A celebration of Black women...A conversation with Zeba Blay
Zeba Blay, a film and culture critic, was one of the first people during 2013 to create the viral term #carefreeblackgirls on Twitter. Zeba's new book features a collection of essays, delving into the work and lasting achievements of influential Black women in American culture - writers, artists, actresses, dancers and hip-hop stars. Having this conversation with Zeba was refreshing, and it was nice to share Black joy memories with her.
Blay's welcome voice is candid, vulnerable and necessary.
Her observations about the impact Black women have had
and continue to have on pop culture on how much the
world sees and understand us
Tarana Burke, Founder of the MeToo movement
Picture: Zeba Blay
What inspired you to create #CareFreeBlackGirls?
It was in 2013, when I was 12, just a little whippersnapper.
For me, #CarefreeBlackGirls was a way to create a safe space online because often, the internet does not feel safe, particularly for Black people. It was a way to celebrate myself and other Black women, I’ve talked about this in my book CareFree Black Girls: A celebration of Black Women. It was like a lifeline for me.
I was not feeling carefree. I was actually feeling the opposite of that. There's something about just reclaiming my capacity for joy. That was really important for me to share, so it just became what it became. The hashtag has strengthened over the years. There is a podcast today called Carefree Black Girl Collective, a podcast sharing the latest social issues, fashion trends and self care.
I just love that, and what's so amazing about the internet is that a small idea can become anything you want it to be. It's been cool to see the evolution in that way.
Zeba Blay 2016
Congratulations on your new book CareFree Black Girls : A Celebration Of Black Women. Can you share with us something about the book that isn’t in the blurb?
The book is interesting. I talked about this in the introduction, a book called Carefree Black Girl could be a lot of things. While the book is definitely about the contributions and the importance of Black women and popular culture, it's really me grappling with what it actually means to be carefree and ultimately what it means to be free. Within society, most people are not that liberated. I think all the writing I do is just a way for me to understand my mind and understand how I feel is not an isolated feeling. It’s a way to reach out and connect.
My Instagram has sort of morphed into this
space where I can explore Blackness, the beauty,
the joy of blackness.
What do you want young readers to take away from CareFree Black Girls?
I want young readers, particularly young Black girls, to read this book, and understand that Black women are everything that Black women have contributed so much to the culture all over the world. Their stories are valid and worth telling. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a writer, but there was a part of me that felt like “oh, no one is ever going to want to hear my life story”, what I’m feeling or thinking because the larger culture, the dominant culture say that my opinions were not important. The book is a way to reaffirm that no matter who you are, no matter what you're going through. Ultimately, your life has value and I think that's something that I definitely needed to hear as a young girl growing up. The essays get dark, having that ability to show light and dark moments will hopefully show to young people the journey of life sometimes.
What challenges do you face as a Black female writer?
One challenge would be my work not being taken seriously or valued. There's a conversation in the publishing industry about what White writers make, as opposed to Black writers. Which is a real thing, but it's something that I am determined to change just by my existence in this world in this industry.
I think a lot of my struggles as a writer have, again going back to this idea of points of views not being valid. I got my start in film criticism, which was a very White and very male dominated industry. Often I felt I couldn't critique any work of art from the perspective of a Black woman. If I was critiquing, I had to change my options, which meant to deny my identity and that was really hard and it's something that I've definitely overcome because there's no objectivity with experiencing art. That's the very point of collective experience.
As a Black woman, there’s always another hurdle, another obstacle that you have to overcome, but I know my community is going to get me through it.
Your Instagram is flowing with beautiful Black content. Where do you get your inspiration when creating your mood boards?
My Instagram has sort of morphed into this space where I can explore Blackness, the beauty, the joy of blackness. In a way that feels right because sometimes social media doesn’t have that feel-good factor, especially with imagery. I’m currently working on another book, which will include all my memories of growing up as a millennial.
The internet was just becoming a thing, so I’ve seen the Yahoo and AOL chat rooms, MySpace and the way it’s developed. Since then, I’ve always collected images off the internet. I recently went on Facebook the other day and I looked through my albums which I collected from 2009. Making a mood board happens when I’m feeling overwhelmed. I’m like, “okay, let me share some Black joy”. Or I’ll find some rare images of Grace Jones and have to share them with people. That brings joy to me. People constantly email or DM me about how much they love the mood boards and how these images are very cathartic for them, especially my Sunday mood boards. It’s just another connection to Black women. Black women are lit.
Grace Jones, Unknown
What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
I've just finished reading The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, such a good book. I really didn't want it to end. The next book I would like to read would be Unbound by Tarana Burke as I feel the work she does for survivors is profound. This book will definitely have me teary with relief and joy.
Do you have a favorite book? Who is your favourite author?
That’s a hard question. I would say Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals, by Saidiya Hartman, that would be my all-time favourite. I enjoy her writing. It’s just transcendent, also it makes you really think differently about the archive, the meaning behind images. I base my book on images of Black women, what they say about us. Hartman’s work explores the world of black and white imagery of Black people. During the 1930s, there was no context on who was taking the pictures. That’s where Hartman would create the context and stories of these images, which are really beautiful.
I would also say Akwaeke Emezi, they are probably my favourite living writer. Just their tenacity, their ability to produce masterpiece after masterpiece, it's really inspiring. I appreciate what they’re doing to centre stories around Trans Lives because you don’t really see that often.
Tell us about your writing process.
Writing this book was harder than I thought. I have a few essays in the book that I’ve already written. I wrote these essays while at Huffington Post. Then there are new chapters that I really had to delve into myself in order to complete. Writing is very confronting, it’s just you and a blank screen or blank page. I believe that good writing is honest writing. As a writer, you have to be honest with yourself. You cannot let your ego or feelings impede your work.
Part of my process was just getting to a place where I could meet myself on the page and not be afraid, allowing my process to be. The mood boards I am creating sort of give me inspiration and make me think about things differently. If I see a good image, I’ll write some notes about the image, sort of like a nebulous feeling.
Issue 5 available here
Carefree Black Girls : A Celebration of Black Women by Zeba Blay
Available from bookshop.org