As a child, Brandy Rayana Norwood – simply known as “Brandy” to most people – was my favorite entertainer. I saw bits of myself in her, and in her headstrong, smart, but sometimes overzealous TV character counterpart, Moesha Mitchell. Brandy was everything a young girl is raised to want to be—beautiful, an actress, a singer, and a model. She was even the Cinderella, for crying out loud, with the late, great Whitney Houston as her fairy godmother. But perhaps most importantly to me, Brandy had power, fame, talent, and beauty as a brown-skinned woman with box braids in her hair—braids that looked remarkably similar to my own.
My infatuation with Brandy, and her 1998 album release Never Say Never, spanned several years. One evening in 1999, when I was nine years old, my mom let me stay up late to watch MTV’s latest installment of their Behind the Music style TV show, Bio-Rhythm. Here, Brandy told her life story, and provided a rare glimpse into her background, childhood photos, and rise to fame. I’ll always remember, during this interview, that Brandy recounted a moment with a high school counselor: “I remember…my counselor at school wouldn’t send me out on an audition. She says, ‘You’re not going, because you’re not drop dead gorgeous.’ And I said, ‘But what about my talent? What about what I have inside of my heart?’ She said, ‘That’s not gonna work in Hollywood.’”
Re-watching this episode of Bio-Rhythm on YouTube reminds me of the disappointment and confusion that I felt at nine. Brandy, of course, ultimately triumphed over her counselor’s disparaging words (though I would argue that brown-skinned women like her in entertainment are still often marginalized). But watching Brandy’s interview as a child ushered in a host of questions for me at the time: “Brandy wasn’t ‘drop dead gorgeous’? Why not? Was it her hair, her skin? And what did her ‘gorgeousness’ have to do with her talent, her ability to make it as an entertainer in ‘Hollywood’?” Like so many aspects of young Black girls’ socialization, the interview taught me early that 1) looks, bodies, and appearance mean a lot regarding our perceptions of women, and 2) these dynamics play out in specific ways for Black women.
I was raised in a middle class, relatively racially diverse college town called Newark, Delaware—home of the University of Delaware. When I was a child and into my teenage years, I used to dance. Most of my training was in ballet, and I danced for almost ten years. For much of this time, I was one of few Black ballet dancers, which meant often feeling “different” – socially, culturally, financially, and of course physically – from my white counterparts. Like many dancers, the practice made me hyper-aware of my body and my appearance. Dance studios are typically all designed the same way: They are long, rectangular rooms with wooden floors, and the back of the room has a barre—a long wooden bar fixed to the wall that allows support and balance during warm up exercises. Here, all of the dancers line up in a row, and when they look across the room opposite of them, there is a mirror. The mirror is at the front of the room, and it takes up the entire wall. Everyone, usually in some sort of line, is always looking at themselves, and each other. Everyone is always seeing; everyone is always looking. At themselves, at others in the class, at the ways bodies are moving.
Everyone also always thinks they are “fat,” and “fat” is never a good thing as a dancer, particularly a ballet dancer. To some extent, of course, this is not unique to dance. Studies show that many girls—children—think that they are “too” fat, and that this fat is a negative thing that they should change. Indeed, white feminists critics have written extensively about the nature of patriarchy, self/objectification, beauty culture, and sizeism. However, Black women add more nuance to this by writing about the ways race, gender, class, and sexuality intersect to shape their unique experiences with these phenomena. In other words, the hyperawareness of bodies that comes with dance was made unique to me as a Black woman. I, of course, dealt with many of the same struggles that white dancers did – but I experienced others, too: My hair never laid down in a “neat” bun or ponytail, and my skin tone never matched the “nude” tights that everyone else got from the dance shop. And when the dance teacher barks to “stand up straight and tuck your butt under your hips!” it doesn’t quite look the same when your butt is bigger than everyone else’s, and you actually have hips. You’re different—your body, your hair, your skin, your experiences.
