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Sharing their stories: Honoring Black women during Women’s History Month

todayMarch 6, 2023 1

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Dominique Samari

“What’s beyond the tagline of Black Girl Magic. What’s driving it? What are the stories?”

These are some of the questions Dominique Samari asked herself while embarking on this project for Women’s History Month. She’s honoring impactful Black women – some within her network and others she would be meeting for the first time.

“I think that we are now in a time where Black women, at least at some level, are being celebrated and recognized. But, the depth of our stories is not being told in a way that’s been resonate with me.”

Over the last few years, Samari has profiled dozens of women, from various backgrounds, for Women’s History Month. This year, she decided to focus only on Black women. And overall, her decision took her from a public endeavor to a journey that became more personal.

“God made me to be introspective and reflective. And so, I spend a lot of time journaling and thinking,” Samari said. “I feel I am more intentional about the time and space that I give now as I get older. I think with each step, with each layer pulled back, with each little spec of curiosity that I turn inward. It just continues to ground me more and more in myself.” 

Samari is currently partner at P3 Development Group and founder of KIN Universe, a tool that facilitates meaningful discussions between people. She is also a former attorney.

She says this project allows her to process pieces of her life and her own Black womanhood. It also allows her to listen to and share what Black womanhood means to the women on this year’s list.

Self-discovery is a never ending process, and Samari discussed this with HYFIN’s Kim Shine. Their conversation continues below, along with each woman featured in Samari’s project.

The following written pieces & pictures were provided by Samari. This page will be updated throughout March to reflect the women honored.

Dasha Kelly Hamilton, Credit: Bae Hart

No one told Dasha Kelly Hamilton she should like basketball instead of volleyball or gospel choir instead of the choral ensemble. “I grew up moving around a ton as a military kid. It wasn’t until we moved off base and into an all-Black neighborhood and school that I “learned” everything that was wrong about me, about my Blackness.”

Dasha had always been the new kid who dressed a little differently and talked a little differently and was interested in space travel. Then she got bussed to an all-white school and was “wrong” all over again.

In the midst of being ribbed and questioned, plus the stress of preadolescence, Dasha explains how she was really just trying to figure out how to be and behave.

And like many of us quirky kids do, Dasha tried on many different personalities and affectations over the years but “none of those things fit me, none of them felt natural … and they definitely were not convincing.”

“So fast forward to being a grown woman and now there is a certain way I am supposed to show up in a friendship and a certain way I am supposed to snap out on my partner and a certain way I am supposed to aesthetically appear in a room. And I could do those things, but they didn’t feel natural to me, and they were not intrinsically interesting to me. “

“So, whether it was the right jelly shoes in 8th grade or the Gucci purse as an adult, it was all determining whether or not I was in the right club and so as I got older it just made me more observant and aware of all the ways we are programmed to drive each other into these tiny boxes.”

“I am really clear that there isn’t just one way to do Black womanhood. I am a Black woman so however I choose to do it is Black womanhood. I’ve learned that what I enjoy most about being an adult, being a woman, being a Black woman, is being able to make an adventure out of challenging all the rules about how you are supposed to be. Part of being an actualized adult is defining success on your own terms.”

Element Everest-Blanks

“I have always been what people call Blackity, Black, Black” starts Element Everest-Blanks. “But I remember a point in my life and career when people were encouraging me to taper my Blackness, to pull it back. They told me I wouldn’t be able to get opportunities and that it would limit my growth if I was ‘too black.’”

“My family was extremely supportive and always encouraged me to be who I am. So it was painful to leave the comfort of my family and go into a community that was supposed to love and nurture me, but instead told me to tamp myself down. I could see that guidance was being shared in love, as a form of protection, but it was so disheartening to hear from my own people. To be told that if I wanted to reach the highest level of my career and be pushed to the forefront, that I needed to play this game that was rooted in whiteness and that did not include us at all was devastating.”

Element discovered that the guidance she was being provided caused her to distrust others and doubt herself. “I ended up not knowing what was acceptable to say. I held back in meetings and other conversations. I did not know who I could trust.”

It was not until Element had her daughter Karma that she fully committed to leaning into her full unapologetic self. “Karma opened up a space in my heart that allowed me to walk into the most genuine version of myself. She allowed me to be honest about how I feel and become more grounded. I knew I had to be better because I had to leave the world a better place for her. I want her to be equipped with the confidence she needs for everything she has to do in this world.”

Fighting to return home to her own authenticity is in Element’s DNA. “I recently had my African Ancestry done and I am descended from the Mende tribe of Sierra Leone. This is the tribe from the Amistad that led a revolt that killed a number of slave traders and eventually won their freedom to return to Sierra Leone. I am carrying the lineage of people who fought to return home. This is what I want my daughter to see in me. This is what I want to make sure is passed on to her.”

Dianne Williams

“When I was young I did not know anyone who traveled and played golf once they retired. Black people didn’t do that when I was young. They moved back to Mississippi and spent the rest of their days fishing. Now, young women have models for whatever they want their life to look like after work.”

“I spent so much of my life providing for and taking care of my family. When I retired it was hard because I was not sure where my value would be. So much of my identity was in being a mom. I had to really figure out what I was going to do with my days. It is especially hard for Black women of my generation who have been catering to their husbands and children for our entire lives. We were not taught to prioritize ourselves so once we get to this stage of our lives it can be a little unsettling. Black women, at least the ones I know, are just not great at resting and pausing.”

“If I had to give guidance to women who have not yet reached retirement age, it would be to prioritize their physical and mental health from an early age. These bodies and minds will wear out if you do not keep them up and the last thing you want is to get to the phase of your life when you finally stop working and you can’t do the things you really want to do. The other thing is to get curious about what you really enjoy doing outside of work and taking care of your family. It is never too late. I didn’t discover my love for golf until I was in my fifties and I didn’t discover my love for Mahjong until I was in my sixties.”

