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Imagine Otherwise: Yaba Blay on Everyday Black Girl Magic

Imagine Otherwise: Yaba Blay on Everyday Black Girl Magic

retro
December 13, 2017

Yaba Blay wearing a black turtleneck sleeveless sweater and necklace

 

What racial and gender norms are baked into our concepts of professionalism? How can we push ourselves to expand our definition of what “counts” as knowledge production? What does it mean to honor blackness in all its possible forms?

In Episode 54 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with cultural producer Yaba Blay about how beauty culture and colorism shape her publicly engaged approach to scholarship, how being an insider/outsider in the academy allows one to enact broad social change, the importance of meeting students where they’re at, and how her celebration of everyday #BlackGirlMagic is how she imagines otherwise.

Guest: Yaba Blay

Yaba Blay is the Dan Blue Endowed Chair in Political Science at North Carolina Central University.

Named to The Root 100, an annual list of top Black influencers, Yaba is one of today’s leading voices on colorism and global skin color politics. Her commentary has been featured on CNN, BET, MSNBC, NPR, the New York Times, Ebony Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Root, Huffington Post Live, and Colorlines, among others.

Applauded in 2016 by O: The Oprah Magazine for her social media activism, Yaba is the creator and producer of numerous online campaigns including Pretty Period, a visual celebration of dark-skinned Black beauty, and Professional Black Girl, a webseries and online community celebrating everyday, around-the-way Black Girl Magic.

Yaba’s book, (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, explores the interconnected nuances of skin color politics and Black racial identity, and challenges narrow perceptions of Blackness as both an identity and lived reality. In 2012, Yaba served as a Consulting Producer for CNN’s  television documentary Who is Black in America?, which was inspired by the scope of her (1)ne Drop project.

Yaba’s current book project, Yellow Fever: Skin Bleaching and the Global Politics of Skin Color, investigates skin bleaching from the perspectives of people who bleach or have bleached their skin.

We chatted about

  • Yaba’s transmedia project Professional Black Girl (02:31)
  • The personal and situated nature of Yaba’s research on colorism and racialized beauty norms (06:42)
  • Yaba’s thoughts on self-care and being intentional about one’s work (08:32)
  • The intersections of scholarship, creative pursuits, and activism in Yaba’s work (13:04)
  • On developing her students’ critical imaginations through creative means (14:48)
  • Imagining otherwise (17:04)

Takeaways

Professional Black Girl

Professional Black Girl is a series about celebrating everyday Black girl magic. As someone who spends a lot of time in social media, I noticed that when we use the hashtag of #BlackGirlMagic or when we talk about this concept of Black girl magic, oftentimes, it has felt elitist in some ways—meaning that you have to be Michelle Obama or you have to be Serena Williams or you have to be the young girl that’s been accepted into every Ivy League school there ever was to be seen as Black Girl Magic. For me, thinking of Black girl magic, I’m thinking of the every day ways that we’re magical. I think of the things that Black girls and women do, things that connect us….Professional Black Girl is about those of us who make a choice to show up in the world Black and girl in ways that are unapologetic, in ways that connect us to one another, in ways that connect us to the women and girls who came before us.

The personal nature of Yaba’s scholarship on beauty and race

All of my work is personal. I am absolutely not the kind of researcher who attempts to ‘objective’ or separates myself somehow from the work. I tend to center myself in it. As most people know if they follow my work or have heard me speak, it’s an opportunity to remind people that I am a very dark-skinned woman….My complexion is reflective of my Ghanian ancestry….My parents moved here; my father is also a professor and he got his doctorate at Madison. From Madison, they moved to New Orleans, where he taught at Xavier. And I was born and raised in New Orleans. If you know anything about the history and the culture of New Orleans, skin color politics, colorism, and light skin versus dark skin are at the forefront of many of our experiences and our identities….I center beauty because it is a part of my healing, and a part of my journey to make sense of it, not only for other people, other girls who look like me, women who like me, but for all of us.

