My travels carry me all around the world. Yet, even in 2022, I still feel responsible for single-handedly changing the negative stereotype and image of the oft-times “angry” Black American woman. Without exaggeration, I know full well that I am the only Black woman an individual may have seen in real life, or ever will see, and that leaves me with a charge to create an image of us that is beyond stellar.
We are definitely not angry. We are not unkempt (as the local evening news might portray us), nor are we extraordinarily sexual and sex workers (as some countries might depict us). We are respectful, polite, and kind. We smile freely. We are generous. We are phenomenal! And I am adamant about leaving that very impression everywhere I go.
So, I’m generous and tip well—so well that future waiters, porters, drivers, and other hospitality workers will hurry for the opportunity to provide services to the next Black woman. I don’t begrudge the bathroom attendant a few coins in exchange for toilet paper or a paper towel. It could make her day, quite literally. There are countries where a person earns less than five dollars a day; a one-dollar tip could be the typical day’s wages in some places. There are no Starbucks around, so surely I can tip my Starbucks money for the culture.
As a language aficionado, I always learn the basic ice-breaker and courtesy words in countries I’ll be visiting. Imagine meeting a Black woman for the first time, and she actually greets you with “Hello” or “Good morning” in your native tongue. “Please” and “Thank you” are also a must. I remember my first morning in Athens, Greece, after a waitress poured me a cup of coffee, I said thank you in Greek (or, phonetically, “F-Harry-Stoe”). She stopped in her tracks, smiled profusely, and started chattering on in Greek. She was so honored, and I felt good knowing I’d done it for the culture, our culture, that’s been maligned throughout the world and in this current era.
Between messages from my Black mother (the kind of brainwashing typical of the 50’s), Catholic school education, Sunday school, and sorority life, I had no other thought than that I was a part of something larger. That it wasn’t all about me; I was representing at all times and needed to be exemplary. When others observed me—just little ol’ me—I always had the feeling that generalizations were being made and myths dispelled based on my actions.
My church would send me as the “delegate” to youth meetings at our annual conference. The burden of being the voice of my church’s youth congregation rested in my shoulders. At the University of Illinois, I was the representative from my sorority on the Panhellenic Council (30+ sororities on campus). Of course, it was imperative that I dressed fashionably, spoke eloquently, and made the sorors proud while impressing other sororities who may have had an image of us based on our modest sorority house.
Then there was an early teaching position where I was one of only two Black women out of a faculty of 120. We both wore dresses and heels to teach every day. Even on spirit Fridays we wore dresses and heels. The female students loved it, and I would receive compliments in the hall—even from students I didn’t know. The other Black teacher and I felt like we made teaching more professional and desirable than the general opinion.
Perhaps the honor of being selected as the representative of the culture was taken more to heart than need be. Perhaps a character flaw. I had an innate desire to leave observers with an enhanced impression of my church, scout troop, sorority, profession…etc. My primary concern was not about my image, but that of the culture I was representing. I was—and I am—part of something bigger than myself.
Representing isn’t a choice. It’s a responsibility. We do it for the culture. Because yes, we are those phenomenal women Maya Angelou talked about. And even though life ain’t been no crystal stair, we are here, now, and letting our light shine. Dazzling them with our Black Girl Magic.
Do you feel a responsibility to represent and create a more positive image of us? What do you do for the culture?
I make a goal to dress professional at my elementary school. It’s important that students see a black woman in that light. I also feel that I must do it for the adults who do not have much real life interaction with women of color. Thank you for this post.
Ericka Jones-Coker says
I am raising two beautiful daughters and one handsome son. I am leaving a legacy of love and smiles to go around my culture. My children are seeds planted to grow into a garden of compassion and wisdom to share for generations, no matter what the world looks like or perceives about us, we overcame the world when Christ overcame the world. That’s Love.
Andrea Atkinson says
I definitely feel as though I need to represent the culture in a positive way, even when I don’t feel the best. Representing the culture can be draining, but I understand my responsibility. I am an educator as well. Often times, I am the only Black educator in the space, and I do my best to present a woman who is well-educated, open-minded, and confident.
michelle wright says
Ronchelle Chaffin says
I love this! We absolutely MUST represent. I feel the same way, we are often times the only black woman that people will come across. Changing the narrative is of the utmost importance! Thank you for this.
Amelia Thom says
It’s imperative to represent the culture I’m proud to be a black woman I give a positive message to all children and I support my people in any way I can I’m a supporter of Mahogany for ever.
Sonya Walker-Betts says
I love this… Thank you for this simple reminder. And by the way, “Way to go Ms. Charlotte”
Carolyn Lightfoot says
Beautiful acknowledgment of the legacy that Black Women live and leave. Thank you for representing US well.
