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Black History Month is not just about touting the same handful of names that we memorize as children: Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth. This year, we want to connect readers with everyday women who go largely unappreciated for what they bring to us. Throughout the month of February, we will highlight some fascinating Black women around the United States and introduce you to their work. These women are activists, writers, coaches, performers, and community leaders.
We will always honor the generations of powerful Black women who came before us since they have paved the way for our activism, writing, and art. Our goal now is to highlight the incredible powerhouses who are doing work in the present – and introduce you to their work. So, to kick off our initiative strong, we’re starting the week by learning four lessons from the prolific poet Raquel “Ra” Brown.
Ra Brown has been writing and performing poetry since teenagehood, and uses it to “express ideas and experiences in love, life situations, lust, tragedy, and traveling.” It’s clear from her writing that Brown has a lot of wisdom to go around – and we want to share some of that with you all. Below are four of the most moving lessons I draw from her work.
Lesson one: speak up for what you want and deserve – and demand it yourself.
In 2014, Brown’s unconstructed memoir “The Alpha Woman’s Bible” was published by KaNikki Jakarta, a black woman owner of Great Publishing Company. In it, Brown talks about the audacity of a Black woman to be sexual without shame or expectations. She once told a man, “I know that we’re going to have sex so we can take that off the table right now. No need to send in our ‘representatives’ to do the song and dance in an attempt to get the other in bed. No pretention.”
To say she intimidates men is an understatement, but the important lesson here is this: nobody but you can be your spokesperson. We have to stop putting on a show based on what we think others desire, and instead, demand the salary, treatment, and love that we want. Our pleasure matters, too.
Lesson two: you are capable of healing
Raquel’s mother has been a huge influence in her life. Like most—if not all—women of color she had to work twice as hard as many of her white peers. And even then, there was no guarantee she would get fairly compensated. At a very young age, she was hip to this reality and her mother was well aware of how the world might treat a girl as brilliant as her daughter. As the product of “a gutter dude and a Catholic school girl”, Raquel started her love of poetry shortly after reading a book her mother gave her. Louise Hay’s “You Can Heal Your Life” changed the trajectory of her life. The part that most resonated with a young Brown was the connection between behaviors and mental ailments. One lesson she has learned over the years between the heartache of losing her niece and the anger from betrayals is that the words handed to her by her mother are still true. If we are willing to put in the work, we can be healed.
Lesson three: make sure they never forget you
I can honestly say I’ve never been attracted to anyone more than I was attracted to this woman when I met her. I am a huge James Baldwin fan and by default, a fan of anyone who is a genuine fan of Baldwin. This is not even a sexual attraction. It’s a spiritual situation— that feeling of abrupt and satisfying enlightenment is the best way I know how to describe Ms. Raquel “Ra” Brown.
In her own words, Brown is “a thought form of what is…a hungry man’s delicious…an internal war’s bloodshed. She was vegan before it started trending and it shows in her glow. Regardless of whether the stage is a little hole in the wall or the Kennedy Center, her goal is to make sure people remember her presence. And that lesson can be applied to every woman reading this.
Lesson four: Appreci-LOVE yourself
From working with incarcerated Black youth at Words, Beats, Life to running a vegetarian grocery cooperative in Maryland to touring around the country, Brown is a powerhouse. It is that same energy that propelled her to work with dozens of at-risk youth in the DC area. Raquel not only mentored Black girls who experienced trauma, but she also created a safe space for them to connect with artists during her Wednesday night open mic at Sweet & Natural—a Black woman-owned vegan restaurant. Every week women who had been abused would gather under the umbrella of artistry and be given a microphone along with the opportunity to be vulnerable in a world where Black women were otherwise not allowed to be. One year during one of her shows, a regular at the weekly open mic was harassed by her ex and she jumped in between them to stop him. After some of the men in the crowd stepped up to help the young woman, Raquel even found her a place to stay for the night.
Without these experiences, Raquel knows that she would have never performed at places like The Smithsonian, The Kennedy Center, The Lisner Auditorium, or the Black Hollywood Film Festival. She encourages more women to follow the example of great leaders like Shirley Chisolm, Mary McCleod Bethune, Queen Nzinga, and Dorothy Height. And if all else fails, Brown says: “you better give them a good show!”