my father who laid the foundation for my acceptance of Islam. He is the one who taught me about God and the angels and the Day of Judgment. He told me, us, about the universal message and spirituality of Christ. And it was he, during his weekly sermons at his church and daily guidance in his home, who insisted that we were Christians in the purest sense of the word, and that it was only this pure, unadulterated understanding of Jesus’ message through which a person found salvation. It was a dishonoring, a disrespect, he said, to relegate God’s religion to sects, to denominations, as if a person had a right to choose his method of submission, his extent of surrendering to God.

This made my childhood church, and upbringing, unique. It bore no Baptist, Episcopalian, or Methodist affiliation, nor did it bear the empty Protestant label. We were Christian, and in that term alone lay the essence of our belief, our existence. My father’s church, like our religion, was not even Unitarian or non-denominational, nothing a person could fit easily into an ideological box or label. Christian. That was the only affiliation my father and his congregation ever used to differentiate themselves from the rest of the world, and from sectarian Christians.

It might be said, and certainly it has been, that my father’s Christianity was his own, of his own making. Our church followed not only the injunctions of the Bible, but the injunctions of my father. It wasn’t until years later, after I had already converted to Islam and married, that I came to realize that the rules with which I was brought up, the rules of our church, were not my father’s inventions at all. They were, rather, a result of my father’s sincere eclectic selection of true righteousness, much of which was borrowed from a host of world religions that he had, most probably, come across during his obtaining his master’s and subsequent doctorate of theology and religious sciences at Harvard University.

Among the rules that I and my sisters, and later my younger brothers, followed, or at least were instructed to follow, was that of not listening to worldly music, of dressing modestly by never wearing tight or revealing clothes, and the women’s covering their hair with a hat or loosely draped scarf at church. We were not allowed to date until we turned eighteen, and even then the date had to be chaperoned by my mother, father, or one of the trusted elders of the church. Needless to say, our social life was almost non-existent, and as could be expected, not all of us viewed this stringent lifestyle with fondness. Now, when I think back to those days, I realize that most of the congregation were married and over the age of forty. Which probably accounts for my and my siblings’ restlessness to meet other youth, and my oldest sister’s fate as a successful model who accepted a sectarian version of worshipping Christ after she secretly eloped, choosing to spend the rest of her life with a Christian professional athlete who truly felt Jesus died for his sins, thus relieving him of any responsibility for his.

It wasn’t the religious parallels between my strict upbringing and the Islamic lifestyle that accounted for my childhood lessons laying the bricks in my path toward Islam. If anything, these parallels would have turned me away, for I longed for reprieve from an upbringing in which I felt I could, rightfully, do nothing. It was the purity of faith, the singleness of truth, the embracing of God’s religion in the purest sense that opened my eyes, and heart, to Islam. Only then was I willing to submit, to fully embrace the lifestyle that I would have in youth viewed restrictive and suffocating. My only mistake, in retrospect, was in not taking it one step at a time, and not taking a breath between steps to examine, truly determine, whether or not the principles I was embracing, whether the choices I was making, or being encouraged or directed to make, were really a requirement of the God of my new faith.

When I look back on my life, I can find nothing to indicate that I was to stray from my parents’ faith, from my Christian past. I had, for all intents and purposes, a normal childhood and youth. If anything, my life suggested that I would tread in my parents’ footsteps.

My greatest joy in childhood was visiting or, more often, accepting a visit from my cousin, my neighbor, and my neighbor’s good friend. Ironically, they were all boys. I had no female friends aside from the marginal friendships I’d formed at school; no girls my age were members of my father’s church, not counting the ones who came once or twice a month at the behests, or pleas, of their devoted parents. My sisters had already decided, before I was yet twelve, that I was out of their league, or rather beneath theirs, mostly due to my insistence on siding with my parents, particularly my father. I, in sincere ignorance of their turmoil and concern, didn’t understand that there were any battles to be fought, let alone sides to take, in the disagreements we had with my father and mother, or, more specifically, my father’s church.

You need to wake up, Courtney would say with a roll of her eyes.

