Best-selling author and poet Elizabeth Acevedo follows up on her acclaimed novels for young adults, including The poet X and Clap when you landwith Legacy: A Visual Poem, a small format picture book illustrated by Andrea Pippins. In the book, Acevedo highlights and celebrates the often-controversial topic of black hair through the lens of his Dominican identity. Acevedo spoke with TP on the very personal inspiration for Legacyher most famous poem, and why she no longer straightens her curly hair.
How did you decide to write about the experience of living with black hair in Legacy: A Visual Poem?
Legacy is an interesting poem because before it was conceptualized as a visual poem, it was the poem I wrote for my undergraduate honors thesis. It’s really in response to a real-life situation where one of my parent figures was talking about my hair and then talking about my relationship with my boyfriend at the time – now my husband – who is black American. It was a bit of this question of aesthetics, of what it means to lighten a race, of what it means to “advance” a family line. The name “Heritage” is a pun Hair but it is also about the internalized beliefs that people transmit without asking where they come from. What does self-love look like when people who look like you can’t love you?
How did you approach the answer to the question presented in the poem, “How do you untangle this wrecked story of hair?”
I was thinking about how you respond to a shipwreck story, a story that’s detached from so many things. There are so many things you don’t know. I think it goes back to the ancestors. How do you celebrate even when you don’t know people’s names? How do you like them even if you don’t know what they looked like or what they would have wanted for you? This is why much of the poem revolves around “what would people have wanted for us, for future generations?” The cultural beliefs we destroy and the cultural beliefs we recover. So this answer of a shipwreck story and what it’s like to be stranded, the play on these words is how do you reconnect? I may never know my great-great-grandmother’s name, but it’s a way of trying to reconnect.
Although Legacy: A Visual Poem black hair, the banal though controversial terms “good hair” and “bad hair” do not appear. What motivated this decision?
I think there’s already so much guilt and blame around the way people dress that we create such a morality about it. We have this phrase in Spanish, “pelo malo,” that we use so colloquially that people don’t even think of it. For me, the questions were so much deeper. They ask, if you marry this person, what will your children be like? What kind of hair will they have? It’s not just good or bad, we tell ourselves that there are hairs that will be more respected in the world, that it will allow them to have a cultural currency. I have no qualms about how people decide to style their hair. But on a societal level and especially when I proposed this poem and thought of the Crown Act [a law prohibiting discrimination in public schools and the workplace on the basis of natural hair styles and textures], it’s not just good or bad. It’s literally politicized to a level where some people can’t get an education because they walk into a class with pigtails, can’t get a job because they have locs. It is even much more insidious than this simple moral enterprise of good or evil. It is literally legal or illegal. It sounded like this much larger question.
Are the themes of self-love and hair acceptance explored in Legacy reflecting the lessons you must have learned growing up as a Dominican woman of African descent?
I’m from the Dominican Republic, which is 80% of African descent. I used to have my hair straightened once a week. I’ve played basketball all my life, basketball in high school and college. I had to get my hair straightened, sweat my hair out and have it straightened again. Deplorable financial investment. It was the idea of what was considered elegant, beautiful and presentable. It didn’t always go well. I loved my curls, but I also really liked straight hair. I felt really beautiful with straight hair. I reached a certain point where I had written the poem, and I was still actively straightening my hair when I was going to “big events,” and there was a dissonance that I carried in my body between what I was trying to explore in the poem about love and ancestry and this belief that “I’m more beautiful when my hair is straight.” I stopped straightening my hair, honestly, because of this poem. I haven’t touched a hot iron to my hair, or rollers or anything, in almost a decade because I want to accept who I am. The poem is powerful in terms of what it offered the world, but it was also powerful in terms of what I had to deal with about myself.
Legacy: A Visual Poem by Elizabeth Acevedo, ill. by Andrea Pipins. Quill Tree, $16.99 May 3 ISBN 978-0-06-293194-8