Self-care and being intentional about one’s work

I have been telling people that 2018 is my year of the NO, primarily because I overwork myself. I think many of us hear the language of self-care being thrown around in particular ways. And I’m trying to be very deliberate and intentional about that…I published my book (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race independently. That project took about three years in total to come to fruition. And by the time it was published and in my hand, I remember at the release party in November of 2013, I was a zombie. I didn’t have any more to give. I literally worked myself into the bed. And I told myself that I didn’t want to do that anymore….I think it is a spillover from grad school in terms of that kind of hustle and work every day, all day mentality.

Yaba’s efforts at blending her scholarship, creative work, and activism

In the last 10 years, I’ve never been on a tenure track or had a tenure track position. In many ways, that’s been anxiety-producing as I’ve kind of gone from contractual position to contractual position. The blessing from that is that it has allowed me the freedom to do this creative work, because I have not been looking for work that I would get points for or credit for tenure potentially. I feel like I am an insider-outsider in a lot of ways. I am definitely connected to the academy because I continue to teach and work in the academy. But I also feel like a very free spirit, and that’s how I am able to do this creative work.

Fighting anti-intellectualism and connecting with students

[I like] meeting my students where they are….We’re in a moment right now that is quite anti-intellectual. I’m speaking as someone who’s trained in the liberal arts and teaching in the liberal arts and social sciences, and in this moment it feels like we don’t value knowledge for the sake of having knowledge. It seems that we are trying to foster a consumer-business relationship, where our students are coming and buying their degrees because they want a return on their investment and to get a job….So I could be somebody who could be a hardass and push my students to read all these words and things that they ultimately don’t understand or can’t apply. Or I can meet them where they are and try to find inroads to get them to still think critically and still get the history and information that I want them to have.

Imagining otherwise

I want to live in a world where people understand what it means to be free….My freedom comes from my ability to think critically about the world that I live in….I also want a world where people understand the beauty of blackness and that blackness is not a bad thing. I’m speaking not just to folks who aren’t Black but I’m also speaking specifically people who are: that we’re able to look in the mirror and completely be in love with who we are.

More from Yaba

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:23] This is episode 54, and my guest today is Yaba Blay. Yaba is the Dan Blue Endowed Chair in Political Science at North Carolina Central University. Named to the Root 100, an annual list of top influencers, Yaba is one of today’s leading voices on colorism and global skin color politics. Her commentary has been featured in CNN, BET, MSNBC, NPR, the New York Times, Ebony magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Root, Huffington Post Live, and Colorlines, among many others. Applauded in 2016 by O, the Oprah magazine, for her social media activism, Yaba is the creator and producer of numerous online campaigns including  Pretty Period, a visual celebration of dark-skinned Black beauty, and Professional Black Girl, a web series and online community celebrating the everyday, around-the-way Black girl magic. Yaba’s book (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race explores the interconnected nuances of skin color, politics, and Black racial identity and challenges narrow perceptions of blackness as both an identity and lived reality.

[01:31] In 2012, Yaba served as a consulting producer for the CNN television documentary Who is Black in America? which was inspired by the scope of her (1)ne Drop. Yaba’s current book project, Yellow Fever: Skin Bleaching and the Global Politics of Skin Color, investigates skin bleaching from the perspective of peoples who bleach or have bleached their skin.

In our interview, Yaba and I talk about how beauty, culture, and colorism shape her publicly-engaged approach to scholarship; how being an insider/outsider in the academy allows one to enact broad social change; the importance of meeting students where they’re actually at; and how her celebration of everyday Black girl magic is key to how she imagines otherwise.

[to Yaba] Thank you so much for being with us.

Yaba Blay [02:18] Thank you for having me.

Cathy [02:20]: So you are the creator and director of a really fantastic video series called Professional Black girl. Can you tell our listeners about what that series covers?

Yaba [02:33]: What’s interesting about Professional Black girl is that I didn’t have a plan for it. I didn’t seek to do it. It kinda just happened. But Professional Black Girl is a series that is about celebrating everyday Black girl magic. So what I noticed as someone who spent a lot of time in social media, I noticed that where we use the hashtag #BlackGirlMagic or when we talk about this concept of Black girl magic, oftentimes to me it has felt elitist in some ways, meaning that you have to be Michelle Obama or you have to be Serena Williams or you have to be the young girl who had been accepted to every Ivy League school there ever was to be seen as Black girl magic. And so for me, thinking of Black girl magic, I’m thinking of the everyday ways that we’re magical.

