These Black Women Are Building Empowering Spaces in New York City
Visionary creative studio Maroon World's stunning photographs capture five black women who are having a profound impact on their communities.
Late last year, rhetorical questions like “Have you thanked a black woman today?” were all over social media. These seemingly celebratory statements came in the wake of the 2017 Alabama senatorial race. In that election, like so many times before, black American women found themselves on the right side of history. Unlike the 34 percent of white women who wanted to elect an accused child molester to US Senate, 98 percent of us cast our ballots for a candidate who would protect affordable health care and had a history of persecuting racist terrorists.
But while I’d love to say that you should, in fact, kiss the ground that black women’s Loubs and Fentys walk on, I’ll let you in on a secret: We don’t do it for gratitude. We do necessary work to protect ourselves and our communities.
In 1971, Toni Morrison wrote of black women, “I suppose at bottom we are all beautiful queens, but for the moment it is perhaps just as well to remain useful women.” She was commenting specifically on the disillusionment women of color had with the nascent feminist movement. Because when middle- and upper-class white women were emerging from their domestic slumber to demand a place in the workforce, black women had already endured racism and sexism in workplaces in the North and the West, and faced terror and backbreaking labor in the South. These sisters worked and maintained their homes, sometimes in the absence of black men, who were taken from them as a result of institutional efforts to tear black families apart.
Today, black women are the fastest growing group of female entrepreneurs in the US. Perhaps that’s because our mantra has always been, “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”
We aren’t martyrs. We are problem-solvers. We won’t be falling on any swords to save white America from itself. Instead, we’re advocating for worker’s rights, increasing access to funding for important programs, and championing underrepresented voices in the arts as crucial acts of survival.
The stellar bi-annual publication Maroon World, helmed by Travis Gumbs and Cynthia Cervantes, has photographed five black women who are doing this kind of work right now in New York City. These women are courageously creating, clearing, and taking space for other women and people of color in their respective industries, including media, the arts, science, technology, and exotic dancing.
So yes, listen to us, trust us, challenge us, respect us—but most importantly, see us. Because when black women win, we all win.
Sherrell Dorsey is the 30-year-old data journalist who founded The Plug , the first daily tech newsletter that reports on founders, investors, and innovators of color. She grew up in Seattle, Washington, but calls Harlem her home.
"In the future, I see more agency for black women entrepreneurs. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not interested in going back and working for white folks, as terrible as that sounds. But I have the choice not to. I get to really determine that path for myself. And so I think the days of the war stories, that 'I’m the only black person at the board table' or 'I had to deal with this or that' are gone. I think we’re going to hear less and less of those stories and we’re going to hear more, ‘I just raised my Series A round and now I’m looking for a CTO.’ I also think we’ll see greater collaboration and autonomy for black women. Black women are galvanizing in a way that is so critical right now. What’s great is that we can be dope and fly and smart and be in the room and people acknowledge that.”
Ashley Baccus-Clark is a neuroscientist and the creative director at Hyphen Labs, an interactive art and technology studio. Hyphen Labs' recent virtual reality installation Neurospeculative Afrofeminism centers on the experiences of women of color, literally putting users in the body of a black women. The 31-year-old is from Pasadena, California, but she currently resides in Brooklyn.
“Virtual reality has been touted as this empathy machine. But I try to move people away from the empathy conversation. When I hear ‘empathy,’ it’s like putting the viewer on this plane that not only removes them from something, but gives them a place above it. I’d prefer my work to be contextualized in the frame of mindfulness: of being mindful of a person as an experience and not trying to commodify it.
Lack of mindfulness is how people can love black culture, but hate black people. Our culture has been commodified as the barometer of what coolness is. So you can consume us and our ways of talking, speaking, and viewing the world without ever having to engage with a black person.”
Mona Marie is a 31-year-old dancer and instructor born and raised in the Bronx. She owns Poletic Justice , a pole dancing studio that has become the base for women organizing New York’s recent “stripper strike,” which protested the colorism and racism that is rampant in strip clubs.
“My industry is just like any other industry. While we are part of the sex industry, there still has to be some rules and regulations. Just because we’ve decided to be liberated and chosen to showcase our body, that does not mean that we do not deserve respect or professionalism.
People feel entitled to treat us any which way because of what we’re doing. But we just want to be able to go to work and not have to worry about being discriminated against or being fired for no reason or see other staff not being accountable for their actions. All the women of the stripper strike really want is some rules and regulations and for people to act professional.”
Christina Long is an artist and the founder of #BLKGRLSWURLD , a zine that represents the experiences of women and people of color in the metal and punk music scenes. The 30-year-old grew up in Chicago and Detroit, but she resides in Harlem today.
“One thing that offends me, especially around the music scene, is when someone says we have no diversity. I’m like, What the fuck? I was here. And she was here. Did you notice that we were here? There can always be more, but when people say that, I feel like I’ve just been erased completely.
What I hope people find in my zine is that representation. You can see that you're not the only one, and that can be a good feeling. You’re not crazy and you’re not alienated and can find some validation that you actually have similar interests with other people who look like you.”
Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels is a director at the Jack Shainman Gallery and the creator of We Buy Gold, a pop-up art gallery that commissions new and unheralded work. The 38-year-old is from San Francisco, but she lives in Brooklyn.
“I find it interesting that We Buy Gold caught on as a 'black artist show.' Yes, it’s a gallery show that exhibits a lot of artists of color. And I do think that’s something that should be remarked upon. But I’m cautious about anything that describes a space within a certain distinct limitation. It feels too easy. Other spaces, even though they are very singular in what they show, are never discussed in that way.
It’s not about not wanting to talk about race—every single show that we did talks about race. It’s just that I want to have a conversation about the nuance in that. I’m not interested in shows in which race is the only thing that strings them together. There’s so much nuance and complexity in that, and I just find it can be quite lazy—not from the black artists, but from people who are gazing on us.”
Photography by Maroon World
Stylist: Chasidy Billups
Makeup: Wanthy Rayos
Hair: Illy Lussiano
Nail Artist: Eda Levenson of Lady Fancy Nails
This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here.
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