Black Girls Writing Magic

There are few things more fascinating and wonder-filled as the imagination of a Black girl. Teeming with thoughts, images, dreams and possibilities, she creates worlds that Hollywood execs spend millions trying to conjure. Consider the matter of her ancestry and the nuance and magic of Black womanhood being played out all around her, and you realize that the landscape of her mind is a labyrinth of majesty comparable to none.

Earlier this year, for two days, using journaling as an impetus for discovery and exploration, we got a peek into the brilliant minds of some incredible Black girls who decided to join us for this journey. During our time together, we used film, story and experiential learning to consider the importance of values like empathy and conventions of the English language such as simile and metaphor to deepen the way our girls share their voice and perspective with the world. Our refrain for the weekend was to ask ourselves, “When the pen is in my hand, what will I write? How will I leave my mark on the world?”

It was amazing to see the girls bloom under the idea that they had the power to impact the world with their flavor of telling. The staff at TBP present that weekend used positive affirmations, our smiles, hugs, love and good food to scaffold the girls and build their confidence so that they could focus their minds, relax and learn. At the end of the weekend, the girls had been given a spark, having many fires lit on five different modules in the curriculum, that we have stoked throughout the year since that time. They have been working on writing projects that will be published in our next edition of The Journal, later this year. We are so proud to know them and walk hand in hand in with them through this process.

It was an immensely fun, powerful and sweet time, watching the reality of their intelligence and their potential flourish right before our very eyes. These girls are unstoppable. 

Words by Pamela Thompson / Images by Madylin Nixon-Taplet

Allison Brown has this way of making the room go still, locking eyes with you so that you can hear your way to freedom in her next words.  When we falter and are afraid, she intensely mobilizes her support so that we can keep moving.  Our lives are better because of her sisterhood, and we are humbled to have her on our board.  Allison is love and valor personified.  As she reflects on facing life and cancer, we hope her words propel you as they have us.

“I am re-making myself, I hope, in the image of the divine, of Love.  Love has kept me, comforted me, grounded me.  Love is re-orienting me.  It’s my bread crumbs when I am lost.  It is the impossibly heavy-duty crane that lifts me from my bed when all that is on repeat in my mind is ‘I cannot’.  It is the tidal wave that somehow miraculously compels my feet, one in front of the other when I am otherwise paralyzed by pain, malaise, fear.”

Continue reading Of Love and Cancer via medium

Do you ever wish you could go back to save a friendship from your past, armed with the knowledge you have now? Maybe five or ten years have passed, and you recognize that if you were then who you are now, the friendship might have survived? It’ll be a while before I forget Devon*. We became friends in eighth grade and into high school. We ran track together our sophomore year of high school. Our post practice ritual was driving five minutes to the local Dairy Queen to down chocolate chip cookie dough blizzards. She excelled at track. I came in dead last during a mile run (to be fair, y’all, it was the first week of practice!). Devon was a lighter complexion. She wore make-up, got her hair relaxed and nails French manicured at a beauty salon. My skin was darker, and I rocked braids to hide the new growth from my mother haphazardly chopping off my perm after deeming the hair damaged. My nails were unpainted stubs, and I got my hair done in a woman’s basement while watching Lifetime movies on a television that was missing a volume knob. My outfit of cool back then was a white baby tee paired with the classic jean overalls (one strap undone) and black Nike high tops. 

All this to say that being opposites was most likely what connected us as friends, but this was also what allowed jealousy to sprout. And it did in small ways. Like when we both applied for a summer program I had told her about, and she was the one accepted. Or when guys talked to me only so I could talk to her on their behalf. Or when we went off to separate colleges, and during freshman year, she met the man (Chris*) that she’d eventually marry, and I dealt with the angst of dating. She got engaged to Chris right after college and was married at twenty-two. I moved to a new city in the same state for my first real job out of college. I invited her to see my new apartment; she seemed to show little enthusiasm for this new stage in my life, which felt hurtful considering I had shown excitement for her wedding and new home with Chris. We hung out for the last time a couple years after her wedding. I was more confident and finishing up graduate school. I was also working, dating, and living in a new state. During our meet-up, she spoke with a tinge of envy about my life and tried to talk to me about how she felt she was missing out because she had married young. But you’re married, was my thought so I could not understand her dilemma. We talked past each other that night, not truly listening to our anxieties or feelings. After that dinner, we must have both recognized that the friendship was drifting apart. We eventually stopped communicating.