“And one more thing. Start your retirement savings as early as possible. For me and so many women I know, we prioritized taking care of our families over setting aside money for retirement. But at some point, you have to focus on yourself and put aside enough money so you can do what you want to do.”

“We are always underestimated as Black women so it just thrills me when someone expects me to stumble and fall and I fly. Like recently, I hit a hole-in-one down in Florida and you should have seen all of their faces. This is what living my best life looks like!”

Stephanie Wilson

When Stephanie Wilson’s mother passed, she took on much of her mother’s role and responsibility for her family.

“My mother was my best friend and my model for womanhood, says Stephanie who was 32 when she lost her mom. She was a very young mother, a very hard worker and focused on building a better life for our family. She instilled in me the importance of legacy and taking care of family and community.”

“It immediately became really important to fill that role in the lives of my nieces,” says Stephanie. ” wanted to make sure they had a woman in their lives who was not their mom but who they knew would have their backs. I wanted to be the woman who was always encouraging them and expecting them to be their best while at the same time accepting them for exactly who they were.The cool older auntie who they could tell all their secrets to and who would help them out in a crunch.”

Stephanie reflects on what it has meant to play this role in the lives of her nieces and for other family members as well: “It is amazing to watch a girl child grow into a young lady and know that, at least, in some small part, you had some influence. My niece just found out she was pregnant and I was the first person she called and that felt really good. It felt amazing.”

Stephanie continues: “Now I have a new set of much younger nieces and I can already see our influence on them. And I also see how my older nieces are now passing along our ways to their children. My niece is such a great mom and in so many ways reminds me of my own mom. It just makes my heart happy to see those unspoken connections through the generations of the women in our family.”

For Stephanie, this goes beyond those unspoken connections: “Black women have always been the glue for our families and it is more important now than ever before. I want to make sure we are focused on creating generational wealth. I want the future of my family to be better because I was intentional about making it better. My mom provided us with a very strong foundation and I feel obligated to continue to build on the foundation and provide her offspring with the tools and support to continue our family legacy.”

Joanne Sabir

For Joanne Sabir, the true gift of Black womanhood is the gift of sisterfriends. “There is nothing in the world better than the love and support of the sisterfriends I’ve had in my life over the years,” she says, of the beauty she finds in her relationships with other Black women. “It is just so comforting. There is a shared understanding between us. We can be together and it can be hours full of belly laughs or tears or even silence. It is whatever we need, and I do not get the same type of feeling outside of the Black women in my life.”

Joanne continues: “I have women in my life that have known me since childhood and new women that have just come into my life and bring exactly the love and energy I need for this phase and vice versa. There is no doubt that God has had a hand in the relationships in my life.”

Black women have a secret verbal and non-verbal language that allows us to communicate effectively across geographies and generations. Even though we are all different and our journeys have been different, there is so much shared experience. We don’t have to explain much to know what the other is trying to say.

“I can say ‘chile’ ten different ways and depending on the tone of my voice, the tilt of my head and the look on my face, another Black woman knows exactly what that ‘chile’ means,” Joanne says. “There are so many unspoken ways that we are in relationship and communication with each other that are like that.”

Joanne and I both laugh as we agree that there is absolutely no way we could teach these things to someone else. This is the secret language we learned through observing our mothers, aunties, cousins and friends as young girls. It is the secret language of Black women. And as our friend, @jerehaco says in her post, “if you know, you know.”

Joanne says: “It is just one of the many things that make our sisterhood so special. We really do have something special in each other. It is a gift. We are all a gift to each other.”

Lotoyus Bly

“There is a softness in me but it is hard to get to,” says Lotoyus Bly.“The exterior is definitely hard, and I think it is that way for many Black women because of all we’ve been through.”

“I am really independent minded and strong. I was raised by a single mother and, though my extended family was present, I think I took away from my childhood a spirit of self-sufficiency. I wanted to create a life that did not involve struggle, and I was pretty sure I would have to do that on my own, though I was always open to doing it in partnership.”

Lotoyus went on to describe how, despite her well-laid plans for the birth of her son, she delivered without any pain medication. “It was the most excruciating pain I have ever experienced.” And then she told me about the proudest moment of her life, when she finished the Chicago Marathon less than a year after the birth of her son. “It was grueling but I finished and after that I knew I could do anything.”

It became clear during our conversation that Lotoyus was experienced at doing hard things.

“But what I am not so great at is showing emotional vulnerability,” continued Lotoyus. “It is hard for me to be vulnerable because I carry so much, and there are many things inside of me that have not been resolved. It has made me rigid. It has hardened me and, at this point, it is difficult for me to soften though I really want to. I think it is that way for a lot of Black women. We should be soft but life has made us hard. I learned it from my mother and grandmother. I always thought of my grandmother as mean and stern, but I learned a family secret recently that shed some light on how she came to be that way.”

As Lotoyus shared, I reflected on other women in my life trying to reclaim their softness in a world that has hardened them, in a world that seems to think that Black girl + softness don’t mix.

“The question I have been asking myself lately is, ‘Am I willing to do the hard work required to soften?’ I know I can get back to softness but I have to forgive. I have to let a lot go. I don’t want my daughter to pick up these coping skills. I want her to be emotionally vulnerable. I want her to hold on to her softness.”

Kim Shine

Kim Shine’s father taught her how to show up in the world.

“He made sure I knew the importance of being educated and knowledgeable,” Kim says. “He would always tell me that it doesn’t matter who you are at home, if you want to elevate out in the world, you need to know how to move in different spaces.”

As a journalist, Kim has had to call on her father’s guidance to navigate a wide variety of spaces and places. The guidance has provided her with the ability to pay close attention to people and the contexts in which they exist.

“I try to understand where people are coming from before I pass judgment on them. It has also made me more focused and intent on speaking my truth and telling other people’s truths.”

As a Black woman, who is also a journalist, Kim is committed to telling Black stories with care and in a way that honors the complexity of the Black experience.

