Thursday, 3 April 2008

Cocoa Chat: The Souls of Black Girls

A few months ago my sister-in-law was distressed to find that her three year old daughter had taken to wearing a jumper over her head, pretending that it was her hair. While recounting this story to a bunch of Black women who happened to be her friends, we all nodded in recognition because at some point in our lives we had all gone through this strange rites of passage that seems exclusively aligned with the Black female experience. I can vividly recall wearing one of my mum's canary yellow jumpers over my short curly Afro in a desire to imitate my blond haired blue eyed classmate, Joanna. But then again, I grew up at a time when Black women were rarely seen in the media. In 2008 it's quite distressing to realise that despite the illusion of cultural progression, there's still a deeply ingrained sense of inferiority (and image and beauty is just one of the areas) that's indoctrinated in us from such a tender age. One amazing young lady decided to address these issues in a thought provoking documentary called The Souls of Black Girls. While completing her thesis Daphne S Valerius realised she had opened a can of worms that took on a life of its own. The end product is a powerful piece featuring candid interviews with young Black women discussing their self-image. The documentary also features social commentary from Actresses Regina King and Jada Pinkett Smith, Rapper/Political Activist Chuck D, and Cultural Critic Michaela Angela Davis, among others. I caught up with Daphne recently.

My first question is probably one you've been asked on countless occasions, but can you explain what compelled you to make 'The Souls of Black Girls'?

Daphne: This piece actually came about as a result of my own insecurities growing up as a young black girl in our culture and society. For me I was always very much “into” media images and entertainment as an aspiring performer but I always felt very much invisible and uncertain of myself as a result of not seeing a reflection of those who look like me in magazines, advertisements, or television and of the women of color that looked like me there were few. And in my youth I can say that I felt very much like Pecola Breedlove of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye to a certain degree. So for me in putting together this documentary, it was very much a selfish exploration of my own feelings and understanding how and why I was influenced by media images. But also realizing that this can’t just be me and so as I was in search of trying to answer these questions of myself I was also hoping to foster open and honest dialogue among women because I knew it wasn’t just “me”.

How long did the project take to complete, and how did you raise the funding to produce?

Daphne: The film was produced over the course of eight months and there was a lot of time given to pre-production and post production. About 3-4months of me editing the piece and working with my supervising producers on the piece. This documentary was done as a journalistic broadcast piece for my final Master’s thesis and on a very limited or virtually no budget.

Pic: Daphne Valerius

Did you have a particular audience in mind when you created this project? Was your aim primarily to hold a mirror up to reflect the mindset of black females, or were you equally concerned with informing the mainstream media of the self-esteem issues that black women face due to lack of representation within the media?

Daphne: This piece was originally intended to focus on the effects of media images on all women of color (native American, Latina, Asian etc., ) However when I sat down with my supervising producers in the editing of the piece it was brought to my attention that this had to be a piece that focused on Black women as they are the group that is most affected by media images and degraded in the landscape of media images. So it was not intentional for it to focus on Black women. In fact as you listen to my narration I always reference “women of color” I never actually say “black” women because the original intent was to be inclusive of all women because all women of all hues, shapes and sizes are affected by the media images.

Pic: Jada Pinkett

In making the documentary, can you recall what the most profound statement was made by the young interviewees? Does anything stick out in your mind?

Daphne: I think speaking with all the young women brought me back to that time almost ten years ago when I was in high school and wanted to feel pretty and wanted to belong. But there was definitely one girl that I interviewed and what struck me about her was that she was known to her peers for having extremely, extremely long nails and I’ll never forget her saying that when she went off to college she would finally have a new identity because she would be more than just the girl with long nails. So that was definitely a moment for me and I think what hit home for me was that not only are these young girls being affected by the European standard of beauty and feeling invisible but they also have to consider living up to this ideal of themselves in the media that is not different than the image of a female prostitute. And growing up for me I didn’t have to consider living up to that ideal at all because there were women in the media that I looked up to who weren’t subjecting themselves to being a sexual object.