In my mind’s eye I see her then as I see her today, which is odd because we are both older now, and my image of her through a child’s eyes is much fonder than the one I am burdened with today. Although, I cannot say I was ever enamored by her completely. Yet these two opposing images have somehow converged, allowing me to envision her in a kinder, gentler and in perhaps a more forgiving eye, than my current sentiments compel me.

As I hear her oft-repeated command to wake up echoing in my head, I see her deep brown skin, her dark luminescent eyes, outlined in full eyelashes and crowned with thick eyebrows that fade into each other rather than bear being completely separated. Her hair is straight, almost to a fault, because she spent hours with the cast iron hot comb wrestling its massive thickness until the tight, obstinate curls submitted to a plainness that allowed her hair to brush the collar of her shirt and resemble the photos of the Dark and Lovely models on the hair relaxer boxes.

Wakefulness, my dear sister, I would respond with exaggerated boredom in her limited, erred vocabulary, "is the opposite of a lack of consciousness that the human body experiences in a state of slumber, often termed sleep. And unless this is a dream that only feels like reality, I don’t think there’s any need for me to wake up."

Because I was more into reading than watching television or listening to her forbidden music cassettes that she kept stashed in a jagged groove she cut into her mattress, I could get away with taking her words literally and feigning incomprehension. She really imagined I understood no subtleties of language, no inappropriate innuendoes that she and my oldest sister exchanged, nor any reality outside my father’s church and my stacks of theoretical, book knowledge.

Renee, Patricia would snap, abruptly turning her attention to me from the mirror in which she was carefully applying mascara, shut up.

I have often found it odd that Patricia would become the model. As a child, I never thought her beautiful, or attractive even. There were moments that I actually felt sorry for her, for her blandness. She looked too commonplace, too ordinary to earn any admiration in my heart for her physical attributes. Of course, I wasn’t yet a devoted student of the world, the instructor who would soon enough teach me that my eyes had lied—that Patricia’s pale skin was not sickly, that her tall, lankly shapelessness was not at all unpalatable or a cause for sympathy. That, in fact, it was my and Courtney’s disproportionate body measurements and rich brown skin that should be pitied, although neither of us were unhealthy or overweight.

Occasionally, when I’m in the shopping market and pass a magazine bearing Patricia’s image or catch a glimpse of her on a friend’s television, I study the person I once thought of as my sister and am enveloped by sadness at what I see. My eyes and mind are now trained to at least comprehend, if not accept, that Patricia’s light skin and long hair are, to many, tokens of beauty on Americans of African descent. But it is not what my eye beholds that inspires a sense of melancholy—I have long since developed an appreciation, if not pride, for beauty that is not limited or defined by the corporeal attributes of human flesh. It is what my heart beholds is beyond the deep brown of her eyes, beyond the skimpy fashions clinging to her anorexic torso and hips, that troubles me to near despondence. I am then overwhelmed in my own regret, and waning hope.

I know, perhaps too well, that her professed dedication to sectarian spirituality is a hypnotism she subjected herself to, to avoid the agonizing reality she would face if she were to truly submit to the guidance of her savior. I so ardently wish that I could tell her that the agony is brief, a stinging felt at only the moment of realization, lasting only as long as the heart procrastinates in facing its ultimate fate, and is lifted almost completely after formal submission.

Patricia knows, and actually had in one unguarded moment told me as such, that my path is the true path, the right path, the only one offering true salvation. And I know, although she has never told me directly, that it is my poor example in youth, and perhaps adulthood, that prevents her from proclaiming my truth—the truth—as the Truth.

I suppose I was too standoffish and self-absorbed, even before Islam graced my life, to afford me the gift of attracting others to what I would choose at any point in my life. Yet, it is my sincere prayer that she, as well as my parents, brothers, and Courtney, be guided in spite of me.

But I still search the annals of my past for what I could have done differently, and should do differently still.

In retrospect, I can see how they could have termed me standoffish and arrogant. But I was only defending myself. I was the youngest girl, only thirteen at the time of most of our exchanges, and I was tired of being treated like an afterthought in their familial connection to me. My brothers were still in diapers, at least one of them was, while the other was being potty trained. So they were of little benefit in my quest for acceptance or respect in the house.

