Lioness Shange

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

It is our joy and honor to share a sisterhood story from Shawnda Chapman Brown of Brooklyn, NY, Research Analyst / Social Justice Advocate/ Jamaica’s Mom. She’s the realest. Keep reading below to find out why we think so and see if you don’t agree. We salute you, Shawnda.

My friend Felicia and I still laugh about the time she had to get me out of jail.

The episode lives in infamy alongside the time I helped her harass her boyfriend’s girlfriend at the mall, and the events that followed her introduction to the magical combination of vodka and orange soda. But little does she know, I had wandered into one of the darkest holes of my life and wouldn’t have found my way out of it without her.

I think I was in shock. I sat there on the cold cement floor for hours before I’d even thought of making my call. Who exactly would I call? What exactly would I say? And how exactly did I get here?

It was after midnight and I was in a holding tank that was buzzing with activity. One by one a steady stream of women, like myself in some way or another, got up to make their calls. We’d all found ourselves on the other side of freedom and desperately required some assistance. The cacophony of voices echoing throughout the room made it difficult to hear or be heard on the speakerphone in the center of the cell.

shawnda2016I’d always thought that many things were possible for my life. Marrying Idris Elba – eh maybe. But becoming a victim of domestic violence – not a chance in hell! After all, I’d always prided myself on being a strong woman. To feel better, I would say that my partner and I had been fighting, implying that I had a choice and that most of all, I was no victim. In actuality however, I had been getting my ass kicked with dizzying regularity for months. One evening, I was head butted so hard that both of my eyes turned black. In fact, I’d been beaten so severely that I suffered from spells of vertigo for years after the relationship ended. I suffered mostly in silence.

One of the most difficult things I have ever had to do was to pick myself up from that floor, out of my anger, and out of my shame to call for help – to admit that I needed help. When I did, I called Felicia.

The room quieted as I gathered myself and made my way over to the phone. My pants were torn on one side from waist to hip, skin and panties exposed.

“Hello?”

“Hey Felicia – It’s Shawn.”

“Oh hey girl.” Her voice was like a hug, and I desperately needed one.

“What’s happening? – I’m surprised you’re up.”

“I’m watching a documentary, Bowling for Columbine – have you seen this shit?” she asked.

Our friendship has always had an interminable quality, never limited by time or space. As such, we cackled for the better part of 20 minutes about that documentary, and about being Black in America before she stopped, as if somehow she’d forgotten her manners.

“Wait, what are you doing? – I don’t recognize this number”

“So uh yeah – I’m in Jail”

“JAIL?’

“Yes bitch – jail!” I declared.

“Why in the hell didn’t you interrupt me?” she demanded in response.

As mascara stained tears slid down the red lump beneath my eye, I took a few breaths and began to explain. It was my partner’s birthday. We had plans. I baked a cake from scratch. Scratch. Three layers, red velvet. I decorated it with fresh flowers. Used my last money to buy a present. My very last. He stood me up. Came home to change after midnight. Going to the strip club. So he said. Punched me in my eye when I protested. Like a man. Choked me. Pressed my face to the ground. Wasn’t the first time. Who the hell did I think I was? Police came. Handcuffed me when I refused to talk. They didn’t understand, I couldn’t talk. His family survived on the money he sent home each month. It was literally how they ate. I couldn’t talk. Threatened to kill his ass if he put another hand on me though. Didn’t want him to go to jail. Just wanted him to leave. Instead, I was charged with a Second Degree Felony.

“Damn! Don’t worry girl – I got you!” she assured.

And she did.

As I made my way back to my chilly spot on the floor, the buzzing resumed. Having overheard the entire conversation, the pretty chocolate girl sitting beside me looked up and smiled. “Your ass is crazy” she said “and don’t nobody know it.” We both laughed. She was right.

It’s clear to me now, that in that moment, love and sisterhood saved me. It healed me. It allowed me the space to be flawed, and confused, and human.

Not only did my friend not judge me – she sat down with me in the middle of my mess and helped me to sort everything out. During that tumultuous time we danced, we ate too much, we laughed at stupid things, we learned to make proper cocktails and I learned how to walk away.

Only recently have I been able to understand the true magnitude of that gift. Sisterhood is like a river flowing over and around you, sustaining you, filling in the gaps, allowing you to rest, polishing you, lifting you up and pushing you forward when you are unable to do it on your own. To Felicia and all of the other remarkable sisters that have poured into my river – I am here because of you, I am a better woman because of you and I am forever grateful.

