A few years ago I was able to sit in an informal setting and listen to a woman with a brilliant mind lay out her thoughts in a rhythm that moved me into higher thinking. It was an amazing time of being stretched, enlightened, and encouraged on Black feminist thought and its relevance and prevalence not only in my life and work and but in the world at large. Since that time she has remained one of my most favorite professors, a woman I highly regard and a true gift. Last month I was able to spend an evening chatting with her and it was such a sweet time. I listened to her communicate her thoughts and when the conversation was finished I felt understood, seen, hopeful, and just happy. Please, get a cup of chai, green, mint or whatever tea you like, make yourself comfortable and sit a spell with us to enjoy a day in the life with Dr. Williams.
Okay, Dr. B, let’s get into it! Tell us a little about yourself starting with your full name, profession, current location and your back story (where are you from, coming of age memories, etc…).
Ok, well, my name is Bianca C. Williams. I live in Denver, Colorado and I work in Boulder, Colorado which is about 45 minutes to an hour away from Denver. I am an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies, but I am a trained cultural anthropologist and this is very important to me as this is my first love.
I’m originally from the Bronx. I grew up in Orlando, Florida and I’ve spent quite a bit of time in North Carolina for undergrad and grad school. The more time I spend in Colorado the more I learn how much of an “east coast girl” I really am! My family is Caribbean, from Jamaica. I identify as both African American and Jamaican. If I had to tell you about a coming of age memory for me, it would be learning what it meant to be African American, while having a family that is Jamaican and having connections to Jamaica. My understanding of being American was complex; there were different standards of beauty, how to be a woman, how to be Black in Jamaica and the US, so learning all of what that meant in two different cultures really affected me and the work I currently do. My grandmother was the center of our Jamaicaness; she’s the one who kept us connected. I became more personally connected to Jamaica through my research. The year I started my research my grandma died and, in that, I feel that she kind of passed the torch on to me.
What does a typical day in your life look like (your routine for the day)?
You know, everyone laughs when I ask that question!
I don’t know that there is a typical day! Well, ok, so I’m definitely a late morning person. Those who know me personally or who have had to work with me know that I am no good until after 10:30 am. Because I am a night owl I do my best writing and thinking at night. I’m typically not in bed until around two o’clock am.
Once I get up in the morning though I take some time for prayer, reading my bible, and meditation so that I can talk to and listen to God and then, hopefully, spend time doing some yoga moves. Then once I leave the house, it’s a full day of meetings with colleagues and students and in the midst of that I teach two courses. Right now, I’m teaching Black Women, Popular Culture and the Pursuit of Happiness and Ethnography of American Blacknesses. After I get home, I try to get in about thirty minutes to an hour of writing.
Okay now, I know that you’ve been very busy writing a book and are now close to finishing, so why is it that you only take thirty minutes to an hour to write each day? Why not more?
(She sighs the sigh that comes with a loaded grin and resolved chuckle.) Oh, Pamela. That’s the very thing my advisor wants to know, lol! I think that I haven’t made writing my first priority so that’s why it’s getting done at the end of the day not the beginning and I am trying to shake that. However, even more practically, my day is so busy because, contrary to popular belief, being a professor is not just one job. I have to build programs, which includes developing curriculum, raising funds, I have to brand myself as a researcher and give talks promoting my work. Then there’s the actual teaching which involves being in the classroom, yes, but also conducting and preparing research and publishing that research. And, despite advice not to spend so much time doing this as it will not necessarily work towards my ability to receive tenure, I contribute to my community because it is important to me that the work I do has real life application. So, I need for what I do to mean something to Black women in the world. Soooo, after all of this, there is really little time left to write but I try, everyday to write for at least thirty minutes to an hour.
Is there anything, anyone or any part of your day that dictates how you look, i.e. how you wear your hair, your style of dress, make-up or fresh face, etc?
Oh wow. Umm I definitely grew up as a jeans and t-shirt type of girl. Growing up I paid no attention to society’s definition of beauty. I was over thirty when I started wearing make up, much to my mom’s chagrin, and I didn’t start carrying a purse until college. I was a bookbag, jeans, sneakers type of girl. As I got older I became more aware of what society thought was beautiful and this impacts how I present myself to the world, particularly in the classroom. So when I go in the classroom I wanna feel strong and confident and sometimes that means wearing makeup–which I have noticed I do feel more courageous when I have on make up. So, sometimes my classes, or being at the university, will require that. I think growing up as a Black girl in the US made me aware that being beautiful was to have long blonde hair, not thick curly hair like mine. There weren’t many affirmative Black standards of beauty around. I just felt like it was too much work to modify myself to fit what everyone else thought was beautiful. Now as I dress I am aware of what people think beauty should look like and I try to find my own definition of beauty somewhere around that.
As it concerns my hair and how I wear it, I became natural two years ago and that has been quite the journey in learning what my hair wants to do– sometimes I fight it to do what I want it to, and sometimes I let it free to do what it wants to do! Depending on how my hair feels can affect how I express beauty that day.
How would you define beauty?