I grew up in Britain during the 80's when Black women were rarely seen on TV. Obviously things have changed a great deal since then where you have your Beyonce's, Naomi Campbell's and Halle Berry's of this world who are hugely visible. Some would count this as progression, whereas others argue that the Black women who are revered as beautiful often have Eurocentric features. What is your take on this debate?

Daphne: I think that we have certainly made progress as far as more women of color being seen in the media and being more visible, but unfortunately there aren’t enough of the Naomi’s or Halle’s to combat the Lindsay Lohan’s and the Paris Hilton’s and the Brittany Spear’s and the Hannah Montana’s and the Reese Witherspoon’s and Cameron Diaz’s and the Jennifer Anniston’s and the Angelina Jolie’s etc. They’re simple aren’t enough of them and we certainly need more than just Queen Latifah, or Halle Berry to stand for us as Black women. But as far as having to fit the European standard, the reality and unfortunate truth is that that there is a certain look that works and that’s what The Souls of Black Girls attempts to examine and explore.

Most Black female celebrities sport hair weaves and extensions? Do you there is an unspoken rule in Hollywood which states that black women should not wear their hair in it's natural state if they want acceptance from mainstream America?

Daphne: Again, the film explores this very idea and again, there is a certain look that works. However, I think that the landscape is starting to change where you see more women wearing natural hair in commercials to a certain degree but is it a problem yes, and I know that there are many African-American actresses that struggle with that all the time.

What are your views on the comments made by a Glamour magazine editor who said that black women wearing their hair natural is a big no no in corporate America?

Daphne: The comment of the Glamour Magazine Editor is unfortunately the unspoken belief that some people still have in their minds as far as what is beautiful and what is not. And as a woman myself who has natural hair and who has been successful in and outside of corporate America, I will say that it’s a sad and unspoken belief. But at this point and in this day and age we have to come to a place where we are having healthy and positive discussions and dialogue about these very painful and hurtful issues.

There are many high profile entertainers who you interviewed for this project. How did you garner so much interest, and were you surprised by the support?

Daphne: I can honestly say that God is the captain of The Souls of Black Girls ship and I am the co-pilot. I was able to secure the celebrities in my piece by the grace of God and his mercy upon my life and for placing people in my path at the right hour and at the right moment and He decided for me who would be included in this piece. But it also came as a result of relationships that I had built over the years. Chuck D was the very first individual attached to this piece. I had a relationship with both Chuck D and Regina King prior to me putting together this piece and so I simply asked if they would be interested in being a part of this piece and God took care of the rest. And as far as the interest that I’ve been receiving, it has truly been overwhelming and I take it one moment at a time, thanking God for each blessing but also thanking him for breathing this piece into my heart and into my spirit. He chose me and so it is. And so I am humbled more than anything everyday.

What are you planning to do now with the documentary, will you be releasing it on DVD?

Daphne: That is all something that I am diligently working on behind the scenes and so I just encourage everyone to keep checking back with us on the website for information about the television broadcast of the piece and DVD release.

Will we get the opportunity to see it over here in the UK?

I’m working on it right now. There should a screening coming to the UK on June 1st through the Black Filmmaker (BFM) film club and will have info listed on

What's next for you, do you see yourself making more documentaries?

Daphne: I see myself pursuing all things “in front and behind the camera”…and I have no doubt in my mind that I will be able to do it all as long as I am true to my spirit and my passion.
See a clip from The Souls of Black Girls below

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I am a thirty-something African Caribbean female from South East London. My blog will shine a light on Black British culture offering the best in entertainment, fashion, beauty, community, film & music, with the occasional personal musing thrown in from yours truly. Thank you for taking out the time to peek into the pages of my diary. Now grab a cup of cocoa, relax and enjoy.