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Black people in America
LaShawnda Jones

I Am Woman: An Introduction

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

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Black people in America
LaShawnda Jones

I AM WOMAN Covers

I have a release date for the I AM WOMAN: Expressions of Black Womanhood in America! It will be available for purchase on June19, 2021 via Amazon. YAY! The low pre-order price is available until the release date. All pre-orders will be shipped from me so they can be signed copies if you wish. I’m pretty psyched finally seeing this project come together! The photography and design are my work. Stay tuned for more posts throughout the week. What do you think of the covers? Any critique on the back cover blurb? Click to purchase your copy of I AM WOMAN: Expressions of Black Womanhood in America. 

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America
LaShawnda Jones

A Prayer for Sojourner Truth

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.

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art
LaShawnda Jones

Nnamdi Okonkwo

In 2009, I had the pleasure of meeting Nnamdi Okonkwo at an art show in Manhattan. Pictured: Nnamdi Okonkwo, Sculptor, with Resolution A couple of years ago I started following him on IG and told him I was looking forward to the day I could purchase my first piece of art from him. Have you thought about what your first real art purchase would be? I’ve long suspected mine would be sculpture. Something three-dimensional. When I moved to New York City in 2005, I began visiting art galleries. My favorite one is on Central Park South. There’s some beautiful work in that gallery. But even if I could swing the exorbitant price tags, the pieces I liked best didn’t really reflect me. When I met Nnamdi with his lady Resolution, I wanted to lean in, take a seat and speak with them both. Not only did he speak to me but so did his work. Last month while on a cross country road trip, I asked if he was available for a studio visit. He was. I visited and it was the highlight of my trip and a true joy I will remember throughout my life. I placed an order for two small sculptures, “Joy” and “They are Waiting.” I wanted to select art that not only reflected some of my physicality, but also expressed where I am spiritually and emotionally. My whole life is long waits dotted with bursts of joy. The below video shares some of my exploration of Nnamdi’s studio as well as his graciousness in opening his space and answering my questions. I’ve also added pictures of him from the art show in Manhattan and of me sitting with his “Friends” monument installation in Harlem in 2012. I refer to this statue as “Sisters,” in the video but please note “Sisters” has three more figures than “Friends.” When we sat to talk in his studio last month, Nnamdi started off by saying he remembered meeting me all those years ago. My first inclination was to dismiss his comment. Then I had to reject my dismissal. He and his work had made such an impression on me I’ve literally remembered one of his pieces with me as a figure in it (see video). ☺ We live in a superficial world where people change their interests with the shifting winds seeking instant gratification. I’ve never been one for the quick fix. I’m purposeful and methodical. I come through on the follow-through eventually. For those of you who may be beating yourself up for taking too long to do something or acquire a wishlist item, remind yourself it’s your life to live at your pace. When you’re in a comfortable enough space to do that unnecessary, but pleasurable thing, your satisfaction will have no limits. Check out Nnamdi Okonkwo’s work at http://www.nnamdiart.com. Yo can find him on IG (@nnamdiart) and Facebook (@nnamdi.okonkwo.96). “In my indigenous culture, womanhood is venerated. In my sculpture I want to express the noble virtues of humanity such as empathy, love, humility and inner strength which women possess. The voluminous shapes are aesthetically pleasing and intoxicating to me, but why also serve to emphasize the largeness of the soul of womanhood.”  

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America
LaShawnda Jones

Thoughts from the Road: Created in Violence

We are created in violenceBirthed in painOur only constantsConflict and struggleWhat can we possibly Ever know of nonviolenceWhen even our peace is achievedWithin storms turbulentEnough to alterThe landscape of our lives

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Thoughts from the Road: Purifying Change

Since mid-March, I’ve been traveling across the country. I hit the road after selling my home in Southern Arizona. There were no immediate thoughts on where to pitch my tent next, so I decided to roam a bit and see where the Spirit led. Before Covid-19, I thought I’d travel abroad for a few months to a year. But even homeless and mostly untethered, I wanted to be in a land I understand how to move in during a global pandemic. So international travel was out.  Driving across the United States was initially an exciting proposition. It’s been on my to-do list for over two decades, but I had hoped it would be done with a partner. A test of sorts of our compatibility and adaptive skills together. That thought was one of the first things I released as I began planning my post-Arizona life. No more shelving hopes for a future that isn’t rooted in today. No more putting things I want to do on the back burner because there’s no one to share the journey with. I released myself from that tether and the fear of becoming so comfortable in my singledom that I no longer allow space to accommodate another. That’s when the opening began. As each tether and fear is released, hidden spaces are exposed and unexpected grace appears for my vulnerabilities. I thought I would make time to write a lot while on the road, but of course that didn’t happen. All the “free” time I imagined was actually spent driving and sleeping. There was a lot of thinking and even more releasing. I focused on healing and opening. Still working on both, but more aware of how I’ve closed myself off over the years as a process of self-preservation. For a time it was necessary to remain isolated and nurture my solitude. That time has come to an end and its important to flow in the direction of life. I don’t know how I’m being purified, but I know it’s happening. I don’t know what the end result of this process will be, but I know I am already changed.

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