Girl! GWORL. Gorl. Guhl. Gurl. Grrrrrlll.
“Mom, why is it always, girl, girl, girl, girl, every time you call or with your friends?” my son asked me as I laid him in bed. I was amused. Mostly by the sight and sound of myself through my five year old’s eyes and ears – he had got my animated pacing and high toning straight – but also on the idea that I used the word enough for him to address it .
“I did not understand that, sweet thing. Am I really saying that much? ”
“Girl! You do,” he said with a childish smile before turning around and closing his eyes. I tried to swallow my laughter as I turned out the light and tiptoe out of the room. In my life I have used many pet names for the people I know and love: sis, luv, beauty, lovebug, babes, hon, pumpkin, doodlebug, candy, bae, dumpling and peanut, but through my evolving network of friends – and especially among my black chosen sisters – there are still an expression of love: girl.Equal parts greeting, exclamation and rally war.
For as long as I can remember, girl was the root word in the unique language of love between black women, regardless of age. “Girl, you have it. Just go out there and do your best, ”said my mother, Precious, as he gave me a pre-dance recital pep talk. “Babygirl, you fool,” said my aunt Gloria, all Gregorian delight, to my little sister, April, and created her up in a hug when she discovered that the child had piled on her hair pieces, blouses, and bracelets in a dress.
“Hey, girl, hey,” my college colleague said in a conspiratorial muffled voice, revealing a box of caffeinated soft drinks and Krispy Kreme donuts as we prepared to pull off a night for one exam or another. “Guuurl,” my friends and I sang along to Destiny’s Childs “Girl” as we dressed for a night out and put extra emphasis on the vocal race every time Beyoncé, Michelle and Kelly hit the title. Girl was a one-word lingua franca that transcended class, generations, and geography. A word we used with each other to show affection and acknowledge shared history, experiences and ambitions.
When I got into working life, I became conflicted over the conversation. I was imbued with feminist culture as an assistant editor at Jane. Girl was a polarizing word. Some regarded it as an infantilizing shutdown (it is “womyn”, thank goodness), others as an empowering undermining (hey, rebellion grrrls.)
And then there was the hipster racism that I would inevitably encounter on diving poles after work. Bearded white boys in flannel shirts telling me, “You go, girl,” an annoying imitation of an old, equally annoying imitation of black female comedians Martin Lawrence that became popular many years before. Or young white gay men on the fashion party circuit who mistakenly thought their sexuality excluded them from buying cultural stereotypes that made me stiffen with their awkward greeting: “Hey, girl, I like your hair. Is it yours?”
I did not recognize myself in any of the pantomimes, though it was clear how many imagined black women: a neck-rolling monolith. I refused to play to write and fit a narrow idea of what black women should be.
I felt more akin to the abundance of “girls” in the black and brown ballroom scene. The icons in Paris is burning popularized the now common social media age encyclopedia that includes ‘yassss, girl’, ‘read’ and ‘treasure’. These expressions – innocent, everyday words with completely new meanings – originate from us, black women (cis and trans), and can be traced back through generations to our hair salons, kitchens and churches. So I wanted to change code and limit the language of love to conversations with my closest black female friends and family members at home.
I was not fully aware that this was American until I moved to London from New York in late 2008. I felt the need to build my own network of black female friends after getting tired of always being the only one in my work and social life; I became friends with Ghanaian, Nigerian, Jamaican and black British women with sharp opinions, bold voices and flourishing careers. Women who did not prick their anecdotes with a tall ‘girl’ to highlight or use it as a loving preface to a warm hug or a lavish compliment. So it dropped out of my daily encyclopedia and only came out for the occasional phone marathon pickup with girlfriends from the state.
But as a new wave of racial discourse and black consciousness rolled in with the Obama administration in the late aughts, ‘girl’ took on a whole new life, crossed the pond and worked its way through the entire diaspora. We became with a word magic.
Like most cultural touchpoints in the 2010s, it started with a tweet. The hashtag #BlackGirlsAreMagic was created by a CaShawn Thompson to counter tired stereotypes and lies. No, of course we are not shrill, unmarried, ugly and uneducated. We are strong, beautiful authors of movements and culture around the world. As I write this, I’m listening to the official #BlackGirlMagic playlist on Spotify, filled with music by women of color from around the world. There are Black Girl Magic T-shirts and books and book clubs and websites. Not that we needed a hashtag to tell us who we are – we do not need a hashtag as validation. But the abbreviated #BlackGirlMagic and the like, including #BlackGirlJoy and #CarefreeBlackGirl, started and sent out to the world what we already knew: When it comes to expertise, we are not new to this (to quote Drake, vocal appraiser for Black Women) . We are true to this.
