Are you the friend you think you are? How do you see yourself in your friendships compared to how your friends see you?
I’m repeatedly reminded that people who don’t love themselves are incapable of giving, receiving or showing love to others. They are sometimes good at faking it, but fakers always expose themselves out of frustration.
One of my biggest beefs with people is their lack of understanding about love. As well as their use of the word as a tool. One truth I’ve learned is that people who don’t love themselves are incapable of loving others. Sometimes it’s best to simply step away from them to avoid being collateral damage from their internal war path.
In this video I share about a recent structural collapse in a long friendship. What resonates with you?
I AM WOMAN: Expressions of Black Womanhood in America is a showcase of the indomitable Spirit of Black Womanhood weaving through generations as cord of strength and wisdom.
Forget the world.
I AM WOMAN is a declaration of existence – without permission.
Everyone is aware of their outward image. Many people spend their lives enhancing their shadow while neglecting their substance. The narratives within I AM WOMAN span five centuries of a powerfully consistent perspective. Despite habitual abuse, neglect, sexual violence, human trafficking, and a stifling minimum of economic opportunities, Black Women have continuously elevated themselves and grown in excellence.
Who Do you say you are?
I AM WOMAN: Expressions of Black Womanhood in America is a triumphant response to centuries of oppression, neglect, and abuse. It’s a tribute to the women in America who are not seen, heard, honored, or appreciated, yet are always relied upon to support every layer of society. This collection of images and words is an expression of how Black Women in America see themselves. Who they believe they are as individuals in private, in public, as a community, and as givers and receivers of ancestral grace.
Comprised of portraits, poetry, essays, and speeches, I AM WOMAN reaches back to Isabel de Olvera who swore an affidavit in 1600 declaring her freedom from marriage and slavery to the deeply inspiring inauguration of Kamala Harris as the first Afro-Asian and Woman Vice President of the United States of America 2021.
Photographed, compiled, and edited by LaShawnda Jones, I AM WOMAN: Expressions of Black Womanhood in America weaves together contributions from Women across the United States throughout the country’s history.
With contributions from dozens of women
I have taken most of my day to read I AM WOMAN, and I can't wait for others to get their hands on it. It is a powerful project that celebrates women and women in history. There is healing on these pages, and I am honored to be part of it. I can't wait to have it in my hands!
Abena AmoahContributing Author
It is filled with inspiring words that fill my soul. The strength behind these words are far more powerful than any physical strength. This has inspired me to stand up for people's basic human rights.
Jesus loves me so much He sent me you!! This is beautiful. Thank you for the time and effort that you put into this. You have totally captured the essence of this project. I can't thank you enough.
Renata Del CarmenEntrepreneur
One book, several formats
Behind the Scenes
We are who we are.
About LaShawnda Jones
LaShawnda Jones is an independent author, photographer and publisher for Harvest Life. Her work focuses on women, spiritual growth, and social justice. She has published several books exploring the impact of childhood sexual trauma in adulthood as well as the challenges and joys of applying principles of faith in all her interactions. She has a B.A in Political Science and French and a M.A. in International Affairs. She has studied in France and Poland in addition to missionary training in New York City and Israel.
LaShawnda Is a member of the RAINN Speaker’s Bureau and is available for speaking engagements nationally. She is also available for photography assignments. Her creative work can be viewed at Harvest-Life.org.
In February 2018, I quit my corporate job with a determination to work and live as a writer and photographer. A few months later, several interests coalesced into a photo essay book idea that has become I AM WOMAN: Expressions of Black Womanhood in America.
I AM WOMAN comes from a desire to give women a platform to say who they are and express their womanhood with no strings or ulterior motives.
Everyday something has tried to kill me
A prime catalyst for launching this project was the state-sanctioned assault by police officers on Chikesia Clemons at a restaurant in Saraland, Alabama. In the video of the assault, two male police officers are seen yanking on her arms to pull her out of her seat and throw her to the dirty floor of the Waffle House she was eating in. They sat on her, threatened to break her arm, choked her, exposed her breasts (she was wearing a halter top), then flipped her around by her neck and belt to put her face down on the ground. A third officer stood over Chikesia and her assailants the whole time. Somehow more disturbing is the fact that the restaurant was full and patrons continued to eat without pause. Without looking. Without objecting. Without demanding the police officers treat the young woman humanely or with a modicum of respect.
