the flog

Code-Switching and Homecoming

Writer Nikesha Elise Williams reflects on Erin Kendrick’s "Her Own Things"

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Yellow House is jumping.

That was my first thought as I walked up to the brightly painted art gallery on King Street. A DJ banged Erykah Badu and Souls of Mischief from the speaker and a barbecue food truck was parked in front. Across the gravel lot, a small table manned by a cheerful woman was set up for guests to sign in and grab a beverage.

The block party-like atmosphere outside was only a small taste of the sublime feeling that would subsume me inside. The first thing I saw, in the living room of Yellow House, were Erin Kendrick’s own words preparing me for her art. The show, aptly titled Her Own Things, is the transformation of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. The work has lived as a book, a play, a movie and now as seven large portraits embodying the women of the story.

I read Erin’s words about the process to bring her work to life, and then I followed the trail of gray-painted wood hallways into the dining room where the majority of the portraits are displayed. The first one I see is Brown. It is my favorite; a girl/woman with pigtails sticking out from the side of her head. It reminds me of my childhood when my mother used to sit me between her legs and painstakingly part my thick hair down the middle to tame into two ponytails. For me, Brown is the essence of every black girl’s beginning. The hair, the soulful eyes, the slightly flared nose, and the lips pursed and smooshed to one side. Brown is the defiance of black womanhood before we learn how to code switch and make ourselves more accommodating to the world.

A world that would inevitably ask us, “Why do you look so mean?” if we allowed ourselves to be like Brown.

The next portrait I see is Yellow, the centerpiece of the show, and then Blue. Blue, I would later learn, is the artist’s favorite. I love it because of the striking, yellow/blonde bantu knots that adorn this woman’s head like a crown. It is the perfect juxtaposition to her dark skin. Skin that makes me think of her ancestry. Blue is from the delta where the earth, black as mud, gets on the skin and nearly blends in. Blue has seen some things in her life. Her hair is her halo and crown, her armor and protection. I am immediately reminded of Shange’s poem Sorry.

“one thing I don’t need
is any more apologies
i got sorry greetin’ me at my front door
you can keep yrs”

Blue is unapologetic as she stares from the wall, daring you to feel sorry for her when she doesn’t even feel sorry for herself.

The third piece that struck me in my soul is Red, with her oval face, chiseled cheekbones, and hair coiffed close to the scalp. I looked at her and for some reason I thought, “This is the real Aunt Jemima.” Gone are the pancake box and wholesome smile. Gone is her red-and-white checkered scarf. Before me was the real woman Aunt Jemima probably was. Hair braided down on the sides, edges laid on her forehead, one eyebrow raised to question the false motives of others. Red is pensive. But I suspect, beneath the layer of black woman bravado is a smile. Maybe not a smile as big as the unabridged joy of Orange, but beneath the pursed purple lips I know are the makings of happiness.

The last portrait in the showing is Green. If Blue is the river of worry and the ocean of struggle our ancestors endured for a modicum of equality, then Green is the freedom of the future. Green’s high-top, blue-black fade, wrapped in kente and adorned with a golden jewel, is a crown. She looks like what I would envision to be a modern-day Hatshepsut. Pure unabashed, unashamed royalty. Green is the personification of the exhibition’s tagline: “Survival is a rebellious act.” Green is more than a survivor. She has thrived and she has done it on her own and with her own things.

I walked through the exhibition twice. Once to see, and a second time to absorb. It was on my second walk-through that I stopped Erin and asked her to describe what she’s created in one word.

She said, “Homecoming.”

It most certainly is.

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