When news headlines take a dark turn — like they always do — some people look to cat GIFs. But lately, I’ve been seeking out #carefreeblackgirl and #blackgirlmagic.
Both are trending hashtags that kicked off a year ago, but feel especially relevant now as debates about what it means to be a black woman dominate every level of public discourse from the unbelievably tragic (Sandra Bland) to the tragically comical (Rachel Dolezal).
Who’s the #carefreeblackgirl? She’s Solange Knowles doing leapfrogs on a beach in Mississippi. She’s Malia and Sasha Obama, with girlfriends, trailing behind their dad, the first black President of the United States, all smiles. It's an unknown little girl running through puddles in a public fountain. Or this model, clutching an armful of flowers, Afro on point, in Mansur Gavriel’s latest campaign.
In short, it’s an Internet phenomenon centered around brown girls asserting their happiness in the face of tragedy. Girls who are daring to be carefree in a world where anyone not named Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kerry or Lupita tends to get depicted as angry and overlooked (Nicki Minaj vs. Taylor Swift), underpaid (recent figures on the wage gap), ratchet (every Real Housewife there ever was), and much, much, worse. That's not how I see myself. That's not how anyone I know sees themselves.
So the joyful girl is a powerful image for me. And it’s a radical one when you look at recent events.
In the last two weeks alone, five African American women, including Sandra Bland, have died under suspicious circumstances while in U.S. police custody, making headlines worldwide. Meanwhile, both Amandla Stenberg and Nicki Minaj got labeled as bitter and un-sisterly for calling out cultural double standards and appropriation.
'Images of happy, successful women are extremely important in the current climate. We are ridden with fear for our families and for ourselves and craving relief. It's about saying, "We'll be okay",’ says Tamu McPherson, who is the sunny, hugely popular, Milan-based blogger behind AllThePrettyBirds, and the epitome of #blackgirljoy. In fact, women of colour are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in America, 1.5 times the national average according to a study conducted by American Express.
For Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, a New Yorker and author of the novel Powder Necklace about a girl's coming of age in a boarding school in Ghana, bigging up the positive images are about preserving her sanity. 'Being carefree means I am permitting myself to enjoy life and win, even though systemic violence and oppression would have me dejected, depressed and subdued. It's a birdie flip to a system that perpetuates the opposite.' Elsa Mehary, a jewelry designer and frequent traveller, who often documents her carefree on Instagram by posting photos of herself doing zen yoga poses in distant tropical locales agrees: 'If you are in a beautiful space but you only see the hole in the middle of the room that's exactly where you will fall. Image is one thing, but we know who we are.'
The world expects the more familiar, stereotypical image of the black woman, as the roller of eyes and necks. We don’t necessarily get to see her put on a flower crown and go dancing in a field of corn. As Nana says, 'I love those who started #carefreeblackgirls, #blackgirljoy and #blackgirlmagic for encouraging women to celebrate our lives and our wins. Movements like these are critical. But I long for the day when being carefree and joyful as a black woman won't be a politically charged statement.'