We live in a world that is mostly hostile and unaccepting of Black women and girls. If one would only take a look at the components of popular culture, politics and education there could be found a teeming sea of evidence to support that fact. We cannot be fooled by the hyper visibility of black women and girls when we are yet still quite invisible and so very misunderstood. The damage and trauma of history linger and make it difficult for black women and girls to openly question and explore blackness and womanhood. So often we are positioned to fit into systems that were created “for us” without much consideration of who we are and what we need, which most simply comes down to managing micro and macro aggressions on the daily and a push toward assimilation instead of individualization and an appreciation for the the uniqueness of the Black diaspora and the varied ways that Black women and girls illustrate their place in it.

Yet we remain.

We continue to strive, thrive, create, make space, innovate, and reinvent our realities for our very own survival, joy, comfort and peace. There is more than light at the end of the tunnel. There are Black women lined along the corridors of the tunnel whispering love, encouragement and acceptance to accompany a journey that at times can feel dark, cold and lonely. There is more than light at the end of the tunnel. There are Black women holding up that light with open arms of understanding and celebration ready to receive you when you make it to the end of whatever journey you find yourself. Don’t believe the housewife, hip hop hype. We are FOR one another more often than we are at odds with one another. Check the stories. And in the meantime, position yourself to personify sisterhood for the women in your life. It’s how we get over. It’s how we stay well here.

Sisterhood as Activism: the act of Black women engaging one another in an intimate, intentional manner for the wellness and goodness of the other; to take up one’s position as kindred, in all of its intricacies, in order to hold space for, care for, defend, cover, another sister.

We believe that sisterhood IS activism so we have worked to exemplify how to use sisterhood AS activism. Please consider the chart below as a facilitator for exercising more intentionality as a sister standing up and holding space for another sister.

sisterhood-as-activism-blog-chart

“To understand why black women’s public actions and political strategies sometimes seem titled in ways that accommodate the degrading stereotypes about them, it is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence their behavior. It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room.” (Harris, 2011)

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

– Audre Lorde, poet & activist

Alexis Dennis is efficiency and sweetness. She is a titan in her own right. And we are so proud she is ours. The Beautiful Project is elated to present The Self Care Exhibit: A Word & Image Act of Self-Preservation & Political Warfare. Showcased in our online gallery, this exhibit includes the work of many image makers in our collective including Khayla Deans, Cyrita Taylor, Elisabeth Michel, Precious Graham, Alexis Dennis and Jamaica Gilmer. Check out Alexis’ post about how the Self Care Exhibit came to be!

In my last year of college, I participated as a student intern/photographer with The Beautiful Project. I remember the end of my final semester – we were trying to pull together our final quotes and images of girls for our Black Girl Triptych Exhibit. The other student interns and I were also trying to make sense of our lives, given our impending transition – final exams, graduations, goodbyes, new jobs, new cities, new relationships, uncertainty. It was an incredibly stressful time – the first big drop on a roller coaster of emotion that I’d later realize would characterize my “20s.” Throughout the year, we’d served as role models for young girls and adolescents, helping them to learn how to recognize their inner and outer beauty, to have confidence in themselves, and to strengthen their self-esteem and self-worth.

Yet, as I took stock of my own feelings, and observed my peers, I noticed that despite our pride in our accomplishments – both in our work with The Beautiful Project and throughout our undergraduate careers – we were both worn down from our efforts and also anxious about our futures. Then came the moment of exasperation:

“It’s great that we work with and for girls, but can we add a component to Black Girl Triptych that focuses on women?  Like, I need to know how they take care of themselves despite everything going on in their lives! I need to know how to take care of myself. HOW do I take care of myself!?”

The seed for the Self Care Exhibit was planted in that moment. In the years since that moment, I’ve experienced many more transitions in my own life, and observed transitions in the lives of my mother, my sister, my friends, and my colleagues. Throughout the moves, the new relationships, the breakups, the weddings, the babies, the deaths, the illnesses, the new jobs, I’ve notice a pattern in both myself and in other black women: there is a lot of giving, but not always a lot of replenishing.

Many women, and black women in particular, are socialized to be “pillars of strength,” the “caretakers” of our families, our friends, and our communities. However, the stress of bearing this weight for long periods of time can be emotionally and spiritually draining, and can take a toll on our physical and mental health. The increased visibility of racism and police violence occurring in communities of color, and mainstream media narratives surrounding these events, as well as the micro-aggressions that we experience in our day-to-day lives, add an additional sense of urgency, frustration, and at times, helplessness, that can manifest into additional physical and emotional stress.

