BlacQurl: An Interview with Jovonna Jones and Sammie Scott

(Image: BlacQurl.com)

(Image: BlacQurl.com)

In an age where anything can be created literally out of thin air, Emory alumnae Jovonna Jones 15C and Samantha Scott 15C are carving out their own space in the digital world. Creating a space for Black women, girls, and femmes to express their unique narratives and creativity has continued the pathway of producing a multiplicity of voices in the realm of art and media. Only a few short months from earning their Emory diplomas, the two college besties formed BlacQurl. The following is an interview showcasing everything from how they started the platform to what it means to be “a free Black woman living on your own terms.” 

Black Star Magazine: How would you describe BlacQurl?

Jovonna Jones:  Pretty much, when you visit our site, you’re entering a room of Black girls absorbing and discussing art & media on our terms. You’ll hear about dope new music, engaging films, captivating artwork, complicated cultural happenings, etc. Sometimes we invite guests (in the form of Q&As and podcast specials), and other times, we just contemplate our own experiences as writers, actors, visual artists, and screenwriters (like in “Confessions of an Almost-Actress”). It’s a platform to promote more energy and engagement around the creative works Black women produce.

Sammie Scott: BlacQurl is a space by, for, and about Black girls + art and media. We make, analyze, and critique art and media with Black women, girls, and femmes at the center.

BSM: Which digital and/or print publications do you look to for inspiration in curating the site?

JJ: For our communal aims, I look towards The Madbury Club and Crunk Feminist Collective. Madbury and CFC became the go-to collectives for insights on their respective interests: music/design/culture, and social commentary/popular culture/Black feminism. Essentially, these folks knew their ideas meant something—even if just to each other.

For our emphasis on Black women’s voices, I’m inspired by Fashion Bomb Daily, For Harriet, and of course, Essence Magazine. These sites always remind me why Black women are so f*cking important in every facet of life. We need fulfilling spaces that cater to us in all our identities and interests.

For art /media, I’m greatly influenced by The Fader, Contemporary&, and Fashion Bomb Daily. Each site makes art/media accessible, from music to contemporary art to style. They foster space for the celebrities and the little-known. They promote, they question, and they celebrate. They provide original features and comment on the stuff everyone might already be talking about. 

SS: Man oh man, there are many. Ebony, Essence, For Harriet, Very Smart Brothas, Mater Mea, Rookie, The Fader, Broadly, Racked, The Establishment, Teen Vogue, Mask Magazine, and more. Some for design and aesthetics, some the content, and some for both. Oh and of course I looked back at a lot of the work I did for Black Star!

BSM:What was the process like in establishing this digital platform?

JJ: At first, it was terrifying. I was really excited about the idea and I felt like it was necessary, but as soon as you go online, it seems like someone else is already doing it. Or, that we aren’t good enough to pull it off. Imposter syndrome is real AF, yo. There are so many things I thought we’d have to lock down in order to make our site worth visiting or our voices worth hearing—do we have enough followers on Twitter or Likes on FB? Does our site look streamlined so it's like we’re already on your ish even though we’re just starting out? Do we even have any authority or ~clout~ to speak on art & media?

Sammie and I had so many conversations about all these anxieties, and I’m glad we could be so open about it from the jump. Once we got past the doubts, we remembered the blogs/platforms we grew up reading (and still read to this day). We remembered why those places felt so special, and what made us seek out their content without needing Twitter or FB to facilitate. Ultimately, blogs/digital publications called attention to topics that mattered to a group of folks, no matter how big or small. Whenever I found a site that spoke to my interests, I felt my world open up just a bit more.

If Sammie and I were struggling to find a digital space to just contemplate and call attention to other Black women creators, we knew we couldn’t have been the only ones.

In regards to the mechanics of this whole thing, the process of establishing BlacQurl has been pretty chill. Sammie and I have worked together on so many things: publications, class papers, communal spaces. So, BlacQurl just flowed out of all that we had learned individually and together thus far about content strategy, website platforms (Weebly, Squarespace, etc.), promotion, management, networks, etc.

It also really helped that Sammie and I share very similar values as it pertains to Black women and creative spaces, but pursue different professional paths. She’s more into design and media strategy, while I’m into writing and scholarship. Our skills definitely overlap, but we usually don’t have much conflict regarding who does what. We stay in our lanes, and that helps us to stay focused.

