Before Sesame Street pilfered center stage, writer Natasha Tarpley, author of the children’s book I Love My Hair!, encouraged us to adore our locks, braids, and baldies. In the Spring 2000 issue of Mosaic we interviewed Ms. Tarpley as part of “The Souls of Black Folks” article that featured nine writers whose writings reflected the diverse history of Black people.
by Bridgette Gayle
Natasha Tarpley’s memoir, Girl in the Mirror: Three Generations of Black Women in Motion, takes an intimate journey through her maternal lineage. It had been a while since I read a good book with such depth and dimension and it brought to mind Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Focusing on the title of the book, I asked Tarpley who is “the girl in the mirror?” “She is a reflection of our past and our possibilities for the future.” Tarpley states the girl in the mirror represents the women who are constants in her life “her grandmothers, mother, aunts, and sisters” the ones who teach her life lessons. “Their love anchors and sustains me. I see all of these women in my own reflection.” Tarpley continues, “It’s like peeling back the layers of years and defenses we’ve built up until we return to that place where we are small, where the little girl in all of us still lives.”
In Girl In the Mirror past, present, and future are like links of a chain, each link building upon the other to make the whole strong. I asked Tarpley about these links, the lives of her grandmother and mother, and how they’ve affected her self-image. She found similarities, “echoes”, as Tarpley describes it, in the choices she, her mother, and her grandmother have made in romantic relationships. They all struggled with loving the men in their lives, were always asking themselves if they were good enough or if they were to blame for their men’s loveless actions. “Each of us look[ed] to men to pro- vide a sense of completion and fulfillment that we needed to discover within ourselves. The sacred spaces we created within ourselves for ourselves. I don’t blame myself anymore. I’m learning to identify what I want and need in a relationship.” For Tarpley the process of learning to value independence began with the physical journeys of her grandmother and mother. Her grandmother left the South bound for Chicago. Her mother left Chicago after Tarpley’s father died, taking Tarpley and her three siblings to Boston. “These physical journeys represented our internal migration, the movement of one state of our lives to another.”
But why make public the emotional and physical changes of women who struggled to find a place for themselves? “I didn’t set out to make my grandmother’s and mother’s lives public. The point was to try to understand the past on an intimate level.” Tarpley’s project began with the aim of seeing how the past was reflected in the present. Inspired by the stories of historical movements, the focus eventually narrowed to the two women with whom she was closest. In hearing her grandmother and mother’s stories, Tarpley recognized recurring themes as well as the need to celebrate women. But the task of weaving past and present, flashbacks, letters, and poetic soliloquies wasn’t easy. Tarpley states, “I couldn’t seem to break [it] down into manageable pieces. The book is written in a series of short vignettes or snapshots. I chose this structure because it was not my intent to write an autobiography or biography of my mother and grandmother. The snapshots allowed me to capture important moments in each of the women’s lives, like postcards from each point in their development. I chose the first person because it is immediate. I didn’t want to define them [through] third person narration. I wanted the women to speak.”
Since interactions with men triggered many of the experiences faced by these women, why not give the men a voice, too? Tarpley states, “My grandmother used to call out the names of the girls to the large pile of dirty dishes waiting while the boys were free to return to their play. We formed a bond amongst ourselves [while washing dishes]; a warm comfortable space that my brother and other men may not have had. My father died when I was twelve. I didn’t have the chance to get to know him. I am trying to get to know my father by asking my family questions about him and his life.” As a child, Tarpley thought her father didn’t love her. Now, as an adult she thinks differently. “I’ve learned that people’s actions are complex. My father and grandfather were no different. They were strong, intelligent, passionate, intense men who were balancing the responsibilities of taking care of a family with their own expectations of self. I don’t think they knew how to express all the things that were going on in their minds and hearts.”
Part 1 of Girl in the Mirror is titled “Movement and Rest,” which is the vignette of Tarpley’s grand- mother. Part 2, “Resurrection,” is her mother’s journey. Part 3, “Evolution of Love,” is Tarpley’s snapshot. I wondered if she would name the next generation and what it would be called. Tarpley responds, “I think part 4 would be called “Freedom”, because the book is about finding a sense of freedom and peace within yourself.” The book seems to represent the natural ebb and flow of life and the search for freedom that causes many of us to move to discover, rest to learn and absorb, move on again to discover more or perhaps even to rediscover. From reading Tarpley’s memoir it becomes clear that the past is like fuel for the soul –it sustains, making the future a possibility.
“I understand why people don’t want to look back. The past is heavy. But to me, the past is vital. History informs the ways in which we move forward. We must maintain a connection to it and the spirits who live there.”
Natasha Tarpley has also written a children’s book, I Love My Hair, and has edited the anthology entitled Testimony: Young African-Americans on Self-discovery and Black Identity.