Say It Loud: I’m Black, AND I’m a Woman, AND I’m Proud.
For ten weeks, I had the privilege of being in an often forgotten area of this country, the trivial place we all learn to spell at a young age with that harmonious catchy hum, M-i-ss-i-ss-i-pp-i. Within Mississippi, I worked in the Delta, specifically Sunflower County, a place categorized as having “a storied history and a slender chance of economic revival.” Upon my first week of arriving in the Delta, I was in a continual state of disbelief: I walked around with my jaw touching the ground and wide eyes. I was flooded with disillusionment, and I felt an overwhelming sense of urgency to understand this place. I learned that on February 7, 2013, the state of Mississippi submitted the required documentation to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment (yeah, I’m not kidding, google it). Only 5 years ago, about 2,000 days, the state of Mississippi made slavery or ‘involuntary servitude’ against state law. I learned this fact very early upon my arrival at the Delta, but it was something that framed my mindset for the rest of my ten weeks there. When I found myself wondering how on earth so many things could be the way they are, I quickly remembered slavery was only outlawed 5 years ago, so one could say that the state has progressed from there. As we are all aware, the pernicious nature of racism throughout the U.S. is highly evident. For my entire life, I have seen Blacks across America in both liberal, and in conservative areas be discriminated against; however, there is something about a state that celebrates the atrocities committed against Black people for centuries that is particularly grueling and unsettling. Confederate flags wave everywhere, high and large in the sky, with more pride than I’ve ever seen.
During my ten weeks, I completed an internship at the Sunflower County Freedom Project, a non-profit organization founded twenty years ago with the purpose of serving Black youth in the community that has been, and continues to be, subjected to generations of underinvestment and discrimination by the public school system and state policies. I saw how many of my students faced compounded levels of discrimination that inhibited their ability to succeed. Let me break down the domino effect of the education system in Mississippi. The high number of lawsuits against the state of Mississippi for segregated schools has forced the state to finally desegregate all of their schools, but is there even a point? In the schools that have been integrated, white flight has occurred faster than a blink of an eye. Subsequently, the battle between public and private education and disbursement of tax dollars occurs.
Black communities are inundated with food insecurity and inadequate access to healthy foods, creating disproportionate rates of diabetes and heart disease. Teen births in Sunflower County far exceed the national average almost three-fold: with a national average of 3.9%, Sunflower County comes in at a whopping 9.4%. If that does not make your stomach churn, 90% of Black families in Sunflower County live below the poverty line. In school, students are taught no civil rights history aside from the menial lesson during Black history month. The lack of regard for accuracy in the way that Black history is taught in schools is frightening; impressionable students are lied to and taught that Abraham Lincoln was mixed and a flawless hero in the civil rights movement. To add to that, they are taught that Emmett Till was not brutally murdered but rather died from injuries. You can only imagine the heated debate I stirred up about these topics. Needless to say, they walked away learning the real facts.
Despite these heartbreaking aggressions that the Black community is faced with and has been attempting to overcome, my students possessed jubilant spirits – a love for singing, rapping, dancing, making beats out of pens, playing football with a Nike sneaker or whatever they could find, playing silent ball between classes and scarfing their food down during lunch so they could run to the basketball court. But my students are not ignorant of the issues I previously mentioned. They are aware, and more importantly, they are resiliently hopeful. My students are a representation of the name of their county. They are sunflowers, deeply rooted in their history and learning from that history to grow towards a brighter future. Although I was inspired by their grit towards an equitable academic future, I saw a dearth in young women’s confidence, an over-obsession with appearance and skin tone, and a lack of space for their voices. It’s no secret that remnants of imperialism and slavery are currently evident through the existence and prevalence of colorism, which has poisoned our youth and affected the ways in which we define and perceive our own beauty as women of color. This is what stuck out to me in the classroom and what I sought to address in a seminar I taught with a fellow intern called, Black Girl Magic (BGM).