Police had been called because Chikesia had asked about a fifty cent charge on her receipt for utensils to eat the food she had purchased. The server took exception to the question and an argument ensued. Chikesia asked for upper management contact information but the police were called instead. Waffle House stood by the actions of their employee and the police violence against Chikesia.
Despite society being inundated with videos of egregious violence against black bodies, seeing male patrons in the background continue eating as if a dehumanizing racial, physical, and sexual assault was not taking place in their presence was beyond infuriating. There is no way I can imagine men of any race sitting so calmly as a white woman is similarly brutalized in their presence. There’s absolutely no precedent for such a visual. Yet it’s so common for Black Girls and Women to be brutalized, a live viewing doesn’t even interrupt a meal.
The only person who tried to help Chikesia was her friend, Canita Adams, another young woman, who helplessly filmed the assault.
Throughout my life, there has certainly been a build-up of understanding as to how little the world values me. The assault on Chikesia came after several years of me trying to break out of an administrative support role at a global bank. I even went back to school for a Master’s degree to make my internal applications more attractive. My high-ranking female manager had the opinion that I should be happy to have a job. I was in a respected support role working for a respected senior executive in a top firm. What more could I possibly want? Certainly not a role that challenged me or working with people I could learn from and grow with. She was not concerned about me leaving because I couldn’t possibly make as much money as I was making working for her. Hearing that was pretty much the nail in the coffin of my corporate career. Realizing my dedication, experience, performance, and education weren’t enough for me to be considered for promotion within a company I had been with for a decade was enough for me to finally walk away. It was made clear my upward mobility was solely dependent on the whim of one person and that person wasn’t me. It was someone who considered my only value to be the service I provided her.
It became painfully evident that there is no environment in which Black Women are seen, respected, or valued as human beings with enough intelligence to form plans for their lives. We are treated as if we have no right to our bodies, our feelings, our thoughts, or our future. We are disregarded as if the past never happened and the present wasn’t created for us. We are constantly told who we are, who we aren’t, who we should be, what’s expected of us, what we can and can’t do, and what’s enough for us. Yet at no point are we able to just be who we are as we want to be.
What’s in a name and a word?
Isabella Baumfree, born into slavery in a Dutch-speaking household in Ulster County, New York, changed her name to Sojourner Truth after converting to Christianity. She said of the change, “Sojourner because I was to travel up and down the land showing people their sins and being a sign to them, and Truth because I was to declare the truth unto the people.” In 1851 she gave the speech she is most famous for, commonly referred to as, “Ain’t I A Woman?” at the Woman’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. More than a hundred years later her words, “Ain’t I A Woman” morphed into a more declarative statement, “I AM A MAN” for Civil Rights campaign signs in 1968. The speech and the sign are clear inspirations for I AM WOMAN: Expressions of Black Womanhood in America.
Overall, in the larger Sisterhood of Womanhood, I know the struggle is universal. Across the United States, no matter what demographic groups we fall into, Women are essentially telling the same story. We aren’t seen. We aren’t valued. We are not respected. We have to fight for any measure approaching equality to a standard set by men. We may have different starting points, but for the most part, we are all chasing the same goals: love, acceptance, appreciation, and respect for our individual wholeness.
I want my work to combat the visceral hyper-sexualization and objectification of womanhood, girlhood and the feminine form everywhere. Closer to home, Black Women and Girls are hyper-sexualized, objectified, used, abused, and discarded without even the acknowledgment or defense of our humanity. On one hand, we’re lauded and imitated as sexual icons, on the other hand we’re reviled for our fertility and physical versatility with no respect for our sacred femininity. It’s such a destructive dichotomy that we can do great harm to ourselves simply trying to figure out how to navigate society for survival.
