by Latonya Pennington.
In the essay “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens”, Alice Walker writes that the black woman’s ability to garden for their spirits can allow them to flourish and survive hardships. By planting myself among the diverse wildflowers that exist in the garden of black women, black women have nurtured my spirit, creating a beautiful bouquet that continues to grow every day.
While I’ve had both black men and women as influences, I am more infatuated with black women. I love black women as a music lover, poet, writer, reader, feminist, and a queer woman of color. Yet, this love for black women was comatose for years, dawning only a year and a half ago.
There are a few reasons I couldn’t love black women from the start. I don’t have a black mother; she’s Asian. My black father, as loving as he was, could be a bit sexist at times. Growing up, I also received sexist statements from other adults and people my age due to my gender expression. Finally, despite seeing black women that looked like me, I didn’t see anyone that acted like me for years. I was awkward, quirky, and angsty, but I mostly saw sassy and loud characters and one dimensional token black characters.
Out of all these factors, the lack of diverse representation of black women had the biggest impact. I felt like who I was and what I felt had no place in the world and developed low self-esteem and depression. There were times that I seriously considered suicide.
In the summer of 2014, I became an intern for the online black women’s magazine For Harriet. Under the guidance of the magazine’s founder Kimberly Foster, I wrote essays and feature articles. She helped pound my writing talent into shape as I began to discover black women not seen in mainstream media.
During that summer, I also discovered the site Black Girl Nerds. With the help of the site’s creator, I became a guest blogger for the site and gradually learned to embrace my nerdiness by interacting with other black girl nerds. Then in the fall, I discovered the music of Janelle Monáe as well as independent black musical artists through the website Afropunk.
Discovering Janelle Monáe was monumental for me because she was the first black women that looked AND acted like me. She wore tuxedoes and dresses, was a sci-fi nerd, and had eclectic musical influences. She was different and she was herself. By being herself and being unique as a musical artist, she let black girls like me know that it was okay to do the same.
I also discovered artists like Tamar-Kali, Kimya Dawson, Divinity Roxx, and many others, who were defying expectations by doing the music they loved. These ladies were a huge breath of fresh air.
In addition to Janelle Monáe and other current black female musicians, I also found black female musicians from the past empowering. Punk rock singer Poly Styrene, funk-rock singer Betty Davis, and jazz singer and trumpeter Valaida Snow are a few of my favorites. Some of these women are lesser known musicians hidden in history because they dared to be just as skilled as men, or were considered too wild.
While black women in music were my personal muses, black women writers were my artistic ones. The work of Gwendolyn Brooks sparked the desire to write socially-conscious poetry during my early college years. Other women that would leave a mark include Maya Angelou, Jacqueline Woodson, and Audre Lorde.
Although I rarely watch movies and television now, black women on-screen are also a major influence. Films like Dee Rees’s Pariah and Gina-Prince Bythewood’s Beyond The Lights had black female lead characters whose stories were relatable to me. Meanwhile, the television show Sleepy Hollow and online web series like Issa Rae’s The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl also had appealing black female leads. These characters have inspired me to tell my own stories while giving me representation for my various traits and experiences.
If I hadn’t discovered the garden of black women, my spirit would’ve wilted and I would’ve left this earth too soon. The garden of black women is filled with fertile soil and any black woman should be able to plant themselves in it, bloom, and help others grow.