A few years ago, I was introduced to a woman with these simple sentences: “T, this is Michaela. I feel like you should know each other. You might get along.”
Judging purely by the golden halo of an afro she sported, in tandem with some of the brightest kicks I had ever seen, I couldn’t help but smile and agree. Soon, Michaela and I were meeting up for tea and talking about art and the state of the world, taking little walks around the hood, once we learned we were neighbors, and giving happy hugs at rallies and festivals.
I loved the way Michaela’s mind worked, the way she dissected everything, felt no fear around speaking her truth, and how she managed to see the brightness of the world, often in spite of itself. It wasn’t until a full-fledged friendship was formed that I learned this new light in my life was in fact civil rights and image activist Michaela Angela Davis.
Michaela is as complex as she is bold. A longtime fashion editor and stylist, for the likes of Essence, Vibe, and Honey magazines, Michaela turned into an image activist and social justice champion following a transformative experience while speaking at Spelman College, when she realized that what was important to her was “to be in action particularly around our image and expand the narrow narratives of what it is to be woman, what it is to be black, what it is to be young.”
Since then, Michaela has consistently sought ways to use her platforms to call out and lift up, and can be seen everywhere from the studios of CNN to protests in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to her living room, surrounded by the young women that she mentors. She can often be found celebrating, sometimes dancing to soul music in various parks around the city, or at Afropunk, talking to another woman about their hair, smiling all the while. And let me tell you, Michaela may be known for that afro, but you’ll never forget her smile.
I always walk away from talks with Michaela feeling enlightened and inspired; I truly respect and value the insight of those who have come up before me, both in the movement and in life. So after a series of the conversations we had in the wake of so many recent tragedies, I asked if I could sit down with her and take note of some of her thoughts on the civil rights movement, specifically as it pertains to Black Lives Matter; how she got involved in her work; and how she navigates all that she does without burning out.
Click through the gallery below to read what Michaela has to say.
What are some of the challenges, especially as an activist, that you face?
The biggest struggle I have now is to maintain myself and my sense of humanity; to not get bitter, or broken, or angry, or overly resentful, or too tired. That's the challenge not just in activism, but in aging and in being a woman—being a grown-ass woman. I find myself in a constant battle to maintain my identity, to be who I say that I am, and continue to expand what that is. And dodging boxes that declare, "If you're middle age, you do this. Or if you're black, you do this; if you're a woman, you do this." I feel like there's often a pressure, somewhere around the mid-40s, for women to disappear. I feel, especially as I get older, I have to continually say, "No, that's not who I am." I am agile, and strong, and sexy, and interested in shit.
What role does self-care play in your life and what's the importance of balancing activism with it?
I practice radical self-care because I want radical change. I think to balance self-care and activism—this is what the past generation has been telling us. Do not fall apart. Do not infight, get all weirded out over the lack of money, lack of sex, lack of sleep, like, do not be in a place of lack. I feel like it is part of what’s making this movement so powerful. I mean, watch how DeRay [McKesson] talks to Netta [Johnetta Elzie]; it's, "Hey, I love you!" Or Opal [Tometi] and Patrisse [Cullors] and Alicia [Garza] from Black Lives Matter, they love each other, openly, outwardly, in public, “I love you… but also did you like the new Rihanna record?”
Not everything is The Struggle because black people have always been complex and diverse and on the frontlines, still loving each other, having dope parties, having a lot of sex, and having a lot of style. It's critical to openly say that I take care of myself, and openly say that I take care of myself in these ways. My health, my spirituality, like prayer and meditation, are critical. More critical than Twitter. [Laughs]
A reason why I love social media is because you can say, "I did this today" on Instagram, and it's not just flossing—it’s a way to say I care about myself. Sharing information about how we love ourselves or how we care for ourselves is really, really important.
I recently went to Baltimore and got burned out immediately. I hadn’t been since the uprisings, and I was so aware of the generational poverty. How so many people that I see as my community, as my brothers, my sisters, are locked in pain, walking streets still smoldering, in trauma and pain. I got back and couldn't sleep, couldn’t focus, and I could tell, I was overwhelmed with how I was feeling.
