This Is Major by Shayla Lawson Photos provided by publicist/Nicholas Nichols
Black Girl Magic is a term that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to talking about Black women. As a Black man, I always saw it as a way to acknowledge the way that women like my grandma always found a way. They came through in the clutch and never let us down — even when we thought failure was the only option. For me, the term was the only way to explain how I was always in awe with what Black women had the amazing ability to accomplish, especially in racist, sexist America. I used Black Girl Magic to express endearment. I never thought about the pressure that the phrase puts on Black women, forcing them to go above and beyond in an unrealistic way –– until I read Shayla Lawson.
Lawson, lauded poet and author of "I Think I'm Ready to See Frank Ocean" explains the origin of Black Girl Magic and the problematic expectations it puts on Black people in her new essay collection "This Is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope." She summed it up on our recent "Salon Talks" episode, "We either have to be Black people that are in a very specific level of servitude, something that serves whiteness, picking up their packages or picking up their clothes off the floor after they've tried them on, or we have to be Oprah, we have to be a basketball player, we have to be Obama." The book offers a rich, unique take on how Black women in particular have influenced pop culture and Lawson's quirky, hilarious observations on politics and history through the lens of a young Black woman surviving in America.
Watch Lawson join me on "Salon Talks" here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below, to hear about this personal, timely collection that she wrote for Black readers specifically. We also talk candidly about the diversity that exists inside of our own race and how movements like Black Lives Matter impact the definition of Blackness. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Congratulations on your new book "This Is Major." It was fun to connect with your voice in the middle of all this depressing news that we've been consuming over the past four months with COVID and the murder of people that look like us being amplified at the highest level. Let me start with how have you been dealing with all this?
I've been managing. I'm trying to center as much positive energy around what it means to be Black as I possibly can. My last response to the Black Lives Matter movement was writing the "I Think I'm Ready to See Frank Ocean" book. It was my way of looking at the conversation that we were having about Black people dying and centering our love. Just thinking about the fact that if we're living in a time in which the archive of what happens to us revolves around what other people are doing, as opposed to the ways that we take care of ourselves with how we love each other, that I personally would be doing a disservice to the time and to the movement. It's also interesting that this book is written and I wrote a book about Black women and the invisibility of Black women and how much we need to be protected. Now I'm living through a time in which I'm promoting it and those are some of the biggest issues that come up in my news feed every day.
People always ask me about Blackness and what does it mean to be Black or how does it feel? I feel like I've never give a satisfying answer because I don't have anything to judge it against, like I wasn't white three years ago.
I'm from Baltimore and I live in Baltimore, which means I literally just started meeting white people three or four years ago. I never have an answer for that, do you?
This is interesting because I actually did a project when I wrote my book "Pantone" and it's about colors. One of the projects that I did with another artist, she is a Black woman who runs her own apothecary company, was we decided to think about the Black woman's smell. What is it that Blackness smells like? When you asked me what is being Black like, the first thing that I came up with was the smell. I associate a lot of comfort. I associate a cool touch on the skin, humidity, smoke, a lot of warmth with the idea of being Black. When she and I first started working on a project, we were like, "Oh, what is a Black woman smell?" Cocoa butter and Blue Magic, we were going back into our childhood and going back to some things that were kind of stereotypes of what we are.
But I think what we are really is people who are still connected to the earth in a very particular way that are also struggling to maintain that connection, to maintain that rootedness. In spite of that, we've managed to keep ourselves centered in the ground. That's something that I just feel really proud of. To be uprooted and be transported across the entire world without our will. What other culture can say that they've had that experience? Yet in every place that we have been put, we have managed to survive. In a lot of ways, we've managed to thrive and build really beautiful culture and build really beautiful ways of taking care of each other. We have a huge struggle and we are definitely under siege, but I'm just so awed by the beauty of how we keep it together.
I going to have to borrow from that. Now I have a more informed answer. Speaking on Blackness in general, I felt like in many ways, your book is a celebration of Blackness.
With all of the different social movements happening right now from Me Too, Time's Up, Black Lives Matter, which are trying to push society forward, do you feel as a writer like things are getting better for Black people and Black women in publishing?
I hope so. We're going to see if so many of these people put their motivation behind the words that they've been putting out over the last few weeks. We've been seeing a lot of big companies making statements about their desire to make sure that in the future, they don't continue to erase us. I'm still a bit skeptical. I'm hopeful.