Societal and media messages destroy us before we can appreciate the need to protect our self-image. Sometimes we’re stunted by our closest family and friends feeding us what they chose to believe from the negative things they were exposed to. Stereotypes, curses, expectations, misunderstandings, traditions, and ignorance are the foundation of many stories that are told about women who rarely have the opportunity to share their point of view. I AM WOMAN is the antithesis to all of that.
My overall goal with I AM WOMAN: Expressions of Black Womanhood in America is to honor Black Women collectively and individually. The perspectives of women who live in a society that is hostile to their existence is necessary to improve life for everyone within that society. It’s exhausting being exposed to what the world thinks of Black Women. What do Black Women think of themselves?
With this on my heart, I narrowed my project focus to my primary audience: Black Women. I set out with a list of questions.
Are you always fully present in your womanhood or do you hold back to move forward?
How do you navigate in or through different spaces?
What does your womanhood mean to you?
Where or how do you find your joy?
How do you nurture your spirit?
Do you use your voice to call out, improve or destroy?
After a few conversations in the field, these questions consolidated to: “What word would you use to describe yourself?”
I AM _______________
This collection belongs to every life it touches. I wanted to produce a book that readers can see themselves in and insert their stories into. To accomplish this, there are pages where the book owner can write themselves into the overarching story.
A call for poetry and essays was met with some very poignant submissions. Several women contributed poems and essays sharing insight into their experiences of womanhood. The intimacy of their sharing led to me adding a storyline collection of my poems which span thirty years.
Though the initial call for written submissions targeted content from Black Women, the complimentary portrait sessions were open to women of all ethnicities. I spent my 2018 summer photographing nearly sixty women in Chicago, Gary, New York City, Milwaukee, Monument Valley, and Phoenix.
The women’s assignment was to represent the word they identify themselves with within their images. Their declarative prompt was, “I AM WOMAN. I am _________________.” Of the written descriptors I received, I’m happy to report “sexy” was never mentioned. The most common words were Strong, Powerful, and Love. They answered with questions, statements, and monologues. Most endearingly, the women answered with their presence and personality. Some of their declarations are preserved on video, but all are sealed in my heart with gratitude.
421 Years of Black Women Using Their Words
It’s incredibly humbling to be able to weave together words from African Women in America throughout the last four centuries. Our struggles, unfortunately, have not changed much through the years. There is no period in which we simply accepted the yoke the world shackles us to. Black Women have never been silent. We have never been inactive in our communities. Despite the abuse, neglect, habitual sexual violence, human trafficking, and a stifling minimum of economic opportunities, we have continued to elevate ourselves and move forward. Even from disadvantaged and unsupported positions, we speak up for ourselves, our communities, and against injustice wherever we see it.
To support what I know in my bones, I began searching for historic instances of Black Women in America speaking up for themselves – using their voices to answer accusations and oppression. Documents, poems, and speeches about, and from, several women who were bold and outspoken in defiance of the time and space they occupied are also shared. This collection serves to amplify how strong and resilient Black Women have always been and continue to be.
Researching documented historical material authored by Black Women was a test of endurance. Fortunately, I was able to locate chronologies of African Americans in general and African American men specifically. Searching for experience-based content by Black Women consumed a good portion of my development focus, but it’s a necessary part of the continuing story of our roots and trajectories, our struggles, and our joys. The way we make do and make better no matter our starting point. We, Black Women, are magnificent in all our statuses, throughout any affliction or oppression, we not only continue to rise, but we also shine. We illuminate our surroundings, and provide routes of escape for others to follow.
A Timeline and A Book List
As I began adding historical figures to this book, it became apparent that we’ve done far too much to cover within the scope of this project. So I created a timeline to acknowledge their lives and their work. The varied richness of their short biography lines is both humbling and encouraging. The timeline is full of authors, poets, abolitionists, singers, educators, organizers, politicians, and leaders. It’s by no means a full list of creative works or published/recorded documents by Black
Women in America, but it is a praise-worthy highlight reel of significant historical works, most of which are in the public domain. Some of the women were prolific writers with multiple publications which are not listed within this work.
Looking Back to Move Forward
I AM WOMAN began as a declaration of my womanhood. It began as a reflection of who I am in conjunction with the awareness of what the world would have me be. As I explored what my womanhood means to me, my internal questions returned me to memories of my mother.