I had the privilege to be able to buy a ticket to Sedona [, Arizona]. I meditated, I ate good food, I looked at the beauty of nature over and over again to heal, so I could come back and get to work. And, I think, that's what's important to share too. It's like, "I can't do this work if I'm falling apart." I don't think you can be in this movement, in this time, without taking care of yourself. You will burn out, you will break, you will be discarded. And it’s important to share that information.
Is there anything that you wish you'd known before you got involved with this type of work?
Yeah. I wish I would've known to stick with my girls a little bit more, my contemporaries. I'm in the lives of a lot of young women, and they're so dope, so smart, and so energized. I feel like another strength of this time, in this movement, is that we have cross-generational connections and conversations. But this is a cautionary tale, too. For so many women, your 40s and 50s—it’s the height of your career and productivity, and you are on your grind. But we're so busy doing our big shit that sometimes we don't hang out; we don't see each other. And I wish I had leaned on my mentors a little bit more, the Susan Taylors of the world, the Bethann Hardison. I so want for young activist women to make sure that they have someone behind them, and someone in front of them. Those two things hold you together. They literally give you balance. We can be so DIY but you can't do it all by yourself. That's the truth. I thought my will and my drive could get me through everything. But nothing significant happens by yourself. Ever.
How has your activism—in the way it manifests itself, the way you express it, or engage with it—changed over time?
It's interesting because I really enjoy the idea of being identified as an activist in this skin. I still really love fashion and style and fancy food. I was just with my mother and she had some kind of truffle salt with pepper. I said, "You know, this is all good!" and I like fancy shit like that. But there's always been this narrative that you are in the struggle and so you must struggle. You have this kind of weird self-sacrifice.
Like the nobility of poverty.
The nobility of poverty. It's not noble—especially not for black folks! Like we had a fucking choice whether we could be poor or not. No son, let me get rich first and then see if I can let it go. Let's try that part. Can a lot of us just get rich? Or just get out? I feel like I'm getting more excited about how, particularly as a black woman activist, we have so many intersections where most people would be incongruous or contradict each other. Our contradictions work. It's like jazz; it's like what syncopation is. This idea that we can really be about it, and we can be ratchet at the same time, and we can love trap music, and we can love black people. I feel like this generation is a lot more free with those ideas than I think the past civil rights fighters were. There was so much respectability politics, right?
I recently went to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which is extraordinary. Every American should go there. I was struck by how young the activists, how young people of SNCC were, how young MLK and Andrew Young were, how brave they were. But, I also saw how “dignified” and cleaned up they were, and it made me really think again about this whole respectability politics space. That wearing a suit or wearing your pants up won't save you from being murdered. I saw pictures of people with kid gloves hanging from trees. What gets you killed is that you're black and you're poor, right? Your exposure to violence is what makes you vulnerable, not your hairstyle. This idea of making oppressed people feel responsible for their oppression is what I'm interrogating right now. It's also within our community. I feel like there's an American tradition, particularly for black people, of feeling this burden of their own demise. As if somehow, if you did something right, if you did a little bit more, if you worked a little bit harder...
If you dressed this way, talked that way.
Lived in this place…
None of that keeps you safe! It's interesting when you get up really, really early in the morning, and you see who's on the bus. It's black and brown people. But the narrative is, "Oh, lazy Mexicans, or lazy..." I’m in a place of being okay with the complexity of everything. America was organized for the success of white, male, heterosexual Christians, right? So, with everything, the further you get away from that construct and model of success—if you are not male, if you are not white, if you are not heterosexual, if you are not Christian—the more fragile you can feel out in the world. However, I do feel the tide turning. All of that's being challenged. That’s why this movement really popped off with the presidency, because I think you looked up and you saw, "Oh my god, there's a black male in this space." There's a woman that was second or third to him, there's marriage equality, there's people saying that they matter. I'm getting more comfortable with the complexity of myself and seeing that it's a strength. Those of us who have been squeezed and marginalized, have been made complex. So, if I survived it, that means I'm dope. That means I'm doper than you. That's one of the reasons why I look to Serena [Williams] all the time. She’s not just a champion, she's better than anyone's ever going to be because of her skill, and the weight of racism on top of it. That's why watching these Olympics, and watching all of these black girls do it, it's not just that they're fast, they're doing all that on top of racism.
