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Hey, family, save the date for the Moth Mainstage on Saturday, February 27, at 7:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. Join us and host Jonathan Ames for an evening of stories as five storytellers take the virtual stage and share a true personal tale from their life. Stories of glory and defeat, taunting fate, laughing in the face of danger and the moments that forever changed the course. Buy tickets now at the Moth again, virtual mainstage.
Welcome to The Moth podcast, I'm your host for this week, Jody Powell. This Black History Month episode, we're talking about a word one can describe as loaded beauty. We have two stories for you today. Both deal with some of the first interactions. Are storytellers had with beauty standards and the ramifications that had for them. It got me thinking about a moment from my own childhood. I entered my first pageant at nine years old when I was living in Jamaica.
It was never explicitly called a beauty pageant, although I'm sure that word was thrown in there somewhere. But it was never really that for me. I really had no idea what beauty even was at that point. The pageant for me was more like a talent show where you got to wear your casual shorts and sing the song you liked. And when I decided I wanted to do it, my whole community got involved. My mother was an English teacher at the local high school and the class helped me memorize my talent song.
And my brother took care of showing me how to walk in my patent leather. Mary Janes. The day of the show, they all showed up and watched me take home the big prize at the end of the night, and it really was a great feeling. The boys went hollering through the streets and woke my grandmother up to tell her the great news and I went home with my gifts as I unwrapped them. One by one, I discovered porcelain and plastic dolls with blond hair and blue eyes that looked nothing like me.
This moment in my life raised a lot of questions for me. The message wasn't explicit, but after working so hard on something and receiving these dolls as prizes, the message was clear and loud to me or to storytellers. This week reveal their own journeys in the world of beauty, images and statements or for storytellers. Kajiji camera Kajiji told the story at a virtual mock community showcase this past December. The theme of the night was Point of No Return.
Kajiji told this story from her living room. So while you might not hear the audience know that we were all cheering her on from home, here's Kajiji, live at The Moth.
The nurse walked in and handed me my daughter. She was wrapped tightly in those hospital blankets, you know, the one with the red and blue stripes.
I drew her near to me pretty close to my chest. I wanted to share my warmth with her. She was so small, yet so beautiful. I immediately looked for her fingers and I took my pinky and wrapped it around hers and I just held her. And then it hit me that I'm actually a mother, me of all people. I still have so much growing up to do. Can I take care of this being this gift that God has given me?
My daughter looked up at me and I saw how vulnerable she was in that moment, completely dependent on me, of all people. It got me thinking about my first vulnerable moment. It brought me to third grade in third grade. I was super nerdy. You can argue that maybe I still am. I loved rainbow colored sweaters and one party jobs and high water pants. I was definitely my flow. I love school. I love school because school brought me poetry brought me where is my third grade teacher first shared with me.
What were poetry in poems could bring you, you know, love in school. And you know, it was where I was most comfortable. It was where I felt that I could be my full self. And naturally, because of that, I was definitely a teacher. I love running errands for my teachers, just, you know, doing whatever they wanted, being in very good graces. It was a regular day and I was running another one of the errands for my teacher.
She asked me to deliver a stack of papers to a nearby teacher. A couple of doors down, I enter into the classroom and I hand over the stack of papers to MRG. The classroom is bustling because they're all talking. There is a big group of students in the back of the classroom seated on a rug. I am on my way out. I'm about to leave when suddenly I hear a girl shout across the room. She is so ugly.
And I just stood there in that moment and I felt her words creep into my skin and I froze. I don't really remember much of what happened. I just remember me leaving the classroom. I remember my walk back to my own class, the hallway. It was so lonely, so big. I felt so small, so alone. All I heard was ugly, repeating, repeating, repeating. The silence was deafening. There was nobody there to have to counter that.
Her words followed me. They followed me everywhere I went. When I looked into the mirror, when I wore my hijab, there were there. There was staring back at me. There were mocking me. They were laughing at me.
