Monday, January 31, 2011
Happy February!! Last summer, Abi Ishola invited me and a group of black women in media to appear on CUNY TV's "Independent Sources". The focus of the discussion was the dearth of lifestyle print magazine options for black women. Abi did a series on this topic which appears on her website. Have a look and listen.
Watching it again after all these months, I'm struck by the fact that I'm wearing a buubuu. After over a month of weekly snow storms in New York, I'm missing the swelter of July. I'm also digging the fact I've learned my lesson and toned down the lip gloss :-) But on a more serious note, it's reminding me of the impact magazines had on me and, ultimately, my writing.
I was 20 when Alek Wek appeared on the cover of Elle, and I remember the schizophrenic range of emotions that singular moment in fashion culture elicited in me. I felt beat-my-chest pride at the sight of this black girl on the cover of a mainstream fashion publication. I also felt uncomfortable with the fact that she was bald, dark, and "African" looking. (I preferred the more Eurocentric presentation of Naomi Campbell, Kiara Kabukuru, Iman, Beverly Peele, and Louise Vyent...)
I had spent my youth absorbing, then wrestling with, the brainwashing that light skin, straight hair, and light eyes were more beautiful than dark skin and "nappy" hair. Elaine Brown explained this complexion politics in her book A Taste of Power: "If you white, you right. If you yellow, you mellow. If you brown, stick around. If you black, git back. Waaaay, back." At the time of Alek's cover, I was working through my brainwashing issues with my senior thesis which focused on the politics of the black beauty ideal. For a tangential reason, I shaved my head and went natural, wearing the short 'fro I'd been forced to wear as a secondary school student in Ghana -- not much longer than Alek's.
After college, I got my first big break working as an assistant editor for fashion and music publication Trace Magazine which published an annual "Black Girls Rule" issue -- long before Vogue Italia's black issue. At Trace, I not only got to hone my skills writing all manner of articles, but I was on the inside of an apparatus focused on depicting the global community of color with the utmost quality. Oluchi Onweagba was the cover model of the first issue I worked on, and when the issue printed, I literally went door to door in SoHo personally placing the magazine in different boutiques and coffee shops to increase its visibility.
All of these experiences were part of what inspired my short story "'Bush Girl" about a wannabe model living in Flatbush, Brooklyn which appeared in African Writing. (Similarly, my encounters with the incredibly diverse stories of writers like Edwidge Danticat, April Sinclair, Zadie Smith, Janet Fitch, Shauna Singh Baldwin, James McBride, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Chimamanda Adichie, Liza Monroy, Adam Mansbach, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Ama Ata Aidoo, Joan Morgan, and Buchi Emecheta spurred me on in the writing of Powder Necklace.)
It's so important that pubs like Essence, Ebony, and JET, Trace, Vibe, The Fader, Uptown, Arise, and the now defunct Honey and Suede exist in tandem with Clutch, YBF, FashionBombDaily, Black Voices, The Root, The Grio, AfriPOP, and so many other blogs and websites. They fill a hole in mainstream publication coverage. But it's even more critical that magazines which bill themselves as mainstream do a better job of respecting the diversity of the readers that support them. Black women, for example, shouldn't feel like they have to go to a black publication to get real hair care advice. Likewise, white women shouldn't feel that a magazine with a black woman on the cover won't have any relevant information for them. No one should feel ignored, marginalized, or pigeonholed...
Anyway, I could go on about this for hours. What do you think of all this?