What are some of the high points of your career as an activist and beyond?
I really think the best is still yet to come, but I was asked to give a talk to the Gates Scholars as part of the United Negro College Fund. The UNCF and the GS created this idea: What if money was off the table for students? How far could they go? Who could they be? The GS decided to give close to a billion dollars to that idea, and they gave it to the UNCF because they have given out more scholarships than anyone in the world, and they do it really well. I spoke at the ceremony for the most recent graduating class, and I was in a room with Indigenous Americans kids, Samoan kids, Muslim kids, black kids, and Mexican kids, and I realized that you never see Indigenous Americans in a mixed environment. I've never been in such a diverse room in my life. There was this young Muslim girl who just said she wanted to wake up and not hate herself. That's what she said, and she's on her way to Princeton. All of these kids had on Princeton shirts and Dartmouth shirts, and it was so overwhelming, not so much because of those schools but more because of what these kids did, with money being off the table. This foundation is going to see them all the way through. If students want a Ph.D., they are with you; for 18 years if that's as far as you want to go. It was a snapshot of what can happen; equality can happen; what we could look like and what things could actually be if things were fair. They were still dealing with other things on campus, like racism and being marked because they’re Gates Scholars, so they’re visible, dealing with this idea that people should be ashamed of being poor, which is horrible. Especially inside of a structure that's made for most people to be poor. But you made it to Dartmouth, and you are from somewhere, no one ever thought about you. I felt so privileged and so honored to be in that room.
What about the low?
I feel I might be in it now. Not so much that it's low, but… I don't know. The news around Charleston broke something in my heart. There were so many other things before it, and something about the trigger of historic trauma was so horrific and, you know, I was the first person to call the shooter a terrorist on television. It just happened that way. I was booked on the morning show to talk about something else. The massacre happened the night before, and I still did the news, and I called him a terrorist, and there was this whole big thing because he's a white, blonde, American male. I don't think I’ve fully left Charleston, and since then, there are 10 more names that I know about. How many more will happen? And there's been no justice. I don't know how long this can happen, how long can we sustain with no justice.
Then I saw the expose done by the New York Times after following Trump rallies for a year; they published what happens at them, that shit… T-shirts that say "Fuck Islam," confederate flags that say Trump on them, or T-shirts that say "Trump That Bitch," talking about Hillary Clinton! Groups of people chanting, "Build a wall, kill them all." It's just as dirty as 1968, but more people to hate.
It's not just black people now, it’s black people, gay people, trans people, Mexicans, Muslims… How is that not critiqued, how do you not see that white hate has made that environment? That heritage has never been fully dealt with. Handle your white hate, white people. We are constantly marching and being dignified and showing you how to have a civil rights movement and showing you what eloquent looks like, and have Michelle Obama saying, "When they go low, we go high," but they've stayed low. We've stayed high. I can't look this generation in the eye and say, "You know what, keep marching. Keep being dignified. Pull up your pants." Our dignity doesn't change them. The heritage from slavery to Jim Crow, the heritage of white hate has not been handled by white people.
And there's a part of me that is over it. I was at the DNC, and the deep Bernie Sanders supporters were there. We all needed what Bernie Sanders injected into this process. That movement has really helped move Hillary Clinton's campaign forward in a way that it maybe wouldn’t have. However, when I was at the DNC and seeing these people cry and shake and fast and be indignant and walk around because their candidate didn't win, I'm like, "Why don't you go handle your heritage?" Take all that rage, that energy, that organization, and go face down that white hate. We can't do that. If you really want to make some change, go handle your own fucking history. I don't need you in a Black Lives Matter march. Go the fuck down to South Carolina, and look at those people and take down your own fucking flag. So many liberals and progressives think that do no harm is doing work. No. It's not. That ideology, that hate, is what has created the environment. That has created a Trump candidacy. Go handle your shit.
That New York Times thing was really powerful, but they don't see that on a constant loop on television, like I see black boys in pools of blood on the street over, and over, and over again. I see police killing people over, and over, and over again in a constant loop. But I don't see anyone saying, "Well, this is disgusting, this history. What are we going to do?" Because you can't have this kind of rhetoric without it coming from some kind of environment. I just feel like, I've never been this sort of angry. And you know what? We can't keep not having justice. People talk about accountability and unity—we can't do that with no justice. And I don't want to ask this generation what we asked the other generation to do.