BGM empowered our young female students to love, cherish, and celebrate everything that makes them who they are. Through text and media curricula, the seminar showed them the importance of, and power in, being a Black woman. Lastly, the seminar aided the young women in the never-ending fight of valuing yourself as a Black woman and remembering to voice your opinion and take up the space that we are systematically denied. To accomplish this, we taught them about intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, which highlights the way in which different forms of prejudice are amplified when put together.
I began BGM with one purpose, to embolden the minds of young Black women with the idea that they are Black, beautiful and posses a whole lot of magic. I was open and honest in sharing parts of myself that I am still learning to love. I wanted to foster a classroom environment of transparency. In more ways than I could have ever imagined, each and every one of my students bought into that culture. They put themselves in vulnerable positions and engaged with the material passionately, snapping their fingers in agreement with the poetry and responding to readings in insightful and unique ways far beyond their years. They asked me if they could define what their Black is: “everything” one student shouts, “undefined” another student states with a smile, “untouchable” a student says as she pounds her fist on the table. I started this summer with hopes of impacting and inspiring the future of my students. I finish this summer as the one impacted and inspired, forever changed by the irrepressible spirit inside each of them.
These young Black feminists from the Sunflower County Freedom Project in Mississippi created actionable statements for addressing intersectionality and erasing the stereotypes inflicted upon them as Black women.
“As a young Black woman I will hold myself to these values: stop letting people define who I AM; stop telling myself I can’t do and say I can; stop trying to hold myself to society’s standards; stop thinking that I don’t need help when I do. I will love myself by: proving to them I am who I am because self love is the best love. I do not want to be held back by people misunderstanding my loudness. I will support other Black women by telling them you can be who you want to be in ANY skin. I will live up to my potential by graduating, boosting my self esteem, thinking more positively.”
“As a young Black woman I will hold myself to these values: hard work, independence, creativity, compassion, artistic expression, and willingness. I will love myself by caring about what I do and caring about who I am and not trying to change that. I will support other Black women by picking them up when they’re down, helping them out with problems and situations, and just trying to motivate them. I will live up to my potential by becoming an artist and fighting for what is wrong and standing for what is right. #BLACKISBEAUTIFUL”
“As a young Black woman I will hold myself to these values: body positivity, outspoken, individuality, education, advocate, and feminism. I will love myself by not shaming myself, not falling into peer pressure, and taking care of my appearance. I will support other Black women by uplifting them, lending them a hand, and speaking up for them. I will live up to my potential by having positive vibes only, rising up, not limiting myself because I’m a Black woman. I am thick, pretty, and proud to be a Black woman.”
“As a young Black woman I will hold myself to these values: be a trailblazer, always “glow,” be outspoken, and be ambitious. I will love myself by giving myself the best I can get, always getting my education, and staying true to myself. I will support other Black women by showing them to love themselves as a woman, and give them a light to look forward to. I will live up to my potential by making a way even if there is no way, not letting anyone steal my light, and show people the best of me. My Black is UNDEFINED.”
“As a young Black woman I will hold myself to these values: giving back, working hard, and independence. I will love myself by always being positive and not worrying about what others think. I will support other Black women by helping them build their confidence. I will live up to my potential by triumphing over obstacles and leaning on people who motivate me, and I will always tell myself I CAN!”
“As a young Black woman I will hold myself to these values: laughter, family, education, and relationships. I will love myself by loving everything that makes me, me, loving my skin color, and loving my gender. I will support other Black women by being myself, helping other Black women, and being a true friend. I will live up to my potential by going as far as I can in my education, being a role model, and support my family by providing for them.”
“As a young Black woman I will hold myself to these values: ambition, constantly celebrating my blackness, and individuality. I will love myself by always speaking my mind, standing up for my rights as a Black woman, and knowing my worth. I will support other Black women by comforting them and identifying with their struggle. I will live up to my potential by channeling my ambition on my next goal, use every resource I have, and doing my best all the time during school.”
“As a young Black woman I will hold myself to these values: body positivity, joyfulness, intellect, and justice. I will love myself by not letting words affect me, talking out my problems, and not giving up when things get hard. I will support other Black women by protecting them, standing up for them, changing the world by their side, and celebrating their success. I will live up to my potential by working hard, believing in myself, and not letting others bring me down.”