That was over a decade ago, and I’ve reflected on this friendship through the years. I realize that many factors led to its dissolution. We were young, naïve, and inexperienced about the disruptions that impact a friendship with each life stage. We were inept at navigating these progressive stages. We let them happen to us without knowing that we had to actively adjust. I was unaware of how hard or isolating marriage must have been for her at such a young age. She was unaware of the difficulties of moving to a new state alone and building community. Her husband, Chris, was a little controlling and often dismissive of her friends. I was unaware of how a partner can influence the course and sustainability of your friendships. She was probably learning to assert herself in that relationship. People also constantly compared our love lives so I often felt like I fell short of some standard. But what if I had rejected the social comparisons, taken stock of my own emotions and addressed them with her? We lacked the tools, maturity, and foresight to consider the interplay of these factors on the health of the friendship. 

This experience made me wonder about present friendships. What mistakes might we be making in a current friendship that we’ll regret in a few years time? How much do we resist doing the hard work necessary to maintain a friendship so we excuse ourselves and state that the friendship is doomed because we are in different life stages? Oh, she’s single, she doesn’t get it. She doesn’t have any kids, she’s clueless about how much time this takes. She’s got her dream job, she won’t know what this feels like. She’s divorced, she can’t help me with this situation. We also make assumptions about how friends will react to us sharing our new stage of life with them (e.g., she doesn’t want to hear about me changing diapers). Based on our assumptions, we are tempted to shut down instead of offering advice or experiences that might help a friend who may be planning to one day enter into our current stage of life. We may become self-centered, wondering how our needs can be fulfilled instead of genuinely seeking to serve the friendship. We fail to understand that new stages of life can be lonely, painful, confusing, or challenging. How can you give your friend the time or space to adjust to a new promotion, career change, first year of marriage, master’s program, illness, divorce, caring for an infant, or the loss of a parent? Instead of demanding that she maintain the same level of communication, how do you show grace and understand that the friendship might no longer function as it once did? Depending on the level of friendship, it may also be worth it to initiate a conversation about expectations and adjustments.

We know the adage that some friends are only in your life for a season. Not every friendship that is withering needs revival. I was a friendship paramedic for years—stressing myself out, trying to hold on when it was obvious a friendship was dying.  I’m not advocating that we hold on when it’s time to let go. But we should consider in what ways we might look back ten years from now and wish we had been more patient, gracious, compassionate, or thoughtful about the stage of life in which a friend currently finds herself.

 

Written by A.Kurian for The Beautiful Project

Photography by Madylin Nixon-Taplet

*Names changed

Lena sat at the table contentedly flipping through the latest issue of her favorite magazine while her sister, Mone, turned out dough for the pizzas she had been promising Lena she’d make for the past month. This was their ritual; spending Friday nights together doing any assortment of things they enjoyed doing together.

“I remember hearing a saying once that went something like, ‘The mighty know when to celebrate.’ What you think about that?” Lena asked her sister without looking up from her magazine.

“I disagree. The mighty don’t have time to celebrate, or rest, for that matter. They have too much going on. They’ve got to keep going, keep being mighty.” Mone replied.

Lena, now, fully engaged in the conversation, flipped her magazine over so that the spine faced upward, the pages and covers lazily laid out to the sides, creating am elegant triangle of the periodical.  “No, girl. You’re not talking about the mighty. You’re talking about the busy. I can’t remember who said it and I don’t know the full philosophy behind it but I agree. I can imagine that you have to be aware of your victories in order to stay encouraged to keep reaching for more victories, or to have hope that you’ll be victorious even once more. I imagine that if you take time to celebrate those wins, no matter the caliber of the celebration, all the more encouraged you’d be! I’m with it. I’m pouring a glass for all my victories, because I am mighty. Gotta be to make it out here in these streets.”

“I hear you. Just sounds contradictory and a little contrary to what I imagine mighty personas to be like.”

“That’s just it. You know what a mighty woman looks like. The mighty women around us have worked themselves to the bone. Mama, Grandma, Auntie, all of ’em go all out for everyone else and forget to take care of themselves,” Lena said, growing more annoyed with each breath. “They know how to throw a party to celebrate everyone else’s accomplishments, but we are hard pressed to get them to even recognize their own successes. Maybe it’s the generation. Maybe it’s just them. I don’t know, but what I do know is I don’t aspire to be that. I love ’em. I do. But, I want to know I’m dope, first, not be surprised or have to convince myself that it’s true when someone else tells me I am.”