Tupac said, "It's a wonder we don't blow more." I think it's just because we're so dope and we have great music, we do these other things, but I feel like I've never felt like so edgy. And I'm sitting in this cute little loft, right? Drinking, like, scented water. So imagine if I lived in Milwaukee or Ferguson [, Missouri] or Detroit, or somewhere locked. It's time for other people to deal with their shit. The other side of what this American thing is. What people of color have in common is their complex relationship with whiteness and white supremacy and patriarchy. And white people have to do the work now. I'm tired of us always promoting what is dignified, I'm tired of us showing you what it looks like to be elegant, and how dope the Obamas are, and they still call them ni**ers at a rally. And you’re calling presidential candidates cunts? And the President of the United States, "Fuck that ni**er?" They say that and the candidate doesn't shut it down and nobody covers it?
You know what I mean? What are you supposed to do with that? I mean, the whole world is uprising. The whole world is having a response to what colonization did. I don't care if its Syria or Germany or France. But, I'm optimistic because now we see it, and you can't heal what you don't acknowledge, right? So, I'm optimistic, but I feel as though it's a bottom, in terms of my awareness as an activist as well, that this is a certain kind of bottom. The thing about bottoms is, often, you either stay there or you get up and go somewhere really new.
You've had a prominent career in the fashion editorial world. So, how has your activism been present in that work?
Yes. And that was really fun, and it was also something I didn't know that anyone was catching on to. For instance, when I was at Vibe, one of my favorite stories that I did as an editor was in the cotton fields in Mississippi. I used black culture and black history as a source. Part of that was because I should, because it's Vibe, but I really wanted, as a fashion person and as a creative person, to not look at the world through a Eurocentric lens. I made that my position. Which sounds easier than it is, when you've been conditioned. If you're an art major or a fashion major, almost everything is taught to you through this Eurocentric lens, right? And so when I said, "I just want to look at the world differently," that really came out in my fashion and who I cast and prompted, working with people like Tyson [Beckford] very early or Michael K. Williams, who was this beautiful, dark, man with a scar on his face; now everybody loves him on TV but at the time, that wasn't "a model." But it was to us.
I've been pushing identity politics all the time and have never really been able to divorce my politics with my work. What I enjoy about fashion, particularly for people of color, is that it is a language for us that has nothing to do with money. People of color who have money too may have way more fun. Like, Rihanna. But, you can go anywhere in the hood and you see this self-expression, this idea of how to have style, and how style is culture and language. No one articulates that better in the United States than black youth. They are giving you everything about what's going on in the way that they dress.
I was obsessed with Soul Train because it was American youth telling you what was going on, what was hip, what was cool. Then hip-hop did the same thing and was telling you, “We're scared, we're in danger.” I remember there was this whole critique when hip-hop got a uniform and all the guys were just wearing baggy jeans and long T-shirts and Timbs, and it was called to question why they were wearing the same thing—because they're scared! And they wanted to roll like a pack. Because if the police are profiling the black male with jeans, Timbs, and hood—that's everybody. I got it. I knew that wasn't the end of fashion—people were getting fucked up! They looked like they’re wearing a uniform because they needed to take cover.
At the same time that black men were taking cover, black women were taking their clothes off, and I wanted to know why all the black women were looking like hoes and all the black men looking like soldiers? It was because the police were militaristic in killing black men, and black women were suffering from sexual violence at new levels. Look at what they're wearing. Look at what they're telling us. Also look at the Black Panther Party and how fresh they were; there was something so dope around those radical activists being so sexy.
Come on. Or the black girls with the black fitted dresses and the sphere of hair, and you know just in a simple turtleneck, black jacket, black beret. What?? Hot. Afro. Dress. Done. Legs for days. Beautiful skin. It was clean, it was sharp, it was in your face. It was people trying to look young, and hot, and free. It wasn't trying to fit into the corporate world, even though there was a uniform and a militaristic thing—it had such a purpose. The fact that they would wear that while they observed the police make arrests? Where are those motherfuckers? I need them right now. We need to be observing the police making arrests in black jackets, or maybe wearing capes now.