Poet and activist Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The need to make time to care for our emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being is crucial because if we’re not functioning as we should, nothing around us is functioning as it should.

Through the Self Care Exhibit we aim to showcase how black women of different ages and walks of life conceptualize, practice, and struggle with Self Care. We hope these words and images will inspire other black women to stop thinking about self-care as selfish or “self-indulgent” acts, but instead as acts of “self-preservation and political warfare” that help us to build and sustain our families and our communities.

Today on the blog we have a post by a former intern, Precious Graham. I can’t say enough about this woman. Working alongside her for a couple of years was inspiring as I watched her express herself creatively through the lens and through thoughtful, reflective conversation. It was also encouraging because I would think to myself about all of the grand possibilities for the world because she was in it. She spares no part of her brilliance and thoughtfulness on this piece. Enlighten your Monday by taking some time to read her provocative piece below. 

 

Last week 14-year-old Willow Smith’s glamorous editorial spread and cover for Issue 6 of Carine Roitfeld’s CR Fashion Book was released.  Rocking everything from Tom Ford to Saint Laurent, Willow embodies a cool, seemingly effortless bohemian style that is captured in a high fashion lens. In the words of black twitter: “Mama is slaying!” Flipping through the photos for the second time, I came to the conclusion that what was awe-inspiring to me about this editorial was more than the clothes, the photography, or even Willow herself. I take a certain pleasure in seeing a black girl having the freedom to be completely and unapologetically herself, whatever that may look like. It almost feels luxurious. Willow is quoted in the magazine as saying “I just want to have dreads. I want to embrace my full self, as natural as I can be…I think my look changes all of the time, and right now it’s a bit more messy, kind of grungy.” In the last few years, particularly as the visibility of black women with natural hair has increased, these girls have been dubbed “carefree black girls” on social media. However, as much as I adore the concept, I also find it a bit depressing in that it suggests that black girls have so much to care about in the first place that to be oneself has become a revolutionary act.

As an undergraduate at Duke University, I was selected to be a part of a women’s leadership program on campus called the Baldwin Scholars program. Upon matriculation into the program, one of the first things we were taught was “effortless perfection.” Coined by a breakthrough study at Duke in 2003, the phrase describes the impossible pursuit among college women of academic excellence, physical beauty, and popularity, all without appearing to break a sweat. Because achieving this perfection is impossible, it often leads to insecurity, low self-esteem, and a host of other issues. Sounds bad, right? Well imagine a young woman battling that societal pressure everyday while simultaneously attempting to refute negative racial stereotypes that have existed for hundreds of years. Effortless perfection is ten times worse for a black girl because she has to constantly consider the negative societal views that may accompany her blackness as well as her womanhood. She is not afforded the luxury of being herself because she has to be a representative. She is supposed to be beautiful (in a way that appeases the white dominant culture), fit and curvy (even though that is grounds to be criticized as well), educated, heteronormative, domestic, gregarious, mild-tempered, and so on. Any slip up could land her in any of the various categories that describe a wrong type of black woman, namely Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire, or as they might be called today, Baby Mama, Hoe/Thot, or Bitch/Angry Black woman that will never get married. While conformity to these pressures are exemplified in a number of ways, it is very often performed through the mediums of hair and fashion.

So yes, when I come across a black girl who is unapologetically herself in that regard, it is indeed revolutionary. If I had to give any advice to young black girls, it would be to hold on to that thing that makes you who you are, but also to have fun in the process of figuring out what that looks like. Wear an afro to an interview. Get piercings or tattoos if you feel compelled to do so. Experiment with fashion. Declare an art history major if that is what you love. Wear dreads to a fancy event like the Oscars, even though someone might think you smell like “patchouli oil and weed.” Give yourself the grace to make mistakes. Someone once told me that as a black woman your presence should be so great, so awe-inspiring that anyone who encounters you should be forced to deconstruct any preconceived notions they ever held about black women. I am now offering that advice to you.

 

Precious Graham graduated from Duke University in 2012. She is pursuing an interdisciplinary career in Demography and Social Policy. Her research interests include family demography, race and gender politics, and stratification.  She currently lives in the Washington DC Metro Area. Follow her on twitter @precgraham.

