For this poet, community, hair and self-worth are interwoven

Raych Jackson spent countless nights of her childhood sitting on Chicago porches with her friends’ hands in her hair — feeling the intimacy of touch and the pain as they pulled tight, hearing the sounds of gossip flying around her.

Her poem “A sestina for a black girl who does not know how to braid hair” grew out of the memory of those nights and Jackson’s efforts to document the world as it appeared to her younger self.

“Braiding was a big part of my childhood. … A lot of young girls wanted to practice on my head, and I was able to grow a community around that,” she said.

At the same time, “Braiding hair is a skill that I lack,” she said. “And so this poem is mourning that, and talking about not being able to do something that other people possess.”

Jackson began performing around age 7 as part of the children’s services at her church, where she would sing hymns and recite Bible verses. A few years later, her sixth-grade teacher asked her to read her writing in front of the class. It was the first time she had performed outside of church and an experience that galvanized her.

Now, Jackson composes her poems, in part, by improvising out loud, writing down the phrases that strike her and repeating them again in a flow of conversation between spoken word and the page.

This poem began as a “rant” in her Chicago apartment three years ago during one such session. As she spoke and wrote, Jackson noticed herself gravitating toward the same words over and over again — in particular “useful,” “value” and “harvest.” These would eventually become the basis for the poem as it took the shape of a sestina, a form that follows a strict rule of repetition — like the poetic translation of plaiting hair.

The idea of being “useful,” in particular, spoke to the vulnerability Jackson felt as she bonded with others by offering herself as practice. The poem delves into the combination of that tender connection with friends and family and her yearning to be independent of it, describing “all the things I endured to be useful” and how those feelings changed over time, she said.

The sestina’s repetitive structure also gave Jackson a framework for describing her transformation from the subject of derision — a person defined by what she lacks, who could draw a jeer like “Your hands have no more worth than tree stumps at harvest” — to someone with agency and value.

The beginning of the piece takes on the voices of others “who made fun of me,” she said, including their charge that being able to braid hair “Solidifies your place with your race, with your sisters.”

The poem evolves to reveal a more complex truth about her role in the community, she said.

“As I’m first starting off the poem, I’m talking about what I can’t do, what I can’t provide, a skill I don’t possess. It’s not until I realize, during the poem, that [I am] finally useful, is when talking about everyone putting their hands in my head. I do not possess the skill to properly or to intensely braid hair, but I can provide you a head to practice on.”

A sestina for a black girl who does not know how to braid hair

Your hands have no more worth than tree stumps at harvest.
Don’t sit on my porch while I make myself useful.
Braid secrets in scalps on summer days for my sisters.
Secure every strand of gossip with tight rubber bands of value.
What possessed you to ever grow your nails so long?
How can you have history without braids?

A black girl is happiest when rooted to the scalp are braids.
She dances with them whipping down her back like corn in winds of harvest.
Braiding forces our reunions to be like the shifts your mothers work, long.
I find that being surrounded by only your own is more useful.
Gives our mixed blood more value.
Solidifies your place with your race, with your sisters.

Your block is a layered cake of your sisters.
Force your lips quiet and sweet and they’ll speak when they need to practice braids.
Your hair length is the only part of you that holds value.
The tallest crop is worshipped at harvest.
So many little hands in your head. You are finally useful.
Your hair is yours, your hair is theirs, your hair is, for a black girl, long.

Tender-headed ass won’t last ’round here long.
Cut your nails and use your fists to protect yourself against your sisters.
Somehow mold those hands useful.
You hair won’t get pulled in fights if they are in braids.
Beat out the weak parts of the crops during harvest.
When they are limp and without soul they have value.

If you won’t braid or defend yourself what is your value?
Sitting on the porch until dark sweeps in needing to be invited, you’ll be needing long.
When the crop is already used what is its worth after harvest?
You’ll learn that you can’t ever trust those quick to call themselves your sisters.
They yearn for the gold that is your braids.
You hold on your shoulders a coveted item that is useful.

Your presence will someday become useful.
One day the rest of your body will stagger under the weight of its value.
Until then, sit in silence in the front with your scalp on fire from the braids.
I promise you won’t need anyone too long.
One day you will love yourself on your own, without the validation of sisters.
No longer a stump wailing for affection at harvest.

Rachel “Raych” Jackson is an educator, poet and playwright. She has competed on numerous national teams and individual competitions. She is the 2017 NUPIC Champion and a ‘17 Pink Door fellow. Her latest play, Double Date premiered in the 9th Annual One Minute Play Festival in June of 2018. Her work has been published by many—including Poetry Magazine, The Rumpus, and 29Rooms through Refinery29. She is working on her first collection of poems and proudly loves every episode of Bob’s Burgers.