by Kimberly Foster @KimberlyNFoster
What Black girls and Black women produce can rarely be recreated convincingly because the work we’ve put into defining and refining our aesthetics is not often recognized. In a new web series, Yaba Blay elevates the parts of Black Girl Culture that those who move through it might take for granted.
Professional Black Girl pays close attention to the extraordinariness of our daily lives in short conversations that span multiple generations. Each episode is a chat with a niece, girlfriend, sister, or auntie. Until you watch, you might forget how cathartic is is to watch a beautiful brown face dive into the minutiae of her hair care or reflect on her style evolution.
Blay reminds us that Black Excellence doesn’t have to look like degrees and professional achievement; it thrives in the extraordinariness of our daily lives.
We talked to Dr. Blay about the project and the importance of these celebrations.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For Harriet: Where did the idea for Professional Black Girl come from?
Yaba Blay: It was actually a little bit random. I started using the hashtag on Instagram and Facebook anytime I would see a cutesy video of little Black girls dancing or pictures of what I considered to be iconic Black hairstyles. I was just using it to kind of note that there was something else going on, a professional level of Blackness that we were seeing.
Then, this summer I started working on a web series that I am developing called Adventures at Beauty World. My original idea was to end each episode with a professional Black girl highlight, where I would talk to a Black woman about her hair, and her hair history, and talk about how it connected to her identity of repping Black girls and Black hair everywhere she goes. As I started filming and talking to more and more women and girls, I felt like it was something of its own, so I decided to make it its own series.
FH: I love the diverse array of people that you highlight. How do you chose who you’re going to spotlight in each episode?
YB: What’s interesting is that I’m connected to all of these women as friends. The first person I thought of was Akiba Solomon. We actually became friends through Facebook years ago. I had always been a fan of her work and her writing, and then we became friends on social media. I remember one night she posted a picture of herself in high school, and she had stacks in her hair. We were on this thread for hours talking about everything from stacks, to finger waves, to Pink Oil Moisturizer, and Isoplus Oil Sheen. It really connected us. I came to find out we’re the same age. We graduated from high school the same year. It was like a shared experience that was really centered on our hair histories.
I knew Akiba had to be on there, and have this conversation with her. I also just realized, that many of my own friends are professional Black girls as well. Everyone featured, I’m connected to in some way.
FH: The phrase “Professional Black Girl” has a certain kind of class connotation to it. I’m wondering if you ever think about the ways that Professional Black Girl might be interpreted as an embrace of respectability or as elevating a certain kind of Black woman.
YB: I’ve definitely thought about that, and in using professional, I was trying to try to flip the language in a particular way. I think I’ve always been a Professional Black Girl, but I recognize being in the academy, getting a PhD, having to move in certain circles–it’s almost like we hide our true identities in certain spaces. There this kind of vibe that we have to act in a particular way and that for many women is not their genuine selves. You put on this performance to seem professional, to be accepted, to elevate towards success, and I’ve always rejected that.
In using “professional,” my intent was to give us new ways of thinking about professional. It’s almost a question of who determines what professional is. How do we recognize what it means to be professional? For me, because I do center blackness in all of my work and in my identity, it was more about noting that there are professional levels even to being ourselves.
I’ve noticed, particularly since the project launched and the t-shirts launched, I think for some people there might be some concern, some confusion, even I know one sister said that she kinda cringes when she sees the word, but she gets it. I definitely see how that’s possible without the broader context, without folks getting into the series and seeing how we’re talking about it, or maybe not even reading a blurb about it; I can see how that can happen.
FH: I’m wondering how you personally balance navigating all of those parts of your identity? What was your journey? Or was there a journey for you to accepting that you can contain multitudes, so to speak?
YB: I think there was a journey, but I do recognize that my journey is probably unlike most Black women in the academy in that I got my PhD in African American studies from Temple. Temple has long been a very black and Afro-centric space. In my experience, I didn’t have to code switch.
YB: I did too. I think it’s probably because of Bill Cosby, because it was in Philly, and it’s really in the middle of the hood. From the outside looking in, given the neighborhood and the regular folk that are around, one might think that.
No, it’s a PWI, but I was definitely in a bubble being in the department of African American studies. Being in Black studies, being at Temple, and conferencing at Black conferences I never really had to hide those pieces of myself.
I started at an HBCU and ended up graduating from a predominately white school. My first Masters was from the University of New Orleans, which is also predominately white.
There is a sense that there is an appropriate time to be our fullest self. I’ve never felt like I was completely hiding myself or performing something that I wasn’t. I’m very aware that there are many sisters who do and feel like they have to.
Some of the feedback that I’ve gotten has been interesting. The thank yous are bigger than thank you for entertaining us. It’s more so, thank you for freeing us.
I had a woman who is a nuclear physicist email me to say thank you because she’s always been torn about who she is in her real life, and then who she has to become when she goes to work.
For me, it just feels like we have to claim it. It feels like we spend a lot of time feeling some type of way when people of other cultures and races rock our stuff. It’s easy for us to be [like]. “Oh no, Kylie Jenner. You can’t wear that lace front wig with the corn rows,” “No, you can’t call these styles that we’ve been wearing since forever all these new names and claim it’s something new when they’re ours.” My thing is that we don’t have to wait to respond or to react and tell people, “No, no. That’s ours,” if we just live and claim it.
I do think a part of that is some of the shaming that we do of ourselves and our community. We call it ghetto or we call it ratchet. Basically saying that we shouldn’t be repping or rocking these things in public because they’re not respectable. or they’re not acceptable, or they’re not professional. Yet, we feel some type of way when people outside of our community do it. My thing is rep it all the time, not just in response to when you’re trying to check somebody else. Find the joy and the power in the things that are ours.
Professional Black Girls, in a lot of ways, is very much connected to hair. Hair is so much a part of this identity. For me, we are some of the most creative people on the planet when it comes to hair especially. I’ve gotten sucked into Instagram, and different hair videos, and different hair gurus online. Watching the things that they’re able to do with our hair, I’m like, “How to we sit and come up with this stuff?”
For me, that’s the “professional” level. When we think of what professional means. When we honor and respect people for being the top of the crop, if you will, in whatever their respective careers are, we’ve recognized that they’ve trained in it. We recognize that they spent many hours perfecting their craft. For me, that’s not just about the things that we learn in college or grad school or the things that we become trained to do quote unquote “professionally.” Think about out hair stories. For me, again, it’s just about recognizing the power that is, just in us being.