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From Serena Williams to Michelle Obama: How Do We Portray Black Womanhood?

"The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic" features more than 60 writers unraveling dominant ideas of what Black women are "supposed" to be.

by Vanessa Willoughby
Apr 17 2018, 2:50pm

Serena Williams (L) photo by Charlie T Photographic via Creative Commons. "The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic" cover (R) courtesy Haymarket Books. 

Growing up, I rarely saw myself reflected in the world around me. The mainstream pop culture I devoured was as white as my coastal Connecticut suburb, and as a Black girl, I sensed a strong disconnect between me and the characters that filled the books I read and the movies and television I watched. My favorite teen movies taught me that Black girls were always sidekicks, sassy best friends, or mute background props. They were rarely the heroines; starring roles were reserved for white girls.

The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic, a new poetry anthology edited by Mahogany L. Browne, Jamila Woods, and Idrissa Simmonds, instructs Black women to defy those expectations and challenge ideals modeled in the image of white supremacy. It features more than 60 writers using vivid imagery and crackling language to embrace their vulnerabilities and push against stereotypes that erase Black women’s lived experiences, instead honoring the richly variant forms and stories of Black womanhood.

In the anthology’s titular poem, Browne speaks to our culture’s stifling treatment of Black girls: “You ain’t supposed to do nothing but carry babies and carry felons and carry weaves and carry silence and carry families and carry confusion and carry a nation, but never an opinion, because you ain’t supposed to have nothing to say, black girl, not unless it’s a joke, because you ain’t supposed to love yourself, black girl.”

In another, entitled “If 2017 Was a Poem Title,” Browne sets her sights on Michelle Obama with a kind of reverence that reminds us never to conflate whiteness with universality, never to relent to the white gaze: “The 44th President is lifted off the grounds / by his shadow & his Black wife / She sideeye all day / She cheekbone slay.”

Throughout, we learn that the essence of Black Girl Magic starts with a reclamation of self, a freedom from the confines of the white supremacy and the white gaze, which seek to dehumanize Black women, to control the very image of what a Black woman is “supposed” to be. A quote from legendary feminist poet June Jordan opens a section of the anthology entitled “MY NAME IS MY OWN” with a declaration of self autonomy, “I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name / My name is my own / my own.” The assertion reads not only as a form of self-preservation, but a rejection of systemic oppression, encapsulating the mission of the anthology: self-love and self-acceptance as a form of resistance.

For Browne, poetry is “a boilerplate, a blueprint to articulate rage,” she says. And the poems in Black Girl Magic define anger as having revolutionary power, as itself being a kind of energy. They’re also aware of attempts to try to suppress that power by dismissing Black girls and women who dare to question racism as merely angry by nature or constantly overreacting.

In the poem “Serena,” one of many that takes a prominent Black woman as its muse, writer Porsha O. describes how rage can “be a shield.” Under the white gaze of mainstream media, Serena Williams is often reduced to her physicality, underestimated, and viewed as a disruption to the sport. Yet she seems to channel this negative attention into productive energy, and perseveres in spite of “the white women who make a spectacle of her figure / and the white women who figure she shouldn’t play this sport.” She refuses to compromise her Blackness for the sake of conformity or white acceptance. Even Williams’ bold tennis outfits and “beads that jangle when her braids swing” can be viewed as a deliberate rejection of the demands of whiteness, O. implies.

The section’s title, “SHARPENING MY OYSTER KNIFE,” similarly speaks to pursuing revenge through unapologetically living well, or at least being unbothered. The phrase is pulled from a quote by novelist Zora Neale Hurston, wherein she disavows pity for slow vengeance: “I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”

But the anthology does not dwell solely on rage. Its final section, “JUBILEE” is an ode to resilience and small moments of joy. “I think protecting your joy can come in the form of self-care, collaboration and community,” says Browne. “Building on the small moments is what makes this worth fighting for.”

The section opens with Edwidge Danticat exchanging fatalism for optimism and envisioning a future where her daughters “have the power to at least try to change things, even in a world that resists change with more strength than they have.”

In a world that seems hell bent on the degradation of Black women and girls, hope can often seem like an unattainable luxury. Yet the beauty of Black Girl Magic lies in its defiance of that narrative pushed by patriarchal white supremacy. In the anthology’s final section, Ebony Stewart pens an ode to Black womanhood as an ongoing act of resistance in “Sway.” Addressing an unnamed Black girl, she writes, “You grip, grab, and growl / You hold on, stuck black / You surviving scorched temple.”

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Started by CaShawn Thompson as a hashtag celebrating Black women’s accomplishments, “Black Girl Magic” has come to encapsulate the resilience that makes Black women and girls a constant threat to the institution of white supremacy. It’s our ability to excel even when odds are stacked against us, our ability to channel rage into action, and use moments of joy to propel us forward. Black Girl Magic is exactly what the authors in the anthology are practicing, revealing the revolutionary potential in the celebratory phrase.

And for Browne, the anthology serves as just a starting point for meaningful social change. “The art continues and the revolution continues and this is only one part of the revolution, which is not just the writing but the action,” she says. “The better thing, I think, to focus on is, ‘What happens when this book hits the stands? What happens when this book gets into the classrooms, in the streets?’”