I get my highlights from being underrated. Give me a “meh” and I’ll get you to eat it. Ignore me and I’ll show you. I get an increase in proving people wrong. During the many interviews I have given as a fashion editor about the lack of diversity in the business, people sometimes ask me, “How does it feel to do it in an industry full of people who do not look like you?”
It turns 19 and is told by a professor that he must meet your expectations and try a teaching career when you express a desire to work in magazine publishing. It’s an editor who rejects your pitch about a story about teenage mothers with the completely inaccurate logic that it “was not good because the story was just about black girls and no one wants to read it.” You are repeatedly asked to go on TV just to comment on why there are so few of you in media, TV and fashion, as if it is the only topic you are qualified to talk about.
It sits next to a modeling agency owner at a work dinner that tells you that you are pronouncing your name incorrectly. “I know the most luxurious lodge in Keenya. Where do you like to live when you are there? You’ve definitely been to the country before, no? Not even Nairobi? So why did your parents name you Keenya? You pronounce it ‘Ken-ya,’ you say? Not ‘Keenya’? Hmmmm, are you sure? ”
It tries to keep you from using the other kind of girl – “Girl!” – as admonition and oral eye roll. The kind of girl I use for women who test my patience no matter what their race is. As in, “Girl, stop! Old white colonialists put it that way. “It’s sitting in a staff meeting proposing a black pop star to the front page, just to know,” But we just had a black woman on the front page last month. And it would be too weird to have two in a row. ”
But that was then. And it is now, the time for Black Girl Magic, where we own the expansiveness of blackness in its cross-section with femininity and trace its innumerable forms and textures in a time when what it means to be a black woman has permeated all levels of public discourse, from the incredibly tragic (Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson and a tragically long list of others) to the tragicomic (Rachel Dolezal).
What is Black Girl Magic? It’s Solange Knowles dressed in white and dancing on the streets of New Orleans. It’s Malia and Sasha Obama, with girlfriends, in my favorite picture of those who follow behind their father, the first black president of the United States as they fly Air Force One. It is Black Lives Matter founders Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi who are galvanizing a global movement against the brutalization of black bodies. And Bernardine Evaristo won the Booker Prize, the first black British author to do so. It’s a video clip of Michelle Obama congratulating Beyoncé on her record-breaking Netflix special, Homecoming, a rich, exciting and very black tribute to historically black universities. Nineteen black women are elected judges in Texas. And five black women with their backgrounds spanning South Africa, Jamaica and the US, winning the world’s five most iconic beauty pageants: Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, Miss World and Miss Universe. It is black actresses, singers and models who dominate British and American women’s magazine for September 2018 for the first time in history. And South African two-time Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya declared herself “supernatural” as she sought to qualify for the Olympics in Tokyo. Kamala Harris is running for president. And we all reveal our solidarity in the face of global pandemics and tragedies. Women, girls who dare to be true to the ratings of ourselves in a world where anyone not named Beyoncé, Rihanna or Lupita tends to be portrayed as chronically angry, persistently overlooked, forever victims, infallible garbage and more. That’s not how I look at myself. This is not how anyone I know sees themselves.
The world expects the more familiar, stereotypical image of us as a server of side-eyes and neck roll. But Black Girl Magic is a party that frees us from the confines of narrow expectation or subtitle.
In a way, the word had become a positive affirmation and a vocal show of unity in our time of violence. Yet little is written about using it this way.
I’ve seen girl come in full circle, just like my relationship with it has. I now use it openly to show sisterly devotion, shared cultural experiences or not – as many Londoners I know. At a women’s festival in the Saatchi Gallery, where I performed as a speaker, the green space was a joyous sound of loud laughter, chatty group hugs and enthusiastic “hello girls” between writers, journalists, models, activists and athletes. On stage, I asked Halima Aden, the Kenyan-born Somali American who made history as the world’s first hijab-wearing supermodel, if she ever felt a weight of responsibility as a first-timer. “Well, girl, when you say it like that,” she laughed before admitting she did.
Here the girl was not bound to any specific country of origin. Like it was not in the women’s months of March later in London, where protesters of all ethnic groups and ages walked with posters with such ball-sewn, unforgettable messages as “Girls just want fun basic human rights” and “Girls do whatever the hell they want. “
Girls! Girl. Gurl. Girl, hey. Girl, goodbye. Girl, stop. Girl, go. Girl, we see you and feel seen.
Custom excerpt from Girl Gurl Grrrl: About femininity and belonging in an age of black girl magic by Kenya Hunt. Reprinted with permission from Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2020 by Kenya Hunt.
This content is created and maintained by a third party and imported into this site to help users provide their email addresses. You may find more information about this and similar content at piano.io