Though she left the physical world nearly twenty-five years ago, my mother’s spirit has never left me. She has remained a consistent guide and teacher in all things love & light. Looking back, I marvel at how she maintained grace, character, and patience throughout a life filled with adversity and hardship. We were a working poor family but we never felt poor because she provided absolutely everything we needed: love, shelter, food & clothes.
Terry Ann was the purest representative of life, love, and nurture. The ultimate provider and doer. A pragmatist who did not allow the flaming arrows flying at her to pin her down She laid the groundwork for a non-judgmental outlook and forgiving spirit to develop within me. She bequeathed me her hard-working, do-what-needs-to-be-done attitude. She instilled a confidence in my inherent value that the world has yet to rob me of. I am who I am, and am becoming who I will be, because of her. She is my most incredible blessing, yet I only knew her from one angle.
Throughout the making of this book, I’ve wondered how my Mom saw herself. For me, womanhood has been a struggle. Learning to view my Mom as a person independent of any labels or identities has helped me become comfortable in the totality of me. Truly looking back to move forward without restraint or apology. This break-through allowed me to show up in different ways to sculpt out the work before me.
Influences during the process
As part of my preparation, I asked to tag-along to events by other creators who were courting Black Women. This allowed space and opportunity to practice my portrait photography and test my concept. These events were awesome and are embedded in this work.
In March 2018, The New School hosted Inequality:An Observance for a Just Future 1619-2019. It was a day-long symposium focused on reflection, connection, workshopping, seeding, and networking. My first version of I Am From… was a workshop activity shared within a group of attendees. A blank template of the poem is included so readers can be contributors also.
In June 2018, Women in the Black hosted their Who’s the Boss Conference in Harlem. In between sessions, I approached women to ask if I could photograph them for my project. This was the beginning of the portrait sessions. A couple of weeks later, I saw Renata del Carmen’s ad about a photoshoot she was hosting in Brooklyn for her Bold, Black Beautiful project. The intention was to create positive stock images of Black Women for multi-media use. I asked if I could shadow her photographer and possibly use some of the images for my project. She, the ladies and the photographer were okay with my request. This group of vibrant women made the book cover.
I’m grateful for all the inspiration and collaboration that has propelled me forward with this heart work. The indomitable spirit of Ancient Black Womanhood prevails in every status we have throughout the world. Whether we are called slaves, servants, employees, women, or leaders, we are aware of our inherent role as birthers, nurturers, and protectors of all humanity. We may have been captured and subjugated, but we’ve never been conquered.
I hope this collection enriches you as much as it has enriched me.
Today I honor my ancestors. I honor all the women who stood and spoke in their power. May they rest well. May we live well as we continue moving forward in the footsteps of giants.
For a few years now, I’ve wanted to do a road trip focusing on historic African American Women. The pillars for me are Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. I’ve been mapping out sites they lived and worked for a while.
Throughout March and April this year, I finally got on the road for an extended trip. This one wasn’t focused on African American Women exclusively, but it was deeply saturated in African American history and culture. However, because I AM Woman is named for one of Sojourner Truth’s speeches, I truly wanted to make sure she was part of this road trip. So Battle Creek, MI was added to my route. I visited a monument dedicated to her and her grave site at Oak Hill Cemetery.
We think of history as being so distant, but standing at Mother Sojourner’s grave site made me very aware that her time was not so long ago.
I am LaShawnda, sister of Kim and Nicolette.
We are daughters of Terry Ann, the daughter of Bessie Mae,
The daughter of Lizzie, the daughter of Mae Emma, the daughter of
I am from coconut oil and bergamot grease
From pinto beans and bananas.
I am from the light.
From home-cooked meals and shadowy corners,
From Thanksgiving feasts are for week-long leftovers.
I am from the iris;
The majestic maple tree,
Whose thick trunk I remember climbing and falling from.
I am from nowhere and everywhere.
From many mothers and no real fathers.
From silence, violence, solitude and perseverance
From hard work tempered with spots of joy.
I am from share-croppers and life-long toilers,
Farmers, gardeners, strong women, and providers.