I believe they were true because I believed that if she had the audacity to yell out across the room and nobody said anything and she clearly was in the right years later, many, many years later, I still I still couldn't shake it. I would see her words pop up everywhere I went. But I decided that I needed to confront her. I needed to face her on head on. I needed to confront her. And the only way that I knew how and that was through poetry.
That was through words. And so I am on stage. I am in front of an audience and there is a mirror in front of me. And I am performing my poem called Third Grade. And I say, let go, let go of the girl in third grade. Let go of the memories you don't like. Let go. If you don't love yourself, nobody else can. And in that moment it hit me that I am beautiful and I took my pen and I rewrote it.
Across the mirror and I crossed out her words and I put a period where I said, you are beautiful and it was OK if no one affirmed it, it was OK if no one said anything after that, that as long as I said it for myself, that's what mattered. I did it. I finally faced the girl in third grade many, many years away from the hospital, seeing my daughter and I have gotten older. But I still find every day to Tara.
She's beautiful. I tell her every morning, just the way I did the day she was born. I tell her she's beautiful because I want to fill her up with words, with beautiful words, so that if she ever had a third grade moment like mine, they won't cut so deeply. My daughter is three years old now.
She the sassy little one full of huge personality, and she loved to get dressed. She was beautiful African clothes. And, you know, I want her to stay that way. I love her for who she is. Occasionally, occasionally she'll get dressed and she'll come stand in front of me, my, me and my beautiful. And I'll scoop her up and I'll put her on my lap and I will put her head next to my chest and hold her just the way I did when she was born.
Even though she's bigger now and she tries to squirm away from me. I look for her pinky a little bit more bigger now and I put it next to mine and I hold it. And I look into her almond shaped eyes and I tell her, Mama, you are beautiful just the way you are. Thank you.
That was Kajiji, kumara Kajiji serves as the program manager of the Community Engagement and Youth Leadership Development at the Muslim Community Network. She's passionate about creating meaningful connections across different platforms, entities and people in her personal time. Kajiji loves writing poetry and giving back to her Gambian community by mentoring young West African Muslim women on their journey to college. And you will hear more from Kajiji herself at the end of this episode. Nailer Gilstrap is our second storyteller. Nyla told the story at a high school grandslam in collaboration with the mosque's Education Department.
The theme of the night was before and after.
Here's Nilaa Life at the mark. OK, so two summers ago, I was on my way to summer camp, and this wasn't going to be my first time, it's actually my sixth time, but it was the first time that I was coming late. So I had to get picked up from the airport, from a camp counselor. So I get directed into this white van and I'm there. And the counselor tells me that another kid is going to be joining us.
And I later find out that his name is Benny and that he is so cute. I immediately developed the biggest crush on him. He has this scruffy blond hair and he's cracking me up the whole ride there. And I don't know if I'm just laughing because what he's saying is funny or because I'm like trying to be flirty. But either way, I get to camp and immediately everyone knows that I have a crush on Benny. So inevitably, a couple of days later, he finds out, too, when my friend tells him and he responds, Oh, I'm not really interested or attracted to black girls.
So you can imagine what that would do to a 13 year old girl's confidence. I felt so ugly. I remember running into the mirror and looking at myself and seeing that the New Hampshire shot son had fried my curly hair and my skin had gotten so dark. And I thought that was beautiful, but I guess it wasn't. And I was just so confused. And like I said, I felt so ugly.
So last summer, I decided to take a leap of faith and go to Barcelona for a month on a Spanish immersion program. And my brother had done it before. So I knew a little bit about it. But he had gone with a friend and I wasn't going to be going with a friend. So I get there and I'm sitting in this place called Elma Parce, which is in the basement of the residency, and it's where everyone hangs out. So we're all just hanging out there.
And this one girl comes down the stairs. And I kind of recognized her from Instagram because she also goes to school in New York City and she introduces herself to me as Cossie. And then another girl who sits to my left, her name is Emmy and she's from Los Angeles. So the three of us just immediately become the Three Musketeers the whole summer. And Ms. White, she's from Los Angeles. And Cossy described herself to me as being black.