Something else that comes with being an activist with some style is the opening and ease it creates when talking to young people. I really love working with and talking to young women of color, and that's who I'm here for. When you're fly, it gives them permission to stay fresh. And yeah, I want to be active, look attractive, and that can work in your life. You can fit being in service of others into your life. You don't have to give your whole life up to it. I'm an accidental activist. I was a fashion girl, for sure. But it called me, and I said yes.
What are your thoughts on Afro-/Black feminism?
I'm cranky about certain things about feminism and white feminists in general. I have friends and colleagues who are in the movement, and I gotta just tell you, the silence during things like Renisha McBride, during Charleston. It was clear I was shook and nobody even checked on me, let alone, like, got in it. To me, feminism isn't making things better for women. Fuck your feminism. I'm not into it. And you can have all this theory and you can quote all the Audrey Lorde you know, but if you're not checking for another woman, and particularly black and brown women for whom shit is not getting better... I'm really at this place where I don't know whether it matters if there's unity in the feminist movement. Being close to people that identify as progressive, I often feel like it's privilege posturing as progressive, and they don't even know it, and I don't want to teach them—I don't want to do that work.
Black women are getting into the feminist movement that was primarily organized in a white way, so we still have to do a whole lot of work to teach them about shit. I identify as black and feminist, but I'm not connected to feminism defined by white women. I'm not interested anymore. I was a year ago. I mean, I literally held a little closed-door summit and asked can we get along? And then they started crying. And I was like, "I'm sorry, I can't. Just do your work." Also, I feel like our work is very different right now. Black women, black people, and people of color have the work of living their lives and trying to be happy and trying to be whole, and white people need to get in the trenches and do the fucking work. The white feminists want to “lean in.” Fuck, black women, they want to lean out. They want some rest. They've been working forever because a lot of the organizing principles of feminism, and who it's for and what it's for, never included us. At this point, I want our own shit to work, and right now, we might need to just heal, and have some fun, and kiki. Ya'll wanted to get out the house… we're just trying to buy a fucking house.
I do love that black women have found the power in saying they're feminists again, though, because there was a long time where you didn't hear people saying that they were feminists. In the ‘90s, I didn't hear many black women say that they were, other than maybe Jo Morgan or hip-hop feminists. I'm so glad that Beyonce put the word feminist behind her with her fabulous thighs and claimed it—and I think she made it sexy for black women. We make everything sexy, fuck it.
What do you see as the greatest needs in the movement today?
You know, honestly, and I'm saying this very intentionally, especially for liberals: What people with a little bit of privilege can do is… The movement needs money, particularly around representation of really good legal counsel. I think that’s sometimes why we don't see justice. People can't get lawyers. We need to be able to pay people to stay on cases, we need to be able to pay people to stay on the senate floor, to stay with bills. Because, whether it's mothers of the movement or whomever, they'll get bills on the floor but they can't stick with them, with all the bureaucracy, because they have to get back to work and feed their kids. The movement needs to be funded so we can have all these smart, young lawyers who can't afford to go work at these legal defense fund places. I was talking to one of the young sisters that's been doing a lot of field work and she said, "There are days when I just don't have any lotion." She just wanted to feel clean and moisturized, and she’s in these crazy little motels and these little bars are so… the movement needs lotion, you know what I mean?
What advice would you give to someone wanting to get involved in the Civil Rights movement of today?
I think for young women who want to be involved with the organizing principles that the Civil Rights movement is largely identifying as Black Lives Matter, what is most helpful is getting involved in a way that is really genuine to who you are and what you really care about. Part of that is giving yourself permission to tell the truth to yourself, right? Because environmental justice is connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, criminal justice, you know, works around rape culture—all of this is still connected to the movement. I think that people need to understand it's a multiplatform, multidimensional movement. If everyone worked toward what they really care about, we can get this done. You don't have to do the part that looks like it's the more explicit or "cool" part. None of it is cool, it's work. But if you care about it, you'll stick with it.
