The film offers a powerful race and gender empowerment message. Considering how negatively black women are portrayed in mainstream media, that message is as important today as it was when Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted race-based doll experiments in the 1940s.
Last year, Procter & Gamble’s My Black Is Beautiful (MBIB) in partnership with Black Girls Rock! (BGR) and the United Negro College Fund launched the “Imagine a Future” initiative. According to a statement on the organization’s site, the initiative hopes to develop “much needed solutions for our young black girls based on the must-have conversations about beauty, self-worth and empowerment.”
While the 30-minute documentary focuses primarily on black teen Janet Goldsboro of Delaware, it portrays an age-old struggle facing African Americans, particularly women and girls, to believe that “black is beautiful.”
Beverly Bond, founder/executive director of Black Girl Rock! and Goldsboro’s mentor, told me in an interview that this is at the core of her organization’s work. “I want girls who suffer from similar self-esteem issues to exam where their beauty ideals come from. We are either dismissed or put in a very narrow box in media messaging. Stereotypes are real. People do base perceptions on what they see in media. It’s dangerous and it’s up to us as black women to make sure that we don’t let anyone do that to us.” Bond selected Goldsboro, her mentee, for the film because she knew the depth of her struggle.
Serving as a young griot, Goldsboro offers emotional and deeply moving tellings of how she came to see her Afrocentric features as unattractive. Growing up around cousins that were light skinned, she often endured hurtful comments from the adults in her lives about her dark skin and “big nose.” In school, she feared that she wouldn’t appeal to the young boys who openly described what they wanted their girlfriends and future children to look like. When turning to media, there were always limited or no depictions of dark-skinned women who looked like her.
The film follows Goldsboro from the Black Girls Rock Queens' Camp for Leadership and Excellence to South Africa, where she met with young black women who shared in her struggle and was able to see the problem within a global framework. Goldsboro describes her journey to Johannesburg as a life-altering experience. The BGR camp experience and trip catapult her towards greater self-love, as she begins to use art to educate about black women’s beauty and appears much more confident.
Many of the factors that shaped Goldsboro’s consciousness shaped my own in my early twenties. Like her, I too was enraged and saddened when learning about Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman’s story. In my college Black Women’s Bodies course, we juxtaposed images of the “Hottentot Venus” with portrayals of black women in hip-hop videos. And I, similarly, was also troubled to see the promotion and use of skin bleaching creams when I visited my homeland of Eritrea in 2005.
These parallels are what made the film both deeply powerful and emotionally difficult. In one scene, Goldsboro visits the site where Baartman’s remains were finally laid to rest in South Africa. Joining countless others who have traveled there from across the globe, she leaves a note of love and affirmation. Goldsboro, still struggling to recognize her own self-worth, pays homage to a woman who experienced unparalleled loneliness and dehumanization at the hands of a racist society. This and other charged moments in the film make “Imagine a Future” uniquely Pan-African and historically rich in its approach.
Goldsboro’s story perfectly reflects the world that millions of young black women are born into. Unjust structural forces are in place that reduce us to sexualized objects or erase our visibility altogether. Then, on the home front, we are confronted with internalized racism and self-hatred. At every corner of existence, the message of inferiority is propagated and our sense of self-worth is often diminished.
During a panel discussion after the screening, image activist Michaela Angela Davis, rightfully pointed out the value of Goldboro’s story being told “through the lens” of black women. Bond is the film’s executive producer and the directors are Shola Lynch (“Free Angela and All Political Prisoners”) and Lisa Cortes (“Precious”). Davis, MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, actress Tatyana Ali, and poet/professor Elizabeth Alexander are among those interviewed.
What the film doesn’t spell out is the price that society pays for cultivating generations of women who don’t fully understand their worth nor view themselves as beautiful. What’s at stake and if we did “imagine a future” where black women loved themselves, what would that future look like?
In response, Bond said: “As a person who knows my black is beauty and that I rock, I don’t compare myself to others. This has allowed me to move forward to focus on things that really matter. This is really about having confidence, focus, direction and purpose. We could be changing the world.”
That’s exactly how high the stakes are. Hopefully, we will all continue to “imagine a future” where black is regarded as beautiful and empower girls to make a meaningful impact on society.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post. She is the founder and editorial director of Urban Cusp , an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT .