Black Girls Helping White Girls–that’s the name I wanted to give the new workshop I thought I should start after wrapping up a community arts project on beauty with 14 African-American middle-school age girls in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
It was 2004, and I had been living in Tulsa, where my former husband is from, for about a year. If you’ve read my About page, you’ll know that I experienced culture shock moving there after living 18 years in New York City. Tulsa felt so segregated after living in the city for so long. I decided I had to get proactive if I wanted diversity in my life.
Some of the things I did were strange–like approach strangers who were black, at the supermarket or Target, just to make a connection. Some of the things I did were more normal, and had more depth–like volunteering at Tulsa’s Rudisill Library’s African-American Resource Center. The library was located on the North Side of Tulsa, which some Tulsans described as the bad part of town where all the black people lived. I also connected with The Greenwood Cultural Center, and with Cindy Driver, the director of the Women of Tomorrow After-School Program, which aimed to build self-confidence and leadership skills of the middle school age girls that attended the program. I offered to conduct an art workshop for them.
The workshop I ran, called The Beautiful Project, used creative writing and photography to explore the definition of beauty, since as girls and women, we are constantly barraged with images in the media that send us messages to strive for a certain kind of perfection.
The girls were all awesome and dove right in to all the writing prompts. Right away I sensed from the girls’ writing that was read aloud toward the end of our sessions, an almost across-the-board confidence and sense of self, that I knew I never felt at their age, and perhaps, still don’t.
Girls would note how their mothers and their grandmothers told them they were beautiful, and they knew it–they believed it. It didn’t matter if the girl was stick thin, or Jennifer Hudson pre-diet size. These girls liked themselves. When I read one of my writings aloud, since I participated in the prompts, too, I hinted at my insecurities around beauty. I wanted to be honest, to show that I did used to sometimes worry too much about what others thought about my looks. I wanted to give girls in the group permission to have these self-doubts, in case it was lurking somewhere beneath the surface, and they weren’t sure they could let it out.
After I read my piece, the director of the program, who sat in on all of the groups, made some kind of comment about how “we have to be strong, have confidence, we don’t worry about what others think…”-something like that. I took her jumping in as trying to do damage control to my weak white girl way of thinking. I wasn’t a stranger to the notion of “the strong black woman” or the pride and self-confidence I had seen in the black girls I went to school with growing up. I thought maybe I did something wrong just then, but at the same time, I felt it was okay to reveal my own truth. Later in group, when I went around to sit with some of the girls individually to look at the writing in their journals, I was allowed to read a piece that one of the girls hadn’t shared aloud in group. In it she wrote that she didn’t always feel good about herself, and that she was too shy to speak up for herself at certain times, and that made her feel weak. Aha!, I thought. We can’t stereotype. Of course, there are going to be black girls that feel shy, feel inadequate in terms of their beauty and their self-worth. I was glad at that moment, that this young girl was able to express her feelings, and was honored that she shared them with me.
When it came time for the second-half of the project, we worked with a local photographer who had done a lot of work for the Greenwood Cultural Center, Marvin Sample. Marvin was an excellent photographer. He set up a grey backdrop, and the girls paired up to first pose for their self-portraits, and then, act as photographer for their partners. Some of the mothers came to the photo sessions, and once again, I got to see the strength and confidence forthrightly demonstrated by mother to daughter.
“Go ahead. You have to go for it. You have to act as if you were strutting your stuff for America’s Next Top Model,” one of the mothers shouted out as her daughter got in front of the camera. The young girl, dutifully struck a pose–a bit over exaggerated at first, but then relaxed in to a more natural, yet still self-assured stance, with her feet firmly planted, her hands on her hips, her eyes looking straight at the camera, unflinching.
I wished I could have been more sassy with the girls, like the moms were, but I’m quiet; more inhibited. I also wish I could share with you the girls writing and their photos, since their work was truly wonderful. Because of their ages, the director didn’t want their work to be displayed anywhere after the project was completed, especially not on the internet. We did however, host a public exhibition at the local Borders bookstore in Tulsa, and the girls were proud to have their work celebrated.
There are always many things I learn when carrying out a community arts project like this. During The Beautiful Project, I kept thinking about how insecure I was as a girl growing up about my beauty, about my weight (even though I was always pretty thin), and how I let boys and men define my beauty instead of me defining it myself. I also thought about how so many of my friends seemed to feel the same way–here we were, elementary school girls eating yogurt to stay thin, high school girls talking about being fat when we barely weighed over 100 pounds.
When I carry out a community arts project, I am always astounded by people’s willingness to take risks. During The Beautiful Project, these girls opened themselves up to me, a stranger, and wrote about how they felt about beauty, and created their wonderful self-portraits. This was inspirational to say the least. I didn’t even broach the fact that I was white and they were black, and here I was asking them about beauty, but not even asking them what it meant to be a black girl, and to think of their beauty in terms of the white gaze. Or what it meant to be asked by a white woman, to define their beauty. That would be a whole other workshop.
But, another thing I came away with, was that I should start a workshop, that built on this one, called Black Girls Helping White Girls, and white middle-school age girls could sit around the table with black middle-school age girls, and the black girls could help the white girls to believe that they are beautiful, too. What do you think?