Photo Credit: Jamaica Gilmer for The Beautiful Project

No, it’s not “Woman Crush Wednesday” (wherever that came from) but it’s Tuesday, as good a day as any, to show love to a sister, mother, grandmother, auntie, cousin, or friend who you value. Think about it: what woman or women in your life need to know or would just be glad to know that they are appreciated, loved and well thought of? Once you know who it is, send her a little love note. You can do it privately or post it up on social media for the world to see and celebrate with you!

Too often we bash, size up, and challenge one another. We criticize, tear down with our words, and compare ourselves to one another. Left just to what is seen on the television, we are a batch of broken people who have too few genuine relationships and more enemies than we care to acknowledge. We aren’t really that defensive, are we? Not that insecure, surely? Let the remnant rise up; those of us who are working through our brokenness and striving to be better. Those of us who know that there are women who have stood alongside us, watched us grow, dealt with our growing pains and stayed around to see the beauty birthed from the process. Shout her out today! Gratitude evokes joy. Showing love to your sister not only gives her joy, you get a little taste of it too.

Once you post or send your message, please tag us  @thebeautifulprj on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Let’s light up the world today with love for the beautiful women in our lives!

Each night I put my put baby girls to bed and I have no real thoughts about their safety. Sure, I visit their room throughout the night to ensure that they are cool enough, still tucked in, or haven’t fallen out of bed, but it is only in my mean, fearful imaginings (should I dare to go there) that I can see it plausible that someone would pry open their bedroom window and ease their vulnerable, sleeping bodies out of my home without my or my husband’s awareness. Even now, my body recoils at the thoughts my mind just produced. It is horrifying. And to make that thought wider and spread it across my small community to a mass kidnapping claiming several little girls as victims to dark, cricket-quiet nights as they are carried off  by the hands of evil men laden and led by deviant, salacious and broken minds . . .it is all just. too. much. Tonight I will re-engage our nightly routine. I will lay my girls down to sleep, and thanks to God’s good grace, I will awaken, the next day, to the little girl pitch of their voices, carelessly rolling out morning ramblings describing incomprehensible dreams dreamt in total comfort and safety. And I will no longer take that for granted. I’ll lift my hands and thank Him as I bow my knee to plead for my girls, my little sisters who are still prey to terrorists all over the world.

It’s a number that grows relentlessly ever.

Hashtags blazed a bright banner of awareness that flew across cyber skies and burned in the hearts of many for weeks, creating new activists, arousing mavens. Essentially everyone wanted someone, anyone, to #bringbackourgirls, and a few of them have returned home. Yet still so many of them remain at large. It’s been about 135 days since they were taken. That cyber banner boasts a new cause and it seems as though activism on behalf of our girls, in Nigeria and all over the world, is as quiet as a cricket-less night.

Please, let them know you still care. Reach out to your state and local representatives, reach out to our President and ask for help around causes effecting our girls everywhere. That’s a start.

Our Nigerian sisters still need our help, but if you are one who felt that it was equally as important to help the girls here in our own backyard, then that’s your call; galvanize and activate to get help for them! Sadly, there are so many girls who needs us. Too many girls have to fight for an education, everyday another girl becomes a victim of sex trafficking, everyday a girl stalks the streets of her community broken, lost, uncared for. They have so many issues and so many needs. We need not shame anyone for reaching out their arms to our sisters in Nigeria. We need not shame others for gathering close the sisters next door. The thing is, there are times when I gaze into the eyes of my two baby girls and see all the hurting little girls staring back at me, reminding me that mercy is for everyone, not just those who can afford it.

 

 

 

Always, a leading brand of feminine products, has an amazing new campaign out designed to support girls as they go through the tumult that often occurs in many different forms during puberty. In this campaign they ask, “What do YOU do #LikeAGirl?” Tweet us using #LikeAGirl @thebeautifulprj.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Always

Video Credit: Always YouTube Channel

This woman. What can I say? She is a history lesson, a storyteller, an image-maker. She is culture, love, beauty, goodness and so many other things. I cannot get enough of her. Her album, Sing to the Moon, has been on repeat in my ears and in my head for quite some time now and I know that it will only continue to be and increasingly so because the work is timeless. It’s just that wonderful. She woos and thrills with her vocals. She evokes and enthralls with her lyrics. This woman is everything. If you haven’t already, take some time to get to know her and her work.

This video made me smile.

#loveher

 

Photo Credit: Le Poisson Rouge

Video Credit: Laura Mvula Vevo

Check it:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo & Video Credit: Ted Talks Channel on YouTube