Updated: Sep 14, 2022
By Amaris Castillo
In 2009, Elizabeth Acevedo wrote a poem about hair as part of her honors thesis. In it, the New York-born dominicana confronted perceptions of Black hair and Afro-Latinidad. She wrote of being told to “fix” her hair.
“But how do you fix this ship-wrecked history of hair?” Acevedo famously asked. “The true meaning of stranded.”
A few years later, Acevedo’s performance of her poem went viral online. The award-winning slam poet would go on to become the published author of several books, including the debut novel-in-verse The Poet X and, most recently, Clap When You Land.
More than a decade since first penning the poem, Acevedo has revisited and revised it. The aim, this time, was to prepare it to live in a different format that could be shared with readers. Stockholm-based artist Andrea Pippins took the poet/novelist’s revised text and made illustrations for it. The culmination of work by both Acevedo and Pippins make up INHERITANCE: A Visual Poem, out on May 3.
The book is small and compact, but carries with it Acevedo’s prowess on the page. Pippins’ full-color illustrations pop and bring an added layer of richness to the poem’s message.
Ahead of her visual poem’s release, we reached out to Acevedo via email with some questions. She shared what it’s like to see one of her most famous works in a tangible form, on the growing movement to rock natural hair in the Dominican community, and more.
Congratulations on INHERITANCE: A Visual Poem! How does it feel to see your work be shaped in this way and become something tangible that readers can leaf through?
It’s been an incredible feeling to think of this poem becoming something material that can be held in people’s hands. I think it's definitely one of my most beloved poems, and it feels like a wonderful offering for the readers who were first introduced to my work through this piece.
It’s hard to believe that you wrote this poem about your hair over a decade ago. When you announced on Instagram that this viral poem would be illustrated and published as INHERITANCE: A Visual Poem, you said you wanted to offer this writing to be shared intergenerationally. What brought you to that decision?
I think this poem was one I wrote for myself in a time of rage; it’s been amazing over the past decade to hear how it resonates with other folks who have struggled to learn self-acceptance and self-love from their parents and communities. What I’ve learned after all this time is that many of those early audiences have grown up with me and are now adults who have arrived at varying stages of honoring their bodies and histories and they are looking for ways to pass down that knowledge to new generations. In that way, INHERITANCE is for all of us who have raised ourselves towards love these last dozen years and now have nieces and daughters and little sisters we want to encourage on the journey by reading with them and to them.
Your poem touches on anti-Blackness in the Dominican community and how it manifests in how we wear our hair. What are your thoughts on the growing movement to rock natural hair?
I love it! It's been such a joy to watch folks embracing negritude and being proud of our ancestry and not only the lineages which we've been told we should align. And I love that folks who are still rocking their hair straight are doing it out of joy and wanting to be playful, but they know their natural kinks and curls hold a place of beauty and love.
On Oprah Daily, you mentioned that you rewrote your poem to meet this moment we’re in and that this poem is an homage, in part, to the CROWN Act, which is a bill preventing the discrimination of individuals based on hair texture and style. Why was it important for you to do that?
I think I’ve realized that the conversation around natural hair isn’t only a personal conversation, but very much a political one. And although a lot has happened in the last twelve years to make this poem feel like advancement has happened, the necessity of the CROWN Act shows us the ways we still have a long way to go.
I know sometimes our relationship with what we create – whether it’s a painting, short story, or book – changes, especially as time marches on. What is your relationship with your poem now?
I think INHERITANCE is a dope revision that allowed me to open up the poem to more closely meet me where I am today.
The illustrations by Andrea Pippins are beautiful and so creative in depicting your words. Is it what you envisioned?
Andrea really found a way into my words and added her own gorgeous spin to it. There are so many spreads I would love to print and frame because her art captures what my textual imagery was trying to celebrate.
Would you mind sharing what your favorite illustration is from INHERITANCE, and why?
There are so many! I love the little girl drinking morir soñando. And I love the image of the woman who has a glowing halo behind her head and if sainted in the sun.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Acevedo is the New York Times-bestselling author of The Poet X, which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the Michael L. Printz Award, the Pura Belpré Award, the Carnegie medal, the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, and the Walter Award. She is also the author of With the Fire on High—which was named a best book of the year by the New York Public Library, NPR, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal—and Clap When You Land, which was a Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor book and a Kirkus finalist.
She holds a BA in Performing Arts from The George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. Acevedo has been a fellow of Cave Canem, Cantomundo, and a participant in the Callaloo Writer’s Workshops. She is a National Poetry Slam Champion, and resides in Washington, DC with her love.
Amaris Castillo is a journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Lowell Sun, the Bradenton Herald, Remezcla, Latina Magazine, Parents Latina Magazine, and elsewhere. Her creative writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, and is forthcoming in Quislaona: A Fantasy Anthology. One of her short stories, “The Moon and the Sun,” was longlisted for the 2021 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival.
Amaris lives in Florida with her family. You can follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo and read her stories from the colmado at bodegastories.com.