“Our stories do not get told as often, thoroughly or clearly as they should,” she says, adding that her job is not to tell people what is right or wrong. “My job is to tell a balanced story. And if the goal is a balanced story, diversity in perspective is important. In the newsroom I make sure I am pitching stories that reflect the diversity in our city. Not only the diversity of people but the diversity of their experiences. We can’t just tell the bad stories. We have to tell our good stories too. And even when we tell the stories of violence and tragedy, we have to humanize the people involved.”

We both agree that the continuous telling of stories of violence in Black and brown communities dehumanize and traumatize us. These one-sided stories fail to recognize the humanity of the individuals involved, do not speak to the larger underlying systemic issues of which violence is just a result and are part of the day-to-day indignities that chip away at the well-being of Black people and our communities.

“It is important to humanize people, especially Black people,” Kim says. “I want to make sure people feel the emotion of the story. I have to get these stories right. I feel like it is my duty, my obligation as a Black woman.”

Brandie Meister

Brandie Meister is a healer but before she could support others in their healing journeys, she had to heal herself.

“There was a time in my life where I let people cross boundaries, I stayed in situations too long and I numbed out and disassociated instead of dealing with my pain,” Brandie says. “I had to forgive myself, forgive others and offer myself love and compassion in order to start to heal.”

Brandie shares that for so long she did not feel deserving of feeling whole and healed.

“I felt like I was supposed to be strong and resilient,” she says. “I felt like I was supposed to be able to carry the weight and so I allowed all of these things to keep happening because I was telling myself, ‘I am a strong Black woman and that is what we do. We bear it all for everybody else.’”

Brandie went on to explain how, especially in professional settings, she readily wore the label of “aggressive” as an armor. “If I was seen as a threat at least I could use that as a way to navigate those spaces,” she says. “It was a way for me to maneuver even though I knew that was not who I was.”

The truth is that at her core Brandie is compassionate and kind and that while wearing the armor of aggression served her in some ways it was steadily chipping away at her spirit.

“It just felt like I was stuck and in pain,” she says. “It was painful to pretend to be someone I was not and more painful to allow everybody else to keep putting me in that box. My higher self was trying to tell me that I was not a warrior. My spirit was trying to tell me that I was a healer.

“My healing journey began when I started to forgive myself and gave myself permission to be whoever I wanted to be,” she says. “I started to heal when I realized that I was the main character in my story. Too often Black women let the world dictate who we should be. When we sacrifice who we really are for who the world tells us to be, we sacrifice our joy and peace – and sanity.

“For so long I did not enjoy life,” she says. “I was not at peace, and that was the price I paid for living inauthentically.”

Vanessa Shorte

“When I was very young, I grew up in the inner city of Milwaukee with my white mother who was always very clear that I was her Black child, ” starts Vanessa Shorte. “But in my neighborhood, I did not feel as though I was different, I felt as though my mom was the different one.”

It was not until Vanessa was bussed from the inner city to the suburbs under the 220 program that she experienced what it meant to be different.

“The white kids would call me Aunt Jemima and all sorts of other derogatory names and on the flip side, the Black kids would tell me my hair was different and my skin was too light and I talked funny,” she says. “I got it from both sides.”

Vanessa describes those experiences as isolating and very lonely.

“I was not accepted by anyone and then add to that the socio-economic differences between us,” Vanessa says. “I was visibly different and did not have things other kids had and, at home, my mom did the best she could but sometimes she could not relate to my experience.”

“Over time my tribe became the Black girls in my school and neighborhood who accepted me,” Vanessa continues. “I became part of their families and that is where I had my first real experiences with Black women and Black womanhood. As I got older, I was only around Black women. It was this community that accepted me, so that is where and how I established my identity.”

“I remember my mother dropping me off early so I could get my hair done because she did not know how to do my hair and the Black moms making sure I looked presentable for school,” she says.

“They really took care of me and made sure I was good. And, of course, this led to me keeping my hair laid and slayed for a while, but, more than that, it planted in me this seed that you take care of your community and your people. And that is something that has definitely shaped me.”

Vanessa is very clear that her journey is her own. “It just really all depends on who and how and where people poured into you. I do not have a sense of how other bi-racial people have been shaped, but my life experiences made me not only racially, but also culturally, a Black woman and that shows up in every aspect of my life.”

Angie Jones

Angie Jones believes there are so many amazing things about Black women but their ability to make pure magic out of thin air is the big “wow” for her. “Black women can take nothing and make it something,” she says.

“I remember my mother creating beautiful things out of nothing,” she recounts. “My mom was a really amazing cook. She made everything from scratch. One day I was in the kitchen helping her make my favorite rolls. We were out of cinnamon and, of course, I panicked. My mom replaced the cinnamon with jelly and those were the best rolls I ever had in my life. From then on, I asked her to only make rolls with jelly.”

If her mom was the queen of making something out of nothing, her sister was the princess, Angie says. She recalls a time when her sister turned a few dollars and knack for sewing into a beautifully decorated Christmas brunch.

“They both taught me how to do what they did and they didn’t just tell me, they walked me through the steps,” Angie says. “They let me come in and made me part of the process.”

What Angie realized as she got older is that her mother and sister made her into a natural problem solver. “Many Black women are natural problem solvers, because we have to be. No one is out here solving our problems for us.”

“I feel like through the years I have become well seasoned by my struggles, by my challenges, by the fact that my challenges did not overcome me. I’ve relied on all my skills, but especially my skills as a problem-solver to make it through.”

“I was able to take every piece of struggle, every little scrap of nothing and turn it into something. I was able to walk through each season of my life and make more magic than I ever could have imagined.”

Hermoine Bell-Henderson

Until very recently, Hermoine Bell-Henderson was one of less than ten Black librarians at the Milwaukee Public Library. As a young person, she did not see any librarians that looked like her and it was not until a Black branch manager suggested she think about a career in library sciences that she started to seriously consider the opportunity.

“I love learning and I chose this career path because I really wanted to make a difference,” she says. “The library is the front door to a neighborhood, to a city and I want to make sure Black women are represented in this space.”

