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OPINION: #ForBlackGirlsOnly and ‘black girl magic’

I remember the morning that Solange's wedding images flooded social media clearly. Most importantly, I remember their effect on black women and girls. Seeing images of Solange, untraditionally dressed in a cape, jumpsuit and Afro, or riding bicycles through the street with her husband, felt like reimagining of the sacred union. It felt, like a tiny earthquake. My world shifted a little.

A year later, as the dust has settled, one photograph still fixes itself in my memory. In it, Solange and ten other black female family members and friends stand, dressed in white, staring at the camera.

Black women across the world would go on to recreate the image with their friends at parties or events. The image was constantly circulated on social media. A simple portrait came to stand for more than itself, it morphed into an affirmation and representation of the black female self outside of the white gaze, caricatures and stereotypes in the collective consciousness of black women. It embodied the words of Marianne Williamson when she stated: "as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same". For many black women, it gave them permission to be.

The last week has seen backlash against #ForBlackGirlsOnly, an event for women of colour born in Cape Town that will take place in Johannesburg at the end of the month. Many have taken to social media to argue that the event is racist and divisive, and question the need for an exclusive gathering of black women.

In the wake of this, I find myself thinking of Solange's wedding image, and the many other depictions of black women's success, celebration and beauty and worth that form tiny impressions on our skin, consciousness and selves. They have this effect as there is a need for affirmation, joy, celebration, love and kinship between black women both locally and across the globe, in the face of the multiple oppressions we face.

Without understanding or considering the world that black women occupy in all its textures or listening to their statements about the life that they lead, the negative responses around #ForBlackGirlsOnly exemplify a reluctance to see other realities, to recognise other experiences, and consider the violent, particular experiences that have birthed these movements, events and gatherings. As Milisuthando Bongela argues: "They exist because of those who don't understand why they need to exist".

In a similar vein, backlash occurred against a piece in Elle US authored by Dr Linda Chavers. In it, she argues against the term 'black girl magic', writing that it reinscribes the "strong black woman archetype" and suggests that "we are, again, something other than human". The piece received strong resistance from other black women, like writer Ashley Ford, who responded that the term has emerged as an affirmation as "Black girls and women have been routinely denied their humanity in the face of a world ruled by racism, sexism, colorism, classism, and the enduring belief that our backs were built to carry what others would consider unimaginable burden… It's not about tapping into something supernatural, it's about claiming or reclaiming what others have refused to see."

What connects 'black girl magic' and the need for spaces where black women can connect is the architecture of oppression that black women face. As Bongela eloquently argues, using the example of women's only villages in the Samburu region of Kenya, "What began as a response to violence has become a model for oppressed women to take control, to make safe spaces, to pursue their needs. To take is to stop asking."

That architecture of oppression is built on the violence inflicted on the bodies of black women, like Motshidisi Pascalina and too many others, and the familiar, quiet violence of the everyday - the street and office harassment, sexist statements and treatment that has become awfully familiar. This continuum of violence is embedded in the connections between race, gender, sexual identity that form many black women's realities. Women who face violence precisely because of who they are. Because of their identity.

In what Bongela calls "contemporary racist, rapey, rainbow South Africa", "the need for such events" is clear for those whose bodies have been sites of structural violence for centuries. Who intimately know the many kinds of violence that leave black women splintered, fractured, broken and bruised - both physically and emotionally.

It is precisely in the spirit of rejecting centuries of oppression and the denial of humanity that spaces like #ForBlackGirlsOnly and Feminist Stokvel exist. In these spaces, there is no need for black women to explain and 'debate' their existence and lived realities or qualify their statements. They represent opportunities to exist outside of the matrix of racism that, as Toni Morrison warns, keeps us perpetually distracted: "explaining over and over again your reason for being" and serving as a constant distraction from simply being.

As black women gather next Sunday at Constitution Hill, for a few hours new images will flood social media. Some will probably bear the hashtag "black girl magic". They will give other black women and girls the same permission that Solange and her wedding guests did. The permission to celebrate, affirm and embrace their existence, in a brief respite from contemporary realities. The permission, simply, to be.

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler

Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.

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