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Defying the Erasure and Misrepresentation of Black Womanhood

For almost two years I’ve traveled around Pittsburgh taking candid photographs, street portraits, and conducting video interviews with black women and girls about who they are, and about their individual experiences. The idea first formed in January 2015 as the subject of a residency with Most Wanted Fine Art. Since then it’s evolved into a documentary photo and video series titled Power(ed) by Grace, which chronicles black womanhood and girlhood in the city.

The project was born out of a desire to see a broad scope of black womanhood represented visually. As black women in America our physical, emotional, and intellectual labor has too often been commodified. The payment for our exploitation has come in the form of erasure and misrepresentation in media and in popular culture. Given Pittsburgh’s struggle with diversity, I felt doubly compelled to create a platform for black women to speak on their own experiences, and to lift up the everyday nuances of their lives as beautiful and important.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, black women anchored my world. My mom, sister, aunts, coaches, teachers, and a number of community members made up a rich network of individuals who made me feel like being black and being female was a real gift. This message never came as a result of any sit-down talks, but instead through just observing these strong women living their lives: experiencing joy, working hard, navigating challenges, raising families, and striving to be good people. The examples they set made me associate black womanhood with the highest of virtues, and it’s something that I looked forward to growing into.

As I got older it sank in more and more that the world was not, and had never been, an easy place for these women that I’d always admired. There was unequal pay, healthcare burdens, family and relationship ups and downs, self-esteem struggles, and financial stresses; not to mention the rampant racism and sexism that both underlie and exacerbate these issues. I learned that battling stereotypes and discrimination can feel like a full time job in and of itself, with no mention of trying to do the everyday things that constitute building a life.

In that light, when presented the opportunity, I decided I wanted to use my camera to make a statement about the layered nature of black womanhood. From young children to elders I wanted to highlight the diversity among us, but also this intangible sense of community—of shared experience—that unites us. These images are not all triumphant, nor are they all doom and gloom. They mostly occupy the middle ground that the majority of people know so well; where you try to enjoy the highs, you take the lows, and you do your best to make it work in between.

A young girl at a protest in Downtown Pittsburgh holds a sign that reads

I believe the two themes that emerge most consistently in this series are protest and self-care. They interact with each other in these images, as they do in our real lives. Some of the protest is explicit, with photos taken at rallies and demonstrations. Black women not only live at the intersection of racism and sexism, but so many battle homophobia, ableism, and classism as well. It felt important to acknowledge some of the more visible ways black women are taking the lead in fighting against these social injustices.

More often, the protest reflected in these images is understated. Living day to day as a black woman is a form of protest, especially when so many people we interact with and systems we depend on tell us that we’re not supposed to be here. Our survival depends on us taking care of ourselves, and on us being able to lean on one another. In these photos you see women handling their responsibilities, but also laughing, enjoying hobbies, and kicking back. The more photos I took, the more I started tapping into that relationship between resilience and vulnerability, and that’s what I want to continue to explore in the future.

This all started as a finite project with a deadline, but it’s evolved into a slower, more methodical effort. I’m so grateful to the women and girls who have let me into their worlds, but I know I’ve only captured a tiny microcosm of black womanhood in Pittsburgh so far. There are countless more stories to tell. The thing is, collecting these images and narratives is not some voyeuristic pleasure for me. I am each of these black women and girls, fighting to make a way in this world and affirm that my life matters, too. I imagine as long as I’ve got a camera in my hands, I’ll be drawn to taking pictures that reflect the inner lives of the women who look like me. It’s work I feel privileged to do, and I hope to keep doing for a very long time.

Young girls study in a school library.
A young woman works at a sewing machine.
Three young adult women sitting on a couch in conversation.
At a demonstration in Downtown Pittsburgh, a young woman holds a sign that reads
A young man affectionately kisses a young woman on the cheek as she smiles.
A mother reads to her young son.
A young woman in conversation at an anti-Trump rally in Downtown Pittsburgh.
A hair stylist speaks with a young main sitting in her salon chair.
A young family gets seated in its minivan.
Protesters march on a street in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Two women hug during an event.
Woman protester in Downtown Pittsburgh holds a sign that reads:

Photo Essay is an ongoing series featuring documentary images that examine the social, cultural, and political landscape in Pittsburgh and beyond.

  • Karen May

    Thank you for sharing this excellent photo/essay. I happened to open Storyboard immediately after hearing a presentation by Dr. Eddie Glaude of Princeton University and his son Langston Glaude, a student at Brown University, at The Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut. Your essay and your photos bring to life their points of the realities of living as a black person in America. Very well done! Thank you again.