A couple of years ago when I sold this book I in no way thought that a press like Harper Collins would want a story that I had to write about Black girls. I'm not famous. I wasn't a super well-known writer, but they really were drawn to the way that I was telling a story. That made a difference to me in that it made me feel that perhaps things are changing, that there've been enough people who had paved the way.
I think one of the things that's nice about what's going on in my book is I read a lot of books in which what we had to do as Black people is write to someone else, write our stories to someone else. This book I'm really writing towards us. I'm really writing for us as opposed to about us. I wasn't sure if that was something that was going to catch on, but I think especially in this particular time, we're seeing a shift in understanding that it's not the only way to sell a book to an audience is for a Black person to write to an audience that is outside of who we are.
You're speaking in the language of Toni Morrison. And you actually open your book with a quote from her.
To quote Morrison, "Racists always try to make you think that they are the majority, but they never are." Do you feel like these divisive times under this president are inspiring artists to fight this notion, or has it always been this way but now it's being more amplified?
I think for me, a lot of the conversations that I've had with artists about this time and watching 45 get elected, was recognizing that one of the things through which he won was language and the use of language to promote fear. I think as a poet, one of the things that I've gotten a little bit lazy about is the economy of language. Being able to use less language to try and say bigger things. I realized that this wasn't going to be a time for me to write poetry, because this language is being taken away, all this language around protection for the LGBTQ community. If all this language surrounding Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization, all that language is the way that this battle is going to be fought. I needed to be putting more of it out into the world. It made me expand into prose and to think of prose as a political activity, as an artist, a way to make sure that there's more of the story that's covered.
Poets write the best prose.
Well, thank you. You will probably make a lot of people angry by saying that.
They'll be okay. I wish I would've sold my last two books after people started caring about us and the industry. I think we might be doing this Zoom interview from a yacht. So people always ask me about the audiences I write for and I normally say I write for people who are from the East side of Baltimore, because I live in this little bubble, but then I also would say you should read it too. Do you feel like you have it? Do you feel like you have an audience as you make this commitment to be able to tell these beautiful stories that you are ready to for Black people? Do you feel like there's a bigger audience or have you been getting love from this book from a bigger audience?
I always say that I write for the future. I think that Black women are from the future. I'm very big fan of the idea of Afrofuturism and playing around with what time looks like. I think Black women have largely been ignored in the moment of time in which they do things. But then we see quite a bit later, that's the time when we start talking about the contributions of Harriet Tubman, or I love seeing recently that they're trying to make a statue to Marsha P. Johnson to honor her commitment to gay rights and Stonewall.
I think we've always lived like that as Black women, that we know we might not be appreciated in the moment, but it's coming. Right now what's been interesting has always kind of been the case with my writing is that it tends to find a non-Black audience first.
That has been a lot of the conversation that I've had about the book thus far. That was surprising to me because it is a very FUBU-type of book, but I've gotten a lot of responses, particularly from white women being like, "I really appreciated your take on this conversation because I felt like we were on a road trip and I was driving with you and listening to you tell your stories." I'm looking forward to when it turns into a big brunch, an Oprah-style brunch, where it's tons of brown-skin ladies who look a little bit more like me in our chiffon and we get to talk about it. I don't know if COVID is going to let that happen.
We'll keep our fingers crossed.
I think when I sat down to write the book, I was thinking a lot about Gen-Z-ers and I was thinking about what they would want to know about millennials, that they're probably not understanding about who we are and the ways that we've had to engage this very particular conversation. I'm really proud of them. As a professor, I teach a lot of them and I wanted to write them in this way, where they had this intermediate step of what our coming into terms with our Blackness look like. Particularly when it comes to Black women and femmes.
In some of your essays in the book you write about, I don't want to say awkward, but awkwardness, like the Twitter-famous essay is coming to mind. I remember you writing something about being a standout. Do you still feel that way?
Okay, the thing that's interesting about the way that I wrote the book is that it's less like a Black card conversation and more just like, "I'm a writer, so I'm weird and I'm always going to be weird." I don't always feel like I fit in, but one of the things about writing that's been awesome is that I've met so many Black people who are unlike me. There's enough of us. We're our own cookout. Me hanging out with the standard fare family, if I think about going my family cookouts, I always felt a little bit out of place just because of my space as an observer. The fact that I was there watching all of these things and it was just me doing a different thing. What's lovely about now and the reason why I don't feel out of place is I can throw my own cookout full of people who are just as strange as me and who are all Black. I love that. I love that there's so much more space now for us to be who we are.
