Last November I had the privilege of attending a screening of a documentary involving the representation of black women in media entitled, “The Souls of Black girls.” Featuring Regina King, Jada Pinkett-Smith, the late Gwen Ifill, and Rapper Chuck D to name a few, this film presented hard truths that are often ignored even now, ten years after it was first produced. The screening and the discussion that followed left me wanting more, so I reached out to the creator and producer, Daphne Valerius for some insights as to her film and the planned sequel that is in the works.
Check out my talk with her below.
Disclaimer: Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Marlena: I understand that this documentary was a project for your graduate program but what was the event or thought that made you say, “I want to do this”?
Daphne: Really this project started on the campus of St. John’s University when I did research as an undergraduate student and that research was entitled, “Self-esteem, Self-confidence : The Effect of Mass Media on Women of Color Forgotten.” I grew up with Junior Mafia, Biggie, Queen Latifah and Little Kim. By the time I was in college, Little Kim, who used to look like me, had slowly started to manipulate herself to such a degree that she was just becoming unrecognizable. And so I was seeing this kind of thing happening right in front of me and no one was talking about it. No one still does talk about it to be honest. It’s kind of this accepted thing of, “Oh well, if you have money you can change yourself,” or whatever and its so much deeper than that. But by the time I got to college I realized that it can’t be just me. I’m not the only one and so I was given the opportunity to do research and in doing that research that’s what I chose to study because that is what was on my heart. As a Ronald McNair Scholar as part of the program I’m groomed to pursue higher education at a doctoral level, but I chose to go for my master’s instead. I always knew, from my research that I would do my master’s work based on it, I just didn’t know that it was going to become “The Souls of Black Girls.”
Marlena: What gave you the vision to carry beyond SOBG beyond being your grad project?
Daphne: Girl, that ain’t nothing but God. I did not, and I tell people all the time, I did not do this project for the purpose of entering into film festivals, and screenings or it being the thing that I’m know for. That was not the plan. I did it so that I could graduate, receive my degree, cross the stage and move on. [Laughs] In fact when I finished the actual documentary I actually got depressed for like three months, because I’m like, “What am I supposed to do with this now? It’s great and everything but what do I do with this?” But during the filming of the documentary I remember meeting Ayuko Babu, the founder of the Pan-African film festival in LA and because I had met him during the filming, I said to myself, “Ok, well I’ll submit it.” Or rather something told me to just submit it. So I did. I really finished it September of that year, so September, October, November — I had no plan. I mean really depressed trying to figure out what I was going to do and I didn’t want to go to school necessarily because I had been in school straight through. I had gone from high school to college to grad school, no break, so I really just needed a break. After which point in time I ended up, the day before my birthday in December that year, that I received the very first acceptance letter for that Pan African Film Festival and that kicked it off. After that film festivals kept on reaching out to me and/or I would submit.
Even when it comes to the cast of the film, I didn’t intentionally set out for them. I reached out to people I had a relationship with. I had a relationship with Regina, I just reached out to her, and she agreed. I had a relationship with Chuck D and my mentor Dr. Lez Edmond, who was also a mentor of his and he said yes – he kind of held it down for the brothers and so I didn’t feel the need to have any more male voices because they have such a wealth of knowledge. I say all this to say, it wasn’t me. I can tell you that there have been times that I’ve been like, “Geez I want to move on to some other things.” But in a way it’s a solution to a problem that still persists even now. The film was done in 2006, we’re in 2017 and it seems like things are just only getting worse, which is why I’m so passionate about doing another one and updating the conversation. It was nothing within me, I take no credit for any of it because I’m knew nothing about it until it was actually happening.
Marlena: While the self-image disorder is extensively discussed within SOBG as how it affects Black women, why is it rarely associated with white females?’
Daphne: I think it is something specific to women of color, not just Black women but women that are other than Caucasian, to be clear. So that’s Native American, Asian American, Hispanic American- you know the whole thing. If you are anything other than white, it is specific to you. And I think that when it comes to the self-image disorder, yes in many ways white women are also impacted, but its not as deep and the reason why I say that is because it really goes to the core of what is the thesis of this work which has a lot to do with the work that presented itself that W.E.B. DuBois did in his book ,”The Souls of Black Folk,” which is the reason why the film is titled, “The Souls of Black Girls.” I read W.E.B. DuBois’ work and I just felt so strongly about his double consciousness theory and the fact that with African Americans in general there’s this duality, you have to be Black and American in this country. And I will say that its the same for other communities of color – you have to be American but also assimilate to your culture. But the one thing that wasn’t really was defined in his theory was being female. We have to deal with the notion of being of color, then we have to deal with being American, and we also have to deal with being a woman — and those are three different roles in which we play.
