Looking Back to Move Forward
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.
A few days later, Medgar Evers College hosted The National Black Writers Conference in Brooklyn. The theme was “Gathering at the Waters: Healing, Legacy, and Activism in Black Literature.” What can I say? The desire to incorporate historic texts was most likely seeded within that space.
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.
In September 2018, Black Women’s Blueprint’s March for Black Women took place in Lower Manhattan. I marched and photographed the participants. One of my favorite sign images from that day simply says:
- RESPECT BLACK WOMEN
- PROTECT BLACK WOMEN
- ELECT BLACK WOMEN
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.
Continued blessings, LaShawnda Jones