[03:21] When I think of the things that Black girls and women do, things that connect us, there is a very special culture that we share. For me, it’s about recognizing that everyday, round-the-way kind of magic that we share, but it’s also about turning this concept of quote unquote “professional” on its head.

I teach at a HBCU [historically Black colleges or university] now and I know that there are ways that many of us mentor and guide our female students towards what is going to mean to be a professional after you graduate. And what I’ve noticed within our community oftentimes is that we’re actually guiding our girls away from themselves, meaning we’re telling them that you’ve got to change your hair or you got to lose weight or you have to dress this way or you have to speak this way in order to be successful, in order to be seen as professional.

[04:14] And so in using professional in this particular celebration of our culture, it is to say no, it’s not those things that are outside of yourself that make you professional. It’s your commitment to yourself that makes you professional—so Professional Black Girl in the ways that I recognize it in the world. It’s about those of us who make a choice to show up in the world Black and girl in ways that are unapologetic, in ways that connect us to one another, in ways that connect us to the women and the girls who came before us. And so it’s a fun project for me. It’s something that I enjoy and it’s something that brings me and a lot of people joy every single day.

[05:00] What has the response been? The response has been amazing actually. I actually wasn’t quite prepared for it. I knew that women would love it because we love celebrating ourselves, but it hasn’t just become a thing, it’s become a community. I get emails and text messages and tags all over social media, like, “have you seen this? Look at this, share this.” So I love it. And I think a lot of people do too. I know people teach it in classes. This is amazing to me. One of my colleagues hit me up the other day to let me know that one of her master’s students was writing a chapter on it in her thesis. And it’s awesome. I’m blown away.

What’s interesting is as I think about this identity of an academic or I think about the ways that we’re all in with Professional Black Girl. The ways that we’re quote unquote “supposed to act” and the things that are seen as knowledge. This isn’t one of those things that I would expect to enter into the academy because I did it not do it to be in the academy. So I appreciate that it’s in the academy and I appreciate those of us who get it and know that we can dance the line of inside and outside. So I’m actually overwhelmed by the ways in which people see themselves and see value in this project.

Cathy [06:21]: It seems like beauty is a really core theme across your various projects. I mean, it shows up in the Professional Black Girl series. It shows up in some of your earlier work, for example, the Pretty Period campaign, which was a fantastic critique of racialized beauty norms. And I’m curious what draws you to beauty culture and beauty politics.

Yaba [06:42]: All of my work is personal. I am absolutely not the kind of researcher who attempts to be quote unquote “objective” or separate myself somehow from the work. I tend to find myself in it. As most people know, if they follow my work or they’ve heard me speak, I never miss an opportunity to remind people that I am a very dark-skinned woman. I always tell people who can’t see me that my complexion is reflective of my Ghanaian ancestry and I am a first-generation Ghanaian and born in America. So my parents moved here. My father is also a professor and he got his doctorate at [the University of Wisconsin-]Madison and from Madison they moved to New Orleans where he taught at Xavier [University of Louisiana] and I was born and raised in New Orleans. If you know anything about the history and the culture of New Orleans skin color politics and colorism, light skin versus dark skin is at the forefront of many of our experiences and our identities.

[07:39] And so from before I can’t even remember, I knew that I was not only dark skinned but very dark skinned. Beauty is something that I feel like escaped me for a very long time. I wasn’t ever named or made to feel beautiful by people outside of my family until I left New Orleans as a teenager. So beauty is just something that interested me of course, just observing my relationship to it or lack there of. But I think in a lot of ways I feel like I resent beauty because it’s also part of my healing and part of my journey to make sense of it, not only for other people, for other girls who look like me, women who look like me, but for all of us. It’s also about me making sense of it for myself.

Cathy [08:27]: So what new projects are you working on right now?