So for the white woman, she definitely has what makes her a woman as a challenge but her ideal is already accepted and part of the culture that is celebrated beyond others. As a result she may have the same conflicts we would, black women, just on a woman-level but this issue is a compounding of all three that we have to deal with, which is being American, being black and being women. Often times, as you know and in other research you may have seen, black women are always the very last women that are ever considered for things. Which is why the image of Michelle Obama during the Obama administration is so powerful and it was powerful for women, but I’m telling you White women weren’t relating to Michelle because she was black, they were relating to her because she is a female. And we share within those same struggles of what it means to be a female, what it means to be feminine, what it means to be beautiful, but the one thing that White women don’t have to deal with is the struggle of identity as far as race.
Marlena: At many points during the film it was stated that we as a community are even more responsible for bringing on the change that we wish to see. Recently there was even a push by celebrities etc. to get students, especially girls from low income backgrounds the opportunity to see “Hidden Figures” in hopes of inspiring them to consider STEM professions. What are other ways that we can be the agents of change for positive representation? And how does SOBG contribute to bringing this change?
Daphne: Within our own communities and households, we have responsibilities to those that look up to us immediately. Whether it’s our nieces, our little cousins you know the ones who have immediate access to us, we have influence in the lives of young girls and the sphere around us right. So my biggest thing is we’re not healing cancer here, but it is a deeply emotional problem. It’s almost like the issue of mental illness within the Black community, for example, that you hear a lot this conversation that no one wants to have. I would go as far as to say that it is the same thing, we’re not having these conversations. You know, mom is not having the conversation with her daughter – granted there are moms that are but the moms that I know they’re not having conversations with their daughters about, “When I was 17 or 13 I didn’t feel good about myself and I still don’t feel good about myself. And that lead me to making this decision and that decision and here we are today.” You know, we’re not having those intimate conversations and that communication, and that dialogue needs to happen. That can happen at a very elementary level in our backyards and so many people are so busy pointing the finger at somebody else saying, “There’s something else you need to work on.” And that’s where I challenge people to have a conversation with their sons and daughters.
Marlena: What do you consider to be the most influential piece of media at the moment?
Daphne: I think it is a combination of everything. I think its fashion, film, Nikki Minaj and Remy Ma shutting down the internet last night. It influences culture and its a combination of everything. I think that social media is just so profoundly impactful because i was not watching television when I found out about the Remy Ma and Nikki Minaj situation, I was on my phone going through Instagram. I think Instagram is becoming more powerful, because I also wasn’t on Facebook when I found out so I want to say that it spread more on Instagram vs. Facebook. And I think more than anything the biggest influence is technology and having access to information at your finger tips. Literally. You roll over, pick up your phone and its right there. I think apps and technology that is light-years ahead of us as it is going to continue to evolve and it is then going to force the culture to evolve with it. Then you have people and the ones that are left behind are the people who don’t want to evolve with the technology. People like my brother who don’t want to use a computer. You have a generation of people 65 and up, that are now being forced to get on these technologies even when they are against it. Technology I believe is the very thing that is shaping the culture, and it is a dangerous force if not dealt with accordingly especially if our children are not prepared to discern the difference.
Marlena: In your opinion, has social media been a positive or negative agent in terms of changing negative racial stereotypes in media representation and/or beauty standards?
Daphne: I think social media has played the part that any form of media has, whether it be television, film or fashion magazines, its just a tool. It’s the people behind the media that then determines what message they want to put out there. Interestingly enough we had a heated debate last Sunday on our Instagram because we were marketed this very short video from a brand called Wunderbrow that was sponsoring an eyebrow thing. They utilized a black girl who had a lace front and color contacts, clearly. She looked just like a Black girl in the beginning and by the time the video is done she looks exactly like Little Kim. It caused a huge debate because it was taken as though we were attacking her. I don’t know the girl, I know Wunderbrow marketing me a clip. The clip I found to be offensive because you are telling me that you are marketing something that is very false. So then someone on our social media went and tagged the girl which sparked the discussion as if we are attacking her. Its like no, there are girls with color contacts walking around in our community, but we are not dealing with what is the reason behind choosing to falsify yourself to be presented as beauty.