By far, the most rewarding aspect of growing this digital platform is being able to establish more space for other Black woman culture writers to produce work and actively engage artists. It is really tough to write about art & media in fresh and engaging ways, especially if you’re not in a program or working with a mentor who can train you. So, at the very least, BlacQurl allows me, Sammie, and the four other BQ writers to try out new ideas, co-edit, and consistently practice our craft. 

SS: A lot of text messages, emails, Google chats and FaceTimes. A lot of naming and claiming – choosing and buying a domain name, housing the site (#shoutout to SquareSpace), getting on social, etc. Another huge part was being brave enough to talk about BlacQurl IRL with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers.

BSM:What do you think is the importance of providing a space for Black women’s narratives, creativity, and intellectuality?

JJ: I hate to quote directly from the site, but I don’t know another way to say it!

“Frankly, racial/gender inequity in the art & media world limits when, where, and how Black woman artists are seen, heard, and actively supported on a daily basis. Yet still, Bflack women constantly redefine the possibilities of creative industry and everyday life, from groundbreaking motion pictures to Instagram art sales.”

Growing up, I thought that if you were a Black woman, there were only so many spots for you at the editors’ table or on a website’s homepage.

The significant Black woman bloggers I knew of made influential careers in the gossip and lifestyle sectors, but whenever I looked at the team pages of my favorite music and fashion blogs, I would primarily see white men, Black men, Asian men, and white women. Even if a Black woman’s art was being featured, there were only so many things the writer knew to express or analyze. In general, culture writers have a very limited lens of analysis for work created by Black folk. Those limitations and that erasure is exasperated when we’re discussing Black women artists.

There are still many articles about art & media industry inequities like, “Where Did All the Female Rappers Go?” and “Artists Carving Out Space for Women of Color in Art World.”  Through BlacQurl Q&As, we’ve also been able to hear first-hand accounts of the ways in which inequity still impacts (and motivates) Black woman creators. Producer Numa Perrier, curator Renata Cherlise, and writer Morgan Jerkins all mentioned to BlacQurl some of their strategies for addressing industry inequity.

 I write for an art publication that not many people know about, and I get paid for every article. Sammie influenced her major media company to pay more attention to Black entertainers and content producers. Black woman photographers can make BANK off of running a studio, and you might never know who they are unless you live in their town. But, if you’re an up-and-coming artist and outlets aren’t paying attention to you because they don’t see you? They don’t know how to engage you? That’s unacceptable to me. And that’s why we started BlacQurl.

SS: To reference André 3000, Black women got something to say; we always have. Our narratives, creativity, and intellectuality are not only interesting, fun, difficult, and insightful, they will also help us map out better lives and futures.

BSM:What advice do you have for others trying to create a publication or digital platform?

JJ: First, write a proposal. Mission, vision, allathat. When I first thought up BlacQurl, I wrote a full proposal before sending it to Sammie. Proposals help me organize all my jumbled thoughts, clarify my purpose, specify my angle, identify gaps, and brainstorm an action plan. After creating the action plan, I started to see BlacQurl as a legitimate possibility, not just a cool idea. Additionally, I realized that if I was going to do this, I couldn’t do it alone and I couldn’t just rely on my own initial vision.

Second, don’t get too caught up in the hype of metrics, numbers, ads, followers, and likes, at least in your first year or two. There’s nothing more off-putting that a platform that focuses more on its brand than its content. But, more importantly, there’s something really special about being able to let your content speak for itself. We’ve reached out and worked with some amazing Black woman artists, those who are up-and-coming and pretty established. I’m not saying our content is the dopest out there because we certainly have growing to do. But, folks have appreciated our writers’ genuine engagement of Black woman artists and their work. So, they’re down to support us, too!

Finally, have fun! That probably sounds hella cheesy, but its true. We have too many chances in this world to do work we don’t want to do. If you’re going to create something, make sure it is something that will feed and excite you, even if you were the only one looking at it. I’m always reminded that BlacQurl is that outlet for me when I get to interview an artist I greatly admire, hear about new tracks from our music writer, and receive an in-depth recap of Black Girls Rock from our Screen/Stage writer, straight to my inbox. It’s so fulfilling.

