Smooth + Confidence Series, Mother's Day Edition: Teni

To Be Careful + Carefree:
Teniola Odunsi

 All Photos taken by  Abena Boamah

All Photos taken by Abena Boamah

The Smooth + Confidence series is our platform to highlight the skin, voices + stories of black women, from the Chicago, Illinois, to Accra, Ghana, through interviews + photography. It's important for our words and narratives to be captured with our pictures, for us, by us.

Hey people, it’s Adwoa + I’ll be your blog narrator from now on. Myself + the latest lady we're featuring have never met, so allow me to introduce us all to Teni Odunsi, writer, poet, producer, creator, mother, inspiration + evidently a kindred spirit; I can’t wait to meet her in person. (Fun fact: the friend she mentions, who I have met, is just as awesome + will be featured in the our second Journal entry for Mother’s Day!) Teni had so many insightful + vital things to say about being a creative black woman + mother, as well as just being in general. I know I got a whole lot out of this conversation + I hope you will too. Enjoy!

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Adwoa SeiwaaHi Teni! Tell us about yourself. Whether it's what you do, your passions, your drives, your faves, your feats—who are you?

Hello! My name is Teniola Odunsi and I am a writer, poet and creative living in Chicago with my gorgeous 3.5-year-old son. I’m passionate about the intersections of motherhood, creativity + working life. I love a good dinner party; my friend Anwuli throws one every few months for African women, and I love that we get to discuss matters in an open + free space. 

Adwoa Seiwaa: Food and fellow talk—classic, and a wonderful way to bring us all together; I’ll have to ask Anwuli for an invitation next time I’m in Chicago. So how do you + your supercute son, whose haircut I can't handle, start +/or end your day? Are you morning or night people? What rituals + routines do you do to get ready? 

Teni Odunsi: My son + I are not morning people. My parents always laugh when I complain about him not wanting to wake up, even when he’s gone to bed on time. The thing that takes the longest is his hair, and I love using the Hanahana whipped shea butter on his hair and then using a Twist sponge on it. I had to do research to figure out how to do his hair in a manageable way, and the whipped butter has all of the best ingredients to keep it soft and healthy. I’m honestly most productive in the afternoon; right before and after lunch is when I get ideas and usually start working on a poem or personal essay.

Adwoa Seiwaa: How do you balance motherhood with your creative and/or endeavors? What strengths do you draw from being a mother + apply to everything else you do, and if it has, how has motherhood changed the way you see your work?

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Teni Odunsi: I’ve always said that being a great mom is my first priority; it took me a while to realize that I couldn’t do that without taking care of myself. Small children are a lot of work, and it is easy to look in the mirror six months after giving birth + not remember who you are. Once I got to that place, I immediately stopped + carved space for my creative work because I found that I needed it to be for Teni. I’m not the best with details or time management—they simply aren’t sexy—but finding a way to stay organized changed the game. I also put effort + energy into building community with other creative black moms. People like my friend Alyssa, who had a round-table dinner for mothers to break bread + talk about being creatives, have become rocks for me + have helped me to build fearlessness in being a single mom that who, helps produce podcasts, and jumps into opportunities with my son by my side.

Adwoa Seiwaa: I have friends who've gone through or are going through this too, so it's good to hear about your journey + self-rediscovery. It's clear from what you've said already that you subscribe to the idea of being a carefree + careful black woman. How do you embody this notion in your everyday life?

Teni Odunsi: I believe in allowing black women to be more than one thing at once. Some people call it multiplicity of identity. I am patient + loving with my son and stern + strict in other areas of my life, like work, and have to switch between these two temperaments numerous times in a day. I don’t want to be a savior or saint for anyone but other black women. I need autonomy and space to be whatever I want at any given moment. That, to me, is freedom. I had to combat feelings of guilt with people I was friends with in the past; they were not willing to see me change and move in a new direction or let my light really shine. So now, I’m trying to raise my son in a way that allows him to pick up things that lift his spirit + drop them when they no longer serve him. He’s got a lot of energy + I wouldn’t dream of making him sit in one place, doing one thing for hours on end. He’s allowed to choose, as long as he’s safe.