Perhaps our tone and how we viewed the video may have seem a little harsh but the fact of the matter remains, this is a girl in Canada, this is the work that I do. I give that just as an example that it can be used for bad or it can be used for good. I’m sure that Wunderbrow don’t know, they just see this girl put that blog post up and they are sponsoring that post, this is what is provoking a message. It does go back to the girl in the sense of what kind of message was being sent and so she defended herself saying that she loves her dark skin and that she is not trying to be something that she is not. But you have to understand that it sends a different message and I’m sure that no person in her life has had that conversation with her. That when you are rocking a lace-front with color contacts and beating your face to a certain degree, it is sending a message that our young girls are not able to decipher. It’s not an attack on you, I don’t know you, I’m just going based on the information provided. Granted you’re a make up artist and that’s great I think your work is beautiful, but let’s just be clear you’re marketing other than how to use make-up, you’re marketing an ideal that is very false. Technology has its power. Its the intentions of the heart behind the authors of the content. And you know that the blog space is one that did not exist in 2006 and it has become just as powerful as social media, even more powerful than PR efforts. So that’s something I would love to capture within the sequel. The bloggers are the women them taking the tool and the media and owning it. independently and choosing what story they want to tell and being discriminating you can’t just approach them with any own thing. It’s a whole world that I’m still trying to understand.
Marlena: Many mainstream corporations have had to change how they market their products in order to remain relevant which has lead to an increase of mixed race depictions in media. Do you think that this is something that can put down any potential movement towards positive representation and embracing Black beauty?
Daphne: I think that it is a step forward. The reason that I say that is because of the reality of the situation, at least in my own life. Our girls aren’t “just Black” anymore — they are Black and Indian, Black and Latina, Black and white. So I think is a good thing, if they can at least acknowledge that it is almost better than nothing, however, we do need to tell our own stories of the black experience, but I do think that their stories should be told too. And I think that if it is an easier pill to shallow if we just tell this bi-racial story first, because you cant’ tell the bi-racial story without telling the African story anyway. You can’t negate it, it’s there. I just think that we just need to have more shows that depict us as we are, as multi-dimensional, multifaceted individuals of color. The more and more we go about telling those stories, then the more and more our identities begin to shift. It is going to be interesting to see how things continue to, now that we are in the era of post-Obama.
Marlena: Do you have a wish list of participants for the SOBG sequel?
Daphne: Oh my gosh, yes. Absolutely. I’m excited to have conversations with women who are making epic moves in the digital space and the online space. Women who have had awesome things that they have done. Women who have blazed some trails since 2006 and the first lady, Michelle is on that list. And I’m going to have my actor friends, the usual kind of stuff but my number one on my wishlist is the first lady. It’s gonna happen.
Marlena: How can people help you fund the sequel project?
Daphne: Right now child its about prayer. [Laughs] But also I’ve entered into the space of, actually my career mentor Dr. Edmond, who saw something within me as a student at St. John’s that lead me to do research, he placed the seed within me to pursue a level of higher education of a doctoral degree. He passed. And as he was dying, it was always on my heart to pursue my doctorate. In putting it out there that I want to do a sequel, I’m also finally moving forward and applying myself to doctoral programs specifically media studies and things of that nature and I plan on focusing my dissertation on the premise of what will be the sequel. So it is still in development right now. I’m not moving on it as quickly. It will be a couple of years now, but it won’t be too long. I’m hoping to do the sequel now based on my work as a doctorate student. Great things take time. It’s going to take me a little longer to get it off the ground, unless someone says, “Ok here is $350k”. That would be great, I would go into production now! But for now I think just supporting and getting the word out is a great help. For the population that knows about the souls of black girls, there is still 90% of the world that doesn’t know about it. Just getting the word about the work that exists, even though it’s old, I’m just trying to keep it alive between now and the time the sequel does come out.
Marlena: What is your ultimate goal(s) with this project?
Daphne: I think it’s my research as a doctoral student. Having concrete data, the same way that you hear studies that come out. Once that data is there that will allow people to see that this is a real problem, this isn’t just something we’re talking about on girl night. I want it to be taken seriously to the same degree of which people take surveys and statistics that come from associations with the medical field. I would love for the work that I do have the same level of impact that “13th“ did for me just as a viewer. I was broken and shaken to my core. And I hope that it will just last generations. This film has lasted a generation–my niece who was in it was like two, she’s now like 13. And beyond that I hope it is a source of inspiration learning and change. I hope it encourages more girls of color to pick up a camera and tell their own stores. That’s the impact I want it to have.
Many thanks to Daphne Valerius for taking time out of her busy schedule for this interview. You can follow “The Souls of Black Girls” on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.