SS: The one thing that we didn’t do initially (and are now in the process of) is asking for money, whether it be GoFundMe, Kickstarter or Patreon, PayPal, Venmo or Cash.Me. Ask for money!

BSM: What does Blackness and creativity mean to you?

JJ: Creativity is process. Doesn’t have to be distinctly unique, but it’s still genuinely yours.

Blackness…….lawd. Blackness is nothing and everything.

SS: I think about creativity as a means of survival – making a way out of no way, conjuring what we want and need into existence. It’s kind of a magical thing but also very practical because like, what else would we do?

BSM:What does it mean to be a free Black woman living on your own terms?

JJ: To be a free Black woman living on my own terms can be summed up in two very short, unrelated passages from authors Valerie Boyd and Toni Morrison:

“There was never quite enough for Zora Neale Hurston in the world she grew up in, so she made up whatever she needed.”

“And she had nothing to fall back on, not maleness not ladyhood. And out of the profound desolation of her reality, she may very well have invented herself.”

These lines are of the same spirit, and this to me, is the spirit of liberation.

SS: I guess day-to-day that means doing what I want…so like, not wearing pants, taking really good selfies, calling out the bullshit, and loving on people that I care about. In terms of doing the work to make the world a better place remembering that first, my labor deserves and really requires compensation and second, to operate from margin to center and to lift up and stand with those who are oppressed in ways that I’m not, particularly Black queer, trans and gender-non-conforming folks.

 

Charity Gates, Digital Director 

For Black Girls Who Think They Can't Ask For Help

I hear it all the time, “I didn’t want to burden people with my problems” or “If I asked for help, they would judge me and they already do because I am a Black woman”. These statements are usually the precursor to conversations I have with my girlfriends after they have either a major meltdown or a tense interaction in work or at school. Too often Black women feel as if they can’t ask for help because of the perceived negative consequences either for themselves or loved ones.

The reluctance to ask for help is not unfounded. Black women are as familiar with the repercussions of asking for help as we are with our first names. From the 1970s to 1990s, Black women on public assistance became the face of welfare fraud and abuse. In 1992, the “welfare” program only accounted for 1% of federal spending, yet was a major political issue in the 1992 presidential election. So much so, the Democrats and Republicans passed bipartisan legislation in 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, overhauling the welfare system implementing work requirements and time limits.

When Black women asked for help to feed and clothe their families and received resources for it, it was a major issue and had negative implications for the people they loved. Not only did Black women come under public scrutiny and were marginalized. In an interview with the Washington Examiner, Ron Haskins, Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Center on Children and Families, described the effects of the Act:

Thus, cash benefits and health coverage for drug addicts and alcoholics were terminated, most welfare benefits for noncitizens were terminated, the program of cash benefits for disabled children was deeply reformed, child care was reformed and expanded, the food stamp program was trimmed and the child support enforcement program was greatly strengthened.

I could write a 25-page paper on the ways in which the voices of Black women have been silenced and our bodies violated for speaking out and asking for help—whether it comes to topics such as domestic violence and sexual abuse, affirmative action, racial profiling and police brutality (Rest in Peace Sandra Bland and Renisha McBride), transgender violence and other LGBTQ issues, the criminal justice system, entertainment industry to the latest video of police violence against a young Black child at Spring Valley High School. But, I don’t have to justify what Black women and girls already know and feel and this article is for us.

You are entitled to the benefits of everything you have worked for.

You are entitled to the benefits of everything you have worked for.

You are entitled to the same rights and privileges afforded to other citizens and individuals residing in the United States of America.

You are entitled to the same rights and privileges afforded to other citizens and individuals residing in the United States of America.

You deserve to be treated with the respect and dignity granted to every human on this Earth and the freedom to exercise your inalienable rights.

You deserve to be treated with the respect and dignity granted to every human on this Earth and the freedom to exercise your inalienable rights.

I know that it hurts. I know how much we put on a stoic face and carry the burden of our sisters, brothers, lovers and family. I know that we have engrained the idea of personal responsibility more deeply in our hearts than anyone else. We wake up every day and our bodies do not feel like our own, but everyone else’s. Why are we dressed that way? Why do we eat this way? Why do we withhold our sexuality? Why are we too sexual? Why are we so expressive? Why are we loud? Why do we do our hair in that manner?