As a librarian with the Milwaukee Public Library for 23 years, Hermoine says she brings her “whole unapologetically Black” self to the work and builds community inside and outside of the library walls.

“It is how I show up every day,” she says. “It is how I dress, how I wear my hair and my willingness to share my experiences as a Black woman with others.”

Hermoine is always ready to recruit and mentor young Black people about librarianship, and, once young people start down that path, she makes sure to stay in touch, check in and ensure they know she’s always available to help.

“That is what stands out to me in my role as a Black woman, who also happens to be a librarian, is that we hold up the world and our cities and our organizations in so many invisible ways,” she says. “Whether it is me checking on people when they are stressed or on the verge of quitting or making sure people have the organizational resources they need to do their jobs better. Or, Stacy Abrams and others working tirelessly to save the state of Georgia. Or, the ladies from the movie Hidden Figures and their invaluable contributions to NASA that we are just recently learning about. The list goes on and on. We do so much behind the curtain work to make sure things do not crumble.”

“It is exhausting but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Danielle Bly

For most of her career, Danielle Bly has been the only Black woman in the room. At times, that has felt like a weight for her but she has been able to bear that weight because she knows she comes from a long line of strong and resilient women.

“I am a Black woman in every space that I am in but I’m often in spaces where I’m the only one or maybe one of two, or one of a few,” she says.

Being the ‘only’ started very early for Danielle.

“I remember being the only–or maybe one of two–when I was in my high school AP class,” Danielle recalls. “I remember a white girl in my class asking me if my bones were white like hers and if I bled the same color. This is in high school! I remember not knowing what to do because there was no one who looked like me in the classroom. There was no one else who was having this same experience that I could talk to about it. Even now, I wish I would have responded differently. It makes me sad to think about it because I think there are white women and girls who are still asking Black girls and women these same questions.”

“It also makes me angry because in a way we have made strides, but in so many ways we have not,” Danielle continues. “Folks talk a good game but there is not enough action behind the talk.”

If actions met words around DEI efforts, there would not still be rooms–and whole organizations–with just one Black person at the table, Danielle and I agree.

As Danielle has grown in her leadership and advanced in her career, she has also grown more confident in who she is as a woman and as a Black woman but it has been a journey.

Early in her career, Danielle discovered, during a workplace training seminar, that her childhood experiences with white people had created in her a sense of being intimidated by white men. “I was shocked but that awareness helped me shift how I show up in mostly white spaces — especially around white men.”

“At this point in my career, I feel confident in my ability to read a room and show up in exactly the manner that supports me in getting done what I need to do,” she says. “If I am the only one, I have to represent. I have to show up for all of us.”

Milika Miller

Black women carry a unique, dual burden, says Milika Miller. 

“Everybody wants to be us but nobody really wants to be us,” she says, “because to be us means that you carry all of the burdens society places on womanhood and all of the burdens society places on individuals of African descent.  Black women are the only ones that carry that dual burden.”

“You want me to be expressive, but not too loud. You want me to show up in the world as myself, but not too colorful, not too disagreeable. You want me to be submissive, but I also need to be able to hold together families and communities, excel at a high-paying job –  and all at the same time.”
For her, the concept of freedom for a Black woman can be complex: “I am always asking, is this about the upliftment of all Black people or is it about the upliftment of Black people against the patriarchy? For me, when freedom finally comes, my freedom looks different than a white woman’s freedom and is closer to a Black man’s freedom. I didn’t get the right to vote with white women, I got the right to vote with Black men.” 

Even the idea of the patriarchy becomes complex when one considers the intersection of race. “There has been some meddling. Would Black men also be contributors to the patriarchy if the racist systems that shaped them did not exist?”

“At the end of the day, white women are still willing to give up many things in hopes that they might get this perfect life if they keep riding with white men,” Milika says, “if they just stay in the car and don’t say too much. Whereas Black women, because of our unique history and position in society, we know our men are oppressed, and we know the impact of that oppression, so we cannot just ride along in the car. It has to be a partnership and we have a lot of questions: Where are we going? Did you get gas? What is in the trunk? And — if it looks like we are headed in the wrong direction we do not have any issue telling you to pull the car over so we can get out.”

Jessica Currie

Jessica Currie grew up in Sacramento, California, and was one of very few Black kids in her neighborhood and school.

“I was a happy kid but in a lot of my circles I was the only Black kid and I was the tallest,” she tells me. “I stuck out like a sore thumb, and all I wanted to do was to fit in. I found myself making myself smaller. I dimmed my light in order to make sure I belonged.”

“I remember feeling like I had to be so calculated around my white friends. There was a huge chunk of my life that I didn’t bring into those relationships because I knew they just would not get it. When I was around my Black friends, both new and old, there was just an immediate connection. It was just understanding with no explanation. It was so nice.”

As an adult, social media has been helpful in connecting her to a whole new world of Black women.

“I have so many friends I have met through the internet. If I see another Black girl and I like what she is about, I will go online and shoot her a friend request. These are women I admire who are doing amazing things. I follow them, they follow back. We like each other’s stories and pictures. It really is a way of saying ‘I see you and I support you.’ We uplift one another, and it is magic. Next thing you know, we are sending voice notes and meeting for coffee when we are in each other’s cities. These relationships have been so open and so vulnerable and I am so grateful for them.”

Jessica continues as she reflects on a relationship that has been particularly meaningful.

“I met my very good friend @Darian on Instagram. She has a movement called @Studio.Symone. She is a wonderful writer and speaker. She’s iconic. We cultivated a connection with each other and between others in our circles. It is all pretty amazing.”

Jessica and I laugh about how she simply did not have access to this many Black women in Sacramento. “It is the power of the internet,” she says. “Now, I am connected to these women who are so inspiring and who have this energy. I just love that about us. When we get together, we amplify. It’s all so supportive. It is all so respectful. It is all so beautiful.”

Cecelia Gore

“Being a Black woman gives me a great sense of joy and pride,” Cecelia starts. “When I see us achieving amazing things and doing really well it really gives me a sense of pride but I also recognize that there are a lot of challenges and hard work that go along with being a Black woman – challenges that are unique to us.”