Mone took a moment of silence to think about these ideas. As the older sister, she had taken responsibility for her little sister for as long as she could remember. It was the same at work and even in instances when she didn’t have to such as with her friends. She didn’t feel free to celebrate her wins because she was always so preoccupied with working toward the win. And she could see her mother’s handprint all over this habit that she had learned how to execute so well. She admired Lena. And she wanted to be able to speak as confidently and boldly as her little sister.

“Alright. I hear you,” she remarked, beginning to be convinced.

There are twenty seven days left in 2017. As you prepare to make mighty moves in 2018, don’t forget to take some time to celebrate the mighty moves you’ve already made in 2017.

 

Onward, sisters!

Tis the season to be thankful! This is typically the time of year when most of us get super sentimental and take inventory of our lives, pausing for a moment and becoming careful to choose gratitude for all of the people, things and circumstances that shape our reality daily.

It is, indeed, a beautiful time of year that can also be laden with a bit of sorrow for those of us whose past 365 have not been optimal or have been filled with loss and heartache. Still, the messages all around beckon us to point our hearts and minds toward thankfulness. It can seem like there is no room for anything else. Just thankfulness. And joy. And gladness. As our little girls bounce home with school made artwork reflecting these same sentiments, there is the temptation to be lulled into the season and put every other emotion aside in order to be fully present with the folks around us who seem to have drank every cup of the thankfulness tea they were offered. I’d just like to offer one small edit to all of this merriment.

We have had a YEAR, y’all.

It has certainly been FULL of so many opportunities to witness the awesome moments and achievements of Black women and girls all around the world, even noting the strides seen as recently as in the election that took place earlier this month. We have so many reasons to celebrate and be thankful for ourselves; our perseverance, determination, tenacity, boldness– all attributes that have led us to some noteworthy and incredible victories. But, we have had a YEAR, y’all. The frustrations and ignorance represented in the present administration, protests (spanning from Charlottesville and the NFL to the women’s marches and other gatherings both well known and little known), the recent upsurge of attention to the sexual violence and harassment done to women in Hollywood and Capitol Hill (and the response to said claims in comparison to how cases centering Black women have been handled. Yea. It’s a thing) . . . the list goes on.

There seems to be an undertone coming from critics of folks who have decided to seek change and activate, that we should just be . . .thankful. So much progress has been made, so many folks fought for us, even being told that it is disrespectful to want more equity, or to want change and that we should just be happy that things have progressed to the point where they are . . . . BULL. We want more and that has nothing to do with our gratitude for the good, no matter how small, that we have experienced thus far.

So, this Thanksgiving season, know that you can be thankful and unsatisfied. You can look across the room at your family or friends and you can see the gaps in your reality and theirs and you don’t have to quiet that voice that tells you there is more, go get it. Black women are a mighty people group with sizzling blood coursing through our veins. We are ever thinking, ever resolving, ever planning, ever caring, ever activists prepared to pave a new road for ourselves or the ones we love. We cannot help it. We have to be intentional about taking time to care for ourselves because our autopilot is set to make sure everyone else is good. A mind like that always sees the gaps! So you decide. You can choose to take a break from caring and just choose thankfulness. We get to do that. You can choose to think about how you’ll continue to push for better circumstances for yourself and your people. Or, you can do both. Just know that a thankful heart can also be an unsatisfied one . . and that can lead to great things . . .

 

Photo Credit: Pirkle Jones, found on the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture

Gabourey Sidibe takes on Nina Simone’s Four Women in her directorial debut of the film adaptation of the song which she has named, The Tale of Four. We’ve seen the likes of Jill Scott, Ledisi and other greats take on the song with their pounding and commanding vocals but never have we seen it iterated like this. In an interview on ABC’s The View, Sidibe talks candidly about her reasons for getting behind the camera and about her choice to depict this story in  particular. Take a look and ponder her perspective of how these four women’s stories play out on the screen. Regardless to whatever critiques, good or bad, it is very good to see more black women’s stories added to the conversation.

 

Photo Credit: Slate.Com

We’ve been dreaming of new places, occupying new spaces, linking arms with new partners, and taking our art out and before more audiences in the world. They say dreaming is like planning . . . they say the more you dream, the more in touch you remain with all of the possibilities . . . good thing we never stopped dreaming. . . because now we get to experience what it feels like when they come true.

As part of an unprecedented $6 million program launched by the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, The Met, NYU, and 19 New York City organizations will explore how arts-based organizations can serve as positive, relevant, and inspiring forces in the daily lives of diverse communities. While the North Carolina-based Kenan Trust has a history of supporting New York City, this funding marks its first investment of this kind and is a significant expansion of its path-breaking work to be a catalyst for cultural organizations to increase their relationship with individual communities.”

