By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid
I met Aiesha Turman at my now-defunct blog, The Cruel Secretary. Of course, with an online moniker like Super Hussy, I knew she had to be cool. So, of course, it’s been a pleasure to watch her grow as a multimedia activist. Her goal: to chronicle the voices of young Black women, which she does quite successfully with her well-received documentary, The Black Girl Project. Aiesha and I chatted about her film (her first!), the need for comprehensive sex education, and Black communities’ versions of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
Andrea Plaid: First question, which I’m sure you’ve been asked ad nauseum…why did you do this documentary?
Aiesha Turman: To provide a safe, comfortable space for young women to share their lives, their voices without judgment and to spark dialogue within our collective communities surrounding the lives of Black girls who are often painted as one dimensional.
AP: Which leads me to ask…from what I saw when you and the young women in the doc debuted it in NYC and from what I gather from the DC premiere, the response has been enthusiastic! I think it’s because there’s a gap in media—online, in books, on the news, in narrative TV—of images of Black girls. And when we do see images of Black girls (under 18 years old), it’s to emphasize how troublesome, how unfeminine they are. Your thoughts?
AT: I completely agree. Also, all of the young women in the film were so honest and forthright. They were simply being themselves.
AP: What I loved about the documentary is you allowed the young women to crack the “Strong Black Woman” façade I think some of us Black women have nearly formed by the time we’re the ages of the women in the film. The best examples of that are Netcham, the emerging photographer, who speaks on her being homeless and the toll it took on her. Also Amanda’s statement of when she “tried to express sadness, it was seen as a safety issue” when she attended a predominantly white school. Or Tiffany discussing her self-mutilation, being raped by her boyfriend (at the time), and her suicide attempt. All of these are issues that many a Black person would say talking about it is “putting our business in the streets.”
AT: Yes, and the wonderful thing about that is that I did not prompt any of them for that information, it came out in the course of conversion. The Black community has its own version of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and it is literally killing our young people physically and spiritually.
AP: I completely co-sign with that, and that policy seems to rest on the shoulder of cis Black women, cisLGB people, Black trans people, Black people from the previously mentioned groups who are dealing with mental illness…among many marginalized groups within Black communities. Did you have moments in pulling this together that you dreaded facing some version of censure from, say, a Black audience member?
AT: Yes and no. I clearly state on the film website that this is about sharing and opening up a conversation and figured that folks who came to see it would want to be a part of that conversation. However, there are always those who want to throw a wrench into things and want to misconstrue the films’ message and purpose. Because I have a tendency to understand when people are coming from a place of fear and hurt, I was/am fully ready for that to happen.
AP: I get the impression that you’d handle the moment with compassion and with a deft, “If you want to talk about it some more after everyone leaves, let me know.”
AT: Thanks, I would!
AP: See, I knew it. Back to the audience reaction: the NYC audience who saw the premiere had nothing but love for the doc. How did the DC audience receive the film….if the standing room-only look in the photos are any indication, I think they ate it up.
AT: DC was amazing! On the way there, we found out it was sold out. Folks still wanted to buy tickets, so they added extra chairs and pillows on the floor. The Q&A afterwards was epic. It was just me, for an hour, fielding questions. I really felt a sense of community bolstered by the diversity of folks who showed up and are making their own inroads into creating healthier communities.
AP: Mmmm…which goes to not only the many ways people see and do activism. And I take it the audience was racially and ethnically diverse as well?
AT: Yes, very much so.
AP: Going back to the young women interviewed in the doc: what I found fascinating is how the young women discussed the adults in their lives, which didn’t lend itself to some easy pseudo-sociological or pseudo-psychological pronunciations about “needing men in the home” or the need for two-(hetero) parent homes to bring up the next generation of Black folks. For them, who was most important was the adult who held them up while they developed, regardless if the person was a parent or not. Because, according to the young women, the parents weren’t always there to hold them up.
AT: Right, because real life and being human doesn’t lend itself to simplified solutions. We also have to recognize parents as being human and fallible. It’s as if we bestow upon parents this burden of being this perfect person who cannot and will not mess up. We talk about it takes a village, but don’t encourage parents to seek out the village and when they do, they are demonized. This is all all cyclical in our communities.
AP: And, ultimately, unhealthy. Especially when coupled with racialized and sexualized stereotypes, like the Strong Black Woman (SBW + Infallible Parent = Big Momma or M’Dear), it’s killing us in many, many ways.
AP: What I also loved is seeing the generational shift around sex when the young women did a roundtable on it, esp. when one of the participants said “Sex isn’t about relationships. It’s about hooking it up. It’s about keeping it classy, about consent.” Your thought, esp. in light of the No Wedding No Womb controversy? (If you want to talk about the NWNW controversy….)
AT: I really have nothing to say about NWNW that hasn’t already been said. What we need is real-life down to earth comprehensive sexuality and sexual-health education. Folks are so busy keeping young folks away from information that can assist them in making good decisions, then shaming them when they make a mistake.
AT: The reality is that folks are going to have sex and have emotions that deal with the physicality and emotionality of sex. Instead, they are taught to suppress their emotion and desire which is harmful.
AP: Gawd yaaaaassssss! Which is aided and abetted by stereotypes and memes like Black people being seen as hypersexual so, to counteract that, we’re told to behave sexual “proper” so we don’t embarrass The Race.
AP: And that is all part of internalized self-hatred, because it’s telling folks to take on a “front” that was created by European society, in order to mask what they were doing behind the scenes. Certain segments continue to believe that “white is right” and after how many decades of impersonating an impersonation, how far has it gotten us as a people.
AP: Some people would say, materially speaking, it got some of us very far. Then again, some would argue that acting out the stereotype (I’m thinking the video vixen, in this instance) pays very, very well. Either way, both poles pull so many people so tight that it flattens our humanities–in this case, our sexualites.
AT: Yes, and that material aspect has spun out of control, as so many have given power over to things and wind up soulless and underdeveloped. Mind you, I don’t have a problem with things, but the consumerism that places things above self seems to have taken root across all cultures. Many of our young people are not being inspired or equipped to cultivate their selves, instead, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on external attainment. What this does, is give us whole groups of people who may have (degrees, homes, cars, etc.), but are not fulfilled internally which leads to seeking more and out of control desire, because the were never taught to satisfy their inner selves; to become a whole person. It’s my hope that this begins to turn around and I am seeing it in bits and pieces. Hopefully, the film is a pice of the puzzle and can add to this change.
AP: Well, one of the roundtable participants spoke to the idea of an inner life–or at least not looking at the gloss of the what is broadcast as images of Black women–when she said she “found better portrayals of Black women in books.” Damn, we’re looking in the wrong places, huhn?
AT: Exactly. We also need to start creating our own images.
AP: Which is what your film does quite beautifully, from the way the film is shot to the incredible young women who chose to open their lives to us to share. And you’re told me you’ve never shot film before this?
AT: Thank you so much. The only film I made before this was recording my daughter dancing and otherwise being little and cute and teaching myself a little something by teaching a group of high school students how about storytelling and exploring issues important to them using film as a medium. I found a great curriculum, and that was it!