Little did my sisters know, I didn’t like my parents’ rules any more than they, but I didn’t have the heart to betray my father or mother, at least not in anything conspicuous. If I were to be completely honest, there was a part of me that feared the God that Dad had told us about, warned us about and preached about on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, and I was terrified that if I did rebel, the divine vengeance of the All-Seeing would be unleashed when I least expected. So I resigned myself to the rebellion of mind and heart and, occasionally, the tongue whenever my neighbor or my cousin visited. I didn’t yet trust my neighbor’s good friend. Although I considered Reginald my best friend, and thus by extension that should mean I trusted his friends too, I could not bring myself to open up around William. It wasn’t until college that I could safely admit my prejudice, that it was because he was White.

Our diversions were innocent enough, and we found refuge from my sisters’ glares, sighs, and mutterings of how shameful it was that I was a tomboy by simply remaining out of their presence, or ignoring them altogether if their presence could not be avoided. The backyard, the front porch, or the smooth grains of the sidewalk or the black pavement of the street if my parents weren’t looking, these were my places of escape that I found with my friends.

We did nothing special. We couldn’t. That much they all, thankfully, understood. I didn’t have to tell them. They knew. I was a member of The Church. And that’s exactly what it was called. The Church.

This simplicity in terminology was most likely due to my father’s distaste for distinction in what should otherwise be implied in our pure Christian affiliation. Why Baptist church? Why Episcopalian? Why Methodist? Or worse, why Christian church or Church of Christ? Redundant, my father would say of the latter two. There was no church, no true house of worship, if it wasn’t Christian.

It was a silent agreement among us, a kindness born of empathy, that they, my friends, would never mention The Church if I didn’t bring it up first. To be truthful, they felt sorry for me, and I felt sorry for me. But I couldn’t admit it at the time. I was making the best of it, not the worst. I refused to moan and groan, mope and complain, or to be shamelessly contumacious like my sisters. For that, I sensed that my friends respected me, that they were amazed and impressed that I could be so brave, so righteous while the rest of the world enjoyed the spontaneous joys of youth. But I didn’t feel brave or righteous. I felt deprived, punished even, that I was born into such a bizarre family as to have a father inspired to further define the Christian-ness of my already loose, modest clothes that lacked even the suggestion of ostentation or style. It wasn’t until years later that I looked back with intense gratefulness that God had spared me the impetuous nature of my peers, and the restless, worldly manner of my sisters.

One day William broke the agreement. He was staring at me with one eye squinted and the other only slightly open, making his slightly open eye appear more transparent than blue, as he often did when the sun was bright and the sky cloudless and he could see me more clearly than he did on other days, or at least better than the days spent inside the house. I suppose my jeans that I was keeping tight around my waist with a yellow-head safety pin borrowed from Michael’s cloth diapers had inspired the forbidden inquiry. And I’m sure my oversized faded blue T-shirt didn’t help in tempering his curiosity. I’d found the clothes in the church donation box, and they were for boys, I already knew, but I also knew the ones made for my female, thirteen-year-old past-puberty body would not meet my father’s or mother’s approval. Everyone else, at least the girls at my school, was sporting mismatched socks and revealing pants and shirts color coordinated to match their footwear. My baggy jeans were my truce. At least people were still wearing blue jeans. Certainly they would never go out of style, even if my personal selection would never be in.

Why do you dress like that?

I felt my face grow hot and was suddenly conscious of the awkward bulge that the gathered jean material held together by the pin was causing at my abdomen beneath the flimsy cotton of my shirt. I crossed my arms loosely in front of me and let my arms slide down, hopefully inconspicuously, to hide the bulge as I sat cross-legged on the front lawn. William was still staring at me while lying on his side, his head propped up by his elbow on the grass and fist on his cheek.

I opened my mouth to speak, but Darnell came to my rescue.

Because she wants to. Everyone doesn’t like your style, Billy Bob.

It wasn’t true. I didn’t want to dress like this, but my tacit acceptance of my cousin’s response was less humiliating than the truth. I even giggled. He called Reggie’s friend Billy Bob only when William said something Darnell felt stupid, funny, or inappropriate. I sensed Darnell enjoyed humiliating William, most likely for the same reason I couldn’t bring myself to open up around him.

Beats what most of the girls are wearing these days, Reggie said.

I smiled at him. I knew he too was lying, but I appreciated his coming to my defense even if Michelle, his girlfriend, dressed in the same fitting jeans and mismatched socks that every other girl was wearing those days.

William sat up, this time squinting both of his eyes in the sun. I didn’t say anything was wrong with it. I just wanted to know why she dressed like that.

In all fairness, William had a right to his curiosity. He was the only one who went to the same school as I. He was in two of my classes, so he saw the peculiarity of my taste in fashion more often than my best friend or my cousin. William and I both were students at MSGT—the Magnet School for Gifted and Talented—a high school almost thirty minutes from our homes in the middle class neighborhood in which he, Reginald, and I lived. Even at school, among the freaks and nerds in one of Indianapolis’s most prestigious programs, I stood out in not being able to fit in even amongst them. Even the gifted and talented were up-to-date on what was in and what was not, and I couldn’t measure up.

William was accepted amongst them as if it were second nature, and for the most part we kept our distance from each other except for an almost imperceptible smile of obligatory acknowledgement he or I would offer if we were passing in the halls when he was not among friends, other members of the tennis or baseball team. The racial segregation didn’t help any. It was not a mandated segregation but a voluntary one, and no one questioned the logistics or ethics of it because it was only outside the classroom, that is if one dismissed the racial cliques in the seating selections themselves. My crowd, that is if I had found clothes and mannerisms to afford me one at all, would have been members of the basketball, track, or football (or flag football in the case of female students) teams. It was a silent agreement, much like that of my friends’ not mentioning The Church, that the Whites would occupy particular sports teams, and the Blacks others.

The only racially integrated activities were honors programs, basketball or football games, and graduations. Even our proms were separate. But this was, technically, circumstantial. There were two proms every year: the junior prom and the senior prom, and they were sponsored by two separate school clubs. The junior prom was sponsored by the Bible Club, mostly Black, and the senior prom was sponsored by the Chess Club, mostly White. But when it came down to it, the Blacks—juniors and seniors—went to the junior prom, and the Whites—juniors and seniors—went to the senior prom. At the time, I never questioned the how’s or why’s of this practice.

Naturally, the Blacks had stricter rules than the Whites: Whites could come to our games, but we knew we were not welcomed at theirs. The other races sort of became one or the other based on the racial makeup of their social circles. If you were Korean and friends with Blacks, you held an honorary Black status. If you were Korean and friends with Whites, your status was likewise White.

I fit into neither, my small group of marginal friends was only three: Raksha, an international exchange junior who happened to be the only Indian I knew at the school and the first Hindu I’d met in real life; Carolyn, a petite biracial freshman with two painfully apparent and unpopular traits: a stutter and severe acne; Martha, a White sophomore whose only transgressions I could discern were bifocal glasses and more freckles than pale skin. William and I both were sophomores too, like Martha, but because of my clothes, my affiliation with The Church (which I later concluded no one knew most likely), and my natural hair that my parents forbade me from perming, I enjoyed no perks, no seniority, in my position of being, if nothing else, not a freshman.

If I had gone to a normal school, like Reggie’s or Darnell’s, I would most likely still not have enjoyed any privileges. I would be two years younger than most of my classmates, and I wouldn’t be able to talk about my hair roots growing in, proof that it was time for me to get my hair permed yet again. Besides, I didn’t see any benefit of going to a normal school because neither my cousin nor best friend would be there. They were both in middle school although Reggie, an eighth grader, was one year my senior in age while Darnell, a seventh grader, was thirteen like me. William, ironically, was the elder of our group. He was fifteen. But he didn’t rub it in. I think he was so exhausted from distinguishing himself as part of the in-crowd at school that he was relieved to be himself when he was around us.

"Why do you dress like that?"