I would define beauty as confidence and courage. That is what comprises beauty.
Would you say that there is any relationship between beauty and power?
Yes. I think the way that I define beauty, as confidence and courage, both require deep awareness and love of self and that can make you feel empowered. So if one does not know who they are and does not love who they are, that can make you feel helpless and powerless. And I think part of the reason why the work that organizations like The Beautiful Project do is important, is because the things you see around you in the world such as music, film, advertisements, they help you figure out who you are and who you are not, what you are and what you are not. So it’s important for people to see some reflection of themselves in the world to help them build confidence.
Do you think you’re beautiful?
Most definitely. (She giggles.) I think like everyone else, particularly women, you have days you don’t feel your best, most confident, most courageous self. But now that I am in my thirties, something about entering my thirties made me feel more courageous about expressing who I am in the world. In my thirties, more days than not, I have come to feel more beautiful. I think, generally speaking, in the teens and twenties, as a woman in the US at least, you spend so much time trying to figure out who you are in relation to who everyone expects you to be and that can feel tough and confusing. It can make you feel anxious about defining who you are in opposition to who everyone else wants you to be and can be a barrier to you expressing that confidence. In your 30s you’ve been here long enough so that if your definitions of beauty don’t align with others, you’re ok and you know that everyone else will be ok. It takes some time to gain that small piece of wisdom.
What makes you beautiful?
Oh wow. I think the first thing that comes to mind when I think about my beauty is my smile. I know that my smile can light up a room and draw people in. I know that my eyes have a deep sense of knowing. I am very interested in people’s stories, where they come from, what’s important to them and my eyes can look like they are listening for that deeper sense of meaning. I think, for me, it’s easier to talk about when I feel beautiful. I feel beautiful when I sit under the sun and soak up the heat. When I am around my really close girlfriends and my sister, I feel so beautiful. There is something about love and acceptance of self and total support that can make you feel really beautiful. Some of my best moments and memories of my beauty are with my close friends and my sister.
Wow. That was just so good for me to hear you speak about yourself that way. Typically women find it really difficult to say what they like about themselves; we become very bashful and conservative when we have to speak well of ourselves. But it was really encouraging to hear you say what’s good about you and know it, own it, and love it, proudly.
That “beauty as boldness and courage” is something that women grow into. In my twenties I would not have said any of that, lol!
Do you think your beauty empowers you?
I think my sense of self, the way I am constantly trying to grow in being confident and courageous, it empowers me to share my story with others. So me and Tami Navarro, who I know that you have interviewed here, have been writing a lot lately about the strength and power of being radically honest. Beauty empowers me to be honest about my strengths but also my weaknesses and to share it with other people to let other people know, particularly Black girls and women, that we all struggle with our sense of self and not feeling beautiful. Sometimes the beauty is knowing that others are in the same struggle with you. So beauty empowers me to tell my story and my hope is that in sharing my story the world is being transformed for the better.
Mmmmmm…beauty as courage to be radically honest to be both strong and weak. Wow. That’s powerful. When you say, “share my story” what pieces of your life are you referring to?
My story in particular, the parts that are important to share, are the struggles I had in becoming a scholar. Going to undergrad and grad school as a Black woman. That narrative is important to share. Some people become discouraged when they encounter difficulty when trying to become a professor. There is a silence and a stigma there. I think it’s important to speak about the challenges of being emotionally well, to talk publicly about the struggle of anxiety. It is silenced throughout US culture but especially in Black communities. The silence many times is part of what traumatizes people.
Has your beauty ever been challenged? If so, how did you overcome those challenges?
Wow. Again I refer to the tomboy I was growing up. My sister and I have an AWESOME relationship but, as in many families and in school , growing up there is one sibling who is held up as the aesthetically pleasing or beautiful one and the other, the bookworm or intellectual one. My sister was the pretty one and I was the smart one. That’s how people set us up in relation to one another, but it’s not true. I have my own beauty and my sister is intelligent. But that binary messed with my self-esteem and my confidence and I know from my sister’s stories that it also messed with her confidence and self-esteem. So if I have to think back to a moment when my beauty was challenged it comes from that. In families or communities we have a habit of placing people in boxes instead of celebrating them in their diversity. Us sharing our stories with each other led my sister and I to have an awesome relationship. We overcame our insecurities through honesty. In the past, when people called her pretty and me smart we were silent. And though it made us feel “a way” we didn’t talk about it. So overcoming meant honesty and sharing those stories and together that helped us overcome challenges that resulted from that time.
What would say to your younger self to encourage her to embrace herself most fully and walk confidently in the world?
I would tell her (I even tell myself this still now) that every single person, no matter who they are, what race, no matter how much money they have, everyone has their struggles and those struggles are individual to each person. Most people are trying to find out who they are. Some find it at 12 years old others at 83. But finding self is the journey. It is the point of life. We shouldn’t focus so much on presenting a perfect self but instead on enjoying the journey of self-discovery. Everything will be fine. Everything will be as God intended. We just have to be okay with the good parts and the tough parts.