Born from the Fire

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Black women were born with fire raging through their veins. And throughout their lives, they have used that fire to fight for themselves, and for others, in a world that sees that them as less than; as nothing; as non-citizens. While this fire can be empowering for black women, it often burns them in a world that uses black women’s passion and emotion as way to invalidate the very real struggle that they face in a hostile world. We are asked to be quiet, to be respectable, and to be grateful for the small scraps people are willing to throw our way. Yet, it is our emotion, more specifically our anger, that will save us. It is what allows us to fight everyday against the injustices that befall us and all other oppressed minorities. It is the power of this anger that Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers her Superpower takes on.

A mix of personal memoir and the political, Eloquent Rage breaks down the many ways in which black women face disrespect and subjugation, from the way they are treated in romantic relationships to the responsibilities that their churches and communities place on them. In the chapter, “White Girl Tears,” Cooper addresses the relationship that men, black and white alike, have with black women, who they’re happy to have take care of them, but refuse to love. She talks about the ways in which black men are quick to defend white women over black women *ahem Daniel Caesar*, and the way in which black-white interracial relationships can be coded by internalized racism and hatred towards black women. In “Orchestrated Fury”, Cooper argues that respectability politics—”the belief that Black people can overcome many of the everyday,, acute impacts of racism by dressing properly and having social comportment”—has been used by both black and white communities to invalidate black women who don’t play by the rules. Black women that fail to remain poised and respectable, who are seen as “ghetto”, are accused of being a ‘disgrace to the race’. Respectability then, is used as a way of silencing black women, allowing their continued mistreatment. As Cooper says, “respectability might have got us to the highest office in the land, but it could not ensure any level of long-term respect for Black humanity.” In the chapter, as in the rest of the book, Cooper passionate and careful navigation of such politics encourages black women to let go of the rules that don’t serve them and empower themselves.

What’s great about Eloquent Rage is that Cooper doesn’t hold back. The topics that she addresses are controversial any day of the week, and Cooper is quick to call out everyone, from white feminists to Black Panther leaders. No one is exempt from her critique. Even better, Cooper stans hard for black women. While she doesn’t disregard the experience of other oppressed minorities, she makes it clear that she is riding for black women and their experience.

Reading Eloquent Rage was a necessary education. Of course there were things Cooper said that I’d heard before but there were also stories and details that I’d never heard before. And it made me think of how my desire to be likeable and agreeable to people is so closely tied with wanting them to see me, a black woman, as digestible. Without really knowing it, I’ve held the principles of respectability politics like a Bible to the chest. And Eloquent Rage showed me the power that could come from living freely; it showed me that my emotions were completely valid even when the world wants to tell me that I’m being too sensitive.

Support black writers and small businesses, and buy Eloquent Rage at your local independent bookstore

The Importance of Representation

Artwork by Angela Pilgrim (via  blackcontemporaryart )

Artwork by Angela Pilgrim (via blackcontemporaryart)

I fell in love with fashion at the age of twelve. Before then, my main interest had been books and I took all my style cues from the popular soccer kids that I was so desperate to be best friends with. Discovering fashion wasn’t just about discovering a whole new world, but discovering a whole new part of myself. Day upon day I perused my sister’s fashion magazines, endlessly talked about trends with my best friend, and tried in whatever way possible to emulate the people I now looked up to. My love affair with fashion is what helped me survive the brutalities of early pubescence and crafted me into the person I am today.

When I fell in love with fashion, I knew of four black models. Naomi Campbell, Chanel Iman, Jourdan Dunn and Joan Smalls. I didn’t know of any black fashion writers, designers or magazine editors. At the time, the lack of representation in the industry wasn’t something on my radar. I was just happy to see one or two black models in the latest issue of Teen Vogue.

These days, my relationship with representation is very different. I think there were two things that really changed the game for me. One was realizing that in the mass of influencers that I followed and admired, very few of them were black women. I knew that there were more black bloggers, but I wasn’t seeing them on must-follow lists.  I’m going to be honest, I’m not exactly one for trolling through my Instagram ‘Explore’ page, so I depend on magazines, blogs and other Instagram accounts to discover new people. Unfortunately, a lot of my sources were dominated by whiteness. After realizing that there was a severe lack of black women on my feed, I made it my mission to rectify the situation. And it wasn’t a challenge at all. When I started looking in the right places, the options for inspiration were endless.

The second thing that happened was that I read Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. It doesn’t need to be said but reading any Audre Lorde is life-changing, and reading Zami was like an epiphany. Up until that point, I had never read a book in which I felt seen. It wasn’t just about relating to Audre--I felt a deep connection with her and her words. I saw parts of myself in her and I felt that those parts were understood. I’d never experienced that feeling before.

The combination of reading the book and following more black women on the Internet made me feel like I was a part of a community. I hadn’t realized how displaced I felt within the whole fashion/influencer community, until I found a place where I felt like I belonged.

Last week, blogger Valerie Eguavoen of On A Curve, called out fashion brand Revolve for the lack of women of color, specifically black women, in their influencer groups. In calling out the brand, Valerie shed light on a conversation that black women have been having for years. Across industries, black women are undervalued, especially in the fashion industry which likes appropriating black culture but isn’t as open to actually supporting black women. And although diversity in fashion has been championed in recent years, the attempts have felt weak. Valerie’s callout of Revolve demonstrated that. Responses to her claims clearly showed how little people value black women, with many responding that maybe the reason that there weren’t any black bloggers that were popular enough to get influencer status. That idea is completely ridiculous and further undermines the work that black women do to gain even half of the amount of success that their white counterparts experience.

Seeing black women working in fashion, whether it’s as writers, influencers, photographers, etc. is inspirational. It’s an affirmation of where hard work can take you. It’s also an encouragement--if I was being completely honest, there are many times I’ve questioned if I would be able to have a career in the fashion industry because of the prevalence (and preference) of whiteness. But when I see writers and editors like Marjon Carlos or Chioma Nnadi, or bloggers like Yaminah Mayo, I see women who pushed past those ideas to get what they wanted. Women who have used the spaces they inhabit to fuel discussions around blackness.

For me, seeing black women working in fashion--successfully, visibly--makes me feel like my dreams and goals are possible. Black women have shaped culture for centuries and their stories are rich and valuable. They've done so well in crafting out spaces for themselves, but it's time for them to be given space on the mainstage. It's time for their voices to be magnified. 

If you looking for more black influencers and bloggers, Valerie started an Instagram page, @youbelongnow that spotlights black influencers and bloggers from all areas of the ‘net. I’ve followed quite a few people already!