Cecelia reflects on one of her favorite musicians, Frankie Beverly and Maze, and describes the experience of holding both the joy and pain of being a Black woman simultaneously. “It is complicated in many ways and on several levels. There are many bright lights and, for some, there is opportunity, but for many others life is a real struggle and it is just because they were born Black and a woman.”

“To change this, those who have access, have to offer access to others. We can connect people in a way that helps move them forward. There are so many opportunities for us to help each other and we get so much energy from each other.” says Cecelia.

Cecelia goes on to describe the importance of staying connected to and supporting one another. “I think about all the situations where I’ve seen other people promoted or given opportunities over Black women” Celcelia continues, “we still stand and advance even though there is this lens that others use to view us that tries to make us believe that we are not who we know ourselves to be.”

“I often say, I might not be that thing today, but I could have been if you had seen me, if you had developed me, if you had viewed me as capable and given me the opportunity. If someone had said, ‘you belong on another leadership track’ or if my grade school teacher had pushed me toward Algebra instead of Home Economics. Maybe my situation would have been different.”

“I have seen decades of talent that has gone un-seen, un-managed and undeveloped – and I really believe it is because people could not imagine or did not believe they should be in those positions. ”

“We have to pull our own up. We can always see the talent and gifts in another Black woman and it is up to us to support one another.”

Genyne Edwards

Genyne Edwards attended a program with the @bucks the day she and I talked for this project. One of the players, @bportistime, talked about how he wouldn’t be where he is without his mom. That, in turn, made Genyne recall when she became part of that sacred group: Black mothers. She remembers distinctly taking on the identity and the expectation of sacrifice.

“Even though I did not give birth, I remember when I became a bonus mom…and there was this silent expectation that I was supposed to do anything for this child,” she says. “There were a lot of times where I questioned – and still question – did I do the right thing? Did I handle that situation correctly? How could I have been a better mother to this child?”

She remembers watching her mom and aunts and it seemed like the most important thing was a sense of self-sacrifice, Genyne says. The biggest sacrifice for her own mom, Genyne continued, was that she didn’t always seem to be able to live out loud.

“It seemed as if she lived her life tamped down,” Genyne says, “It actually makes me sad to think about it. It is like she had to dwarf herself in ways, dwarf some of her personal expression. That was her sacrifice for motherhood.

“Even as a child, I remember being bummed out by that. I remember thinking, ‘Why do my mom and my aunts have to sacrifice so much?’”

At some point, Genyne decided that she would take from those examples the things that served her and leave the rest behind.

“I have been pretty intentional about living my life out loud,” she says, adding that this does not diminish the “gift of responsibility of family” in any way. “I really believe in family first and know it is important to make sure you are bridging and linking your people. I think that has always been a Black woman’s role and it is one in which I find a lot of purpose and joy.”

Emille Grant

I have known Mrs. Emille Grant since I was a child at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. As a child, and still today, she represents to me everything that is kind, gentle and patient in humans.

She was born in 1946 in the south and grew up in the segregated city of Inkster, Michigan. “I felt very comfortable in anyone’s home on my street, whether they were home or not. It was a different time. We took care of each other. We did not have many material things but I was surrounded by adults who gave a lot of themselves to me. Anybody could spank us or feed us. Anybody could love us. Teachers cared for us, understood us and loved us dearly and that changed the way we were educated.”

Emille continues: “We had true kinship. I just know that if I had grown up in an integrated neighborhood none of this would have been possible. I feel blessed to have had the upbringing I had.”

Emillle says she learned from her mother, teachers and all the women in her neighborhood, how to be compassionate and pour into young people.

When Emille attended college, it was a culture shock. “I had never been around that many white people and most of them had not been around any of us. One of them asked if they could see my tail because that is what they had grown up learning about Black people. Like when I was young, it was the older Black women students who helped me navigate challenges those first years.”

After college, Emille became a teacher. “Early on I taught at a school that was experiencing ‘white flight’ and I remember the white teachers painting such a dismal picture of how the school was changing. But I had grown up around these kinds of kids and I knew they had a lot to give – and I knew how to pour into our kids. It matters what kind of expectations you have for kids. I knew that from my own childhood.”

And for Emillle, that is the greatest gift of being a Black woman. “We get to raise and help Black children. We get to help them navigate all of the things they have to navigate. We can share our experience so they can walk more confidently in their own lives. We can see the gifts in our children and we can pray for them.”

Shane Woods

Shane Woods is done being a superwoman.

As a young person, Shane, as the oldest of three girls, took it upon herself to be a role model, to navigate the world in a way that provided an example for her younger siblings. As part of that role, she began adopting the notion that many Black women come to embrace – that her success would require her to be the best of the best. It was the familiar identity: the Black superwoman.

As she became older and wiser, Shane realized that Black super woman and other identities she had adopted were just that, identities – ultimately unsustainable.

“I finally started rejecting the superwoman identity, the savior mentality, that I think a lot of black women hold onto,” she says. “The example that always comes to mind is Stacey Abrams and Georgia. Why do we have to be the ones showing up for everyone all the time?”

Today, Shane is teaching her daughter that she does not need to be a superwoman. She is teaching her that she gets to define herself for herself.

Shane, whose Bible-belt upbringing also taught her that marriage and children would lead to happiness, is also encouraging her daughter to seek a career path rather than a husband.

“I want her to know that partnership is the model, not finding a man to complete you,” Shane says. “I don’t want her to feel like she has to fit some mold. Or, that she can’t use her voice to say when something is wrong. I came up at a time when children were seen and not heard. I am not passing any of that along to her.

“This is different from what I was taught,” she says, “because it’s a different America. It’s a different world.”

Morgan Phelps

The Disney and rom-com movies that Morgan Phelps watched growing up shaped her idea of romantic love and partnership.

“I watched all of those movies and they were all lies, lies, lies,” laughs Morgan.