It's like we're evolving as a people because you have things like Issa Rae's "Insecure" on HBO and "Awkward Black Girl" where you have all of these different cultures evolving in these spaces. We didn't have that coming up.
Either you were cool or not. There was no space for you to have a community in the middle.
That's why the internet has been so important. Social media has been so important for Black people, but one of the things that I find as somebody who used to work in social media, is the inherent tendency for whiteness to want to co-opt that and turn it into something that they can sell and to commodify and manufacturer. It's an ongoing struggle when it comes to Blackness, the idea that my Blackness was sold back to me in the form of the way that I was told I needed to operate on social media.
That felt a lot like when I was trying to fit into an HBCU crowd, as somebody who went to a regular a** state college. It's a struggle that has been put in front of us, where there's always a way that we need to achieve at being better at being Black people. I love the fact that we're taking that back and we're saying we are doing the fine a** job of being the Black people that we are. This is who we are, if I'm Black and this is what you see and all my friends are like me, that's because what we are. We cosplay, we ate kale, we do yoga. We love our comic books. We love all the things. We love our bicycles. We love our pets. For so long, I just felt like what was sold to me is the idea of you can be a cool Black person or you can do this stuff that you're into. Now they're the same, it's the same thing. I love it.
No group of Black people have a monopoly on Blackness, but the internet would kind of have you fooled. Like I said, I'm from Baltimore and I'm from public housing. When the whole Black Lives Matter conversation, when it first started happening after Trayvon died and then blowing up even more after Mike Brown died, people was in my neighborhood were talking about Black Lives Matter. I was in the middle of a group of guys and I had never heard of that. At that particular time, if you wasn't tapped into that portion of Black Twitter, you had no access to that movement. A lot of people around that time didn't have smart phones or Twitter accounts. It's good that these stories are being out there so we can see the diversity that exists inside of our own race.
I think what's so cool about what you just said, that's neat, is just thinking about what we manage, what we as Black people, what the Black Lives Matter movement managed to do in a matter of years with technology. The Black Lives Matter movement made the progress that it did largely by becoming more visible in the technological space, in a social media space, than just on the ground. Now we're seeing in this new iteration, we see protests all over the world that are happening. That's something that I'm really proud of too. Because growing up, I just remember the ways that people were like, "Black people can't use computers, Black people don't know how to use computers," and we had so much less access to these tools, but we're using them for revolutionary purposes in addition to being able to find each other. It's just, it's really dope. I'm really, really proud and really excited.
Mistaken identity has been a part of your journey. You look nothing like Whoopi Goldberg, but you got Whoopi Goldberg. At least she's a millionaire.
It's true. It's funny because I love having this conversation with Black people because I definitely run into people who think I'm the maid or people think I work there. "Excuse me, Miss, could you get this in my size?" Then the other side of that is the people – I talked to some other friends about it as well and how they end up in these situation, we're just doing something normal, like going to the CVS or whatever and some white people becomes convinced, "Oh my God, I just had a celebrity sighting," and then get mad at you when they realized I'm not famous but I'm still a person, "But you're not famous. I said, hi to you. It was not worth it." But you need to do all that? We need to go through all that when you make a mistake?
I think that it's a really important thing for us to look at on both ends that we can't just be normal Black people. We either have to be Black people that are in a very specific level of servitude, something that serves whiteness, picking up their packages or picking up their clothes off the floor after they've tried them on or we have to be Oprah, we have to be a basketball player. We have to be Obama. Those are the only two ways that white people think that they encounter us as opposed to us just being the same as them in which we have a diaspora, a strata in which we are everywhere.
That gets so dangerous because at the end of the day, I use that story in the book to talk about artificial intelligence and how we're coding those same expectations in artificial intelligence. When they're using AI software, for instance, to filter through job applications. How they started filtering out dark-skinned people and women for lower caste jobs, because that was the only place that they were showing up in the system that was entered into. Then when they start using these identification systems to find criminals, we know how well America has done with mistaken identity just on its own accord when it comes to Black men. Now to have these AI systems in which they have encoded the same prejudices, they are now saying that this computer is more accurate because a computer, it can't be biased.
