Photo by Jamaica Gilmer

How long has it been since you wrote a letter? Not an inbox message, not an email, not a mega-marathon text that breaks itself up into five installments, but a dear-you, love-me letter? The Beautiful Project, a Durham, N.C.-based collective shifting how black women and girls see themselves and how they’re portrayed in the media, is inviting us to do just that, to share wisdom and encouragement with young sisters as part of its #dearblackgirl campaign. The deadline for submissions has been extended to Wednesday, Oct. 7. It’s a simplistically awesome opportunity to speak life in letter form. This is mine.

Dear Black Girl,

It’s an honor to be hand-selected by a God who poured our greatness into this sun-glazed skin and these strong, sculptured bodies. I love being a black girl. I consider it a blessing and I hope you do, too.

I didn’t grow up black by happenstance. My mama, a product of the black power generation, was serious about raising a child in a household that celebrated our culture, our us-ness, our significance. Black lives mattered at 342 W. Market St. way back in the ’80s. As she planted the pride of my race in my gut, though, she didn’t really acknowledge the unique beauty and challenges of being a black woman inside that black experience. It’s not her bad. I don’t think she really even thought about it for herself, so she couldn’t have articulated it to a daughter.

So I went into school, which was my world back then, ill equipped for assaults against my body image and self-esteem. It wasn’t something that boys my age were necessarily experiencing, but my female classmates and I were sprouting booties and breasts, trying to figure out why we had to trade in our undershirts for training bras and, at the same time, making our own kind of sense of being socially and biologically nudged into growing up. I think college—especially four years at an HBCU—was the first time I started to balance my black personhood and my black womanhood and understand them in tandem.

You’re blessed to be growing up in an era where black women are visible, engaged and vocal on a broader platform than we’ve ever been before. We’re more success driven and achievement focused, and that’s inspiring, but we don’t always recognize our individual brand of awesome because we’re so busy getting to where we think we should be at the particular time of life we believe we should be in it.  

Dear black girl: Be intentional about knowing and celebrating yourself in every stage, at every age. Not the you tied to a degree or a certain university or a snazzy title or a string of letters behind your name, but you. The you who giggles at the same commercial every single time it comes on, even when it comes on 22 times a day. The you who swallows carrots with a swig of water so you don’t actually have to taste the offensive, carroty taste. The you who still wears sandals when everybody else is buying boots because you want your feet to drink in every last precious moment of open-air freedom.

Be an engineer or a rapper, a designer or a pilot; be a mother or a wife—be both or neither at all—and be magnificent at each of them. But be the you outside of those things and be magnificent at that, too. Don’t be defined by what you do. Be defined by who you are.

One of my biggest regrets is allowing other people to tell me how I should feel about me. That started back in elementary school, when I was so vulnerable and wide open and uncertain about so many things, and I carried that burden with me all the way up into adulthood. If someone said I wasn’t smart, I wasn’t smart that day. If someone said I wasn’t pretty, I wasn’t pretty that day.

Don’t you let anybody make you question or conceal your individual magic, my love. The power to feel good about the person you are is as God-given a right as being physically safe. Learn to recognize when people are pointing out areas you can grow and when folks are being malicious and ugly and mean for no other reason except that they’re real talented at being malicious and ugly and mean. That’s a reflection on them and absolutely not on you.

Find heroes in the everyday women around you. There’s not one thing wrong with looking up to the Beyoncés and the Nickis and the Rihannas of the celebrity world, but there are heroes in good, everyday women, the mothers and grandmothers and aunties and teachers and ministers and neighbors who, if you’re willing to listen, could teach you life lessons about turning a little into a lot, keeping lights on, being self-assured and navigating relationships.

My nana wasn’t college educated or cosmopolitan—she was a housewife from the far-flung corners of rural Lancaster County, Pa.—but just by being herself every day, she demonstrated more lasting lessons about the power and resilience of a black woman than anything I’ve read by bell hooks. There’s extraordinary in the ordinary.

Try to catch the eyes of other black girls and smile or speak. Compliment them on their hair or shoes or outfit or skin. If you’ve seen them do something—give a presentation, sing a song, pull off a really skillful parking maneuver—compliment that, too. Your magic magnetizes their magic and feeds into a sisterhood that’s strong, despite what your medium of choice would more than likely have you believe. You have a choice to feed into the negative or sow into the positive. Always choose the latter.

In case no one told you today, you’re beautiful, you’re brilliant, you’re bad, and you make me proud.

Love so real,

Janelle