HEY GIRL is dedicated to conversations between women about the things that go on in your head and your world—giving you insight and perspective into how other women deal with the same stuff you do. This HEY GIRL issue was conducted by Morgan Johnson, OKREAL editorial manager.
Jordan Bailey and Lauren Mayfield (Jo and Lo) started Black Girl Book Club earlier this year. The podcast allows the two roommates and besties time to come together (biweekly) to chat about readings and topics surrounding the power of being a woman of color. Each month, they choose a book or essay—written by, for, or about women of color. I chatted with Jo and Lo about how they use the podcast as a framework to discuss their own lives as young black women, and their personal experiences with strength and vulnerability. Check out the first episode of their upcoming season, here.
Morgan: Hi ladies. Mind if I join the team today as ‘Mo?’ Jo, Lo and Mo? Kidding. Let’s get right to it. As women we often gain a sense of self through media. How have black women in media played a role in what you’ve envisioned for your podcast?
Lo: They’ve taught me what it is to be honest and vulnerable in a public space. Growing up, it was expected that you withhold things from the public. Even in the MySpace/AIM 90s old-school era, you only shared how you wanted to be seen. Social media has continued along that path, with people only showing the best things. These inspirational black women: the Alex Elles, the Roxane Gays, the Issa Raes and so many more, have taught me that sharing deep pieces of yourself is OK—encouraged, even.
Jo: The idea for the podcast came about because I was so obsessed with listening to black women on other podcasts. I was inspired by the vulnerability that other black women displayed on their own shows, and wanted to do the same.
Lo: It’s through authenticity that people see themselves. That’s what I hope we accomplish in this podcast: authenticity that other women of color can relate to.
Jo: The connection I felt to these women because of their willingness to be vulnerable on air allowed me to feel more comfortable with myself. I wanted to explore that process of becoming comfortable with who I am on our show, because I know how much I benefit from hearing other black women talk about their own journeys. And it’s really paid off. The most rewarding part of the show so far has been listeners telling us how they relate to the content, and how excited they are to hear us talk about different issues they resonate with.
Mo: In what ways do you do the work of reframing vulnerability? I’ve spent a lot of time over the past five years unlearning what we are taught in the media and through societal standards—I would love to hear your take on this type of resistance.
Jo: I’m obsessed with this idea of ‘radical vulnerability’ for women of color—this idea that being who you are is in itself an act of resistance. Because we move through our daily lives with so many layers of oppression coloring our every experience, we learn different defense mechanisms just to make it through each day unbothered and unharmed. We constantly have this responsibility to be aware of how other people see us, and adjust our actions accordingly so we can be respected and taken seriously as human beings. It’s frustrating, it’s exhausting and it’s really unfair.
Lo: While we create an outline for each podcast, most of what we give our audience is unscripted. We let the conversation guide us. It’s this kind of cathartic girl talk that unites and empowers us. We want to show that this kind of vulnerability is OK, and that it’s ultimately what brings us closer together.
Jo: Yes, and in that way, I’ve really started to value the time I spend with other women of color in spaces where we’re allowed to let the guard down, and those friendships have been transformative. They’ve brought me closer to myself and allowed me to be more comfortable with who I am.
Mo: How has your own journey with vulnerability and authenticity changed?
Lo: It’s always evolving—I struggle being 100% or even 90% vulnerable. It’s tough! Before the podcast, I only showed select parts of my life into the public sphere. Now a ton of strangers listen to me every other week. I think through these recordings, I’ve learned to let that fear go, knowing it is OK to be insecure or confused. Letting go of ‘perfect’ and prioritizing being real.
Jo: To me, vulnerability means sharing my personal version of reality without fear of alienation because of it. I talk about this all the time on the podcast, but I grew up in really white spaces, which meant I was always afraid to let too much of my blackness show. I spent a lot of time trying to hide my blackness, fit in with everyone around me, and blend in as best as I could. I was embarrassed by everything that made me different and rejected black culture because of it—I was afraid people would make fun of me if I openly valued things that were ‘too black.’ So something that feels really vulnerable for me even now, is open, bold reclamation of my identity as a black woman. I feel really proud to be black and to belong to blackness, and this is the first time in my life I’m able to say that and mean it. It’s the first time in my life I’ve approached blackness with appreciation and curiosity instead of fear. I understand that I have a place in blackness that doesn’t have to look the way it’s portrayed on TV.