I’ve been formed through the oppression of my ancestors
The generational resilience of my grandmothers and
The unruffled pragmatism of my Mama.
I am from lies and “keep it in the family”
And God is trying to tell me something
and do unto others as you… well, just do as I say.
I am from stardust and grace, refined in the fire of supernovas.
I am from Gary, Indiana by way of Mississippi and Arkansas
By way of Virginia, South Carolina and Louisiana
By way of Cameroon, Nigeria, West Guinea, and Britain
By way of One Africa seeding the World.
I am from the beginning and the end.
From all that is and all there will ever be.
From salvation and damnation, prophecy and legacy
I am from abundance and sufficiency. I am existence.
My new look is already old. My promo self-portraits for my upcoming book, I AM WOMAN, were taken in March 2020. I finalized the book cover a few months ago and this week I edited my author photo for the book’s bio page. While editing, I decided to add the final cover of the book. Have I told you lately how much I love learning my way around creative tools? A year ago, I struggled trying to combine two photos with any semblance of seamlessness. Look at me now! 🙂
One of the priceless things I’ve learned with editing my own images is to do as much as possible pre-shoot to minimize post-edit work. For example, I love this blouse but it’s always wrinkled. I can iron it, stream it – for this shoot, I actually dampened it a bit and put it in the dryer. I really wanted the pop of color. That being said, removing wrinkles from clothes is an editing level I haven’t gotten to yet and honestly, I’m not really interested right now.
Do yourself a favor as you’re eyeing your subject from behind the lens. What do you see that may require post-edit attention (AND TIME)? Is there anything you can do to correct the image before you capture it?
Another thing I do is take random pictures of things I like with the idea that it may be useful in a composite in the future. As you explore your creativity, nothing is wasted. Your best image may be a combination of multiple images.
This has been quite an undertaking for I AM WOMAN: Expressions of Black Womanhood in America!
At first I assumed there had to be chronologies of African Women in America and our contributions or achievements throughout the centuries. But there really weren’t any. I was able to source a chronology of enslaved African American Women. I was able to locate chronologies of African Americans in general and African American men specifically. But nothing that told a broader history of Black Women in this land. This has consumed a great portion of my development time on the I AM WOMAN project, but I think it’s a necessary part of the continuing story I’m trying to show and tell about our roots and our trajectories. Our struggles and our joys. The way we make do and make better no matter our starting points. We, Black Women, are magnificent in all our statuses, throughout any affliction or oppression, we not only continue to rise, we shine, we illuminate our surroundings and provide routes of escape for others to follow.
I’m so humbled and encouraged by the varied richness of the short bio lines of the women in the I AM WOMAN Timeline. To aid Women and Girls to see themselves as part of the overall story, I’ve added a space for them to add themselves to the timeline.
Have you pre-ordered your copy yet? If not, you can do so here!
I take a lot of pictures. Especially since I got a digital camera. Even more so since I started buying 125GB memory cards. And I save everything. I just did a quick scan of my image catalog and I have at least 152,000 images on my mobile drive. That doesn’t include anything on my desktop, laptop, phone or tablet – possibly another 10,000 combined on those.
Before 2009, all my photography was on film. I was all about snapshots. Being artsy wasn’t a priority. I wanted to capture moments. Around that year, I purchase my first digital camera, perhaps an Olympus with zoom. It could hold a couple hundred images on the memory at a time. Much more capacity than film, but not enough when you want to photograph everything.
In 2011, I invested in my first DSL, a Sony A33. I knew I wanted to eventually become a paid professional photographer so I had to get serious about my gear and skills. Practicing with different lenses, prime and zoom, in different settings for varying purposes allowed me to get extremely comfortable with being in the background and observing life from a pensive compositional view point.
Over the years, I’ve photographed vacations, visits, weddings, births, funerals, corporate, community and social events and nearly all of my travel. Nature has been my true love, however, trying to capture light in an image, the way it moves over a scene, changing the mood and color, is fascinating. The moon in all its stages is mesmerizing. Great shots of the sun are illusive. As are images that do the stars any justice. Then there are trees that I stalked through their seasonal cycles. Every spring in New York City, saw me searching out budding tulips as well. And over the last couple of years, I’ve been improving my skills with self-portraiture.
