By Chelcee Johns. Photography by Deun Ivory.
Yesterday, I sat in a crowd of over three hundred women of color celebrating the book release of Beverly Bond’s Black Girls Rock!: Owning Our Magic. Rocking Our Truth. On the panel sat Black Girls Rock founder Beverly Bond, Women’s March Co-President Tamika Mallory, Image Activist Michaela Angela Davis, and 37 Ink publisher Dawn Davis all women who exude the divine duality that is to be soft and strong.
Each dynamic woman discussed the nature of their work, what it means to own their truth, to serve their community and also to just celebrate the lushness that is being a woman of color. Each woman, in their own way, walks in both the power of softness and strength - and love is often the driving force, is the common denominator of their duality. Be it a love for justice, Black girls, books, and more… And, I think it’s our common denominator too.
I recall the final question that came from the audience, a young woman asked “Would it be antagonistic to say ‘All Girls Matter’ or ‘All Girls Rock’?” Most of the panel responded, stating it is only antagonistic if your response to Black women and girls saying “Black Girls Rock” is ‘All Girls Rock.” As if it is a problem to proclaim that statement and asked why is it seen as problematic when women of color claim they rock, but not when others do so.
It made me think about our identity, this duality, about this cloak of strength women of color also often have to wear and the power in declaring we rock in a myriad of ways - we are not just strong we are beautifully soft too. Michaeala would go on to say - Why in an hour and a half panel of Black women saying they rock is it an issue? Why can’t we come into the room and say this without push back? Because when we go back out into the world they will feed us another narrative.
This month at Black Girl in Om, we are declaring a new narrative for women of color as well. We are proclaiming "We are Soft & Strong." We are honoring our duality. Shaking loose of an identity, of a world, that would tell us we can only be one thing and we are widening the definition of both our strength and our softness from our careers to our relationships.
Love allows us to be all things. Love allows us to be dynamic creatures. To stand on the shoulders of those that loved us. To break the mold because we’re setting a legacy for those we love.
The way we address our work, our love lives, our life’s calling, our family, ourselves all come with a soft strength. Women of color, have, for a long time, had to hold true to this identity of the the strong Black (or Latinx, Indigenous, Hispanic) woman. Always the foundation, always the one that holds others up, so much so we began to live into this identity. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, until we’re so strong we no longer know how to be soft.
I remember going through a difficult time and my mother’s response being, “you are a strong woman.” And I still feel my quick desire to avert from it. Yes, indeed, I know I am strong, but that doesn’t mean I always desire to show my strength, to have to be strong. I think we are allowing ourselves to take off the “superwoman” syndrome slowly but surely. We are allowing our softness and our strength to live together, to not silo our existence.
As we spend this Women’s History Month honoring our foremothers, discovering new trailblazers, women of strength and softness and creating a legacy of our own we want to take some time and suspend the reality that we have to be either or and claim ownership of our “all things.”
I think of women like Serena Williams, Misty Copeland, Maxine Waters, Tamika Mallory who often puts her body on the front lines for the movement. Michaela who mentioned understanding the privilege her lighter skin affords her (the softness perceived) and yet bringing all of her strength and the strength of the other women of color with her in any spaces she goes. Beverly Bond spoke of her process in selecting the women featured in the new book and said she feels as though she DJ’ed it. Much like the music, adding in different generations, genres and more. I think we DJ are own lives in a sense, we curate our wellness, our friendships, our careers, our healing, and even the labels too.
Much of what we do as women is a soft strength - giving birth, mothering, creating, raising, nurturing - from children to passions. I oddly think of the texture of velvet, this material that is thick, rich, still movable, warm - soft & strong.
Though softening is not always easy. There are so many elements in the world that may callous us. They build a wall that we are all often still deconstructing. But, even in that process there can be a soft strength. If you feel a reaction to the word soft or strong, investigate it.
I think we are often still learning how to live freely in our duality I know many women who feel as though they haven’t had the safe space to be fully soft, to let down their guards, to say the things that need to be said, to lighten the load. To see the strength in a good cry and a better therapist. So be soft with yourself while you do the inner work.
The lotus flower has many varied symbolism in Egyptian culture, Buddhism and Hinduism - a creation that is both soft and strong. In Egyptian culture, the lotus is known in connection to the sun because it was believed to disappear into the dark, dirty waters at night and re-emerge at sunrise, it also represented the merging of two kingdoms. In Buddhism, it often represents spiritual awakening and faithfulness. In Hinduism, the lotus represents spirituality, fertility, prosperity - the ability to emerge from murky waters. That is the ability to be soft and strong. To let the murky waters refine and not callous us. To be warrior women and redefine any label the world tries to throw at us. To own our magic and rock our truth. To merge two kingdoms, equally royal.
Whatever God you believe, I believe we serve a soft, strong creator. I believe grace is a soft strength as is forgiveness, as is healing, as is pruning, as is deliverance, as is purpose.
Let your love make you stronger and softer. Let it embolden you. Claim the truth of what has both softened and strengthened you, maybe some things still need to. We overlook our vulnerability as strength too often. But this month we’ll be focused on narratives that live in our power to be both, to be other, to be our soft, strong selves.
Do you have a story to share about how you are living in your duality? How are you both soft & strong in your career, your wellness, your wholeness, your fitness? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to pitch your story. We can’t wait to live in duality with you.
Chelcee Johns is a digital nomad, publishing professional, Detroit native, editor/content strategist and word & world-loving soul. She is based in Harlem and recently called Bali home for a year. Her passion for the power of the written word & highlighting often policed narratives has led her to work in publishing for the past 7 years with organizations such as Moguldom Media Group, Serendipity Literary Agency, the New York Times and writing for the likes of Ebony. In a rupturing political climate and blooming social change, BGIO is the place Chelc is able to create a community of safe space in our collective stories as Publication Editor. She is empowered by the (inner)work! With that said, her self-care go to is journaling, prayer and meditation.