October 1

S1E1: How to Be a Beautiful Colored Girl

Episode Transcript: How to Be a Beautiful Colored Girl

Aseloka:  Hi, Azalea. Hey, Azalea. Dear Azalea. Okay, yeah. Dear Azalea, this is a little weird for me. I've wanted to talk to you for a while about this book you wrote for black women. And for a long time I couldn't figure out how because, well, you died over a hundred years ago. But I heard about your book in grad school and was honestly astonished to learn that a black woman had written and published a book like this in 1916.

Slavery and the civil rights movement make up most of what I've learned about black history. The only thing I really knew about black folks in the time period between those two really big events is that we suffered a lot. So, imagine my surprise at discovering a woman like you, Madam Emma Azalia Hackley born into the black elite of Detroit. The same year Howard University was founded.

You were a jet setter and a diva who did exactly what you wanted to do. I read that you eloped against your family's wishes, founded the Colored Woman's League and earned a bachelor's degree in music. In 1905 you traveled without your husband to Paris to study and train as a classical vocalist. And you became sought after the world over. Then you just walked away from all of it.

You spent the rest of your life traveling across the Jim Crow South delivering talks to young black women. And what you learned about love, and community and the endless potential of the black race. Then you put all those talks together into a book called The Colored Girl Beautiful. That's why I am writing to you.

But for so much of my life I've felt like I wasn't being a black woman in the right way. I mean, I picked up on how people expected black women to behave and present, but I didn't exactly buy into it. As a kid I spent a lot of energy trying to make sense of it all. Then as an adult, I found your book and started reading your advice to black women about how we should carry ourselves and what we should believe about ourselves.

And I thought, "This is it. A book of instructions on how to be a black woman from this liberated black woman who is doing what wants and living her best life." There was so much pride, and certainty and hope for black people, for black women, especially in your writing. I remember reading your book and feeling more and more encouraged and seen until all of a sudden I didn't.

Oh, before we go any further, I should probably introduce myself. I'm Aseloka. This is The Colored Girl Beautiful. A heartfelt letter from one beautifully juxtaposed black woman to another.

Aseloka: So, I was talking to my producer, Nichole about my black lady coming of age story and the role that your writing played. And for context, I wanted to share some of that story with you. This is Nichole and I are discussing the recording conditions in my home studio.

Nichole:   Somebody is doing a house party right now.

Aseloka: Oh yeah, My next door neighbor is a DJ.

Nichole: Why now? Why [inaudible 00:04:10]-

Aseloka: Nicole asked me about the first person I looked up to for guidance on how to exist in the world. And that was, as you may have guessed, my mother.

My mother, she had a beautiful voice, a beautiful deep alto voice, big strong voice. She was a pastor of a very small church. She was a loving woman, but was also very firm, very strict. But she was this fiercely kind but firm person who I admire deeply.

I not only wanted to be like her, I wanted her to be happy with me. Even when I was upset with her or mad at her, I still way deep down wanted her to be pleased with me and to be proud of the things that I was doing. I did a lot of following her around. I watched her put on her makeup in the bathroom before she went to church. And fussing over her hair and making sure that it was the exact way that she wanted it.

She liked it big, like Tina Turner big, she loved Tina Turner. And I don't know that I always realized this about myself, but I love big curly hair. I love to wear my afro out. It's annoying because it's hot, and it's huge and it gets tangled. But I love the way it looks. I will suffer through all of that for the aesthetic benefit that it provides me.

But I think that's something that I got from her that she did not outwardly encourage me to do. But it was something that was so much a part of her that it just kind of rubbed off on me.

Before she passed away my mother shared some very clear instructions on how to be a good girl. Good girls were Christlike, respectful, quiet, modest. She instructed me that a good girl should always present well. I can't say that these rules felt right to me, but I did internalize them heavily and they shaped much of the way that I viewed the world.

Now, when it came to how to be black, there was no instruction spoken or otherwise. It just never came up. It was something I had to sort of intuit, which for me was tricky to figure out.

It felt much more cryptic, how to be black. I know I picked up on things, I was just noticing differences. I was noticing like how black people behaved and dressed. And the type of music, that was a big one. The type of music that black people listened to versus the music that white people listened to.

My white friends were listening to the Spice Girls, and Sarah McLaughlin and like, you know. It was a very stark difference. I recognize like, "Oh, this is a thing that we don't do." Even though, like, I noticed like only black people do this and only white people do this, I liked all of it. So, my mother did not permit secular music in our house. So, my first non gospel album was Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette.

And the best part is that I acquired it because I traded my God's Property CD for it with the granddaughter of one of my mom's friends.

Nichole:  You're like, I don't need this. Get this Kirk Franklin, here you go, do whatever you need to do with that. I need this Jagged Little Pill right now.

Aseloka:  That was my foray into secular music.

