‘Professional Black Girl’ Celebrates the Magic Black Women Create Every Day

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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.

FH: I thought Temple was an HBCU for a time, when I was younger.

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.


Why Formation is the Anti-Respectability Anthem We’ve Been Waiting For

by Kimberly Foster @KimberlyNFoster

Beyoncé is one of the biggest names is music, and she is using her visibility to raise the profile of the Black Lives Matter Movement. The recently debuted video for her new single, Formation, contained clear messages about the ongoing struggle against police brutality and white supremacy in the United States. She carried that message onto the field of Super Bowl 50 when she, backed by dancers dressed in leather, berets, and combat boots, a look commonly associated with the Black Panthers, performed the song live for the first time.

Beyoncé’s celebration of militant blackness on one of the world’s largest stages signals a shift in both her consciousness and her artistry. She sang, “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros/I like my negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils” as a squad of afro-ed black women of every shade moved behind her with military precision. 50 years after the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the women performed choreography that included a black power salute. It was a subtle, urgent act of defiance wherein Black female bodies demanded to be seen.

In the past, Beyoncé and her husband, Jay Z, have been criticized for their silence on issues affecting Black America. The Carters now publicly engage with social justice work. Tidal, Jay-Z’s music streaming service, announced that it will donate $1.5M to Black Lives Matter organizations on Feb. 5, what would have been Trayvon Martin’s 21st birthday. This comes two years after the two appeared at a New York City rally for Martin following George Zimmerman’s acquittal. And the rumors floated in 2015 about the couple donating money to bail out protestors in Ferguson and Baltimore indicates that they are watching even when they are not speaking publicly.

The politicization of “Formation’s” visuals reflects the current cultural moment. These images of black struggle and black pride allow her to contribute to the discourse in her sphere of influence. In doing so, she carries the torch of Black artists who have used their platforms for protest. Beyoncé’s performance outfit differed from the dozens of women who stood behind her. Her cropped leather jacket with gold-plated vest recalled the costume Michael Jackson, another Black artist who spoke out against racism and global injustice, wore to perform the same event in 1993.

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A politicized Beyoncé is a far cry from the tempered, unobjectionable star who emerged in the aughts with 2003’s “Crazy in Love.” As a solo artist, she offered safe, enjoyable, but somewhat predictable pop songs and videos meant to appeal to cross-over audiences. Though she’s always been a songwriter, her creative output felt impersonal. She built her career carefully, and remained guarded so as not to provide ammunition for its derailment.

“Formation” puts in front of us a fully liberated Beyoncé. The woman who has largely managed to avoid the landmines of black pop culture stardom, steps deliberately into the controversial by visually referencing an often-demonized organization for radical activism for hundreds of millions of viewers. She now leverages the influence gained by the meticulous management of her public image to deploy her most pointed cultural critique.

Beyoncé’s work, up to this point, has not been wholly apolitical. With 2013’s self-titled album, she asserted, repeatedly, a feminist identity and withstood the backlash and criticism that comes with aligning oneself with the movement. But those politics were still rooted in a feel-good empowerment model of liberation. She assumes a different kind of risk in daring to criticize structural racism and state violence.

And Beyoncé is not untouchable. She has much to lose. Since her showing at the Super Bowl, conservatives have come out against her performance. On Fox News the next day, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani called the roughly 90 televised seconds of Formation an “attack” on police. Should she continue these statements, the animus of her detractors will only intensify. 

Nina Simone once said, “It is an artist’s duty to reflect the times.” Beyoncé heeds the call. With her enormous reach, she, too, possesses the power to move culture, and she has taken to filling the void of anti-racist voice in contemporary pop music. To reflect the times, she opts out of inoffensive fluff and wades into exhortations of black brilliance and black power.

With Formation and the images that have accompanied it, Beyoncé rejects, plainly, the mandates of respectability. She does not shy away from the messiness of political transformation and takes up the fight from the place she knows and loves best. This mode of artistic activism in a post-Ferguson society adds a new dimension to her work on the massive stage she has spent most of her life fighting to occupy. With it she reveals that despite her incredible success, she is very much a citizen of the world.

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor-in-chief of For Harriet. Email or Follow @KimberlyNFoster