Continue to be a blessing wherever you go💕
So proud of you and our representation of us. I was baptized as a Catholic at birth as my father was catholic and my mother is Baptist, and it reminds me of a song we sing in the Baptist church – “A Charge To Keep I Have, A God to Glorify …”
Elanders Arrington says
As a black female who respects the teachings, sacrifices, and care of what my parents and community instilled in me, I see it as a privilege to pass-on those same values in other African American women whom I mentor. Giving back in one of the greatest joys God had blessed me with. I’m not rich, but the blessings I’ve received in my 75 yrs have made me rich spiritually, emotionally and physically. I shall never forgetting where I came from, and how my family and the educators there in North Carolina gave up so much for me to become better. I dare not forget those coming behind me so they may have “that much more” of an opportunity to carry the torch from here to eternity. More than anything my faith in God and the abundant blessings he has for me and all who trusts Him makes all the difference. He will open up the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing you can’t receive; if you trust Him … just Him.
To the many women of all ages whom I’ve been blessed to help mold there lives, I thank you for allowing me to pour into you, that we may flourish as sisters, mothers, daughters, aunties, and friends letting the world know we are different in a special kind of way and our contributions do matter; can’t you it?
Norma Jean Williams says
Hello. Like you my sister and I were taught that “awe” re-presented our “People” wherever we are. It is always our job to represent well.
I’m in Louisiana and feel connected to you in Illinois. It’s an invisible and often unspoken connection.
I enjoyed reading your Story. Thank You
Gail Dennis says
This is a beautiful article which clearly expresses my own sentiments! We are often stereotyped and unfairly characterized in a way that is very demeaning!. Thanks for providing enlightenment to those who are totally ignorant about our personalities. We are part of God’s great creation and are worthy of R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Cynthia Daniels-Banks says
Charlotte, I enjoyed reading your essay.
Thank you for “repping” our culture.
Kudos to you!
Like you, I endeavor to be a positive force for our culture and represent humanity as a Christian, a woman, an African American woman, and as a great human being.
I’m by no means perfect, but I sure would like to be a positive example for others to emulate.
I’d like for my life to be a sermon others see rather than hear as reflected in the words of Edward Guest who said, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day; I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way.”
Thank you, Charlotte, for being a sermon others can see. May your life continue to preach!
Jacqueline Anthony says
Outstanding! I was brought up to represent and represent well and take pride in my appearance and my actions. You never know who is watching you and you may be inspiration to someone whether young or old!
I love what you said. I represent myself because I found out no one else will. There is a challenge for us to make new friends and keep the old so I make myself #goal.
Darlene breitenbach says
Yes, and I too, because of my upbringing, professionalism, pride, & responsibility to those who fought this fight before me & the culture stand tall always & work to represent in the best way that I can, as often as I can…..for the culture
Victoria B says
Bravo – well said! “When in Rome…” right?
I read your article, then I read it again. Thank you! Your story made me think back over an experience I had when my husband and I traveled to Cancun MX last year. As we entered the country:
1. A couple of black American women (sadly) were loud and rude going through customs. To my surprise, they showed off and showed out. …Honestly, my husband and I were so embarrassed by their behavior, and they were complete strangers to us. There were only a few black Americans traveling among us, and I could feel the blood rushing to my cheekbones. I was so embarrassed for my women of color. And then,
2. As my husband and I were departing from Mexico to return to the United States, I had been “mistaken” for one of those previous women! Surely, we don’t all look alike, do we?
The whole experience – both witnessing how the 2 women were acting, and then later being mistaken for one of them “just by way of ‘appearance'” gave me to think about how we, as black women carry ourselves on a day-to-day basis. Overall, I was embarrassed, hurt, and later offended to have been categorized first, by my race, then my gender and ultimately harassed by customs due to mis-identity.
Still, it prompted me to deliberate over some of my own experiences in the U.S., I must take into account as my husband and I travel from place to place: “To the world” – like it or not, we ARE all in fact representatives of people of color. And not just when we are traveling abroad, but right here, amongst ourselves and the general population.
My closest friend, who is German initially had the impression that Americans (women in particular) were rude, snooty and pompous. And I cannot deny how “we could do/carry ourselves better” even amongst ourselves.
I try as best I can to “avoid” acidic temperaments. They tend to bring me down and ruin the experiences for everyone involved. So, I’m prayerful people will read your letter and by chance, begin to delve deeper within themselves for community’s sake. We all must live in this world together, right? How about we make it “pleasant” for all involved. Embracing The Nolan Principles would be a great place to start.
Thank you again ~vb~
Cheryl Baptiste says
Outstanding! We have to represent. If we don’t, who will. Someone is always watching, observing even when we aren’t aware.
I always try to put my best image out in the universe. I’m a shy person and it is hard for me to show who I am so how I walk, how I dress, how I handle myself in most situations speaks for me and my gender.
Valerie Wade says
I make it a point to always dress professional in the office. I have never been a a fan of full on suits, but even on casual Friday or jean day, I never felt comfortable. I guess it’s the old school in me. I am now the oldest person in the office and I guess its my “uniform.
Ashleigh Hodges says
Thank you for your post! This resonates so deeply w me…. It’s the philosophy my husband and I have as well when we travel. And, it carries though in my job as a kindergarten teacher. I am the only Black person (heck! The only person of color!) at my school in a predominantly white community. Sadly, I understand that I may be the only Black person my students ever interact with. I do all I can to show them what a beautiful, kind, educated, proud, loving Black woman looks like.
This is so insightful. I love learning from you. Thank you for shining so bright.