Exhausted from Darnell’s insistence on taking offense, William sighed and tugged at the blades of grass in my lawn before saying hesitantly the most unexpected comment. Congratulations on winning the algebra competition.

It took a second for me to realize he was talking to me. My love for math and all things academic was something else we never talked about, but it was not due to their empathy or feeling sorry for me but because neither Reggie nor Darnell knew this side of me.

My face grew warm.

Thanks. My voice was barely above a whisper, and I sensed my best friend and my cousin staring at me, seeing me with new eyes. Although I wished one of them would say something, they didn’t come to my rescue this time, I imagine, because they were just as taken aback by the comment as I was. But I was taken off guard because of who congratulated me, and they were taken off guard because of what he had congratulated me about. We all knew what school I went to, so it went without saying that my accomplishment was not insignificant.

That day in the front yard changed the current of my and Reginald’s friendship. He visited more, stared at me more, and asked me more about my school and the things I did there. He even seemed to like William more, as if his friend’s comment not only earned me admiration but William too.

One day, most likely because we were becoming better friends, I asked him outright why he was friends with a White boy. If I had known better, I would have waited until Darnell’s father had finished visiting my mother before I asked. But it was too late, and Darnell, as usual, took this opportunity to insult William, and a second after I had asked, I regretted my inquiry.

Because his father is a drunk and Reggie is Billy Bob’s personal lord and savior.

I winced. I didn’t like the way Darnell’s comment not only disparaged William’s honor but Jesus’ too.

Man, shut up. I could tell by the look in Reggie’s eyes that he was not joking. Something Darnell had said had really gotten under his skin. He picked up a stone that had somehow found its way onto the steps of my family’s back porch where we sat, and he threw it into the grass of the expansive backyard. I sensed he really wanted to throw it at my cousin. I wish you would go home or get a life.

I don’t know what you all upset about. It’s the truth. I think it’s better that Ray knows the truth about her boyfriend before she—

It happened so fast that I remembered only being knocked in the head by Reggie’s knee and seeing Darnell’s half smirk as his head scraped the wood of the banister and he braced himself for the fall onto the stone-lined garden next to where he had been sitting. When I realized what was happening, I shielded myself from their altercation and absentmindedly massaged the side of my head where Reggie had inadvertently hit me.

Darnell laughed, but I sensed the shock and nervousness in even that sound. Damn, man. You really love that loser, don’t you? Are you gay or something?

Go to hell.

Maybe I will.

Good riddance.

See you there. And if we’re lucky, Billy Bob will be there too. I don’t think Hell is segregated.

Spent from Darnell’s malicious determination, Reggie sat back on the step next to me, at that moment noticing his error. He seemed to forget about Darnell. His eyes widened slightly. Did I hurt you?

I shook my head and pretended not to feel the pain pulsating in my left temple, threatening to become a migraine. No, I’m okay.

Darnell! It was Uncle Marvin’s voice echoing through the screened door behind us. Inside I relaxed. I felt bad for wishing my cousin gone, but his presence reminded me that it was my fault that William’s family life had been disparaged.

A few minutes after Darnell had gone home, my mother appeared in the doorway, her long, thin, locks that hung from her head silhouetted in the light from the kitchen. Renee, it’s time to come inside. It’s dark out.

I knew what she really meant was that it was time for Reginald to go home. My heart sank. I was just beginning to enjoy our time together without my irritating cousin, which, of course, was most likely why my mother felt it was time to come in.

Reggie took the hint and gave me a reluctant wave before approaching with a slow run the fence that joined our yards and adeptly hopped over it in one movement as he held onto the top of the wire. I imagined Michelle was proud of him, seeing him run across their school’s football field during practice for the real games in which he enjoyed his status as running back and his nickname Missile. I wished I was able to perm my hair and wear stylish clothes. Then he wouldn’t be too ashamed to invite me to games, even as I knew I wouldn’t be able to go, at least not if my father or mother didn’t have a previous engagement.

Chapter Two

In all honesty, it is Darnell to whom I’m indebted for my interest in Islam. It was he who introduced me to the term while I was still preoccupied in my world of The Church and the Sunday school classes I taught to the children of members, the only children still young enough to appreciate my words and admire me for them, and naïve enough to be oblivious to the unpopularity of my father’s church and my weekly youth classes. My oldest student was ten years old.

