|Junior program coordinator Briana Whiteside responding to a compliment from senior coordinator Cindy Lyles|
Ask Cindy Lyles, one of senior program coordinators about the power of affirmations, and she's likely to tell you about the time she had this epiphany concerning compliments for black women. She was in Wal-Greens and saw a sister whose hair looked really good. Even though Cindy's own hair is natural and the woman's hair was relaxed, Cindy still recognized that she was seeing an impressive hairdo. Rather than keep that assessment to herself, she decided to offer the compliment aloud to the woman.
You should have seen how pleased the sister was, how my passing observations brightened her day, Cindy will tell you. The experience and the woman's reaction convinced or reminded Cindy about the importance of specific compliments with sisters, or anyone. Cindy tells you that story when you ask her about why she takes the time to offer complimentary observations.
Cindy's affirming words for our program participants and attendees have been among the most notable, unexpected features of our black studies events over the last two years. She has appraisals for a wide range of people, but I've been especially intrigued by her compliments for young black women. She has broad and in-depth knowledge on black women's hair, make-up, clothing, accessories, styles of speaking, and even body language, so when she offers a compliment, you hear a detailed observation.
Rather than say "your hair looks nice," she'll say, "oooo, I love your twist out." Or, "Girrrl, I see those blue shoes! I noticed last time you were here [at our event], you had some red ones like those. I forgot to tell you how nice those were too. So I'm not forgetting to tell you now: the reds one fly; the blue ones fly. You fly."
I'm aware that men compliment women all the time. I'm not talking about those kinds of compliments. I'm aware that women praise other women's accessories all the time with comments like, "that's cute." I'm not talking about those kinds of compliments right now. I've also read dozens of poems where black women are celebrated, and even those are not what I have in mind right now.
What I've seen from Cindy is someone making a person aware that she recognizes that they have achieved a distinct and sometimes signature look through a measure of deliberated effort. She acknowledges them for taking an aesthetic idea and producing a visual outcome that reflects their creativity or stylistic ingenuity. Her compliments are thoughtful, genuine, and original. If there are 20 sisters in the room, as there are with program for first-year black women, then Cindy will have given a minimum of 20 different affirmations.
We've hosted more than 125 on-the-ground public humanities events during the course of the last two years, and the events have drawn over fifteen hundred attendees, with black women making up a disproportionally large portion of the participants. Cindy's compliments are often spoken one-on-one, so most people are perhaps unaware of the expansive nature of what she's been doing. But I've been at the events. I've paid attention. And so I feel truly blessed, as my people say, to be a witness.
A Notebook on Collegiate Students