“Of course for every woman it is an unrealistic portrayal of what relationships are meant to be but for Black women it is doubly so,” says Morgan. “Those movies don’t speak to the unrealistic anti-Black beauty standards nor the complicated expectations Black women face in partnership, like how men want Black women to be big mama, the sexy wife and the loving caretaker. They want us to be a boss girl but in a way that still lets them feel safe and in charge. There are so many contradictory expectations and it leaves us feeling exhausted and unappreciated.”

Add to the pressures that Morgan mentions the reality that our dating pool is not the same as it is for white or other women. There are real issues facing our men that limit the dating pool for those intent on having a Black partner. There is also real trauma our men are dealing with, which makes navigating communication and conflict inside of a relationship difficult. And so many of us never had good examples of partnership so we are flying blind even if we have good intentions. Add all of that up, and it’s no Disney movie out here.

“The Disney movies focus on ‘finding him’ and none of them talk about the reality of being in a relationship,” Morgan adds. “The real life examples I had for partnership from my childhood were from my grandparents. My grandfather assured me as a young girl that a charming prince would show up to protect and save me.”

While Morgan adopted ideas about partnership from all these sources in her youth, she eventually came to a place where she defined partnership for herself.

“I think as Black women we learn to put others first but I think it’s so important to love ourselves first and to focus on taking care of ourselves,” Morgan says. “I cannot give to him if my cup is not full. I think these false narratives have caused a lot of Black women to settle for less than they deserve. We have to get to a point where we don’t settle. The alternative is just way too stressful.”

Jenna Hatton-Cobb

For Jenna Hatton-Cobb, there are safe spaces, where she is absolutely adored, loved and celebrated and another world where she is feared, envied, appropriated and under attack.

“There’s beauty and strength in being a Black woman, and there’s also a guardedness because of the world,” she says.

What living in that dichotomy looks like for Jenna is having to guess and then second guess how to show up in white spaces, especially in her workplace, in order to avoid being perceived or labeled as confrontational or angry. And that is angst producing.

It feels like, ‘Oh hell, here we go again, let me get my mind right,” Jenna says. “So many of our experiences can’t be shared freely because now it’s a 30-minute conversation where I have to educate people as if I am the first Black woman they’ve ever met and they’ve never heard ANY of this before. It is exhausting.”

But when Jenna goes from white spaces to those where she’s surrounded by Black women, “being smart, quick-witted, informed (and a little sassy) is celebrated.”
She says: “It feels like freedom. It feels like easy breathing. It feels like I can release the tension in my body and in my spirit. Black sisterhood is unmatched.”

“We are so often misunderstood and misused but that does not stop them from copying everything we do,” Jenna continues. “I don’t need your accolades. I don’t need you to put a Black woman on the cover of Vogue Magazine. But when you put a white woman in cornrows and a gold grill on the cover, call it high fashion and act like that has nothing to do with Black women—that is where I have a problem.”

“That happens in big ways and small ways,” she continues. “It can just as easily happen, when an idea you introduced in a meeting shows up three months later and now it’s being reintroduced as the new strategy. You were never invited to the project but now your idea is being introduced to the room as a brand new strategy. That is how people in my world experience the white model on the front cover in cornrows and a grill.”

Marquayla “Quay” Ellison

Hair is at the center of a Black woman’s identity and expression. And Marquayla “Quay” Ellison’s hair journey has led her down a road of self-empowerment. But, as is true for many of us, that road has been full of bumps and bruises.

“I’ve gone through this whole thing with my hair,” she says. “I used to wear sew-ins and braids but I noticed how much it was starting to control me. I became so dependent on the hair stylist that I did not know what to do with my own hair. And if I didn’t feel good about my hair, it would stop me from going places or doing certain things. At some point, I realized how much it was controlling my life and my mind. One example is from when I was young. My hair stylist was sick and could not do my hair. I did not go to school for two days because my hair was not done.”

The second example Quay shared forced her on her natural hair journey at an early age.

“I did my own relaxer when I was 12 years old and I did not use the neutralizing shampoo,” she says. “All my hair fell out. For months I had to wear a headband because the front part of my hair was completely gone. I remember waking up and touching my head night after night and crying.”

After that experience, Quay’s hair could not tolerate much tension or chemicals.

“For two years it really humbled me,” Quay says. “By high school, I just did not have the energy to care anymore. In college, I started wearing it natural and this was way before the natural hair movement. At that time, if you were a woman rocking short and natural hair, your identity was questioned. It was not at all what it is today. “

Quay continues: “It was a struggle for a while but then I got to a place where I just could not give any energy to what other people thought of my hair. It forced me to love MY hair and to pay attention to what was serving me and what was not serving me.”

“As women, we want to look good and that is all a part of us wanting to feel accepted and valued by others, but we have to tune into ourselves to figure out what makes us feel that way about ourselves first and our hair is such a big piece of that.”

Tammy Belton-Davis

Tammy Belton-Davis tells me that there are countless times in her life when colorism antagonized her more than the n-word: “I remember in first or second grade kids calling me ‘yellow banana’ and it made me feel angry and like something was wrong with me.”

She recalls how jarring the experience was because, up until that point, she had been the beloved first child in her family, surrounded by immense amounts of love and support. “I recall the feeling of being othered and starting to question whether there was actually something wrong with me,” she says. “It made me feel like I didn’t belong.”

Tammy continues: “When I got older, I was only one of a few Black students at a majority white school. So there was an added layer to my otherness. I was still ‘yellow banana’ but now at a predominantly white school. It was the worst.”

“I am grateful that I have a mother who is steeped in confidence, and who had a similar experience because of her skin tone. She continuously reinforced that I was beautiful and brilliant and that prevented me from falling too far away from myself.”

Those early childhood experiences impacted Tammy in a way that she didn’t fully understand until much later in life.

“For the longest time, I hated the color yellow. I didn’t own any yellow clothing. I was repulsed by the color and then at some point I had an ah-ha around it.”

