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