In these not-so-comfortable moments of a ‘90s childhood, I was fortunate enough to have Black female friends, as well as media representations, that on some level reflected my experiences. Mya, Janet Jackson, Destiny’s Child, TLC, Kelis, and of course Brandy were brown women who were vibrant, told interesting stories, and projected confidence and control within their bodies. “I’m bossy! I’m the first girl to scream on the track,” Kelis reminded each one of us on her hit single, as her golden brown skin shimmered in the sunlit accompanying music video. Then, like now, I loved getting lost in music, television, books, and movies. My favorite book of my childhood was a novel called Another Way to Dance by Martha Southgate. Though I didn’t have the language for it then, I now know that I loved the book because it represented me in so many ways. The protagonist is a Black middle class preteen named Vicki Harris who is also a ballet dancer. Her hair and her body don’t fit into dance, but she has a Black female best friend who also dances and who also relates to these embodied experiences. Vicki deals with particular issues that involve her class, her gender, her age, and her race.
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Eventually, after giving up dance, this infatuation with books and film led me to enroll in the University of Delaware as an English major in Fall 2009. Like many students of color at predominantly white institutions, I was constantly aware of my embodied experiences as a Black woman. Unsurprisingly, my friends and I experienced many of the kinds of interpersonal, “micro-aggressive” issues that college students of color like those at Mizzou are still organizing against today. My Black female friends and I knew to always look out for each other in spaces like bars and parties, where the men’s consumption of alcohol often emboldened them– threatening to undermine our safety or even just our good mood. Eventually, during undergrad, I became secretary of the Black spoken word club S.P.I.T., and Executive Editor of Pamoja magazine—a publication founded in the ‘70s by the Black Student Union that my friends and I revived. These spaces reminded me of the power of words, self-representation, and storytelling.
Like ballet, majoring in English literature felt like entering a world dominated by whiteness, where people of color occupied rare tokenized space along the margins. Like with dance, I became incredibly close with the other Black students in the mostly white space. Eventually, I exhausted all two of the annually offered African American literature classes my college offered. After taking and loving a couple of Black Studies courses, I felt again the power of being represented. I ended up completing undergraduate research and double majoring in English and Black American Studies. While English exposed me to the stories and films that I loved so much, Black Studies gave me a critical lens to understand these narratives within the context of larger society—a lens that took into account power dynamics, colonialism, and intersections of identity.
Courses in each of the majors, as well as conversations with professors, exposed me to the kinds of texts that gave language to many of the experiences I felt throughout my life. These authors, many of whom were feminists, were grappling with some of the same issues I never really realized that I was thinking through. For example, why were some of my female peers in middle school and high school given labels like “slut” and “ho,” but the males were never, ever given the same? In fact, why did it seem that these names were the worst, most discrediting thing you could call a woman? On this note, how was I to contend with the fact that the music that I loved most, hip-hop, was constantly denigrating Black women with these words? Why did it seem like the world was constantly denigrating Black women? Black people? Why were our skin, our hair, and our bodies constantly wrong or in need of “fixing”? Why were the experiences of Black queer women often made invisible, and Black masculinity so tenuous?
These Black feminists didn’t have all the answers to all of these questions, but they were grappling with many of them. They understood and valued the specificity of being a Black woman, and the ways that intersecting aspects of our identity help define and shape our subjectivity. They understood the importance of advocating for Black women’s bodily autonomy, when at every turn our bodies are being denigrated, attacked, and erased. I don’t think that Black feminism is an infallible framework for understanding all experiences, or even all of my experiences. But I do think that it has provided me language and a framework for how I see and experience some critical aspects of the world. I think above all, it’s about riding for Black women. And sometimes we need that.
Today, Black Studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies, and theoretical frameworks such as Black/ feminism, are constantly under attack both rhetorically (i.e. within discursive arenas) and institutionally (i.e. lack of resources on campuses). We’re in a historical moment when the phrase “identity politics” is met with disdain from both the right and the left, college campuses serve as ideological battlegrounds, and Black feminist concepts such as “intersectionality” are mocked and misused. However, individual stories like my own can do work to remind us the impact of anti-oppression frameworks to think through and reveal our own our experiences. Theory is imperfect and incomplete. But it can provide space for critique, for revealing truth(s), and for possibilities of imagining what is and what could be.
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