I had the privilege to read early a book as compelling and provocative as its title suggests.
Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black Muslim is the memoir of model and fashion icon Leah Vernon. It’s a gritty, raw telling of her life’s journey, starting as one of five children to a single mother in Detroit and growing up with more roadblocks than most. In addition to challenges all young women face, Vernon had to navigate judgement around her weight, her race, and her religion, ultimately arriving at a place where all three are celebrated.
The title of Part 3 sums up the arc nicely: Life Unfiltered.
I especially enjoyed the contrast of “normalcy” with the “real” moments. As a child, Vernon built pillow forts and dealt with her tattling sister, while in the Deep South, her father (whom she describes as “a douche”) confronted her about gender imbalance in Islam. In an abusive marriage that led to her arrest, Vernon worried most about her kitten. Even the “normal” act of graduating college came with unique challenges, as it required her to sue her father for stealing from her.
These real moments drew me in, as Vernon has a gift for peppering humor into the stories. One of my favorites was when she was fighting with her siblings and her mother made them all meditate together.
“Enough,” she yelled, holding up her big hand. “Everyone lay down on the floor. On your backs. Now.”
We all huffed and moaned simultaneously.
Much more ballsy than the rest, Little Sister whined, “Why?”
Mom gave her “the look.” It’s hard to explain the full severity of the expression, but it was enough to make us all get down on our hands and knees. Flop on our butts and lay down on our backs. Mom got down on the smooth wooden floor too. Little Sister and Little Brother were too close to one another and bickered.
“Give each other at least and arm’s length of space,” she instructed.
“Mom, what are we doing?” Little Brother inquired.
“Meditating,” Mom answered.
“Meditating?” Little Sister repeated.
“Yes, now close your eyes.” Her voice got quieter. “Breathe and listen.”
She had closed her eyes, but we hadn’t. I kept lifting my head, thinking it was some kind of joke. Why hadn’t she just pulled out the belt and whooped us? It would’ve been faster.
Having followed Leah on social media for a while, I was especially interested to see how her modeling career developed. I loved watching how she picked outfits in Paris and worked her booty for the camera (her words). Within that section, Leah dropped a beautiful pearl of wisdom.
No matter what I chose to wear, someone out there would criticize it. Loathe it. Tell me that I could do better. I figured out that I couldn’t dress for the pleasure of others.
It seems to me this would apply to literally anything, not just wardrobe, but I digress.
One of the most poignant elements of the book is Leah’s relationship with the hijab, or head scarf. As a child, her father wouldn’t take her to Cedar Point because “it could get stuck in the rides.” She faced the decision to continue wearing it after 9/11, when many Muslim women stopped wearing theirs to avoid profiling and harassment. In describing an interaction with an ignorant waitress, Leah hits on one of the most empowering parts of her work.
Deciding, really deciding, to unapologetically wear my hijab for me has been the most freeing and rebellious and feminist thing I could possibly do.
I didn’t wear my hijab for others, so they could think that I was a good, practicing Muslim. Nah. I did it because it was me, my crown, my shield. It told people that I was strong in my belief, whether I said it or not. I was proud and loud of who I was. And because I was so “out there” with it, it made individuals (like Becky) very, very uncomfortable. They just couldn’t figure out how a girl like me continued to defy odds, being different, being openly true, while getting beat down daily for being a minority Muslim.
I fear if I continue describing the jewels of Leah’s book on here, you’ll have little reason to read it, so I’ll stop here. Click the title up there and pick up your copy, and experience Leah’s journey for yourselves.
One last thing: If you live near Detroit, Leah has an event on October 21 at Pages Bookshop. Go see her, and tell her I said hi!