The way Tammy was perceived as a young woman also shaped how she moves through the world now and made her more open, she says.

“So there was this thing, at least for me, where some people would dislike me just because I was fair-skinned,” Tammy says. “The issue is that standards of beauty can be defined by lightness and proximity to whiteness which can contribute to challenges with men and women because of their expectations of me based on the skin I’m in. This is all rooted in the painful colorism that exists in our communities because of white supremacy.”

Tammy tries to extend herself so no one will misinterpret her.

“I don’t want anyone’s perception of me to block a potential relationship. Get to know me, if you don’t like me, cool, but don’t dismiss me just based on what you see on the exterior.”

Tyanna Clayton-Mallett

Anyone who knows Tyanna Clayton-Mallett knows that she loves Ghana. She loves the culture of Ghana. She loves the people of Ghana. She simply loves Ghana. So it was no surprise that she shared a story from her time living in Ghana to articulate the magic of Black womanhood in her life.

In a town called Hohoe, she made friends with one of her counterparts’ wives, Mariga. Tyanna and Mariga didn’t speak but a few words of each other’s languages, English and Chamba, respectively. Still, they formed a very close bond and became dear friends.

“She helped me settle into my place and prepare food,” Tyanna says. “She helped me get on my feet and I helped her with household chores. Over time, we confided in each other about very deeply personal things despite the language barrier.”

When Tyanna goes back to Ghana, she always greets Mariga, “Hey sister!” because of the bond they were able to form, despite the barriers. “For me there is just so much beauty in knowing that sense of sisterly belonging that is beyond language and beyond culture. We are connected by our Black womanhood – there was a foundation in place that existed before both of us.”

As Tyanna reflected on her experiences in Ghana, she realized how much of what she’s learned from her mother, grandmother and aunties goes beyond language. “It just makes sense that so much of how I feel connected to Black women is unspoken because most of what I picked up from them was unspoken,” Tyanna says. “It’s like when you see another Black woman and it’s so much love, like a warm hug. It is just that feeling, that energy. It is that connection I would not trade for the world.”

Danae Davis

Like almost every other aspect of her life, Danae Davis thinks of her Black womanhood in the larger context of community. It is nearly impossible for her to pull her story apart from our collective story. And for Danae, the heart of our community rests with the well-being of our children. Anyone who knows Danae, knows she has a heart for children.

“They gravitate toward me,” she says. “They trust me, and I love being trusted.”
I know the reason young people gravitate toward Danae. It is because she makes them feel seen and listened to and special. She does this for many people, but I see how this is especially powerful for young people, especially for young Black people.

“I’m less about trying to school young people and provide the wisdom of age and more about finding out what is going on with them,” she says, “and I show up pretty authentically. What you see is what you get, and I think that really works for young people.”

Her way of showing up is based on her survival as much as it is based on theirs–and ours.

“I have to believe in young people,” she says. “I have to believe things will be better and they will experience a world different than the one I have and am currently experiencing. If I didn’t have that belief in young people, I have no clue where I would be.”

“I believe Black people have to be the primary change agents for the conditions of Black people,” she says, “so the gift for me of being a Black woman is the opportunity every day to live my life in a way that provides a counterbalance to the stereotypes, wrong narratives, closed views and perspectives that society puts out there about Black women–about Black people. To the extent that I contribute to a positive narrative by being my authentic self, I believe that is the gift. That is how we take back our story about who we are, where we are going and how we are going to get out of this shit. That is the major contribution we as Black women overlook sometimes. The real work is loving myself and from there showing up in a way that shifts all of this for all of us.”

Ashley Hines

My conversation with Ashley Hines was a gift. I sat with what she shared for many days after our conversation.

“If reincarnation is a thing, I would choose to be a Black woman again,” she says. “I realize it is not without its challenges but I honestly believe the challenges are an inherent part of the gift,” she continues. “We have been born into a world designed to destroy us. There are systems and structures that are intentionally designed to set us up for failure and to live a life of struggle. But that set-up gives us strength.”

Even in largely white spaces and from a young age, Ashley felt proud to be a Black woman. “I not only felt that I should be in those rooms, but that I should bring all parts of me and have a voice.”

Ashley believes ‘those rooms’ are the rooms and spaces that give us the chance to really find out what we are made of and prove our value – not to others – but to ourselves.

“You are forced, in the face of adversity and oppression, to really dig deep into knowing yourself,” she says. “You get to your core and get clear about what you want to offer the world. When you can transform that pain it is very powerful. It creates grit and determination. You become unstoppable,” Ashley says.

“The [equity and inclusion] work I do is fueled by pain,” she says. “I have felt ‘less than’ and I do not want anyone else to feel the same way, so I work hard to create a society that is as far away as possible from what was meant to break me.”

“I understand that they want to see me fail,” she says. “They do not want to see me live with ease or be successful. But knowing and facing that opposition has made me who I am. The world tries to knock us down but Black women always get back up. We just do it but we do not do it alone. I am grateful to have a whole tribe of Black women around me who will help me get up over and over again. I know they are there to help me face any challenges that come my way.”

Kantara Souffrant – Credit Rosen-Jones

Kantara Souffrant’s parents are from Haiti and her chosen family includes elders and contemporaries from all over the world. “My whole thing is diaspora,” she says with a broad smile. “All my people are diasporic.”

Part of being a Black woman in this world for Kantara is resting in the feeling of community around Black people no matter where that may be. She talked about how this feeling is born not just from the struggles of being Black but from the shared way we move through the world.

“Growing up, we always had black-eyed peas and rice cooking on the stove on New Year’s Eve and for so long I thought that was just a Haitian thing,” shared Kantara. “And it wasn’t until I met my husband in Milwaukee that I was like oh … y’all make black eyed peas on New Year’s Eve too.”

“There are so many ways that Black women move through the world,” Kantara says, “whether through speech, dance or art.” There are so many points of recognition that make her feel less alone. “Somehow I just have the sense that if I wasn’t a Black woman, I would feel very lonely in this world.”