Yaba [08:35]: I reject that question. No new projects! I’ve been telling people that 2018 is my year of the “NO!” problem, primarily because I overwork myself. I think many of us, we hear the language of self-care being thrown away in particular ways. I’m trying to be very deliberate and intentional about that because of what I’ve noticed, and this has been years coming. I published my book (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race independently. That project took about three years in total to come to fruition and by the time it was published and in my hand, I remember the release party in November of 2013, I was a zombie. I didn’t have anything more to give and I literally worked myself into the bed—I couldn’t function. I told myself I didn’t want to do that anymore. I loved the project, it was a blessing, but I just worked too hard on it.

[09:36] I turned around—as my way of getting away from (1)ne Drop at the top of 2014—and I started Pretty Period. I think I’m addicted to work. I think I am, I think I’m addicted to work. I think it is a spillover from grad school in terms of that kind of hustle and work all day, everyday mentality. It has allowed me to bring some great things to life. But I haven’t been doing a good job of taking care of myself. The other thing too is that I quickly fire these bright ideas and I want to get them all done. I also recognize that I’m also not taking good care of the work that I’ve already created. Like I could have dedicated more time to (1)ne Drop in terms of promotion and getting that particular message out.

[10:22] I also could have dedicated more time to Pretty Period. I’m not speaking in terms of regret, but just saying I’m trying to be intentional moving forward about also giving the work that I’ve started some good attention and being more intentional about working as best I can. So I want to take care of myself. But I also want to take care of my work and I also want to find some balance. Because the other thing is that this creative work, interestingly enough that we’re speaking of this, that’s my side hustle.

What’s interesting for me, at least in my relationship to the academy, is that the work that I do isn’t work that I get quote unquote “credit” for necessarily because again, most academics don’t see this work as academic or scholarly. I’m not citing a whole bunch of people. I’m not writing in language that’s academic, which makes my relationship to the academy a bit tenuous. But my goal is to do work that actually reflects and impacts people’s real lived experiences. So yeah. No, no, no, no new projects, no.

Cathy [11:35]: Do you have a favorite way to take care of yourself and of those projects the way that you were talking about or is it a smattering of different things depending on the situation?

Yaba [11:45]: Yeah, I’m learning. I’m learning because as I said, I haven’t been taking care of myself. I’m doing a good job now. One thing that I did is I just stopped having a things-to-do list. My friends have always made fun of me because I’ve always had a journal for my things-to-do list and it is a running list that would never, ever, ever, ever end. I found that it started giving me anxiety, so I stopped having a things-to-do list and instead I was just flying off the cuff, which didn’t work.

[12:14] It felt good for the moment because I felt free. So I’m learning, I’m learning, I’m trying to figure out the things that give me balance. In terms of taking care of my work, I think right now what’s interesting is that for the first time in a long time, Professional Black Girl is the only thing that I’m doing. You know, I’m used to juggling a variety of things or being pulled into other people’s stuff. And again, not knowing how to say no. So it’ll be interesting to see 2018 me saying no to other things and focusing on making Professional Black Girl, helping it grow and making it be the best it can be.

Cathy [12:52]: I’d love to hear how you see your various projects and that kind of work that you do in the world combine your academic interests, your creative or artistic interests, and your commitment to social justice activism.

Yaba [13:05]: Well, it’s interesting. I graduated from Temple [University] in 2007 and in the last 10 years I have never been on the tenure track. I’ve never been on the tenure track, never had a tenure-track position, which in many ways has been anxiety producing because I’ve gone from contractual position to contractual position. I guess the blessing in that is that it has allowed me the freedom to do this creative work because I’ve not been looking for work that I would get points for credit for for tenure potentially. I feel like I am an insider/outsider in some ways. I definitely am connected to the academy because I continue to teach and work in the academy, but I also feel like a very free spirit and that’s how I’m able to do this creative work.

[13:57] The activism comes in, interestingly enough, because in this moment I would call myself a social media activist (for what it’s worth) because social media has become this platform that I truly appreciate in its ability to reach people all over the world. Literally, there are people all over the world who are familiar with my work and I don’t know if that would’ve happened had I just stayed within the four walls of the academy necessarily. So I appreciate that. But also just thinking of the type of learner I am and have been, which is a visual learner and a tactical learner as well as thinking of my students and meeting students where they are, for better or for worse. And it’s no judgment. It’s no shade to students or to the academy but I feel like we’re in a moment right now that is quite anti-intellectual.