No cream, no sugar. So that's when I knew that we were going to be best friends. So we just went on these random adventures. So naturally, when we heard about this cliff in Barcelona where you can see the whole entire city, we were like, we have to go. So we travel an hour and a half bus ride and like, weird hike up to this cliff. And we're looking at of all on all of the city and it's so beautiful.
And these three guys walk up to us, one blond, one brunet in one redhead, and we later find out that they're Australian because of their accent. And they're all weirdly muscular. And we they they tell us that that's because they play rugby. So we're like Australian rugby league, so foreign. So cue like, oh my God, so cozy in the blond guy really hit it off.
He was the cutest. She was like doing her thing, flipping her hair. She's very outgoing and very gregarious. I mean, and we were just watching on like looking at the whole interaction in amazement. So he was like, oh, we should exchange Snapchat, let's hang out.
One day she was like, oh yeah, definitely we should.
So when we get back to the residency, we explain to Cossy the ground rules because we're 16. These guys are probably in their 20s. We're in a foreign country. They're strangers. So we were like when we meet him at the hostel a couple of days from now, we're going to be a couple blocks behind you the whole way, just like keeping an eye on you. So nothing goes wrong.
And she's like, OK, yeah, that sounds great. So the day arrives and we're at this guy's hostel and he comes down the elevator and he says a very polite hello to me and me. But really, he's just staring at Cossy the whole time. Somehow she already already has him wrapped around her fingers. So they're walking and the streets are super busy.
But I mean, I tell each other that as long as we look at her big poofy bun, we're going to be fine. So we're walking and we're staring at the bar and we're staring at the bun and the buns gone. And I turn to her and she knows the bun is gone because her face is bright red. And we don't even want to think about what the consequences of losing our sixteen year old friend with a twenty year old stranger in a foreign country in which we don't speak.
The language would be so we decided to just go back to the hostel and wait it out because cos knows that she needs to be back at ten thirty.
So thankfully she strolls in at ten thirty and the guy says a very polite goodbye to Emini again, but he's just staring at Cossy the whole time. They share a little kiss and he goes back upstairs and so we're waiting for the bus outside the hostel and Amy and I are just dying to hear the details of the date. How did it go. How did it go. And cos was like, OK, calm down, calm down. It went really great and you're like OK, well tell us a little bit more.
And she turned to us and said he called me beautiful and I was like, oh OK. What do you mean.
And she was like he looked at me and said I think everything about you is so beautiful. I think your hair is so beautiful. And he was like, oh that's so sweet. But she didn't get it because at this point, I'm on my knees in the middle of the street crying my eyes out, just bawling.
And I don't stop until I'm in bed at the residency. Because it wasn't that I needed a white guy to tell a black girl that she was beautiful to believe it, it was a fact that she thought nothing of it. Like, yeah, I know I am. And I'm always going to be black with a little bit of cream. And I was going to be rocking my own big poofy bun. And my perceived beauty isn't going to be despite my blackness is going to be because of all of me, which includes that.
That was Neela Gilstrap, nilaa is a high school senior in New York City. In her spare time, she enjoys hanging out with friends in Central Park and playing lacrosse in the future. Nyla hopes to write for The New Yorker, but is currently enjoying writing on her school newspaper. You can check out photos from Nilus Trip to Spain in the extras for the episode on our Web site, The Moth Mortgage Extras. After listening to both Nyla and Cage's stories, we were so curious about what these two incredible women might say to each other if given the chance to discuss their shared experiences.
So the three of us hopped on Zoome to talk about their stories, their conceptions of beauty and where they are now. Both Nailer and Kajiji stories had big time jumps in them from when they first began their journeys with beauty to where they left off. So we start our conversations at the beginning with their sense of self and the earliest thoughts about what it means to be beautiful. Here's Nayla to kick us off. I think for me, it was really young, like when I started to think about beauty just because, you know, I'm a black girl who goes to a predominantly white school and my mom, like in your story, you would always say, like, you're beautiful, you're beautiful.