Nichole:  And what do you think and how was it?

Aseloka: Oh my God. First of all, to this day, I can sing literally all of the words to all of the songs on that album.

Nichole: How are you listening to this without getting caught?

Aseloka: On a Discman in my room at night under the covers.

Nichole: Interesting.

Aseloka: In complete secrecy. Because if my mom had any idea, oh my God.

Nichole:  Did you think, "I'm doing something ..." Not only so ... Okay, so you're doing something that's secular, did you also think, "I'm doing something that's not black."

Aseloka: Yes. Oh my God, yes. I didn't tell any of my black friends.

Nichole:  Did you do things to make up for that? That you felt like would make you more black?

Aseloka:  So, I didn't really want to make up for it. At the time I just, I kind of wanted to play both sides.

I wanted it to be okay to do the black things and also the not so black things. But to me, at the time it felt like that wasn't allowed. It felt like I absolutely had to be in one camp or the other. And my solution was to sort of learn how to exist in both worlds by being black enough for the black kids and not too black for the white kids. And I will say there was some shame about being black.

I didn't want to be too black in high school. Like if anything I was, in trying to sort of toe the line, I was dialing back my blackness.

Nichole: What other things were too black and how did you learn that those things were too black?

Mostly music videos. I didn't want to be too loud. Oh, the black girl attitude. You couldn't have too much for attitude because that's unacceptable. I very specifically avoided big hoop earrings. Those are very black. I have a very vivid memories of like going into Claire's and actively rejecting hoop earrings. I was like, oh no, I can't be that black girl.

That shame I'd grown up with started to fade once I started meeting black people and particularly black women who weren't following all of those rules that I'd grown to believe were set in stone about how to be a good girl or how to be black. These women spoke their minds. They listened to whatever kind of music they wanted to, and they wore their blackness with pride.

Now, admittedly, in the beginning, I may have taken things a little too far with the black pride thing. And then once I got to college, I was like, "I'm going to be ..." I bought the biggest [crosstalk 00:11:47] ... Yes. The biggest hoop earrings I could find. I don't remember where I bought them. I probably was at Claire's.

But, I remember seeing them and just being like, "You know what? No. I'm not going to be ashamed." Of course none of this I said out loud. But in my head I'm like, "I'm going to wear these and it's going to be amazing. I'm going to be so proud to wear these earrings." I felt like I was showing my former self and everyone who had known me up until then like, "No, I am black and it's fine."

Nichole:  You're like, singing the black national anthem as you buy the earrings, "With every voice-"

Aseloka:  They're like, "Ma'am singing, could you just, could you pay now?"

You know, the pendulum just swung in the other direction. Because by then I was just like, why have I been hiding this all the time? I think what sparked it was being in college, obviously. Being around this whole new set of black people who have all of these different experiences, very different from mine, who didn't grow up in very white West Virginia like I did.

It completely changed my perspective. It changed everything about what I felt like it meant to be black. Eventually I settled into like, okay, we don't have to hide being black. We also don't have to force it on people. I came around to the conclusion that I am a black person and the things that I like as a person, that's black enough, whatever that is. There's no too black or not black enough. Who I am and the things that I like as I am is sufficiently black.

Aseloka:  When I started reading The Colored Girl Beautiful, I was sure I'd found a book that could be passed along to every little black girl to help her grow up thoughtful, and self-assured and hopefully avoid that period of time that I went through where I felt confused and ashamed.

I found it really intriguing that she spoke of black women as being the bone and sinew of our race. Of being so essential, so important to the black race, to our community that we couldn't, as a race we could not survive without black women. That we should be proud of our heritage.

When for me, I hadn't really thought a whole lot about my heritage. And what I did know wasn't positive. I didn't even know a lot. And then what I did know, I felt like, "Well, what I can be sure of is that I came from slaves." The idea that I have something to be proud of, that black women, black people have something to be proud of, was beautiful.

You know, when I read those things in this book, I just thought about like, "Man, if these had been things that I had known, how different would I be? How much less would I have struggled? How much more would I have been accepting of who I am if I had known these things as a child?"

Nichole: So, what were the pieces in the book as you kept reading that kind of didn't sit so well with you?

Aseloka:  Yeah. So, as I started to read, I realized that this book is, it's very sort of telling of the era. There was a lot of what I felt was oppressive language for women. You know, she's got this quote in there about to only be conspicuous by quietness, which is essentially just saying like, people should not notice you except when they notice how quiet you are.

Nichole:  What?

Aseloka:  That's just all kinds of backwards to me.

Nichole:   Why?

Aseloka:   I know that there's nothing inherently different or wrong about my opinions just because I am a woman. And the suggestion that people don't need to hear from me is offensive.

Nichole:   Why do you think she was writing like that? Why do you think she suggested that?