In 2018, I felt I was ready for an upgrade and ready to start hiring myself out for photography work. I purchased my Sony A7iii and beefed up my gear kit significantly. I had already been the unofficial official photographer for my group’s legal conferences and other events at work for about seven years. And by that time, I had been photographing demonstrations for social justice (against police brutality and state-sanctioned murder) for nearly four years. I had quite a portfolio, all I needed to do was cull and focus the work.
Focusing on my strong suits, however, is difficult when I enjoy doing everything, and perhaps my best work isn’t necessarily the most financially lucrative. See social justice photography. Or satisfying. I’ve had friends tell me that some of the images I took of their weddings and receptions were better than the photos they paid a premium for. But who wants to be a full-time wedding photographer? I don’t mind the occasional wedding, but that’s a lot on a regular basis.
Over the last year, I’ve been hyper-focused on upskilling. At the beginning of the second week of January 2019, I had just returned home from two weeks in Egypt and Ethiopia. Perhaps about 3200 photos were taken on that trip. While I was there, I knew I was documenting for collections and art, meaning, I wanted to create artwork from the images and do some travel writing as well. One of my investments that year had been a Sony 12-24mm wide lens, an upgrade from my Rokinon 12-16mm. It was purchased for my real estate photography, but I love it for travel, nature and portraiture.
In the summer of 2018, I began working on a photography project called I AM WOMAN. I had a vision for the images as I took them, but I didn’t have the skill to create the end result. That didn’t stop me. Somehow I knew I would learn what I needed to know in order to accomplish my vision. That’s the primary reason I don’t delete my photos. As I review the images I took in 2018 of nearly seventy women, I’ve realized that what stood out to me at the point of the shoot, and even during the initial reviews, are not necessarily the same things standing out to me as I edit for my photobook. As I’ve learned to use Lightroom, Photoshop, Microsoft ICE and Topaz Labs effectively to enhance my photography I’ve learned that even dull and dreary images can be fantastic elements for a composited image. That knowledge has kept me from mass purging.
For example, one of my gleeful moments in editing I AM WOMAN, is the final composition of Lyn’s image. One thing I’ve been adamant about for this project was that the women come as they are. I wasn’t interested in glamor shots or over-stylized images. That being said, looking through the images while trying to build a cohesive collection for a book, many were uninspiring. So I looked for ways I could enhance the image without altering the appearance of the woman. During one of those exercises last month, Lyn’s final happened.
Lyn was photographed in Columbus Circle in the center of Manhattan. Neither of us were interested in representing Columbus at all. Even less so in a work about Black Women in America. I had already had several shoots in Central Park and the one before Lyn was in front of the Time Warner building shops. A great thing about NYC is the great many backgrounds you can get within the span of a block. We tried to focus on the JOY and GLORY on the pedestal of the monument. Though this is one of my favorite images for its simplicity, it didn’t seem to speak to others.
More than two years after the image was taken my skills caught up to my vision. Lyn’s word is Resilient. Stone is a good representation of resiliency, but how much better is a Sphinx than a monument Columbus? The Sphinx image was taken during my last visit to The Met Museum in 2019. I had the idea of merging, compositing and juxtaposing images, but I couldn’t figure out how to put images together to make them look like one.
Well, technology also caught up to my vision. My first photo project was a calendar in 2004. I hired a photographer and photo-editor. For my second calendar a couple of years later, I tried my hand at editing some images in Photoshop. I was hopeless. The task seemed impossible as a lot of the work required a steady hand to remove objects and trim around pixelated edges. Now with a click or two and some close touch-ups elements are easily isolated. Just like that, I can go beyond my initial vision without alternating the presentation of the Woman or subject.
It also helped when I realized I don’t have to follow any rules, only my imagination. Therefore, I can create whatever flows from my thoughts and present it in whatever way pleases me.
I have never sought to be perfect in anything. I only seek to be present and do what I can with what I have. What I’ve learned is what I have increases over time, as does my effective use of my skills and resources.