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Reclaiming “I Am” Words by: Janan Graham-Russell

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One of the most powerful statements a black woman can make is “I am”. It is a recognition of the self in the present as the subject. In the narratives we craft about ourselves, Black women engage and document the meaning of “I am”. Its importance is found in resisting counter-narratives which exist to erase our voices and our lives. The rise of Black women bloggers in the past decade embodies the exploration of the self and what it means to be a Black woman. Our magic is derived from the nuances in culture, tradition, and thought. From beauty and fashion insights to technology and contemporary art, Black women are defying conventional aesthetics while affirming their lives and the lives of others. The manifestations of these affirmations are part of a long-standing tradition of Black women both writing and righting their existence in a white supremacist society.

Dating back to the 19th century, Black women have found photography and literature to be sources of personal and political forms of expression. In Art On My Mind: Visual Politics, bell hooks acknowledges the role photography played in the lives of Black people. She writes,

“The camera became in black life a political instrument, a way to resist misinterpretation as well as a means by which alternative images could be produced.”

Sojourner Truth was one of many political activists among her contemporaries who used photography to shape her personal and political image and message.  In one her most iconic photographs taken in 1864, an anonymous photographer captured Truth sitting at a desk, posed towards the camera with knitting needles at her side. At a time when the public expression of femininity was identified in the image of White women, the image served to re-affirm that Truth existed and she was indeed a woman too.

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth

The phrase “I sell shadows to support the substance” were captioned with the photo, recalling the importance of the image to sustaining her work. The shadow was the photograph itself, a subtle but profound glimpse into the woman who was “Isabella” no more. The substance was Truth’s work, word and being.

In her travels, Truth supported herself by selling her photographs, often quoted as expressing she “used to be sold for other people’s benefit, but now she sold herself for her own.” The printing of photos on cards allowed her image and message to be reproduced for her benefit. Sojourner Truth joined the many Black women who began to capture their lives which had long been distorted by destructive tropes concerning Black womanhood. Confronting the imagery of Mammies, Jezebels, and Sapphires were the alternative images of grandmothers, mothers and daughters, educators, scientists, and activists. Authentic and intentional constructions of Black life.

Black women also deconstructed slanted images of themselves through literature. The earliest written work by a Black woman in the United States is believed to have been written by Hannah Crafts. Created approximately between 1853 and 1861, The Bondwoman’s Narrative tells the story of an enslaved woman Hannah in North Carolina. Many of the earliest recorded works are of slave and spiritual narratives with various examples of fiction. As Joycelyn Moody notes in her book, Sentimental Confessions, Black women often avoided writing fictional works to counter the belief that Black people couldn’t tell the truth. Even when they did, these narratives were often preceded by a white author who verified their account. The 20th century saw an influx of fictional and non-fictional work.

Writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison reminded us of the past, Ntozake Shange and Maya Angelou carried us in the present and Octavia Butler brought us to the future.

These women are only a small but significant portion of writers in the African diaspora. These women in our present and past have shown Black women that are here. We have been here and will always be here.

Black women bloggers continue the traditions of those before us, weaving our narratives of the past, present, and future together to render the invisible visible. We are here, continually selling the shadow to support our substance.

Main image courtesy of Jasmine Durhal

Janan Graham-Russell
Janan Graham-Russell is a freelance writer and curator of Passages: A Journal of Africana Women’s History (passagesjournal.com). She proudly reps her Howard alumna status, with a Master of Arts degree in Religious Studies. Honing in on the tradition of griots past, her work focuses on the religions, cultures, and histories of Africana women in the diaspora. She believes knowing where we come from can tell us volumes about where we are and where we are going.
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