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Adwoa Seiwaa: So heartwarming. He sounds like a fine, lucky young man. As a black woman + a mother, and a single one at that, you definitely need to be able to take time out for yourself. What self-care + self-love practices do you engage in to help you replenish your mental, emotional + creative energies?

Teni Odunsi: My own mom is a huge tea drinker, and we always used to chuckle whenever she would heat up the kettle, but I finally understand why. A big cup of tea is a place of solace for me: it warms my body + calms my mind. I also love the public library + have since I was a child. When my son + I don’t have anything to do on an evening or on the weekends, we head to one of the many libraries in Chicago and sit + read together. Reading always inspires me, and I don’t think that you can become a truly great writer without being an active reader. I recently discovered Toni Morrison + wrote a piece on Medium about her strong black characters—some of whom are mothers themselves—because I was so deeply inspired. Most recently, I’ve been in the kitchen a lot and it’s been so relaxing. I look forward to choosing a recipe from the New York Times Cooking newsletter + making something out of raw, nutritious food. My herbalist, Tiffany, is going to help me to make some medicinal recipes + focus on how I can feed my son + myself the very best foods to give us energy + treat our bodies with respect.

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Adwoa Seiwaa: I feel all of that. I’m a huge tea drinker + reader too; spent so much time accompanying + then later dragging my dad to libraries in Queens + the suburbs of Philly as a kid. You’re keeping up a good tradition with your son. Wow, Toni Morrison—coincidentally, I’ve been thinking about her a lot this year, and I read + really appreciated your piece back when it was published. It's so good that you've tapped into her work. One of my amazing high school English teachers recommended her to me about 13 years ago; it was + still is a revelation. Beloved is one of the first novels by a black woman I remember reading on my own and that also horrified + delighted me in equal measure. I’ve reread it often—actually, I’m overdue + am going to buy myself a copy today, so thanks—and I have a very visceral reaction when I recall it, that’s how striking her prose + power are. And yes, energy + respect to our bodies, inside + out!
     On that note: Abena came up with the tagline + her personal mantra "Smooth + Confident" during a phone call with her friend Kenya. What does the phrase mean to you?

Teni Odunsi: Being smooth + confident means being creative your own lane. The same way that Abena created Hanahana Beauty + allowed it to be a way to teach people about the makers of shea butter in Ghana rather than just a skincare line. When you feel great, you can be bold and go down a path that you dictate without worrying what anyone else thinks.

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Adwoa Seiwaa: Agreed! That's part of why I love working with Abena. In that vein, do you have a mantra, a quote, or any words you live by or want to incorporate in your life?

Teni Odunsi: A about a year ago, I took up positive affirmations. My favorite is “Happiness is my birthright. I accept it as my set state of being.” I say it out loud to myself at least once a day. I don’t expect to be happy every moment of the day but if I can stay grateful, then I can allow negative thoughts and emotions to come and go and go back to being happy and at peace.

Adwoa Seiwaa: What a positive perspective, I'm stealing that. What's something you want more of in 2018 + one thing you want less of in terms of personal growth?

Teni Odunsi: I want to make more of a community with other black women, especially black moms. No more loneliness or not showing up for myself by asking for help.

Adwoa Seiwaa: Snaps. I know a lot of women, including my childhood bffs, who'll appreciate that. Now, last but not least: which Hanahana Beauty product is your favorite?

Teni Odunsi: This winter was long + brutal, and the shea balm got my son + I through it! It’s great for anything—lips, noses while we were sick, and ashy, chapped cuticles. I keep that thang on me at all times!

Teni, thank you for taking the time to share your motivations, moods, meditations on creative black woman- + motherhood, and most of all your relationship with Jude. We wish you a Happy Mother's Day!

Make sure to follow Teni at @teniola_o + check out her writing at Medium + Black Girl In Om!


Stay Smooth + Confident

- Abena Boamah