It can be overbearing—our woman-ness, our blackness, our personhood is much more than what others perceive and identify us as. Nevertheless, Black women have learned to form diamonds underneath the pressure. It is why hashtags such as #BlackGirlMagic exist. It is why a first-generation Black girl can graduate as valedictorian from her high school and get accepted into Top 20 universities. It is why our movements are celebrated and emulated by men and women. It is why Black women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the United States. It is why half of all Black women ages 18 – 24 are pursuing higher degrees. It is also why we don’t want to ask for help.

Yes, beloved, we know how to persevere and can excel under pressure, but we can only handle so much before the load becomes too much to bear. Below are some strategies on how you can ask for help while keeping your head held high.

1.    Identify a support network of peers and mentors who you can lean on in times of trouble.

Everyone has times where they need help and advice. Even the most composed and seemingly put together person has weaknesses. The secret is they know who to call when they need help. A sister at Emory told me a story of how she was so cold in her classroom and it was making her work suffer. She was anemic and couldn't concentrate. She wanted to ask the teacher to turn off the air, but didn't want to interrupt class with such a seemingly petty request. Much to her surprise, a non-Black woman got up and turned off the air herself! Often times the best resources are the most obvious ones. Your close friends, your professors, the office specifically created to support you academically and professionally.

2.    Ask for help before you need it the most.

According to the Center for Disease Control, at least 200,000 deaths each year related to heart disease and stroke are preventable. When considering race, Black people are 2x more likely to die from preventable disease. Dramatic? Yes but a harsh reality. As a black woman there are many things which impede our access to help---lack of transportation, wealth, racism, and sexism. Yet, as Black women at Emory, we haven't let us stop that yet. Pre-empt those issues by getting help before you need it. If you already know your teacher has not been receptive to helping you and you have an exam approaching, go to the academic department or office of undergraduate education and ask someone to assist you in communicating with this professor. When you have waited until you failed the test to mention how difficult it was to get ahold of your professor, it will be much harder to reverse the impact.

3.    State exactly what you need and don't leave anything out.

There are times when we ask for help, but the help we receive barely scratches the surface of what we need the most. You may not want to ask for too much for fear the person on the receiving end of your request may say no. You may be embarrassed by how much you need. You may even feel like you don't deserve what you need. Whatever the case, if you only state some of what you need, you may not get what you request or you may not get what you need. It's a lose-lose situation either way, so state exactly what you need.

Write them down. Be specific. Stating you need more financial aid may fall on deaf ears. Stating you can't pay for your books and you haven't been able to study is more impactful. Rather than the financial aid office, the person supporting you may steer you towards a local organization or person who can afford to write a check right away.

4.   Communicate your needs to the people who can meet them.

When your needs are stated and specific, it is even more important you communicate them to the person who can most help you. It can be frustrating and deterring to get the run around.

Be considerate of prior interactions with whom you are speaking to. If the person has not been responsive or timely in their interactions with you and they are the designated person to help you, then communicate to them you would like to seek help elsewhere and consider speaking to their higher ups.

5.   Be gracious and open to feedback. Reciprocate and let others know what works for you and         what doesn't.

If someone has offered you assistance, graciously thank them; however, it is okay to decline if you feel it is necessary. You don't want to waste anyone's time or yours.

It is okay to communicate your feelings and thoughts regarding their feedback. They cannot properly assist you if you are not receptive or welcoming to their feedback. And, it's okay if you are not! If needed, ask to take time to consider your options so you can make the best decision for you.

In case of tense situations or emotional outbursts, if you feel necessary, it is okay to remove yourself from the situation. If you feel unsafe or attacked, calmly ask to revisit the situation later and leave.

