Culturas Corner highlights individuals who make their community a better place through their work, business, volunteering or activism. Today we learn more about Sulma Arzu-Brown, the author of the ‘No Pelo Malo’ book series.
Your book series incorporates the intersection of femininity, race and cultural standards in a way that is digestible for kids. Why did you decide to develop such a resource into a children’s book?
Everyone has a trigger— that uncomfortable poke that prompts you to act or react. Like any mom, I carry my children’s heart, mind, spirit and soul inside me. So when something that may be hurtful is said about them, to them or around them, it activates a reaction of indignation, a righteous anger that comes from a place of love. I go into problem solving mode with the mindset of, “How many other children go through this? OMG, this has to stop and I must give every child some kind of tool.” In my case, the tools are my books. I call my books an ordained body of work, given to me by God. I never sought out to be an author. In fact, if you told me I would be an author back in the day, I would have laughed at you. But my oh my, you never know where the tides of life take you when you become a mom. I have two girls, they are Black. And since every book I’ve written grew out my love for them, they had to take center stage. All of my protagonists must be women of beautiful color and the supporting cast are as diverse as our community and the world around us.
Your most recent book, “My Hair Comes with Me,” offers a more diverse and inclusive look at what success looks like. Can you explain to us how hair intertwines both with the “working professional” experience and honoring one’s culture?
I’ve come across so many young girls, interns of mine, friends and family that were forced to adhere to societal standards of beauty before a job interview. As if researching the company, anxiety and nervousness was not enough, women of color had to worry about making sure their hair was “acceptable and professional.” For many of us, that meant straightening our hair, taking off our braids, wearing a wig. In other words, hiding our true selves. I couldn’t have my daughters go through that, so I had to do something to shift the paradigm of what success looks like. It was important for them to internally proclaim and outwardly recite “My hair comes with me.” That is why my book is titled “My Hair Comes With Me-Shifting the Paradigm of What Success Looks Like.” Women of color spend billions of dollars on hair products, yet there is a law in place across the U.S. that states that a corporation can choose not to hire you because of your natural hair. According to Dove’s CROWN Research Study, Black women were 50 percent more likely to report being sent home or know of a Black woman who was sent home from the workplace because of their hair. Ain’t that some bull-caca-craziness!!
I had to take it beyond hair with “My Hair Comes With Me” and thought what else can I tackle in the process. Therefore, in addition to highlighting careers in stem, marketing, education, business and the arts, it was important to include my sisters and brothers of faith based communities, the disability community and the LGBT community. What you see outwardly does not determine our performance. We honor our culture, by honoring our truth and talent from hair to toe.
Shifting gears, we’d love to know more about your role as a mom. How is multiculturalism part of your family’s life?
I am a proud Garifuna woman born in Honduras, which makes me an Afro-Latina and Afro-descendant. When I learned about my history it empowered me. The Garifuna people hail from the island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. We were the last island in the Caribbean to be colonized by the British because of our well-organized strategies. My people were supposed to be extinct because genocide was the goal. But we survived. Adapting to different environments without losing our culture is a gift. Being Garifuna is a blessing for me. My children know it, my Canadian-Jamaican husband knows it, my multicultural friends know it. Come to think about it, I don’t think there has ever been a week in the last 15 years where I am not talking about the Garifuna culture. Repetition is the best teacher. I am so proud when I hear my children identify themselves as Garifuna, Jamaican, Canadian, Afro-Latina. It’s beautiful to see that they know who they are and the power that lives within them at such an early age. The seed of who they are is planted already within them. All I have to do is provide light and water.
What future plans do you have for other projects and the ‘No Pelo Malo’ book collection?
D’QUE LATINO showcases the many colors within an Afro-Latino family. It is based on themes and messages from “Pelo Malo No Existe/Bad Hair Does Not Exist.” It is set in contemporary Bronx, New York, and dramatized by live actors on the small screen. It’s a fully scripted 13-part episode series (sitcom style). We completed the pilot episode via Zoom during the corona quarantine. Although our resources were limited, I learned that when you honor your God-given talent with humility, impossible does not exist. We were able to get an amazing cast, wonderful producers and a great director. We even have a theme song! Everyone involved believed in the message. More importantly, we all knew it was time to own our narrative and tell our own stories. We will premiere on September 15th, the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month.
What is your favorite cultural memory?
My favorite cultural memory happened in my adult life. We have a dance called in my Garifuna culture called “punta.” It is a beautiful movement of the hips to the beat of some soul-resurrecting drums. I was always trying to follow the beat of the drums until one day my cousin Bodoma, a professional drummer within our community, felt my insecurities. He said to me, “Sulma you do not have to go with the beat of the drum, a good drummer will follow your movements.” It’s no wonder everyone looked like an expert dancer! As I write this response, I just learned that through our music, our spirit is taught to lead. That is what lives in me and what I will pass on to my children. And as you already guessed, I’m sharing it with all the children of the world!
Answers have been edited for length and clarity. Know someone who should be featured on Culturas Corner? Nominate them here.