We are elated to share that The Beautiful Project is one of 19 organizations linking arms with a host of diverse image and space makers invested in voice.

The Kenan Trust invited The Metropolitan Museum of Art to serve as an anchor organization alongside New York University’s Tisch School of Arts. Representing a wide range of groups—from the National Dance Institute to the Weeksville Heritage Center, to Sadie Nash Leadership Project, to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—these organizations, together, exemplify a broad scope of engagement and artistic exploration. The Met and NYU will document the group’s practices and discussions in an effort to share lessons, outcomes, and tools with communities and the field. The project will culminate in a conference and Publication.

“Philanthropic efforts in the arts must make a fundamental shift from charitable gifts that exclude to justice-oriented giving that creates equitable access for all. We believe the arts are core to giving creative voice to individuals to combat broken systems while building bridges across lines of difference,” said Dr. Dorian Burton, Assistant Executive Director of the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust. “These 21 organizations range in size, scope, and history, but were all selected for funding because they have the ability, leadership, and platforms to  build networks that ensure the arts are not just an add-on or an optional budget line item waiting to be cut. The arts have long been a vehicle for social change and are the heartbeat of the American consciousness.”

To learn more, click here.
Photo Credit:  Khayla Deans for The Beautiful Project

It was so intriguing to hear Maya Angelou talk about how, once she became mute after the trauma of childhood sexual abuse and the subsequent death of her abuser, she would hide under her grandmother’s house and read the poetry of Shakespeare. She accredits his poetry as part of the sequence of experiences that lured her back to audible, vocal, self expression. He offered her something and, as unlikely as it may originally seem, reading his words caused her young mind to think that Shakespeare must have been a Black girl, from the south, who had been molested. His words in Sonnet 29 so moved to her heart, whispering familiarity that reassured her that she was understood in how she was feeling and, in so doing, comforted her, informing her that she was not alone. An ancient white man did that for her with is words. And an elder lioness of a woman did that for me with hers.

The first time I sat inside of the pages of Ntozake Shange’s work, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, I felt a rushing flood of so many emotions and I simply could  not contain, I could not stand, my own self. I couldn’t believe that this piece of work was real, legitimate even. How could someone else get all the things so right and then say them aloud, and print them in a book for everyone to read over and over again? Talk about giving voice to power!

somebody/ anybody

sing a black girl’s song bring her out

to know herself

to know you

she’s been dead so long

closed in silence so long

she doesn’t know the sound

of her own voice

her infinite beauty

This choreopoem is layered and loaded with themes, words, sounds, songs, movements and colors that, together, are Shange’s curation of some of the experiences of black girlhood and black womanhood. When it debuted in bars in California in the early 1970’s with just herself and a partner, to its opening on Broadway in September of 1976 and even still now, today in 2017, it resonates with Black women who encounter it; Shange’s masterpiece arrests, affirms, and activates us powerfully.

Ntozake Shange was born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey in 1948. Her mother was an educator and psychiatric social worker, her dad, a surgeon. She and her three siblings were born into the black elite of that time, having access to the likes of W.E.B Dubois, Dizzie Gillespie and Paul Robeson and, later, attending Ivy League schools. It was later, as a young adult that she took a Zulu name, given to her by two South African exiles, Ntozake (she who comes with her own things) Shange (she who walks like a lion). How appropriate for a woman who told our stories so fiercely and fearlessly.

Much of her writing derived from the experiences of her life. While for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf is her best known work, it is by far not the only work in Shange’s canon. Other works bearing her mark include Betsey Brown, Some Sing, Some Cry, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Liliane and even some children’s books including one on Coretta Scott King. We cheat ourselves by stopping at just one of her works. We miss out on the whole experience of how she sees the world and what she thinks we should do with it. She’s spent her career writing black women and girls, and other women of color, onto pages and stages creatively and thoughtfully. We can be seen and heard and felt through her pen. One might say that she was one among the originators of what Ava DuVernay has spoken of as “black subjectivity” where black people are the subject, the center of the work. She has written about our pain, joy, conflict, struggle and survival. She has told our stories loud and true and the world has had no choice but to open up and make room for her, make room for all of us.

