Interview by Lauren Ash. Photography by Deun Ivory. Contributions by Zakkiyyah Najeebah and Abena Boamah.
For Women’s History Month, we have been focusing on the idea of the Rebel Woman. It’s a timely conversation. I consider myself a Rebel Woman—in the ways that I unapologetically center black women through all of my projects and in my daily life; in the ways that I refuse to be dismissed, or broken down, by whiteness and white supremacy; in the ways that I am committed to learning and sharing resources with women about how to thrive in a world that tries to deny us the right to exercise agency over the health of our bodies, minds, and spirits. And I'm so blessed to be surrounded by, and inspired by, other Rebel Women, including those involved in this feature: Deun Ivory, Zakkiyyah Najeebah, and Abena Boamah. In this special-edition of What We're Loving, we seek to shed light on the necessary, radical, and celebratory act of loving our bodies, particularly as black women. Thank you to Zakkiyyah Najeebah and Abena Boamah, muses for Deun Ivory's prolific eye who share thoughts on self-preservation as black women, the embodiment of Rebel Womanhood, and how they have asserted agency and celebration through their bodies. Special gratitude to Nubian Skin for partnering with us. Their commitment to empowering black and brown women to embrace the skin we're in is so resonant with BGIO's mission.
Lauren Ash: As our editor Chelcee Johns notes, “it’s these moments in the heat of our collective rebellion that sometimes demand an even stronger call to self-preservation, to self-care.” Do you connect with this idea? How do you embody this notion of being a Rebel Woman through your everyday life and experiences?
Zakkiyyah Najeebah: In moments of our collective work, it’s critical that women are preserving the conditions of their mind, bodies, and spirits for the sake of our survival and resiliency. Amidst our socio-political climate, this demand for self-preservation can permit us the strength and courage to hold space for rebellious politics, both individually and collectively. Our external work is dependent on the conditions of our internal well being.
The notion of being a Rebel Woman is revealed through my capacity to be continuously unapologetic in the way I exist in the world. The way in which I exist is not dependent on the expectations, opinions, or repressive systems of the outside world, but more so dependent upon how I see myself evolving through the work I do, personally and professionally. My rebellion is also attached to the spaces I choose to both occupy and disrupt, the people and black communities I choose to actively love, and how I utilize my artistic agency.
Abena Boamah: When I try to define what it means to be a Rebel Woman, the words of Bell Hooks come to mind: “I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else's whim or to someone else's ignorance.” In this sense, I believe I am a Rebel Woman. I am a Rebel Woman when I am true to myself. I am a Rebel Woman when I speak my mind freely, when I say no when I want to, when I work toward my goals. I am a Rebel Woman when I teach society’s truth to my students, but I’m also a Rebel Woman when I’m still and listen to them. I’m at my most Rebellious when I listen to myself.
Lauren Ash: I really appreciate the attention that you give to the relationship between the outward and the inner, Zakkiyyah. Self-care is, for black people, not a trend, but truly an action that can lead to resilience and sustainability during challenging times and oppressive circumstances. Are you rebellious in how you choose to perform aspects of your race, gender, sexuality? If so, how?
Zakkiyyah Najeebah: Whether doing so intentionally or not, claiming and celebrating my blackness and womanhood are inherently rebellious given that being both black and a woman isn’t always affirmed or valued. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I perform these aspects of myself, given that these things are inherently attached to my identity - which carry social and political implications. I actively make choices to celebrate not only myself but the black women in my life as well.
As an artist, my practice honors the experiences and narratives of black folks, which I feel to be rebellious given how the larger society has constructed unhealthy visions of blackness and black women.
As I’ve gotten older, and more convicted about my political and personal values I’m fully confident wearing my pride as a black woman everyday, no matter what spaces I occupy or who I’m engaging with. I will never apologize for being a multifaceted, intelligent, sexual, and politicized black woman. I carry all of these things with love and self acceptance - ALWAYS.
Lauren Ash: Thank you for reminding us of the deep importance of learning how to embrace and accept all of our layers and truths. Oftentimes, we are forced to "cover" certain aspects of our black womanhood and fed lies about the necessity to do so.
So, for both of you: as black women, we’re bombarded with (mis)representations of our bodies in the media. Yet, artists and cultural producers continue to respond to these (mis)representations in powerful ways. Do you have a memory that relates to how you have intentionally asserted your own agency with your body as a counter to these kinds of (mis)representations?
Zakkiyyah Najeebah: My body and appearance as an agent of change and radical departure has definitely informed the ways in which I resist against misrepresentations or “generalizations” of black women. More recently I intentionally resisted and disrupted the notion of “good hair”, perpetuated by standard notions of beauty as well as a common internalized narrative within the black community. Ultimately making the decision to loc my hair was a reaction to the false narrative that black women shouldn’t inherently love their natural hair or that it should be “tamed” in some form or way. I’ve also been very aware that even within the culture of natural hair, there have been misrepresentations regarding which types of natural hair are “acceptable” or more praised most often by the media and culture at large. Most often, in television, magazines, advertisements, and the media, it’s “curly” natural hair that seems to be the focus. Locing my loose curls in response to this has actually shifted the way I view myself - spiritually, politically, and aesthetically. I’ve never felt this beautiful or free!!
Abena Boamah: As a black woman, I’ve grown up hearing conflicting messages about my body: that it’s something to take pride in, yet also something to be ashamed of. When I started creating my own body butters four years ago, it was a way of taking ownership of my body. It not only made me feel good to know what was going into the products I use, but it also made me confident to know I took control of re-defining my beauty. I believe that using the same shea and other natural oils black women have used as a source of healing for centuries is an act of rebellion against these (mis)representations. For generations, black women have taken the physical care of their bodies into their own hands, in spite of how those bodies were viewed by others. In that same spirit, I care for my body in spite of others and use that confidence as a representation of myself.
Lauren Ash: What self-care and self-love practices do you currently practice that relate directly with an unapologetic and rebellious celebration of your body as a black woman?
Zakkiyyah Najeebah: My ULTIMATE self care/love practice that’s directly tied to my body is twerking! It may sound hilarious, but it's the honest to god truth! This is something I typically do alone…as I find it liberating and carefree to not engage with a gaze while doing it. Twerking also allows me to assert my sexuality on my own terms, while also getting a nice workout, and embracing the beauty of my body.
I’ve also been starting my mornings with warm lemon water as a healthy way to celebrate my body when I wake up in the morning. Warm lemon water helps aid in anxiety, depression, healthy digestion, and balancing PH levels. I always feel refreshed and invigorated afterwards, and my body thanks me for it. As black women, it’s vital that during these moments of self preservation, we celebrate our bodies by ingesting things that will also make us feel happy, healthy, and equipped to partake in the rebellious sh*t.
Abena Boamah: As I am coming into my own, I have created my own messages about my body through self care in the forms of loving my physical, mental and emotional self. This is my way of celebrating my body.
I celebrate when I am dancing in front of my mirrors to endless hours of Mr. Eazi. I celebrate when I am focused on my breath. I celebrate when I am creating black joy with other black women. I celebrate when I cook a meal that feeds my soul. But most importantly I celebrate myself everyday, even the days I don’t feel as rebellious, because who else will?
Lauren Ash: Wow. Both of you are enormously inspiring to me, personally, for the ways in which you intentionally celebrate your bodies and your identities. Undoubtedly, you will inspire our readers. I'm looking forward to hearing what resonates with them! Thank you for sharing.