How We Live is a series centering on the lived experience and thought of black teenagers.

Illustration by Taira Rice.

Illustration by Taira Rice.

Sometimes when I’m inside a bookstore, I’ll venture over to the magazine section. There are always at least 50 different publications on sale, all promising to offer something unique: The best dating advice, the best hole-in-the-wall restaurants to visit, and commentary on the latest fads. There lies a treasure trove of information, seemingly for everyone, and yet I always leave feeling slightly deflated. I cannot bring myself to reach into my wallet for a handful of loose change because, of those 50 or so publications, only three of them will have someone who looks like me on the cover. All I see are smiling blonde beauties with pale skin and loose, flowing hair—or as a popular magazine centered on the girl Friday might phrase it, “manes of cascading locks.”

When I find myself bypassed as a consumer—when beauty is marketed as something incapable of penetrating my dark skin—I’m thankful for the quiet reassurance offered within the realms of my Instagram feed. In this painstakingly curated digital utopia, I can appreciate the beauty of those with my likeness, who unashamedly and audaciously share their snapshots of times they’ve felt their best. There is a certain vulnerability in saying “I will put myself out there,” as society attempts to erase you.

Take for, example the Art Hoe Collective, a digital-multimedia haven of racialized bodies pasted over famous art pieces, racialized voices displaying their poetry, and racialized souls talking expression. It’s an expanding movement that I’ve enjoyed, and which I loudly applaud. Seeing myself represented—superimposed on an obscenely expensive work of art, created through the one-dimensional lens of overly lauded white men—is both gratifying and revolutionary.

My presence is a revolutionary statement denouncing the notion that beauty comes dressed in Louboutins, dripping Cartier, and delicately tanned to speak of exotic beach vacations, but not to be reminiscent of melanin-rich pigment. It’s very hard to see black women represented in a myriad of ways, outside the constraints of racist stereotypes. As a dark-skinned black girl, every opportunity that allows me to put myself on display in a positive light is revolutionary simply because (1) It’s my decision and (2) I control the image. Dark-skinned black girls are more often than not portrayed as illiterate, loud, “ghetto,” unattractive, and sexually immoral, lacking of an acceptable femininity. When not used solely for sexual gratification, feminine dark-skinned black bodies are constantly used as fodder for comedic relief, a loyal sidekick to the more put-together and lighter best friend. It’s frustrating, it’s maddeningly infuriating, and it’s a constant pain in the hurt when all you see of yourself is a bastardized version which you have to fight to take back. When these are the mainstream representations, images that deviate from this are a necessary part of reclaiming my voice and telling my own story. A story that exists outside of the stereotypes, working against them to represent a reality I’ve never been allowed to. One that I control, and where I determine my truth, my sexuality, and my worth.

As a young, black, African girl representations of myself are dependent on the white lens recreating my narrative for public consumption, based off of narrow understandings and pre-determined by racist beliefs. To the white man, I’m overtly sexual and exotic. To the white woman, I’m aggressive in stark contrast to her docile temperament. To fashion designers, my look is time sensitive, while my aesthetic is constantly up for grabs to be appropriated for elite fashion runways. To corporate media giants, my existence and culture is a backdrop to dystopian cinematic productions.

I am seen as pieces of a being, not as a whole identity. To see myself represented by those who benefit from eurocentric culture, is to see my existence corrupted and debased. It’s thorns in my eyes, tape on my mouth, and weights on my feet. To be seen is to be fixed, because I’m offered neither complexity nor dimension. I am both invisible and hyper-visible with my seemingly “inherent” flaws always put on display and my beauty never recognized as worthy of praise.

So I work tirelessly, every day, to see myself. I implore the skies as my eyes constantly watch for a God to tell me that she loves me when I’m laughing, and then again when I’m looking mean and impressive. That she sees me even if I do not possess the bluest eye. I work every day to see myself not as the help but as beloved. Not only as a ratchet hoe, but an art hoe. Not as a prisoner of a dozen years, but a freedom fighter of four centuries. I can’t tell you how to truly see yourself and be in love with what you see, but I can tell you not to depend on this anti-black world to teach you how to love yourself. The world has never known how to love black women, and expecting it to do so is like burying a raisin in the sand and hoping for more fruit.

I’ve found solace in the words of the black women who have written their own stories and carved their own doorways through the walls that separated black women from opportunities. Ida, Toni, Alice, Zora, Terry, and Octavia are the cheering squad that has made me believe in my own magic. Julie, Gina, Mara, and Ava are the creators who have made it possible for me to believe that black women are so much more than singular, hastily drafted characters in movies. More than just extras and deserving of center stage. Tina, Patti, Janet, Janelle, and Solange are the musical vessels, who have let me know that my black girl song, is my black girl anthem. Not be silenced or forgotten.

I’m still on a journey to learn myself, and I am thankful for movements and hashtags such as #arthoe and #blackgirlmagic, and the annual Black Girls Rock awards show, that do not place limitations upon my being. These social movements, growing exponentially and riding the waves of black girl excellence, centralize black girls and portray us as whole and multi-dimensional beings, who are complex. Instead of telling me no, they say, “Hi, black child, fix your crown. It’s not straight.” I’m thankful when I’m allowed the right to be represented respectfully, remarkably, and responsibly. ♦

Tari is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, Canada. Lover of all things Michael and Janet, you can either find her listening to the whole Bad album, or rocking an outfit inspired by Rhythm Nation. A constant traveler, she is currently sitting on a suitcase that won’t close. You can keep up with her on her Twitter, Instagram or her blog.