Joan Morgan is a cultural critic and Black feminist writer who penned the book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. She’s also a fanatic about her lips. In 2016, rocking a short, natural cut, large gold hoops, and bright purple lipstick, Morgan was featured in the web series Professional Black Girl, a project that aims to elevate the everyday experience of Black girls and women.
Being a “professional Black girl,” she said, is characterized by “these unspoken behaviors that Black women universally understand and can speak. The one thing that I know is definitely ‘professional Black girl’ about me is my lip game. Being a professional Black girl means you can enter any space with Black women and you will have a common conversation about this particular practice.”
She added: “And I love the fact that I can be anywhere in the diaspora and wear RiriWoo MAC Red, and some Black woman will say to me, ‘RiRiWoo, girl!’ And we’ll know what we’re talking about.”
Launched in September 2016, the first season of Professional Black Girl featured Black women and girls, ranging in age, style, and profession, talking in North Carolina beauty salons about what connects them to the larger community of Black women: the way they dress, do hair, and, as one subject put it, other “Black girl rituals.”
The response to the series, creator Yaba Blay tells Broadly, was so positive and uplifting; now, she’s ready to take on season two. Thanks to a fully funded Kickstarter campaign that ended earlier this month, Professional Black Girl is finally slated to return later this year, this time set in New Orleans. Taking the show there was her way of showing her hometown some love, Blay says, and give women the opportunity to explore how their city impacts their identity and culture.
Professional Black Girl “is about being more inclusive and celebrating all of us,” says Blay, a professor who teaches race and gender politics at North Carolina Central University. When #blackgirlmagic became mainstream, she says, it felt “elitist.” In a teaser for her fundraising campaign, Blay offered this example: “While we’re out here celebrating the Michelle Obamas and Serena Williamses of the world,” she said in the video, “we were forgetting just who they were before they became who they are. Michelle’s feathered hair in that Huey Newton chair? Black. Serena Williams’ braids with the entire pack of beads? Black. And they were consciously repping for Black girls and consciously repping for us.”
Black women often don’t give themselves enough credit for the culture they’ve created, Blay says. What makes Black girls and women “professional,” she explains, is what kind of gel they use or how they approach the way they do their hair. “It’s the things that connect us, that’s what important … not what letters you have behind your name, what career you’re excelling in.”
To further the exploration of who a “professional Black girl” is, Blay asks her interviewees to offer their own definitions. In one episode, #metoo movement founder Tarana Burke said it was someone unafraid to “lean into her blackness and doesn’t shy away from the things that other people might find distasteful about Black women or Black girls.” In another, Grammy Award-winning emcee Rapsody described someone “who owns her individuality and her blackness, [who] cannot be put into a box with any boundaries.” In a joint episode she shared with her 13-year-old daughter, photographer and self-described “Jackie of All Trades” Jasiatic Anderson said: “What makes me a professional Black girl is my ability to do just whatever.”
Blay says that she really sought to turn the meaning of the word “professional” on its head through this series. “I watch a lot of my students struggle with the advice that they get from other professors who look like them about what they need to do and how they need to change in order to be seen as ‘professional,’” she says. She offers the example of Hampton University getting flack in the past for banning male MBA students from wearing cornrows and dreadlocks, and the school’s defense that the intention was to prepare them for the real world.
“I really push back against that,” Blay continues. “It makes me think of Trayvon Martin and Geraldo Rivera coming out later, saying, ‘if he had just not worn that hoodie’—like it would matter what he had on. His black skin is what read as the problem. For me, recognizing that whether you wear a business suit or a hoodie, if your blackness is still the issue, you might as well be free. You might as well be whoever it is you know yourself to be.”
“We can have joy in some very simple ways. I think we need it. We need that balance."
Blay says if she’s learned anything on this project, it’s the power of joy. “It’s to the point now, If i don’t post by noon on the Instagram page, I’m getting text from a girlfriend or a DM … because people are looking forward to laughing, to loving, to having that space to experience joy,” she says. “We can have joy in some very simple ways. I think we need it. We need that balance,” she says, considering the politically and racially charged times we’re living in.
“I dont always want to wax poetic about everything that’s going on in the world because it’s draining to me,” Blay continues. “I think joy is an important part of our liberation.”
Anderson, the photographer featured in season one, tells Broadly she now has what she calls “professional Black girl moments”—when she realizes something she’s doing is intrinsically cultural. “One of the things that comes to mind for me is when I’m on a long flight, I pull out my bonnet. I’m tying my hair up,” she says. “That’s one of those things that’s very culturally unique about Black women—because our hair can do so many different things and we can do so many different things with it. Once it’s done, it’s done. Nothing’s sacrificing that—not a plane ride, not humidity, not anything.”
Blay’s project gave language to all the things that connect Black women, Anderson continues. “She provided a space for us to talk about and verbally celebrate each other’s nuances,” she says. “You feel a connection. You see other Black women and you know, you automatically empathize, understand, and celebrate those things.”