From Poetry, to Hashtags, to Online Beauty Blogs, Black Women Have Always Created Reaffirming Spaces for Themselves
“High culture” such as art, literature, and fashion/modeling, has always been lacking in terms of diversity and inclusion, especially with that of black women. Recently, Zendaya Coleman debuted a personal clothing line with Tommy Hilfiger and hired 59 black models, ranging from ages 18–70. Iconic. Zendaya’s choice to have a cast of all black women was more than an announced “political stance” that popularized her fashion line. She utilized her platform to showcase and celebrate multitudes of beautiful black women. Within that, she forged an exclusive space for black women to unapologetically flaunt their natural beauty on the runway, the same space that has actively excluded black women historically.
While Zendaya’s cast of black models was nothing short of noteworthy, she is not the first black woman to curate spaces to acknowledge, respect, and elevate the broader community of black women. Online movements, such as #blackgirlmagic and #melaninpoppin, continue to push for intersectional feminism. These contemporary movements are far from new. Rather, they are echoes of a long history of black women pioneering spaces for themselves as artists, loving and uplifting themselves, and forcing their recognition as valuable, significant human beings.
Many are familiar with the black women pioneers who came before, but just as many are unaware of just how much they have laid the groundwork for women like Zendaya. Maya Angelou is an African-American poet whose decorated career consists of celebrating and defending black culture. A previous member of the Black Liberation Army, Assata Shakur is the epitome of black resilience—a symbol of black power. In fact, her strides were so great, so threatening, so powerful, she still remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted List today. Each of these iconic, trailblazing black Queens have taught me to be unapologetic in my own blackness. They have taught me to embrace my history to find that innate resilience, beauty, and authenticity. They have taught me that my existence matters—that we matter. Both Angelou and Shakur use the medium of poetry to iterate the depth and complexity of black women’s identities, affirming black women beyond the stereotypes that seek to minimize them.
In one of Angelou’s most famous poems, “Still I Rise,” she uses natural imagery and metaphors to demonstrate the depth and complexity of black women’s identities:
Just like the moons and like suns
With the certainty of tides
Just like hopes springing high
Still I’ll rise.
With the description of moons and suns, Angelou is setting an earthly and natural scene to get us thinking about origin and naturalized identities. “With the certainty of tides,” she tells readers that her confidence and success, as a black woman, will be consistent. Angelou encourages us to picture the figurative elevation of herself from the deep hole that society has attempted to bury and leave her in.
Through her sarcastic and humorous tone, Angelou plays with the stereotypes that society has forced upon her and embraces them.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Exposing the absurdity of society’s discomfort and fear of a confident black woman, Angelou reclaims America’s favorite stereotype of black women—that they are “sassy.” Instead of describing the negative aspects of this stereotype, she asks “Does my sassiness upset you?” subverting its power and highlighting the effect this tired stereotype, in turn, has on those who perpetuate it.
As Angelou closes the poem, she highlights the way black women have always resisted and bounced back from attempted forms of oppression:
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Angelou celebrates and praises her heritage, her blackness combined with her womanhood, which has made her who she is. Angelou also suggests that her individual resilience is not just beneficial for herself, but crucial to the necessary movement of affirming the black woman’s existence.
Much like Angelou’s poem, Assata Shakur’s “Rhinoceros Woman” is a heartfelt affirmation of the black woman. The poem is written within Shakur’s autobiography and describes Eva, a friend Shakur made during her stay in prison. Eva was a large, dark-skinned black woman who was treated horribly in the confines of prison, but Shakur admired and respected her upon their first meeting. By naming the poem “Rhinoceros Woman,” Shakur compares Eva to a rhinoceros, large in stature and powerful. She plays on the stereotype of Eva’s size, but also symbolizes her size as reflective of Eva’s bigness and wholeness as a strong woman who has plenty to offer. Shakur also uses “rhinoceros” also a symbol to represent the objectification, commodification, and essential extinction of the black woman. With the opening lines, “Rhinoceros woman / Who nobody wants / and everybody used,” Shakur presents the pattern of society’s use of black women for their benefits and pleasure and society’s tendency to completely discard them afterward.
Shakur is broad in this description, mirroring the many ways black women are objectified and used. Black women can be used and viewed as objects for sexual fetishes. Their dark-skin and typically curvaceous body types are often labeled as hypersexual, thus reducing and limiting their identities as humans. Black women are also taken advantage of by a society that expects them to continually give without ever receiving anything in return. Shakur is aware that the prison system, just like the world outside of it, has used and abused Eva, and this poem is as much a poem for herself and the community of black women across the nation as it is for Eva. Throughout the poem Shakur repeats, “I saw your light / And it was shining.”
As a black woman that has experienced society’s cold shoulders, brutal disregard, and harsh judgements, Shakur’s seemingly minor form of acknowledgement—“I saw your light / And it was shining”—is meaningful beyond words. Shakur is intentional and purposeful in the language of “saw” and seeing. Repeating that she sees Eva’s light shining acknowledges that Eva made an impact on her, that Eva is a human that deserves recognition. Utilizing the image of light shining is also celebratory, both in the way it honors and showcases the vibrancy and liveliness of black women and in the way it contradicts the expectation of weariness and brokenness. Shakur also gives the light to Eva. She describes it as “Your light.” This use of possessive pronouns gives Eva an individuality and possession of something unique, starkly contrasting the “one size fits all” stereotypes that deeply harm black women. Shakur validates, praises, and admires Eva’s light and her overall existence.
“Rhinoceros Woman” exudes self-love—black love, real love. Shakur encourages Eva to unapologetically be her big, black, womanly self while she herself is being unapologetically honest about the systems of hate that have consistently tried to box-in and suffocate the black woman. Assata Shakur’s thoughts and loving tribute to Eva are a powerful and purposeful reminder to Eva and all black women that they are seen. Their lights are seen. They are shining. We are shining.
In her essay, “Poetry is Not A Luxury,” Audre Lorde defines poetry as a form of illumination—the way we, as women, give light to our lived experiences and ideas that would otherwise have neither name nor form. “It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” Lorde’s idea is that poetry does not exist as a luxury for women as does for white men but is, rather, a necessary means to most closely articulate who we are as women. Both Maya Angelou and Assata Shakur perform this notion by putting into words the often silenced and neglected experiences of black women. This articulation is not the end of poetry’s work according to Lorde. Instead, she suggests that tangible action and change are the result of articulating our experiences. As we evolve and continue this practice, so will the methods we use to get there.
Women, for centuries, have been refused access to the resources that allow us to do anything independently. Black women have even been refused the title of “woman.” Despite the systems that placed us in these positions, we have persisted and we have resisted. Poets like Maya Angelou, Assata Shakur, and Alice Walker disrupted the system of “high culture” by creating literature, art, and poetry to, for, and about black women. Activists, academics, and queens like Angela Davis have broken the systems of silenced stories of influential black women like Assata Shakur. Celebrities like Zendaya have challenged runways with full model casts of myriads of black women. We have always found a way to rise, tend to our gardens, and shine our light, and Lorde tells us that we always will.
About the author: Darian Burns is a junior double majoring in social justice/cultural studies and urban studies at Seattle Pacific University. She is also a competing member of SPU’s gymnastics team. When she is not writing, Darian enjoys shopping, sleeping, and anything involving milk chocolate.