Mo: What are examples that strongly speak to the aggression and portrayal of the ‘angry black woman?’ As black women we are expected to be strong, but not too assertive—gentle, but not too much of a pushover. Where do we strike balance, if it exists? Or should we not be concerned with that at all?
Lo: I think a most recent example that comes to mind is Jemele Hill. Thinking about her situation infuriates me to no end. This woman, responding to news, something that was required for her to do her job authentically and well, was chastised for having the audacity to be black with opinions. In this time, you CANNOT talk about the NFL without talking about the protests that are going on within it. Black athletes and allies are on TV every Sunday kneeling on the ground in front of the nation. Seeing how she’s been treated by her employers and by the president is so disappointing. Suspending her from her job or having the President of the United States tweeting at her is excessive, unnecessary and absolutely a play into the ‘angry black woman’ narrative.
Jo: I was in a coffee shop recently, and there was a woman talking loudly on the phone in a room full of people. It was pretty rude and everyone was looking around like ‘Is she serious?,’ but no-one said anything until a black woman asked her to keep it down. An awkward silence followed, then the black woman came over to me and asked, ‘That was reasonable, right?’ I affirmed that it was completely reasonable and we had a mutual black girl moment and then carried on with our work. I thought about it a lot afterwards, how she sought validation from me (the only other person of color in the room) because she must have felt super aware of being labeled the ‘angry black woman’ by everyone else. That’s the thing about the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype: it follows you wherever you go, and we’re forced to be aware of it in even the most mundane interactions with others.
Mo: How does your online/podcast persona differ from your public and 9—5 persona?
Lo: I’m trying to minimize the difference between those two Lauren’s. At work, it’s important to feel supported as my full self. Companies have to learn that people do their best work when they feel comfortable, when they’re able to exercise the full extent of their creativity and use their experiences to give thoughtful and vibrant input.
Jo: My 9—5 persona (like most people of color I would imagine) is steeped in all of those little defense mechanisms. I think if I had to sum it up, my public/9—5 persona is a version of me where I intentionally make myself smaller. I’m hyper aware of how I’m being perceived, so I revert back to staying quiet, being agreeable, etc. On the podcast (and in my personal relationships) I feel way more freedom to say what I’m thinking, make jokes, and just be who I am.
Mo: What books/essays inspired you to start this podcast and which would you recommend to women in search of their own voice?
Jo: Bad Feminist, Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, Tiny Beautiful Things and Alex Elle’s poetry were all really big inspirations for me. Bad Feminist was the first work I ever consumed on criticizing pop culture that I actually enjoyed—I had never read pop culture criticism from the perspective of a black woman before. It was smart, funny and interesting, and made me realize I was interested in doing that kind of work myself.
Lo: My inspiration was not so much a specific book, but the experience I’ve had with books growing up. In my house, reading books was a sport, and I credit that to be the reason I am so empathetic to other people’s experiences. One of my new favorites, Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing is this beautiful ode to black women and black people. Naked was also a great book that we read. It’s a collection of essays, but through these women’s stories, I was able to figure out what I love, what I struggle with and how I see myself.
Jo: Tiny Beautiful Things is one of the most raw and authentic works I’ve read to date. I was really inspired by the way that Cheryl Strayed intertwined her own life experiences with those of her readers. It was the first work I read where I saw someone share their life’s messiest stories and really own them. Alex Elle does the same thing in her poetry, and encourages people (black women in particular) to go on their own journeys of self discovery.
Mo: What can viewers expect to hear in seasons to come?
Lo: Hopefully guests that inspire us, our growth as podcasters and women, and of course, more raps by yours truly. Screams into the interwebs ISSA RAE, please hang out with us!
Jo: Yeah, Issa Rae. If you’re out there we heart you. We’re excited to start doing interviews on this upcoming season, and talk to some of the women who inspire us. You can also expect live shows, more banter, and a plethora of corny jokes.
Mo: What has been the largest defining moment thus far?
Lo: I’ve had so many people text me out of the blue to let me know how inspired they were by an episode. Hearing that there are moments where people laugh out loud, or relate deeply to one of our anecdotes is it the greatest thing we can possibly hear. We want to highlight our experiences as black women, hoping that it shows other black girls that they’re not alone, and that we love and hear them. Hearing that we’re doing that successfully is incomparable.