I was fifteen and a senior in high school, the same school William and I had attended years before, and it was still winter break, two days after Christmas. It was too cold to go outside, at least to me it was. Reggie had stopped by earlier to ask if I wanted to join him and his friends in a snowball fight. I, who I suppose was always a bit pragmatic, decided that it was not judicious to join them. I figured, though not aloud, that it would take, at most, fifteen minutes before my fingers and toes would feel as if they weren’t mine and my boots would be filled with snow, making the matter worse. Then I’d have to trudge home alone in the cold because Reggie would be just getting started, and he and his friends would most likely be unable to resist the one smack of a good, packed snowball across my face as I walked away in cowardice of, of all things, the weather.

I was in a bad mood anyway. For Christmas my aunt, who was a successful beautician, had taken Courtney and Patricia to her home and given them perms. They were college students, Courtney a freshman at Howard University and Patricia a junior at Ball State, but they were still haunted by my parents’ rules, and despite their rebellious nature, they hadn’t dared to stray so far as to show up in the house with a permanent although they kept their hair meticulously straight from a hot comb at all times. This, the forbidding of permed hair, was really more a rule of my mother than my father. I knew that much because none of the women in The Church’s congregation followed it, and I’d never heard my father speak of it outside the home. Generally, if my father had a rule, it was a rule of The Church.

My mother was livid and my father nonchalant, which made my mother suspect that this was really his idea and not his sister’s. But I couldn’t care less about my mother’s anger. I was nursing my own. Why had Aunt Juanita singled them out? They didn’t deserve it. What had they done to earn such a priceless gift? If anything, their heads should be shaved for their relentless disobedience and disrespect of my parents.

They’re in college now, my father said, shooing his wife away as he tried to direct his attention back to the Bible he was reading to prepare for the after-Christmas sermon.

"But they are still our children. My children."

"They aren’t yours. And they’re not children."

We talked about this, and you agreed that—

"I didn’t agree, Wilma, I acquiesced." He had looked up from his Bible to say that, and I grew disgusted and started for my room. But the sound of the doorbell stopped me. I headed to the front door instead.

If that’s Juanita, my mother shouted, tell her we’re not home.

It wasn’t Juanita. It was my mother’s brother Marvin, his wife Marcella, and their son Darnell. In keeping with the Christmas spirit, I smiled. But I didn’t feel like being friendly.

"Thank God it’s not your family," my mother said as she went to greet the guests.

Uncle Marvin laughed as he unbuttoned his coat. What are you two arguing about this time?

Your brother-in-law has decided that God didn’t know what He was doing when He gave our daughters beautiful, African hair.

My uncle’s eyebrows rose. Disapproval was on his face although he wore a smile of cordiality. You’re kidding, right?

Instinctively, I looked at my aunt’s hair, and to my relief, at least for the sake of her comfort amid my mother’s comment although I wasn’t particularly in love with my African hair, I noticed the small braids pulled back into a bun, realizing at that moment that I’d never seen her with straight hair.

After removing his coat, Darnell pulled me by the elbow and led me to the kitchen. I sensed he had something urgent to tell me and I started to ask him when I noticed the bowtie on his neck. It was small and colorful and sat purposefully situated at the white collar of his button-up dress shirt. Thinking it was a joke of his, I started to laugh.

He ignored me. His face grew serious. You’re not going to do it, are you?

I furrowed my brows and stopped laughing to regard him curiously. What?

She’s joking, right?

I shook my head. What are you talking about?

Your mother. She said your father is allowing you and your sisters to straighten your hair.

I grew defensive. And what if he is? What I meant to say was, What’s it to you?

Don’t do it.

I decided against telling him that the decision had already been made for me. Why shouldn’t I? If my sisters can have a perm, why can’t I?