Without actually looking at what machine learning is, machines learn from us. If we are biased, we encode that bias on the machines. Machines have a much harder time seeing a dark-skinned women than anybody else. Comparatively for dark-skinned men, there's a 98% accuracy, 99% for light-skinned women, 100% for light-skinned men but then there's an 86%. We got a 14%margin of error when it comes to identifying dark-skinned women. A lot of times we get identified as being male, which just goes back to this ongoing stigma of the strong Black women and Black women not really being women. In these machines Michelle Obama gets listed as a man wearing a toupee. You can see how it's an encoding of our inherent, this ongoing conversation we have as Black people to fight the idea that we're people, now showing up in machines.
In that same chapter, you talk about someone mistaking your mom for Oprah and then touching her, which is extremely problematic. Why do people have a problem with their hands? What does that come from?
That's where we get that whole conversation with Black women and "Don't touch my hair," is because people still treat our bodies like they own us. I've had all sorts of strangers grab me in public places and then get upset with me when I have a problem with that. To think about that man grabbing my mom's wrist because he thought she was Oprah. When would you be in a position to grab Oprah's wrist? When are you going to be close enough to Oprah where you can just grab her, so that she can take a picture of you? It's a very different way of thinking about personhood. You have to not think about me as the same status of person that you think about yourself if you think it's okay to touch my body. I think particularly when it comes to Black women and femmes, there's this level of ownership that people think that they have. Because we're dealing with the racism and the misogyny and it's really dangerous. I can talk of the book, how we need to start looking at that as assault.
We get really touchy about how we can use the word assault in common language. If somebody feels comfortable touching you and you don't want it, and it puts you in danger or a threat, it puts you in a situation in which you are worried, because at the time in the story, my mom was holding the hand of my 4-year-old sister. Then a grown man puts his arm on my mom's wrist. What is that other than assault? "Oh, I just made a mistake." Well, what was a mistake? Was the mistake that my mom wasn't Oprah or was the mistake that you should never put your hands on somebody you don't know?
One of my favorite chapters was "Black Girl Magic." Explain it to our viewers and Black Girl Magic as society sees it and then the reality of what it creates.
I start the chapter of Black Girl Magic by saying, "Uh-uh no, not a thing." The reason why is because I wanted to explore another side of what the idea of Black Girl Magic is, CaShawn Thompson, the woman who started Black Girl Magic, she started it with the #Blackgirlsaremagic. It was about Black women being out and being praised for the things that they do. One of the things that concerns me about the distillation of that into Black Girl Magic is how much that fits into the magical Negro archetype. That in order for Black girls to be paid attention to, they need to be superhuman. They need to be special. They need to be magical. We've seen how much that has been a problem throughout history, when it comes to the Black body and the experience. We have the magical Negro archetype as something that affects both Black men and women.
I just looked at it from the particular standpoint of Black Girl Magic and thought about the Hottentot Venus and the ways that they exploited her was to tell her that her body was magic. I thought about Marie Laveau and how Marie Laveau was this insanely smart entrepreneurial business woman, but she's recorded in history as being the voodoo queen. She never even professed to practicing voodoo, but this is the ways that they looked at her and her spirituality, as a Black woman, who became a really famous pastor during the time. I looked at Tituba who wasn't necessarily even on record as a Black person. If we go back into the historical record, she was both Caribbean and Indigenous. But then when we take the Salem Witch trials and we turn it into this commodified image, all of a sudden she comes a Black woman, she becomes the Black witch of Salem. She was neither a practicer of voodoo of any kind of divination or necessarily somebody who thought of herself as Black. Yet in order to save herself, she had to look at the two things that white people saw her as and say, "Yes, you know what? I am a Black woman, because I'm a Black woman, I know how to do voodoo. If you don't save me, then Satan has told me to destroy the whole town." Because of that, she had saved her life.
That's something that I find interesting too, how often that Black Girl Magic is a vehicle for self-preservation. That sometimes we have to make ourselves look magic to people so that they won't hurt us. That's why I want us to explore it a little bit deeper. I'm really proud of how magic Black girls are and the things that we managed to accomplish that just seemed like it would be impossible for me to be done. There's an optimism in Black Girl Magic, but I also think it's good for us to look at historically what it's meant when white people want to tell us that we're magic with the things that we do.