And I was like, I don't know why she's like telling me this so much, but I think she knew consciously that I was getting opposite messages. So when I got to camp, I think hearing Benny say those words, I'm not interested in black girls just put a put a name to it. And I was it was like tangible now. And it wasn't just this little feeling that I had this inkling that I wasn't beautiful and I was able to identify it, which in a way I was like, thank you for just like putting it out there.
So now I can deal with it but another way and made it so much harder because I knew this wasn't in my head.
I mean, so much of what you said, Nilaa, like, definitely resonates and. You know, I think there's a question about what is beautiful, right, because even for me, like when I tell my daughter she's beautiful, sometimes I have to kind of stop myself and say, like, what? What do I really mean? You know, calling my daughter beautiful, like, I feel like similar to your mom. Like, I feel I have to do that.
And I think that's my duty. But I also think it's because I believe it. But then it's like what?
Minicomputer my sharing with her when I tell her that. Right. I think. I think there's always this, like, dynamic between mother and daughter. It's like you're my mom, you have to tell me that. But also, like every time she would tell me that, I'd counter with like, but nobody likes me or like. So it was it was very much me, like twisting what beauty is into beauty means being desired like that. And I think I had to realize that that wasn't what she meant.
Like if I did something that she was if I did something, I had nothing to do with appearance, like I gave a talk at school or something like that. And to be like, I'm so proud of you and like have a conversation with me about that, you tell me I'm beautiful, like mixed in that. And I think that's when I started noticing that she didn't just mean like my face. Obviously, she meant like what I did today or like how me helping people is beautiful in its own way and the fact that I care about my friends like she was she twisted the meaning a lot away from appearance until like like personality and things that you do and things that she was, like, proud of me for doing so.
And that helped to to create my own concept of beauty that. Really straight away from desirability and appearance, right, I think which I think that's a wonderful segue because I was about to ask, what is your concept of beauty like always the word beauty discussed around you. I'm really curious to hear what you think about that. You want to go for it. Kajiji. I mean, there's so much to pass through and to and to think about.
Because I do think for a long time, for myself, butI didn't mean being desired or being liked. And I remember like after this incident, good, I didn't really have a positive association with beauty until I started writing poetry and then people would call my poetry beautiful, the book of my God, that was so beautiful.
You have a way with words, but I think the little girl in me would be like, OK, you guys are always saying that I can do beautiful things, right? I can write beautiful poetry. Why can't I physically be beautiful as well? I think that's literally like my tension with beauty. Could you guys keep making beautiful bridges from one thing into the next? You just established one, which is where I'd like to go with you is on stage, right?
When you take us to the stage and we understand that there is a mirror that you're kind of looking in on an audience present when you tell that story for the first time they're in college. My question in particular is why did you think you had to kind of face that moment in that way? It was very public. It was very intentional. And I just yeah, I really am just curious about my relationship with poetry is I can memorialized words.
And so I knew that the only way I could kind of work through these complex feelings I've had about third grade and about beauty, I could have only worked through it in poetry. But I think the decision to go public. And to do it on stage, do it in front of a mirror, but because I have very private moments with the mirror, every day I'm in front of the mirror, I'm doing my job and getting ready to go out or whatever.
And so I notice that when when I was when I was in my private spaces, I would take selfies and maybe I'm going out with friends or I just got a new job. And I would like, like actually enjoy taking the selfie. I would enjoy taking the photo. OK, I look good. Right. And like we should say that to ourselves, but I can't do that in public. And I think it has to do with a very public way that I was kind of told I was ugly.
And so I felt like the only way I could kind of work through that is to affirm. To do what I do and with myself in my room to do that on stage and be OK with the silence that come back to that.
Wow, fantastic. Nilaa, you have anything to comment on? Anything you'd like to add to that? There's anything that you can relate to in what you just said. Yeah, I think also the way that you talk so publicly about this experience on stage made me think about the fact that black women believing that they are beautiful is like a protest in and of itself, like it is such an act of resistance, like you are actively fighting against the system and just simply believing that you are beautiful and believing that you have something to say.