I felt myself growing upset as I thought of spending all my years in braids and a huge Afro puff at the back of my head when my mother was unable to braid my hair in time for school. I was tired of being laughed at, called Nappy Head, and listening to the taunting of the Black girls who would whisper, chant-like in my ear, You need to get your hair done. If I were honest, I didn’t mind my hair. In fact, there were moments that I loved it. But I did mind it creating an even greater barrier between me and normalcy at school.

Because you’re a goddess, Renee.

I grinned, enjoying his sense of humor in his attempt to flatter me.

I’m serious.

It took me a moment to see it. But he really wasn’t joking. Now I stared at him. Then I realized I must have heard him incorrectly.

You’re a goddess. A beautiful, Black African queen. Your hair is your honor, your crown. Don’t put the White man’s poison in it.

This time I withheld laughter. I had always thought Darnell a bit off, but this was over the top. Maybe he was the one addicted to intoxicants and not William’s father. Poison?

Yes, poison, Ray.

He sighed, deciding to take a rational approach. Think about it. When did Black people start straightening their hair?

I didn’t have an answer.

After slavery. After they were slaves of the White man. He didn’t just chain our bodies, he chained our minds.

Stunned that Darnell was actually taking his words seriously, I stared at him, seeing him for the first time. He had the beginnings of a mustache and beard and the brown of his face glowed the color of cashews, and I noticed in his dark eyes a profundity—a profoundness of knowledge and worldly awareness—that I hadn’t before. It was as if he’d matured overnight, even as the insanity of his words betrayed what I was sensing.

—in your father’s church for example.

At his reference to The Church, I felt my heart quicken and my defensiveness grew thick and tight in my chest. What about my father’s church?

Have you ever noticed, Ray? Look on the wall, in front of the church. What is there? What do you see?

I could hardly think to answer his question because I was so offended that he had asked it. What do you mean, what’s there?

Think, Ray. It was as if I were the one losing my mind, not him, and for a moment I felt as if I were. His eyes were so concerned, so intense that I wondered if I had in fact done something wholly inappropriate to warrant such heart-felt directives to use my mental faculties.

"Think about what?"

Your church. At the last word, he lowered his voice, as if suddenly aware that my parents were in the living room, within earshot, as if it were a bad word and we were exchanging a secret at their expense.

There’s nothing to think about. I intentionally raised my voice to let him know where my loyalties lay. If I wouldn’t side against The Church for my own blood sisters’ pleasure, I most certainly wasn’t doing if for a thoughtless, cruel person like Darnell. In retrospect, I know I had judged him harshly, holding him accountable for the sins of that day on the back porch and sullying with it his image in the present. But I didn’t know that I was being unjust, nor would I have cared, because I hated him for upsetting Reggie and insulting William. And now he had the nerve to attack my father, the lifeblood of my family and religious affiliation.

There’s a lot to think about, Ray. Too much to go over now.

As if I’d asked him to teach me. I could have spit on him right then.

But it will behoove you to take one look at what’s on your church wall to see what I mean. Then maybe you won’t hate the beautiful, African skin and hair God has given you. Then maybe you’ll wake up.

His last words reminded me of Courtney’s and my offense was fierce. Who the hell do you think you are?

No, he said so calmly, with so much concern that I too calmed, even if just to marvel at his audacity in remaining level-headed when I was unable to. You are the one who needs to think about who you are. I already know who I am.

I laughed. Most likely because I didn’t know what else to do to repair my injured pride. And just who are you?

A Muslim.

I started to say something but stopped mid-sentence because he had used a word I did not know, and this startled me. The word sounded vaguely familiar as if I’d seen it in a book or heard it during a history lesson. The only images it conjured up were that of my former friend Raksha, but she had been Hindu.

A what? I was more curious than upset, momentarily forgetting our argument and what had angered me.

Muslim. He said it calmly, more reserved this time, as if he was spent from all the arguing and realized just then he was making my affliction worse instead of better. There was a long pause as he tried to gather his thoughts, as if there was a confession he was about to make.

Have you heard of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad?

No, I said, still a bit bemused.

The Nation of Islam?

I shook my head, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. Why was there a sense of sorrow in his eyes? What had I done to deserve so much pity?

He sighed and started to leave the kitchen. Wait here.


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