Bestselling author and poet Elizabeth Acevedo follows up her acclaimed YA novels, including The Poet X and Clap When You Land, with Inheritance: A Visual Poem, a small-format picture book illustrated by Andrea Pippins. In the book, Acevedo spotlights and celebrates the often contentious subject of Black hair through the lens of her Dominican identity. Acevedo spoke with PW about the highly personal inspiration for Inheritance, her most well-known 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 Inheritance: A Visual Poem?
Inheritance is an interesting poem because prior to being conceptualized as a visual poem, it was the poem I wrote as my honors thesis in undergrad. It’s very much in response to a real situation where one of my parent figures was talking about my hair and then was talking about my relationship with my boyfriend at the time—now my husband—who is Black American. It was kind of this question of aesthetics, of what it means to lighten a race, what it means to “progress” a family lineage. The name “Inheritance” is a play on the word hair but it’s also about the internalized beliefs people pass down without interrogating where they come from. How does self-love look when the people who look like you cannot love you?
How did you approach answering the question presented in the poem, “How do you untangle this shipwrecked history of hair?”
I was thinking about how you respond to a shipwrecked history, a history that is untethered from so much. There’s so much you don’t know. I think it did go back to ancestors. How do you celebrate even when you don’t know people’s names? How do you love them even if you don’t know what they looked like or what they would have wanted for you? It’s why so much of the poem orients around “what would folks have wanted for us, for future generations?” The cultural beliefs we undo and the cultural beliefs we reclaim. So that answer of a shipwrecked history and what it is to be stranded, the play on those words, is how do you re-tether yourself? I may never know my great-great-grandmother’s name but this is a way to attempt to reconnect.
Although Inheritance: A Visual Poem centers Black hair, the commonplace albeit contentious designations “good hair” and “bad hair” don’t appear. What motivated this decision?
I think there’s already so much guilt and blame around how people style themselves that we create such a morality about it. We have that phrase in Spanish, “pelo malo,” that we use so colloquially people don’t even think about it. For me, the questions felt so much deeper. They ask, if you marry this person, what will your children look like? What kind of hair will they have? It’s not just good or bad, we are saying there is hair that will be more respected in the world, that it will allow them to have a cultural currency. I have no qualms with how individual people decide to style their individual hair. But at the societal level and especially when I proposed this poem and was thinking about 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 is literally politicized at a level where certain people cannot get an education because they walk into a class with braids, cannot get a job because they have locs. It’s a lot more insidious even than just this moral undertaking of good or bad. It’s literally legal or illegal. It felt like this much larger question.
Are the themes of self-love and acceptance regarding hair explored in Inheritance reflective of lessons you had to learn growing up as a Dominican woman with African ancestry?
I’m from the Dominican Republic which is like 80% Afro-descended. I used to get my hair straightened on a weekly basis. I’ve played basketball my whole life, high school basketball and college varsity. I had to get my hair straightened, would sweat my hair out and get it straightened again. Terrible financial investment. It was the idea of what was considered elegant, beautiful, and presentable. It didn’t always sit right. I liked 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 was still actively straightening my hair when I would go to “big events,” and there was dissonance that I was carrying in my body between what I was trying to explore in the poem about love and ancestry and this belief that “I am most 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 powerful in terms of what I had to face about myself as well.
Inheritance: A Visual Poem by Elizabeth Acevedo, illus. by Andrea Pippins. Quill Tree, $16.99 May 3 ISBN 978-0-06-293194-8