And so you just performing that story was not I it wasn't just like something that you were doing for yourself. Like that was that was a protest, like a beautiful form of protest. That's just something that I think about often is like me taking care of myself and believing in myself and thinking that I'm beautiful is fighting against forces that are keeping us down actively while I'm giving Snapp's.
For all those that are wondering what I'm doing. I'm just I'm giving you all the love for that. And I think I'd like to close and asking if we're considering beauty to be redefined. Right. So it doesn't have to be mascara, lipstick here, nothing physical. You know, one thing that you do, something that makes you glow inside and out.
I think for me, I need to get back into writing, but I, I feel the most beautiful when I'm writing. I don't know.
It's a tough question, but I think I actually feel the most beautiful when I'm learning. Probably I have that glow I like I learn something new and I, I switch perspectives. I really, really appreciate this conversation. You know, we talk in the morning all the time about telling stories from your scars are not your wounds. That means you have a little bit of separation from the conversation and you're kind of like going in and kind of really you can really look at it from a place.
And I think, you know, these stories are beautiful, but they have so much hurt in them. And I think there's so much vulnerability in the stories that you've presented, but there's also so much light and there's so much kind of just like really think about I know that this is a continuous process. Right. So I just really, really want to thank you both for being on this journey with me. It's been very, very fulfilling.
You know, what you said to Jodi about like there being hurt in these stories, but there also being light. I think there's also an interesting take on beauty is like how how you can nurture that light and that glow like that we've been talking about and the how that kind of can coexist within these dark spaces. And I think black woman. They find those lies anywhere, right? And I don't know that for me that's as beautiful that there's hurt here and there, there's pain.
But we were still trying to find those, trying to find all those light moments. And I don't know, I think to be able to do that like that action. Right. Like you said, Nyabing protests and being asked, that's like the most beautiful part about being a black woman.
That was Neela Gilstrap and Kajiji Kamara, you can hear more of our interview on our website, The Moth Mortgage Extras. At the end of our conversation, you heard Kajiji and Nailer reveal what makes them glow inside and out for me and not from moisturizes sometimes does the trick for the outside, but on the inside, it's a pleasant brush with a complete stranger, maybe locking eyes on the train or striking up a conversation in the deli. No names are exchanged.
We barely know each other. And maybe our only commonalities, our affection for plantain chips, simply knowing that positivity and the potential for community exists out there in this big and sometimes unfriendly world fills me up. I want to thank Kajiji and Nyla for taking us on this journey. Their words inspire me to continue to push up against the erasure I see as a black woman in and outside of Black History Month, beauty remains a very complicated and emotional subject.
But when we come together to share our personal moments of hardship or triumph or rebellion with each other, we can start to redefine what it means for all of us. That's all for this week. From all of us here at The Moth. Have a story worth a week. Jody Powell is a producer on the Moth Mainstage and story slam teams, Jody also directs and teaches with our community and education teams. She says the spark that ignites her is that moment when a storyteller is center stage and you can feel the audience listening.
This episode of The Moth podcast was produced by me, Julia Purcell with Sarah Austin, Janis Sarah Jane Johnson and Jody Powell. Jodie also directed Kouji Kumara Story. In this episode, Nyla Gilstrap Grandslam story was directed by Julian Goldhagen. The Rest of the Moth leadership team includes Kathryn Burns, Sarah Habermann, Jennifer Hickson, Meg Bolls, Kate Tellers, Jennifer Bermingham, Marina Clucky, Suzanne Rust, Brandon Grant, Inga Gutowski and Aldy Kaza. Both stories are true, as remembered and affirmed by storytellers.
For more about our podcasts, information on pitching your own story and everything else, go to our website. The Moth Dog. The Moth podcast is presented by the Public Radio Exchange helping make radio more public at PUREX dot org.
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