Public Speaking Writing

Lessons Learned from Navigating Erasure, Hypervisibility, and a World That Wants To Commodify You

This speech was written for the final farewell of No Fly on the Wall, a Black British Feminist platform founded and run by my friend, Siana Bangura. No Fly on the Wall was a pioneering platform that started out as a blog, but also facilitated workshops, events, and sister circles, constantly creating spaces for Black British women to learn, unlearn, and self-define. You should read the farewell post that Siana posted on the blog at the beginning of this year, and read the NFotW Humanifesto to get a flavour of the ethos and important work that was being done.

An anthology of some of the best pieces from the blog will be published by Haus of Liberated Reading in July, so look out for that.

When Siana asked me to prepare a speech on the theme of raising one’s head above the parapet, I knew the kind of speech I wanted to deliver. I thought about writing a rabble-rousing, podium-stomping cry that would get you all clicking and live-tweeting and that would hopefully inspire – but also make me feel inspirational. But then I realised how disingenuous that would be, given that I spent a lot of 2017 saying “no” and actively retreating from podiums and platforms instead of lifting myself into the virtual firing line.

I call 2016 my phoenix year, after the personal car crash of 2015. I said yes to any and everything, writing widely, warming into the role of a public speaker and I’m proud of that year and what it meant to me. So why did I decide to start saying “no”? Well, I experienced a few things, I observed a few things, and if you’d permit me, I’d like to share some of my thoughts with all of you gathered here tonight.

From my personal observation, I see black women are often stuck between a rock and a hard place: invisibility and hyper-visibility. While erasure is a constant threat, one careless quote tweet can send your mentions into a cesspool of misogynoir. We’re either steadily ignored, or expected to perform as the mule of the world, carrying everyone else’s concerns and complaints on our backs. Without the permission of gatekeepers or the mainstream, we carve out spaces for ourselves in hostile environments, but then are policed on how, when, and why we should use the platforms we built ourselves, brick by brick, with little to no resources.

Before anyone believed us, we told the world about Black Girl Magic, and when more established media platforms and organisations saw this small but vibrant ecosystem of talent, insight, wit, and creativity, they wanted to sprinkle that Magic over whatever they were trying to sell. In this new dawn of new media, it’s clear that we can bring the fire, the spice, and the page views. But despite the offerings on the table – legitimacy, money, exposure – so often the scales are unbalanced, and their gain can come at a personal cost to us. And even when the compensation is right and the terms seem perfect, it could be then you find that when they say they want you, they don’t really want you: they want the sparkle of the Magic, without the baggage of the Black Girl.

It could be too easy for me to become disillusioned by all of this. I and many of my comrades have asked ourselves what is the point of it all? When our invoices are ignored, our labour is co-opted, allyship is one-sided, and grown folk act like they haven’t got a basic grasp of common courtesy, why bother? But the world needs us – like, really needs us – and I’ve got some lessons that may just save your sanity, as they have saved mine.

First of all: do not allow yourself to be outrage for hire. People will want you to speak on topics you have no wish to address; people will slide into your DMs to tell of the violence they have observed, attempting to prod you into action on their behalf. Some will do this with misplaced intentions, and some will do it for mere entertainment, but don’t allow yourself to be used like that. I was once asked to go on a primetime show to talk about the latest outrage that was making its way through the blogosphere. When I told the producer I didn’t have an opinion on the matter strong enough to warrant me being included in the debate, they tried to explain to me, why I, as a black woman, should be outraged about the topic at hand. Now on one hand it was a prime-time appearance: it might boost my following, my brand awareness, and could open up other doors or sharpen my teeth for the next opportunity that came my way. But in the end I decided that it was not enough to justify being thrown to wolves of the anonymous general public, on a very contentious topic that I didn’t really feel moved about. It wasn’t worth it, I didn’t do it, and I’m glad to this day.

Second: have a long term plan. This helps knowing when to say yes and no. And while it’s very nice to talk in the abstract about justice, equality, representation and talking truth to power, ask yourself: what does all of that look like for me personally? We each have our own lanes, our own callings, and we have desires that may, or may not, be suited to our individual personalities. Your ultimate goal will look different to someone else, and even if it looks very similar, how you go about it will not take you on the same journey. It can sound almost sacrilegious, especially in the realms of social justice and progressive ideals, but what you do should also serve your own ends: your vision for the life you want to lead and the person you want to be. Be strategic with your decisions, and remember that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should, and just because it’s good, doesn’t mean that it will be good for you.

Third: know when to give of yourself generously, but also know when to hold back. I find it embarrassing that I only truly learned what this meant when I became a mother and it became necessary to hold some of myself back for the sake of someone else. I have been that person willing to lay it all on the line for the cause, the people, or the culture, and so much of the work that we do, especially as under-resourced black women, is the work of blood, sweat and tears. We turn our wills into ways and we wouldn’t be where we are without the generosity and goodwill of those around us. And of course we should pay that energy back, and also pay it forward, but we also need to be wise. There are those who will take as much as they can from you, as long as it’s on offer. My mother used to tell me as a child that I should be as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove, so I say the same to you: do no harm, but take no sh_t.

Lastly: let your own convictions guide you. Visibility so often comes at a price, so whatever you are staking your claim on should be worth it. It is your convictions that will propel you forward should you find yourself getting dragged, trolled, sabotaged, or facing obstacles, ignorance or a downright blockade. Your convictions will keep you going, they will be the scaffolding that will keep you from collapsing in on yourself when you’re under attack or simply world-weary.

Now, I don’t say any of this to encourage timidity, or to try and dampen your ideals. I say this to steel and prepare you for what may be ahead, if you’re lucky enough to have not already experienced it already. Because you are needed; your voice is important, but you are also precious. Your energy, your insight, your labour and your emotions are a precious resource, so don’t let anyone turn you and what you have to offer into a mere commodity.

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