[14:44] I’m speaking as someone who’s trained in the liberal arts and teaches in the liberal arts and social sciences. In this moment, it feels like we don’t value knowledge just for the sake of having knowledge. Like we are trying to foster this kind of consumer business relationship where our students are coming and they’re buying their degrees because they want a return on their investment and get a job. You know, it’s not enough that you sat in the classroom and learned. It’s like, “how is this going to get me a job?” And so on the one hand, I could be somebody who could be a hardass and push my students to read all these words and things that they ultimately don’t understand or can’t apply. Or I can meet them where they are and try to find ways to get them to still think critically and still get the history and still get the information that I want them to have.

[15:35] For instance, when I do work on Pretty Period, yeah they’re beautiful pictures. But we’re also going to have a conversation about white supremacy and why we’re in this moment where I have to show you pictures of dark-skinned women and teach you that they’re beautiful. Why don’t you know that already? So we have to have conversations about that or conversations about respectability politics when we’re talking about Professional Black Girl. Why is it that your mother named you one thing but you want to shorten it to make it more palatable to someone else’s mouth? That’s your name. Why can’t you respect your own culture? Why do you have to make other people feel comfortable with who you are? And so just mashing all those things together, yes I do believe that it is a particular type of activism because ultimately I’m advocating for our freedom in a variety of ways.

Cathy [16:25]: So this brings me to my very favorite question that I get to ask guests, which really gets at the heart of the kind of work that you do in the work that I feel privileged to be able to feature on this podcast. And that’s your version of a better world—that world that you’re working towards when you create your projects, when you step in front of a classroom, when you create whatever it is that you create in the universe. So I’ll ask you what might be a scary question, but it’s a big question and I think it’s one we don’t ask each other enough or at least we don’t get enough chances to answer. So, what is the world that you’re working towards? What kind of world do you want as such?

Yaba [17:05]: You sent me this I told you this and I’m like, “how do you answer this question?” I mean, I’ll just think out loud and talk out loud in the moment. The reason I do the work that I do ultimately is I want a world where we’re free. And that freedom looks a variety of ways. I’m thinking of my students when we talk about theory, right now I’m teaching an Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies class and sometimes my students can’t focus because they’re so enthralled by the bigger questions like, “well, if capitalism is a problem, what’s the answer? What does it mean? Am I a capitalist if I do this? What am I supposed to do?” And I’m like, “all right, let’s just stay here right here in the classroom in this moment and think of these baby steps.”

[17:52] Sometimes I think thinking of the bigger picture and the world is daunting and it’s daunting for me and others. Maybe that’s why I don’t have an answer but in the biggest way, I think I want to live in a world where people can live in whichever which way it means to be free. You know, that they can feel free to me. And a lot of ways my freedom comes in my ability to think critically about the world that I live in. On many levels I’m blessed with the opportunity to even stand outside certain things and be like, “yeah, it’s not about that. It’s actually about this.” I think freedom is, is a big part of that.

[18:38] I want a world where people understand the beauty of blackness, that blackness is not a bad thing. I’m speaking not just to folks who aren’t Black, but I’m speaking specifically to people who are—that we’re able to look in the mirror and completely be in love with who we are. Generationally, many of us are taking on the kind of fears and anxieties of our ancestors such that we’re not sure how to celebrate us because we’re so busy trying to quote unquote “survive.” And I’m like, “we’re bigger than just quote unquote ‘survival.’” We’ve been surviving, we’re thriving. We’re not going anywhere. I do my work for Black people, particularly for Black women and Black girls. And by Black, I mean all of us, all over the diaspora. So a world where we recognize our value and our beauty would be a beautiful world to me.

Cathy: Thank you so much for being with us and sharing how you imagine otherwise.

Yaba: Yeah, thank you for having me.

Cathy [19:42]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, Alexandra Sastre, and myself, Cathy Hannabach. You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about the fabulous guests as well as find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show. [music fadeout]


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