Photo Credit: Sylvia Plachy, found on The New Yorker

Teacher took her place at the front of the room and stood  poised and eager to share all that life had endowed to her during their journey together thus far. She did not stand behind a podium. She did not center her body in alignment with the other spatial elements of the room. She stood off a bit to the left, confident that she was right and affirmed in the ways the world had unfolded itself before her, revealing the truth even though everyone else was convinced they already knew it. She did not ascribe to the norms and conventions that so often box us in as we try with all our might to define ourselves by a system that was never meant to accommodate or even hold us. That is what her lessons are often about; how to position ourselves to think and how to activate our way out of said systems by dismantling them.

She opens her lecture with the statement, “Patriarchy has no gender”, putting everyone on notice and positioning us all to pick up mirrors and turn them on ourselves– in order that we may see clearly how we have upheld and participated in the measures of oppression–before we pick up picket signs in peaceful protest perpetuating tyrannical “ideals” by only marking time, but never truly gaining any ground in the march for change. There is no room for presumption here. Teacher implores us to dig deeper in order to dismantle.

Born Gloria Jean Watkins but known best by her pen name, derived from her maternal great grandmother, bell hooks is a wonder and a champion. Teacher, writer, social activist, feminist theorist, poet, thinker, this woman is a living monument, an example of the change we can inspire if we dare to be bold and educate ourselves about the world we live in and then put our hand to the plow to uproot the wild weeds characteristic of a culture of domination.

I want to sit in awe of her, and admire her. I want to stay at her feet and assume the position of learner for all my days because she tells the truth and she tells it plain. It has always been her goal to make her truth available to everyone who dared tune in, to not belabor her audience with the conventions of academia which often perpetuate their own systems of oppression. But she doesn’t want to be pedestaled. She does not want emblems of her glory blazing in our skies. She wants us to link arms with her and her colleagues and do the work. She wants us to experience true freedom but is so keenly aware that we will never enjoy that feast unless and until we get real about the society in which we live and the pillars of sexism, patriarchy, imperialism, white supremacy and classicism upon which it is built, which creates a hierarchy that reduces to the bottom everyone who “doesn’t fit” its ideals. She makes me want to ask another question, think past the surface, be bold in my anger and search for its roots, disrupt, theorize, start conversations and never settle. I just believe that she has seen some things and she possesses a knowing that if we listen to her closely, we can actually get us closer to the reality we seek. And although closer is not the goal, closer will be the start our daughters, little nieces, little cousins, and little sisters will begin with. The distance we put between them and the goal has been shortened for us because of the work of the great mind of bell hooks. So, what are we going to do now?

 

To truly be free, we must choose beyond simply surviving adversity, we must dare to create lives of sustained optimal well-being and joy. In that world, the making and drinking of lemonade will be a fresh and zestful delight, a real life mixture of the bitter and the sweet, and not a measure of our capacity to endure pain, but rather a celebration of our moving beyond pain.

Born black and female.

Carl and Nanny’s fourth baby.

Once the wife of Robert.

Activist.

Thinker.

Writer.

Playwright.

Intellectual revolutionary.

Forever young, gifted and black.

Lorraine Hansberry.

It all matters. Every single subtlety of her life matters. It all matters most because it is the stuff of which her activism was created and propelled. As many now know, A Raisin in the Sun, the play she was most famous for, as it garnered her the title of first black female playwright to have her work produced on Broadway in 1959, was born of her life. Heavily autobiographical in nature, A Raisin in the Sun is a picture of a moment in Lorraine Hansberry’s life when her family integrated a white neighborhood with a restrictive policies prohibiting them from doing so. Amid violent protests and harassment, the Hansberry family refused to move until they were forced to do so after the matter had been settled in court. This journey started for the family when Lorraine was 8 years old. It all matters.

Her parents were social change agents and fought fearlessly to see equal rights for themselves and their people. Lorraine grew up to continue the work of her parents, joining political protest lines, black fist clenched around the handles of many picket signs. But she also used her writing as a means of awareness, protest and activism. Writing for the stage and the screen, A Raisin in the Sun, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, The Drinking Gourd, What Use Are Flowers?, are just a few of the pieces she authored into platforms. Conversations were started, change happened, and she provided fuel for the fight and the revolution as she drew from the life she knew and the experiences it offered. Nothing was wasted. Everything mattered.

And today, as our great, great auntie, she remains a reminder for us to do the same; use what we have, our lives, our gifts, to make people aware, help change happen, transform the world. But it is not the change that we work toward. Working that way will weary the journey before we’re able to offer our best stuff. No, our work is to continue to look inside of ourselves for our best material and to offer, it, relentlessly, because everything matters, including our voices.

 

The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely. –Lorraine Hansberry