Once, a former co-worker of mine stopped me in the middle of working, calling my name. I turned to him, with no malice or annoyance, planting my hands on my hips, eyes wide, preparing either for work-related rumors, or a request for assistance. His eyes spread wider than my own.
“Oh, what’s this?” Placing his hands on his hips, he mocked me. He found my gesture funny, yet questioned if I was upset. No one had ever alerted me to how I touch my hips often and that I look “upset” while committing such an act. I was embarrassed, actually. I am embarrassed that I was embarrassed.
I had to repeat several times that I wasn’t “upset.” My hands on my hips—it’s what I do, have always done. It’s as comforting as clutching a pillow at nighttime. It’s natural, like scratching an itchy elbow. It’s hereditary—I could not explain all of this. Had my coworker been white, I would have worried myself to sleep, hoping he or she wasn’t alerting the rest of our team to my hips: “Christian was really upset, today. She put her hands on her hips!”
It would add to the list my mostly Caucasian department had been building on my behalf for the past four years:
Christian was being “ghetto.” (What does that even mean?)
Christian was acting like “She-nae-nae on Martin.” (Wow.)
Christian seemed “so upset.” (Because I voiced my opinion?)
But this guy was from Ethiopia, so I assumed he would not take offense to my hands and hips. I assumed that the women of Ethiopia have hips that their hands embrace. My co-worker was the only other Black face I’d see in an eight-hour stretch, five days a week, until I stepped out again into daylight, into a diverse downtown where differences range from TARC rider to motorized scooter occupant, from first-year medical student to three-year homeless wanderer, and from Nepalese researcher to brown-black American boys, earbuds delivering them a bit of joy musically. On occasion, a Black maintenance worker would have to fix a lock on one of the doors in our work area. I would be extra gracious to him, just because he, too, was on a lonely island.
My co-worker only wanted to talk religion again. Christianity is the largest religion in Ethiopia. He forgot about my hands and my hips and we debated homosexuality. He blamed demons and I made a bug-eyed face, almost laughing, which instantly offended his beliefs. I didn’t mean to offend him, the only other Black body in our work space. I just hadn’t heard that one before. Demons, huh?
My aunt lives in Midtown, a few blocks from the Memphis Zoo and the Orange Mound neighborhood, which was once the site of a plantation. Post-slavery, Orange Mound evolved into a Harlem-like community of Black pride and Black success.
While I was studying at Murray State University, I overheard some white students—fellow Memphians—call Orange Mound a “ghetto.” Perhaps they’d seen the parade of mug shots and crime scene tape on the Memphis news, while safe and snug in their suburban neighborhoods. Anyway, I changed my mind about turning around to tell them “hi” and “I’m from Memphis, too.” No, we were not from the same Memphis.
When I was maybe eight years old, my family was gathered at my aunt’s house. My eighty-something great-grandmother Mary was seated at the center of the house, in the living room, her eyes on us all.
We called her Big Mama, before Martin Lawrence’s slapstick, Black man-in-a-dress comedy. It was before Soul Food, before I was disappointed to find that our Big Mama wasn’t unique to the notion of the “Black family.” We were just a pinch of Big Mama’s great trove of descendants. She, herself, had nine children. The white hairs on her head sent waves through my blood, even then, as I imagined my hair being white, too, one day. (I’ll be an ancient goddess, with snowy hair, nappy and soft.) Music came on, and while the rest of us went on joyously talking, catching-up, running around, eating, and laughing, Henrietta started swaying her hips.
Henrietta is my father’s mother. She birthed seven children total, only two boys. To see her dance sent waves of giggles over her grandbabies, including me. She knew we’d laugh. She laughed, too. Then out of the center of the house, a voice trembled, “Stop that twisting like that.”
The music was too loud for Granny to hear her eighty-something-year-old mother fussing at her. There in that house, the eldest and most revered woman in my life was chastising my own grandmother, a woman who has now taken her place.
Granny stopped dancing on her own accord, unaware of Big Mama’s frowning upon her sultry gesture. Granny stopped to talk to someone—I can’t remember who. But I do remember wondering if anyone else had taken note of the moment. Chills.
The illum. The ischium. The pubis. Before a girl reaches puberty, these three parts are separate anatomical pieces. During puberty, her hips begin to spread. The idea the body has in mind is childbirth. The birth canal must be suitable for an infant’s skull to navigate through safely. Then one day, the illium, ischium, and pubis become one. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a theory about this hormone-driven phenomenon, stating that “estrogen levels signal different needs from the pelvis.” As puberty beckons, more estrogen is in demand. The hips spread like the wings of a hawk soaring above her nest of white gems. The body curves and curves until it belongs to a woman.
In “homage to my hips,” Clifton writes:
…these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them to put a spell on a man
and spin him like a top!
Clifton embraces the parts of her that she has no control over. Has any woman ever stopped her hips from spreading, the fat around them from thickening? They do what they want. They don’t care if she is a girl at twelve or a woman at sixty-two. They can make a little girl appear to be a woman before she is ready, her innocence quickly forgotten, or ignored by her observers. Hips can ache and irk older women so, they submit to a doctor’s suggestion of hip replacement. Hips do what they want. Embrace them now, lose them later.
Narcissus is my mother’s mother. I was still pregnant with my daughter in 2010, due to deliver that Fall, when my husband and I visited Memphis. I was well into showing and my hormones had finally decided to let up and release me from daily vomiting. I could, at last, eat anything I wanted. The exception was of course shellfish, sushi, and unprocessed dairy, ironically all of which I craved all nine months.
I stuffed my belly with my grandma’s mixture of turnip and mustard greens, grown in her backyard. Her yard sat adjacent to a backyard of rottweilers we assumed belonged to a paranoid dope boy. The funk of the greens soothed my hypersensitive nostrils, which loathed the overly scented hand-soap at work and all things lemon. The bitterness intoxicated my tongue. The green olive-toned, salty juice was as refreshing as water.
My grandmother stood in the corner of her South Memphis kitchen, staring at my walk from table, to pot of greens, and then back to table, examining me carefully. “She carrying that baby in her hips. You see her?”
My mother nodded.
Grandma was fifteen when she married an older man in Como, Mississippi. Soon after she started carrying babies in her hips and then on her hips. Her illium, ischium, and pubis may or may not have yet been fused; the age range of fusion varies. No matter. She was a woman, either way.
Once my uncle was on the brink of fighting with his best friend over beer, right in the middle of Ingle Avenue. Grandma Narcissus has a window in her kitchen, so from there she could see the men swinging their arms and knuckling-up. She heard their cussing. Grandma then came out onto her porch. “Y’all stop that right now!”
Like any good son would call his mother a “saint,” I’m obliged to defend my grandma’s reputation as a godly woman, generally. But that day, she told my grown, drunken uncle to get his “ass outta that street!”
I looked at my grandma from my perch at the corner of the porch, where I was a safe distance away from the chaos. I examined how her balled fists pressed into her hips, exhausted by life and the folks that life had long put upon her. My uncle and his best friend were laughing again within the hour.
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