Written by Cassie Wilson
Husnaa Hashim. Honey Sequence. Poems. 33pp. Free Library of Philadelphia; The Head & The Hand. $10. theheadandthehand.com
The first time I was asked to locate and identify “the lesbian girls of grade 12” I was 14 years old. I was dressed in dark blue Dickie shorts that read: I am conformed. I was dressed in a black V neck sweater with a label on the right that read: I am invisible. I was dressed in a white collared shirt up to my neck that read: I am only straight. I was 14 years old when I was asked to guide my English Literature teacher to the exact location of “the lesbian girls of grade 12” so that she could hand them a red-inked slip for the detention of loving a woman while being a woman. I guided her to the small gym structure in the front of the school where “the lesbian girls of grade 12” stood. She thanked me for my cooperation.
Three and a half months later my same English Literature teacher found me in the front of the school in the small gym structure where now “the lesbian girls of grade 9” stood. She handed me a red-inked slip for the detention of me, a girl, confessing my love for another girl. The same echoes of gratitude for my "cooperation" muffled around me as I stood before her. Being a Catholic and identifying as gay in a private school, a school devoted to shrinking the idea of individuality amongst the students, was challenging. My sexuality was constantly punished with red ink. Similarly, Husnaa Hashim illustrates her own struggle for the duality in her identity as a “Black-idiosyncratic-Muslim-girlchild” in her new chapbook, Honey Sequence out this month from The Head & The Hand press as part of the Free Library of Philadelphia project.
Husnaa Hashim is the former Youth Poet Laureate of Philadelphia. She is a student at the University of Pennsylvania and has been writing for over 8 years. She has placed 1st in the Free Library Teen Poetry Slam, received the American Voices Medal award, 4 Gold Keys, 6 Silver Keys, A National Gold Medal, and various Honorable Mentions from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. In her free time she finds joy in creating flower crowns and relaxing with her feline friend, Maya (Angelou) Luna.
In her poem "Identity", Hashim’s expresses the challenges she faces as a young, Black, Muslim, Woman. She writes:
I cannot escape the
veil on my head
Fabric I draped at the age of nine when I was taught to
wrap myself in expectation
She was taught from a young age to wrap herself in a Hijab, a veil used to cover the head, which represents in Islamic culture, female modesty in the presence of a male. Hashim feels trapped in the expectations set by her religion when she expresses "I cannot escape the veil on my head". She struggles with accepting this sacred tradition as apart of her identity as an individual or as apart of her religion and culture.
Reading this poem, I felt an immediate kinship. I was brought up Catholic all my life. I was enrolled in Catholic private schools. I was an active member of the church. I served as a rosary reader, lecturer, and altar server, yet, none of that seemed to matter because of my sexuality. In the Catholic religion, being gay is a sin. I believed in my Catholic faith, but I also knew I was a Lesbian. I grew up being gay, this was not a choice, but a part of the fabric of who I am. The expectations that my religion forced onto me was difficult to escape from, just as Hashim struggles to escape from the expectation set by her own religion.
Four months into my freshman year of High School, after being found in the small gym structure and punished with red ink for who I am as an individual, I transferred out of the Catholic school system. I became ashamed of my sexuality. The experiences with my English Literature teacher scalped my pride like knife against skin, shedding the "sins" my sexuality held in Catholicism. I used to proudly profess my lesbianism - but I became motionless, silent, stagnant. I allowed the identification of “straight” to course through my veins and out of my mouth. I began to lose myself before I began to become myself. Similarly, Hashim describes losing herself in the battle of being Black and being Muslim:
the coffee of my skin
bitterness of flesh when I
try to scratch pain away/
I do not know who I am
the longer I allow the sadness to sink in
the more I lose myself/
Hashim eloquently uses consonance throughout her poem with the "ssss" sound: "Skin" "Scratch" "Sadness" Sink". This emphasizes her attempts to "scratch pain away" as if she is trying to scratch away the "coffee" of her skin. She feels ashamed and embarrassed by the duality in her identity. Hashim cannot fit into a singular box of "Muslim" or "Black". Her sense of identity fades away as the sadness floods her body. She begins to lose herself as she is stigmatized into a specific label, none of them reading: “Black-idiosyncratic-Muslim-girlchild”.
Throughout her book, she teaches us that there is strength in dualities -- even in multiplicities. She ends her poem on an unapologetic note:
is staying in this body for a wasteful lifetime
The poems in Hashim's new book reveal a society operating like a cage that attempts to trap individuals into a specific box. Hashim's poems offer a counterpoint to society's racism, sexism, and homophobia. She uses these last three lines to make a statement about being the problem vs. fighting the problem. Being the problem is remaining stagnant, much like I did after I transferred from the Catholic school system, but fighting the problem is enacting change. It is not as she explains, "staying in this body for a wasteful lifetime", but using this lifetime to rise up against racism or sexism or homophobia.
It took me 2 and a half more years to begin proudly identifying as a lesbian again. I had remained motionless for too long - I was wasting my life pretending to wear the blue Dickie shorts, the black V neck sweater, and the white collared shirt. I became apart of the problem: apart of the homophobia and the discrimination that I myself had experienced. Then something inside me shifted - change, growth, the evolution of self. The more I encountered proud members of the LGBTQ community, the more confidence I gained. I learned to radically accept my sexuality, no matter what anybody else had to say about it. I remained Catholic throughout my entire high school education, I remained Catholic after I began proudly identifying as a lesbian again, and I am still Catholic now. The difference is that now I know I do not need a school or a church or a priest to affirm my faith.
I am a Catholic Lesbian proud of being a Woman who loves another Woman.
Hashim is a Black Muslim Woman proud of her religion and proud of her race.
I believe you -- we -- are enough, whatever we are, and wherever we are.
You can purchase Husnaa Hashim's book and read interviews and watch spoken word videos at her website:
Cassie Wilson is the Blog Editor for PCC's Inscape Blog: Instress. She is a current student at Pasadena City College and is majoring in English. She says: "Husnaa Hashim's poetry is important. It is raw and it is real. I found my own perspective in her work, but I want to emphasis the value of her poetry bringing awareness around identifying as a Black Muslim Woman in today's society."
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