The work of Kantara in this lifetime is to keep the joy of being a Black woman while shedding some of the historic pain patterns of Black woman-ness.

“In Yoruba culture,” Kantara said, “the good thing is to get married and have children but it never seemed pleasurable to me. It always seemed like an act of bondage that keeps you from being fully self-actualized.”

“But for me” Kantara continued, “marriage and motherhood are not in opposition to my spiritual journey. They are part of me being a fully realized, happy healthy human in the world.”

“One of the lessons I am learning as a Black woman is that this pattern of bending and struggling for other people’s survival is not necessary.”

“I want to heal these things so my daughter can just live. She will have to work through whatever challenges are hers to work through but they will not be inherited challenges” Kantara continued.

“My biggest fear is the moment she starts to see the most horrid things the world says about being a Black woman as the truth. It is a loss of innocence that she will never get back.”

Corry Joe Biddle

Corry Joe Biddle defines her role as a Black woman primarily through the lens of motherhood, a sense of self and motherhood that she received from her mother.

“My mom always made me feel provided for and loved,” she says. “She also made me feel understood when I was struggling or sad. She made me feel seen and made me feel like my feelings were valid. Only a Black woman could have done what she did for us with the resources she had available.”

“I grew up in the projects but I attended Golda Meir with kids from all over the city,” says Corry Joe, adding that she “did not realize we were poor until I was invited to spend the night at a friend’s home on Lake Drive.”

Corry Joe started to pay attention and realized that her friend from Lake Drive could never spend the night at her house. “And I just remember starting to have this feeling — the feeling that I now know as being othered,” she says.

In the third grade, she went on a field trip to Grants, designed to expose her class to Black food culture.

“When we arrived the white kids started throwing the black-eyed peas and other food at each other and none of the Black kids had the strength or courage to say anything,” Corry Joe remembers. “The Black kids eventually joined in and we all basically made a mockery of the whole experience.”

As an adult, Corry Joe recalls how that day made her feel. She felt like she was shrinking, becoming smaller. “I just felt like when I was eating this food with my family, I was proud of it, it was delicious, it was part of our culture,” she says. “But in that moment I was embarrassed. What I realize now was the impact of living a Black life under the white gaze. That is what I was feeling as a third grader but didn’t have the words for at the time.”

Corry Joe knew as long as she could make it home to her mother, everything would be fine: “I didn’t have the words, but I knew I would be understood. I knew she would understand my experience.”

These experiences shaped Corry Joe into the woman and mother she is today. A mother who listens, creates safe spaces and soft landings and who brings peace, compassion and curiosity into her interactions with her children.

Lauren Feaster & Taylor

being a Black woman means having both the challenge and the opportunity of existing in spaces that are created, orchestrated and directed by people that do not look like her or have her interests in mind. 

“In order to stay in balance,” she says, “you have to stay present and conscious to find the joy in the struggle. The presence and consciousness moves you away from guilt and blame and undervaluing yourself. It moves you away from falling victim to the feelings that the world has projected on you.” 

There is a way the world wants Black women to feel, Lauren explains. “And being conscious allows us to say, ‘Hold on this isn’t on me!’ It doesn’t matter if you’re feeling like an imposter or you’re feeling unsettled or unwelcome, it’s likely not because of anything that you’ve done.” 

“Just taking that moment to stop, pause and be present empowers you to open your mind, examine the hand you’ve been dealt and recognize you are doing a kickass job given the circumstances,” she adds. 

“Sometimes things are not a result of anything that has to do with us,” she says. “Sometimes it’s just the default system that we’ve been born into. Presence allows us the opportunity to offer ourselves some grace.”

At some point, Lauren realized the entire system needed to be re-evaluated. As a young leader, Lauren did not see much correlation between the material entrapments the world was pushing at her and the levels of joy and happiness that people who seemed to possess those things experienced. 

“I would meet with people who seemed to have everything but they had not seen their families and they were full of regret,” she says. “They were miserable and sharing all of these deeply personal things with me—a stranger.” 

It was at this point that Lauren started to look closely at how she was being told to define success. “A big part of being present and conscious is anchoring myself and my values and creating my own definition of success and not relying on somebody else’s definition.” 

The dominant narratives about success and happiness were created for someone else and they’re faulty, at best, she says. “As a Black woman, I have to define what works for me.”

Dominique’s Final Thoughts of Reflection

Over the past few weeks, life has presented a series of challenges that have grounded me more deeply in my purpose and presence. As a result, this has been a time of introspection and reflection for me. This project provided me with a consistent space to deepen my reflection and connect with the wisdom of these women as I wrestled with some of life’s more difficult truths.

I’m a story-teller and a healer and creating space for vulnerable sharing and connection is part of my purpose in this lifetime. I believe it is true that we create what we need and this space and these conversations are something that I have needed in my life for quite some time. I’ve needed a space where I feel seen and am able to show up as my whole self – all of my brilliant and broken bits in tow.

I’ve always been keenly aware that everyone and everything has a story and I’m forever grateful to the 29 women who trusted me to share theirs. I’m grateful for @beautyinherhands who supported all of the posting this year. Life had other plans for me this month and this project may not have seen the light of day without her support.

I’m grateful to everyone who followed and supported this year’s project but I am especially grateful to all of the Black women who reached out to share how a post touched their heart or moved their spirit. As it turns out, I am not alone. Over the past month, I consistently heard how much this space and these conversations were needed and desired by us.

There are many fresh insights that have bubbled to the surface of my mind and heart as a result of the wisdom shared by these phenomenal women but this is what has been lingering over these past few days. I have always considered being born a Black woman a gift but I am now realizing that it may just be the greatest gift I’ve been given this lifetime. The second insight is this – for so long I have attempted to deny, diminish or completely discard the challenges that have shaped me and my life. But as I begin to pay closer attention, I can see how these challenges have paved the way to my unique purpose. As it turns out, it is all a gift. Every little bit of this life I’ve been given has been a gift all along.

Written by: HYFIN

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