Part of being in any kind of social justice or service work is being consistent. It's like with children; you have to keep showing up. People have to believe you. And I feel like you can get caught up in fever. You know, police brutality or police criminality, actually—because it's not brutal to kill someone, it's criminal—that's about law enforcement. If your gut is telling you, "I believe that I can make a difference in this space," go for it. Just put justice behind everything that you care about. You know? And it'll work. If everyone is working on something, we can get this done.
With all the stuff that you're doing, do you have any projects in the works that you're particularly excited about?
Yes! So, I have the Hair Tales project, which I'm calling the 21st century Vagina Monologues about hair. I started doing that after Charleston fucked me up. It made me so sad, so hurt, that I had to do something about black girl joy. I needed to tell stories that connect us, that are singular, that speak to our identity and humanity in a way that is interesting and creative. I'd had this project on my laptop for a couple of years, because I’d been thinking a lot about us, about black women, and how even with all of our diversity, when you get a few of us together—at some point, we're going to talk about hair. People in the culture are also talking about our hair, whether it's Gabby [Douglas] or the Kardashians having braids. Our hair is a metaphor for our position. It's complicated, people don't understand it, but they're fascinated by it, and they appropriate it, and all that shit.
They want to touch it.
They want to touch it, but they don't really want to deal with it. So, I started this projected called the Hair Tales, which is gathering stories of women about their hair that become stories about their identity. I have a couple of iterations of it, and it's on multiple platforms so I have a series, called the Parlor Series, which is a little more formal. And I did my first sort-of mini mobile docs, which launched on Refinery29 in March, where I talked to Mara Brock Akil, Tasha Smith, Patrisse Cullors from Black Lives Matter, Regina King, Kim Coles, and another comedian, Amanda Seales. I also have the Kitchen Table series that I did at Afropunk last year in Brooklyn [, New York] and in Paris, where it's just like speed dating, with women from the street, following the idea that I can bring this kitchen table to wherever people are and have them come up and tell me stories. I love that part.
In addition, there's a book of essays that I'm working on that’s part gathered stories, and a few of my own, from this whole hair conversation. This culture of hair is really exciting, and it keeps me buoyant, because whether you're from Detroit or Dakar, this is something that connects us. It’s also a service to others, meaning for people that don't know about us and don't know about black women's identity. There's so much I've realized that people don't know about being a black woman, or a woman of color, so, here are some stories! They're really funny! I presented one of them at Creative Mornings, which is mostly hipster, mostly white, and they were delighted.
It’s similar to the way that we felt the Vagina Monologues talked about sexual violence and rape culture in a way that made everyone sort of get it. I'm partnering with Afropunk, because that community's just so cool, and I'm doing an event with them this year, having a conversation with black women from the U.K., called Blackness, Beauty, and Britain. I'm going to talk to Cynthia Revo, who just won a Tony for The Color Purple, and some of the artists that are coming in from the U.K. to do Afropunk. Skin from Skunk Anansie, who I love, or Skye from Morcheeba. We're going to talk about these issues—because it's a very real thing for them in the U.K. Then we're going to have a party, eat fish and chips, and hang out in a Brooklyn pub. I'm calling it "Ye International Black Girls Pub." The Hair Tales is an ongoing process, an ongoing story, a thread that connects us. I just needed to find something that was healing.
I’ve also started doing a very personal project where I’m having a conversation with myself and my family, and my relationship to media and my relationship to black media and advertising and beauty, so I'm doing this sort of art project at home, and I've turned my home into my workspace. I wanted it to feel like I'm in a studio, to live my life in a studio practice, versus a corporate practice, really using my creativity as an organizing principle. Often we feel like creativity is this disorganizing principle, but it gives me structure. I made a decision, not long ago, that I only want to do dope shit, or something that's in service of our liberation. And it's great if it's both, right? I'm excited about being at this point in my life, and at this point in my career where I don't need to learn “how to deal,” but that's important, especially for younger readers, to be clear that where you are now is a teaching moment. If you are in some weird job, with some weird people, listen and understand and learn how to shapeshift. But I don't need to do that anymore, I can tell the truth, I can wear my hair out, I can wear my titties out. You know? Like that's the beauty of getting to be 50 and surviving; the fuck you gonna tell me? No? So. I'm excited about being a grown-ass woman.
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