Aseloka:  I mean, if I'm being reasonable, I think her concern was the well-being of black people overall. She lived in a time where if you were talking back to a white person, you could die. If you weren't seen as respectable, presentable, you could literally lose your life. And I think she wanted us to live. I don't think thriving necessarily was at the top of her list.

What I know that time is that there was a lot of controversy about sort of what the best way to move forward was racially. Do we just do everything the white man says and then they'll accept us and then it'll be fine? Which is sort of the respectability line of thought. Or the talented 10th notion, that if there's just 10% of the black population who is meant to sort of be the exemplary group that will uplift the rest of us into a place where the white man can now accept us.

Or do we focus on learning a trade, and working and building something for ourselves, and let that be the way that we move ourselves forward? By learning and doing everything that we can on our own. So there was a lot of controversy about what was sort of the right way.

And what I see in Emma Azalia Hackley's writing is that she sort of took the respectability route. You can just see it, you can feel it reading her book.

Nichole:   So, why not just kind of write it off? If you have these deep kind of discomfort with some of her thinking, why not write it off?

Aseloka:    Yeah. I think what intrigues me so much is that what I see in Emma Azalia Hackley is this complex layered person. Because there is good in this book. There are some wonderful, beautiful things, again, that I would have loved to hear growing up. I don't believe it makes sense to just throw everything out because of that. I think there is enough good in this book to make it worth reading. I think there's also plenty in this book that should be questioned.

But I appreciate sort of that full picture. I mean, that's what I see, what's what I hear when I read this book, is this whole person with what seems to be conflicting views about how to be.

Aseloka: You know, Azalia, that layered, complex nuance in your writing is what drew me to you. So much of what we've learned about how to be black women, particularly in America, is still rooted in lessons about survival. And in order to survive, we have needed to be acceptable to society at large while still creating our own sense of black community at home.

I'm grateful to women like you and my mother who followed these guidelines in order to give me a better life. Now that I have a better life, I want to live mine a little differently. I want to learn how to thrive, not just survive. I want to be well, and whole, and healed and not live from a place of fear. Azalea, studying your life and the complex and nuanced way you wrote and lived has been an incredible help to me as I work on figuring all of that out.

In my 33 years I feel like what I've learned is that people are complex. We are layered human beings. What I feel like I always want to fight for is the idea that I am more than one thing. I am not just black. I am not just a woman. I'm not just a daughter. I'm not just a sister. I'm not just a friend. I am all of these things.

They all have some significance to me. I think that there's something to learn from the things that she says. I want to honor that. I want to acknowledge and honor that.

I've been talking with other black women about your advice on navigating black womanhood and listening to them reflect on their own beautiful and complicated stories. I'd like to share them with you in the form of letters starting with this one.

This season I'll tell you stories that have resonated with me about how much has and hasn't changed in the lives of black women since you wrote your book. I can't wait for you to hear them and we'll talk again soon. Sincerely, Aseloka.

Aseloka: The Colored Girl Beautiful is created and hosted by me Aseloka Smith. This episode was written and produced by Nichole Hill. Music from Blue Dot Sessions. Azalea is your favorite auntie who's always happy to see you at the cookout and gives you a big bear hug.

We'll be back with a new episode on October 15th. We would love to stay connected with you. Visit us at coloredgirlbeautiful.com. Our website is a one stop shop for subscribing to our newsletter, following us on social media and staying in touch.

If you've read The Colored Girl Beautiful and want to write your own letter to Azalea, send it to us. We would love audio clips, but we'll take written letters and emails too. We may even feature your letter on a future episode.

If you like what you hear, please give the show a five star rating on Podchaser and Apple podcasts. Links in the show notes. We're a brand new show, so any support you can give really, really help.

The Colored Girl Beautiful is produced with support from PRX and the Google Podcast Creators Program. We'll see you in two weeks.

Aseloka: At some point. I also acquired ... I liked, really liked Sheryl Crow. Every Day Is a Winding Road was like, oh my God. It was like, yes. (singing)

Nichole:  (singing) Oh my God. I love that song.

The Colored Girl Beautiful’s host Aseloka Smith, writes a letter to Madame Emma Azalia Hackley, an accomplished, world traveling, Black activist and certified diva who, in 1916, wrote a book of advice to other Black women on how to make it in America. In this first letter, Aseloka reflects on how Madame Hackley’s words have endured over the last 100 years, and how they’ve impacted Aseloka’s journey through Blackwomanhood and into self acceptance.

If you’d like to get an email about new episodes and learn a bit more of the behind the scenes of the show’s making, you can subscribe to the newsletter at https://www.coloredgirlbeautiful.com

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Host, Creator: Aseloka Smith

Producer: Nichole Hill


Check out the Original book, The Colored Girl Beautiful, by Emma Azalia Hackley



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