First Lines — ‘And the heart calls me …’
- Published: February 7, 2020
Who am I? No, really — who am I?
In the first poetry column of the new year, it seems fitting to offer a poem of growth and change. A poem of self-definition that is equally, and beautifully, a poem of yearning beyond self-definition. That yearning is always present, isn’t it?
Part of who we are is who we long to become.
Villager Khara Scott-Bey knows this better than most. A visual artist, therapist and writer, she works with young women and men at Wilberforce University, helping them overcome trauma and find and express the radiant selves that reside inside. Trained in art therapy, Khara uses poetry and other arts to help young people tap into — and externalize — a wisdom they might not feel they possess.
“It gives them something concrete,” she said of the act of creating a poem. “They can read back their own wisdom.”
And the same is true of Khara’s own work.
A Dayton native, Khara moved to Yellow Springs in 2015 from Oakland, Calif., where she counseled young women, helping them integrate difficult experiences and build self-esteem. That work led her to self-publish a book, “Learning to Grow Wings: Poetry and Art Celebrating the Beauty of Black Womanhood.” The book collects poems that Khara wrote first in her journal — these are poems of memory, and musing, and self-talk — and pairs them with her own lush watercolor paintings. One of these poems, “Life Ombré,” stands out to her as a source of guidance. “It’s the one that keeps teaching me,” she said. Because it’s a longer poem, I’m presenting the second half.
Life Ombré (an excerpt)
But even that didn’t seem quite right
There was a rainbow in me
It called to me
So I painted it
And then it happened
I became a spectrum
I was elated
And later the sun
Tapped me on the shoulder
And said there was more
And I said, “How can that be?”
“I am the spectrum, all color,” she said
“There are colors your eyes can’t even see”
And I shuddered with fear
“You are just beginning,” she said
And I grieve
And the heart calls me to continue
To shed these colors
This is a poem about colors, about the true colors that it takes courage to show. In the first half of the poem, not printed here, the speaker embraces her brownness — “the color / Of earth / Of tree bark and / my momma’s and grandmomma’s hands” — despite a culture that privileges whiteness. But then she feels called to go further: “There was a rainbow in me.” And then, as she explores that rainbow, she receives another call, from goddess Sun, to go even further: “There are colors your eyes can’t even see.”
The poem’s title uses the beautiful word ombré, from the French, which refers to a gradual shading of one color into another — typically from light to dark. Ombré has become a popular option for hair color: one color at the roots, another at the tips. The spectrum of visible light works this way, of course, with each color blending into the next. A rainbow may look like bands of distinct hues, but each transacts a slow transformation at the border.
Self-definition is complicated for everyone, according to Khara. For one thing, there’s always someone or something imposing a definition on us that doesn’t quite fit. That imposition may be relatively benign — or truly destructive. As an African American woman, Khara said she began exploring this question in her mid-20s: “How do you know yourself outside of systems of oppression?”
“Life Ombré” teaches a surprising truth about self-definition. To be most ourselves, we need to change — “To change, / To shed these colors.” There is grief in this, of course, as well as ecstasy. And there is faith and trust, especially at the outer edges of the rainbow, where the visible light of ourselves flows into the vast unseen.
*This column originally appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of the News. To read other First Lines poetry columns, visit the archive page here.