manifesto, by radhiyah ayobami

Writing for Peace Welcomes Guest Writer, Radhiyah Ayobami



Radhiyah Yemayatoday i heard a story that made me very happy. in fact, it actually made me feel joy. it was a story about a close sista-friend of mine. i have known her for about ten years. we met when our children went to the same cultural school (our friendship has outlived the school as well.)  i was in my early 20’s- she was about 30. i was transitioning into the cultural world, growing locs, and exploring different traditions. she had already been married to a community leader, and she eased me into her circle and her way of life. she introduced me to roots reggae dances and was the first person i met who blessed herb before smoking it. she took me to african spiritual events and explained the protocol; how to cleanse before entering, when to stand and when to kneel, how to give an offering and receive a blessing. wherever we went, folks cracked into wide smiles as soon as she was on the scene, she was forever being waved at across a crowded room, greeting other smiling people, and being enveloped by hugs.

as the years progressed, we went through the same initiations, starved through the same fasts and partied at the same events in long skirts and headwraps on a wednesday night and were late getting our kids to school in the morning. we piled our children and some other folks children in a half-working car and drove to all-night drum circles where they fell asleep under trees as we meditated by the fire, we survived on the same small handful of greens in a foreign country when it had rained too much and everybody was hungry, and when the sun came out we all washed up outside in broad daylight, everything jiggling, breasts that had nursed babies, waistbeads, and our locs heavy with water from the sea.

and then came the curves of life. we went to city offices and through housing systems, patching together the help we needed to move forward. we created resumes and got jobs that paid on the books and took out taxes. we transitioned out of our small communities and found that wearing extra long skirts and yards of cloth around our shoulders was sometimes not practical when working with small children or in various other settings. she was first to cut her locs and put on pants, and one day she came walking around the corner on fulton street with no headwrap, no multi-colored skirt swishing her ankles and no scent of sacred oil, and i walked right by her. she had a short afro, creased pants, and a folder full of resumes, and something about the outfit reminded me of the colorful birds i saw languishing in cages at the zoo. months later, when my son and i lived in a building that awakened us with five am fire alarms, she wrote me a letter that helped me transition out of that place and into an apartment where my porch was the entire roof and i could sit and watch the sky.


and then we went into the next decade of our lives, and i listened to her laugh become a little less loud as she watched friends and family marry and waltz across the dance floor in each other’s arms as she raised her children and drove to the occasional roots dance on her own. we began to talk about the beliefs and traditions that kept us bound to the idea of being honorable women. elders told us that we shouldn’t be out past nine o’clock. imams said we should be in by maghrib. at the drumming ceremonies, we couldn’t uncover our hair (even though it was hot by the fire, and the breeze through our locs would have been the greatest blessing.) in almost every tradition, we were lectured against smoking herb, and told to have husbands instead of lovers, so we wouldn’t damage our spirits. so me and my sista-friend began to have conversations. we began to wonder, under the skirts and scarves and rules and admonishments, where we could find the seed of joy. our communities and traditions had sustained and nurtured us, but now we were in a new cycle of life, and it was time for change. we talked and argued with each other, we fasted and went to steam baths and spiritual events and prayed and sat with our own thoughts. and then, we moved.

she broke the no lovers rule first, and invited me over for  tea so we could talk about it, and it was a conversation that lasted all night. it was winter when she broke that rule, and it was summer when i broke it, and i ended up writing a lot of poems. and we discovered some things. we discovered that another human being, particularly a partner, fixing a meal that you like or washing your hair or giving you advice on a complicated problem late at night even though they were tired or rubbing your foot deep enough to ease out the soreness of the day was just as holy as a drum ceremony or lighting an incense stick or the pouring of water- and maybe, even more holy than that. we discovered that the best rules to follow were the ones that brought our spirits balance and joy.

and after awhile, my sista-friend stayed in pants. she never went back into daily headwraps and long skirts- although she would wear them occasionally for events or if she felt like it. i stayed in long skirts and wraps because my womanself loved them, but sometimes wore jeans if i wanted to, and we never gave up dancing or late nights or wine or bud. we still prayed and chanted and burned and poured sacred water- but we carried no flags but our own.

and then today she called me, ashamed, because she was out on a date with a man that made her heart glow, and they had a little taste of wine and a little smoke, and they went to a roots party, and she ran into folks she knew, and there she was in a short skirt and a wild afro, kinda high, kinda drunk, with a strange and non-cultural man, and all the women were in there with headwraps up to the ceiling and skirts down to the floor. well, i fell out. i laughed and laughed. because at the age and stage that we’re in now, does it really matter? we are far enough into this journey that we know most things are between us and the creator. when i was living in the five am fire alarm place, i was plagued with headaches so bad that i walked around with tylenol tucked into every pocket, every bag, and even under my headwrap for emergencies. and her letter helped me get into a house where the birds would come sing at the windows in the mornings when the sky was still pink, and i didn’t have a bottle of tylenol in that whole house. and some of those women in those skirts would never do that for anyone else- some of them were devils. i know, because i wear long skirts and i’m a devil when i wanna be too.

and i wish my sista- friend a hundred dances in a hundred short skirts, if that’s what feeds her soul. and for the rest of us, i wish us permission to be unbound to whatever it is that binds us. sometimes i look at my life- i’m in an expensive grad school but got no money. i’m an older black woman in an mfa program, which is generally made up of students who are young, male and white. i’m fat but i do african dance and yoga and i love it, even when i’m the biggest person in the class, which is often. i moved across the country with a teenager, which everyone says is the worst time to move a child, and now he’s closer to the honor roll than he’s ever been. i’ve made a lot of mistakes, but my son and i have also had some great adventures. life has been our guide, our teacher and our protector. and as shaky as my progress is, i’m continuing on my journey to be fully unbound, fully engaged in the process of life instead of watching it drift by, and fully committed to living with joy.


i  give myself permission to:

honor my inner guidance

create my own family makeup

not explain or apologize for my choices

not explain, excuse or defend my size, culture or style of dress

treat my body kindly no matter what it looks like

tell my truth even when it’s uncomfortable

tell the stories of my ancestors

pursue all my passions

ask for and accept compensation for my talents

not be afraid or ashamed of mistakes

choose teachers by spirit and not external affiliations

walk away when i need to

humble myself only to the elements; water, sun, trees, land & sky

(& of course the creator)


and so it is!


radhiyah ayobami: brooklyn born by way of the south, telling stories of black womanhood, motherhood & folks in invisible spaces, believes word has the power to shift consciousness, writes & workshops with pregnant teens, inmates & elders, africana studies graduate of brooklyn college & mfa prose student at mills college in oakland, california, where she is working on a collection of nonfiction essays & the trees give her poems.


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