Breena Clarke, Novelist

The author of River, Cross My Heart, Clarke was raised by parents who believed that a neat appearance, good public deportment, and education were paramount for well-mannered, middle-class Negro girls. Much of the message was encoded in a torturous hair-straightening ritual that Clarke and her sisters endured. "We'd been bombarded with the idea that our hair in its natural state was not good," Clarke says. By the time she went to college in 1969, antiwar and black power ideologies were sweeping college campuses. As soon as her mother dropped her off, Clarke stepped into the shower and emerged with her first Afro, an official revolutionary.

Your hair is not politics. It is not about the war. It does not make you Angela Davis or Sonia Sanchez or Diana Sands. The Afro is only a hairstyle.

A whole lot of people are making the same mistake you are—wearing Afros and dashikis and thinking they're life issues. Brainy as you are, girl, you don't know that hair is just hair.

I tell you this because right now you are drawing invisible boundaries for yourself everywhere. You're creating a set of beliefs about yourself that are going to box you in. For example, now that you're wearing an Afro, you think you've crossed the Rubicon—your hair will have to be nappy until the day you die. Your brain is telling you that you can't be crossing the line.

There are other barriers you're erecting: You're spending a lot of energy getting out of your phys ed classes because you're either a sports type or a Shakespeare type, and you can't be crossing the line. Breena, you're cheating yourself. You're guaranteeing yourself a sedentary life. Worse, you won't know how strong and athletic your body is. You won't get to enjoy using it until you're 49 years old. That's too long to wait.

You may never get to send your soul into a song the way you secretly want to. Some people think there's a singer deep inside of you, but you don't believe it. The truth is you've never allowed yourself to find out what kind of voice you have because you're a writer, not a performer, and you can't be crossing the line.

Breena, honey, try more things. Learning to swim won't stop you from reading Shakespeare. Finding your voice won't stop you from writing novels. You should be cooking on all four burners.


Breena, 30 years later

Next: Singer/songwriter Trisha Yearwood on trusting yourself


Next Story