 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or visit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Treasure Arthur is a 2013 graduate of Emory Goizueta School of Business. She currently works in consulting for Accenture Federal Services. She was the Editor-in-Chief of Black Star Magazine from January 2010 – August 2011 and currently the President of the Washington, D.C. Chapter of the Caucus of Emory Black Alumni (CEBA-DC). She is the founder of Next Generation Professional, a professional and business development consulting company. For more information, you can contact her at treasure.arthur@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Faces, Same Spaces

"I am not in a position to be comfortable,” says Ian McCall, a 2013 graduate of the College, reflecting on his time at Emory University.  McCall arrived on campus driven towards the sole purpose of obtaining a college degree. As a non-traditional student and a former sergeant of the U.S. Marine Corps, he set foot on campus with a unique set of life experiences, and a love for learning. But within his first semester, he realized that his life as an Emory student could never just center on the classroom. As a Black student at a predominantly white institution, McCall could not ignore the racial insensitivity he continually witnessed on campus. McCall’s story is not unique.

 Black students at Emory founded the Black Student Alliance House in 1986 to “maintain Black identity and cohesiveness on the Emory University campus, promote recognition of a conscious African American culture and heritage, [and] serve as a place for the study and evaluation of Black ideals and goals.” To Ayanna Ingraham (12C), the house was a “safe space.” To Dorothy Bota (13SPH), it evoked a “sense of belonging.” To Sophia Hines (12C), the house provided a “home away from home.” In December 2011, after 25 years of existence, Emory’s administration closed the BSA House. It now sits vacant, the sign displaying “Black Student Alliance House” still intact.

 There are several accounts of what led to the closing of the BSA House – from students, Residence Life and Housing, and various Emory administrators. All we can say with certainty is that Black students lost a space on Emory’s campus and the elimination of the BSA House precluded a series of events that proved antithetical to the need for space and safety, and the humanity of Black students.

 In September 2012, Dean Robin Forman announced the closing of the Journalism, Educational Studies, Physical Education, and Visual Arts Departments, as well the discontinuing of graduate programs in Spanish, Economics, and the Institute of Liberal Arts. The cuts disproportionately affected faculty and graduate students of color.

 As the nation waited for the Supreme Court to issue a decision on the constitutionality of affirmative action policies, The Dooley Show,  a satirical Emory news outlet, called for the “lynching, tarring and feathering, and cross burning” of those students who allegedly benefitted from affirmative action.

 In February 2013, President James Wagner wrote a column titled, “As American as…Compromise,” for the winter edition of the Emory Magazine. He drew parallels between a compromise that reduced each enslaved Black individual  to three-fifths of a person for the sake of the U.S. Constitution and the decision-making process for the department cuts.

 Emory made local and national headlines as the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Salon, New York Times, National Public Radio, and several other news outlets reported on these incidents while students and faculty across the university expressed their outrage.

 Certainly, these were contentious times; but students had been weary of and frustrated by conditions on Emory’s campus long before the department cuts or the president’s insensitive remarks. In December 2012, an ad-hoc committee comprised of 11 students and 7 faculty and Division of Campus Life staff gathered to “explore issues of race, gender, privilege, sexual violence, and oppression” in order to “create an inclusive, equitable, and just environment” on Emory’s campus. In March 2013, the committee issued its report, “The Campus Life Compact for Building an Inclusive Community at Emory.” After months of discussion and feedback from the Emory community, the student-led committee made several tangible recommendations to the university. Some of those suggestions included: student organization and Office of Student Leadership and Service (OSLS) advising partnerships; Sexual Assault Peer Advocates (SAPA) expansion; and a bias incident reporting system.

 Another recommendation included a reexamination of space needs on Emory’s campus, particularly for the support and affirmation of underrepresented student groups. On August 30, 2013, the space that was once the DUC Down Under re-opened as the Emory Black Student Union, a space open to all students and one that is dedicated to Black communities on Emory’s campus.

 And just recently, Residence Life and Housing awarded the BSA themed housing in the former Chi Phi Fraternity house.

Over the last four years, Black students have fought to reclaim space for themselves on Emory’s campus. To many, the new BSA House represents a victory. It’s not an absolute solution to the problems Black Emory students face in their daily lives, but it’s a start.

 

Erica Sterling ('15C), Contributing Writer

Editor's Note: Quotes by Ian McCall, Ayanna Ingraham, Sophia Hines, and Dorothy Bota were gathered from the oral histories that Navosha Copeland ('16C) collected from Black Emory alumni in the Spring of 2015 as a part of the Legacy Campaign, which was sponsored by the Emory Black Student Union (EBSU) and initiated by Candace Pressley ('16C).