Wanda by Sihle Nontshokweni and Mathabo Tlali, illustrated by Chantelle and Burgen Thorne, is on sale now. Order it here!
By Sihle Nontshokweni and Mathabo Tlali
The little ones are always watching.
Every day there is a transmission of stories that shape who we are.
Our lives are an unfolding story shaped daily by the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we are born into, the multiplicity of lives in our families
colliding with generational choices all shaped by structural inequities, shared
truths between siblings, warm memories from childhood with cousins, and belief
systems of what futures are possible.
As children, we absorb the lives of our guardians, the rules in our schools, and the codes on the playground. Here we learn what is permissible and socially correct, we inhale the invisible curriculum and with this awareness, we mold ourselves to fit. Recently whilst promoting World Read Aloud Day in South Africa, I received a message from my cousin which read: Thatu, my daughter, is boasting about you Sihle, after she saw you on TV she went and Googled you, downloaded your picture, and made it her phone screensaver. She says she is going to be a great lawyer and that she is going to Harvard one day. Reading this I realized—the kids, the little ones are always watching.
Layli Long In her poem “WHEREAS my eyes land on the shoreline” writes about an incident where her daughter trips whilst running into the kitchen. She falls, scrapes her knees, and bleeds, slowly at first. Layla looks at her daughter’s face, “a smile quivered her” and “she laughs nervously.” Layla, having always disliked the “act of laughing when hurt” thought her daughter smiling when she truly wanted to cry must be behavior she had adopted from her friends. To halt this, she gently responds: “stop, my girl. If you are hurting, cry… In our
home in our family, we are ourselves, real feelings. Be true.” As she says this, it strikes her that this quiver is familiar, the way it settles on her daughter’s face resembles her own. At this moment she recognizes that her daughter had been watching her. Reading this I hope you realize—the kids, the little ones are always watching.
In the book we see this idea illuminated when Wanda quickly figures that her natural hair at school will be called: “a bird’s nest.” Whilst standing in the class line she anxiously thinks: “I will get a black dot on my star chart. She will say it is a bird’s nest. She’s said this to other girls before!”To avoid this embarrassment Wanda commits to daily duty, the “BIG SWITCH.” Every day, she arrives at school early enough to alter the hairstyle her mother does every morning into a hairstyle that Mrs. Stone will see as: “neat and clean for a lady in green.”
In this scene with Mrs. Stone policing Black hair, it is easy to identify that there too exists a narrative that positions Black hair as less than right and normal. This cultural topography on hair informs the discriminatory discourse on what ‘professional’ hair looks like in the workplace today and the kind of policing we have witnessed in schools. This too is the power of intergenerational stories, that seeds of such beliefs are planted in the hearts of children, causing them to see themselves as inadequate. In her heart though, Wanda knows her hair is beautiful, but she is not courageous enough to challenge Mrs. Stone’s power.
The teasing from the boys on the bus to school has already left her feeling helpless and overwhelmed. Walking back home after this heavy day, she thinks: “maybe they are right, this hair is a crown, but maybe one made of thorns.”
She walks home, into the kitchen and is welcomed by the brightest smile and most wide-open arms. Arms ready to swallow all the sadness in her eight-year-old body. “Wanda, my queen,” her grandmother says. “I am not a queen, Makhulu,” Wanda wails. “I don’t want this hair.” “You are a queen, and your hair IS your crown,” Makhulu says gently.
At this moment where her little heart is filled with despair, Makhulu sits her down and takes out a scrapbook. To Wanda’s surprise, the first page is filled with pictures of beautiful women wearing hairstyles she has never seen before. She is mesmerized by the beauty and variety of these women’s hairstyles. “Wooow Makhulu,” she says, enamored, page after page. Through these hair secrets and stories, she finds the courage to embrace herself and realizes that her hair is a crown, and she is indeed a queen. At that moment, Makhulu, through this visual story, provokes learning, unlearning, and thinking beyond Wanda’s school experience. Makhulu uses the stories of other women to weed out the newfound message, which would ultimately settle as a belief, that Wanda’s hair is a burden and not a crown.
This is the power of intergenerational storytelling. It has the power to interrupt false narratives. Intergenerational stories are rooted in history, marinated in culture and language. The people who tell such stories, often elderly, have the role of authority, the depth of language, and cultural breadth to awaken us, to conscientize us. Ultimately, we can see ourselves through truths.
Stories of identity, where we come from, our power redeem us from the places where we continue to hide, only to feel unseen. Stories shared across generations have the power to heal and free us, bringing us back to the essence of who we are, outside of the frivolous false identities we grab hold of as we navigate the world.
This is the beauty of Wanda, that it stands at the intersection of identity and beauty, celebrating how cultural pride is learned and passed on over the generations. This book encourages young children to love themselves for what they are born with, despite what schools and society prescribe as acceptable.
Sihle Nontshokweni is a PhD candidate at KU Leuven, South Africa. Her research is focused on the successes and failures of school desegregation in post-apartheid South Africa. Prior to that, she lived in China, completing a master’s at Peking University, where she studied the aspirations of African migrant entrepreneurs living in Guangzhou, south of China. She has a deep interest in how racialized contexts affect identity and aspirations. Sihle is an avid reader and is passionate about creating positive content through YouTube and her personal blog sihlesapplecrunch.com. She is a lover of adventure and fitness, having completed a marathon and the popular Cape Cycle Tour.
Mathabo Tlali was born and bred in the Eastern Cape of South Africa and has the yearning to understand and engage the thoughts and realities of others through various artistic and digital platforms. A thespian at heart, she is a practitioner who currently engages the form of contemporary performance in order to translate her ideas; writing, directing, physical performance and producing are her key areas of interest. She is currently completing her second undergraduate major in sociology at Rhodes University, after completing her primary major, drama and performance studies. She seeks to explore intersectional ways of connectivity between the past, present and future, more so pertaining to identity politics within the performance and academic space.