In her book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, Professor Melissa Harris-Perry discussed a psychological study that involved placing research subjects in a crooked room and observing their responses. When subjects were placed in a crooked room, they were asked to align themselves vertically while also sitting in a crooked chair. The researchers found that some of the subjects would align themselves with the crooked room despite being tilted as much as 35 degrees. For these subjects, they were perfectly straight. For others, the crooked images and crooked chairs were ignored and they got themselves almost upright. Harris-Perry uses this study to explore the difficulties black women face within white spaces. In the crooked room of a white-dominated society, black women are exposed to warped images of gender and racial stereotypes. Some black women will tilt and bend to fit these warped images while trying to stand upright in the crooked room. Some of the prime racial and gender stereotypes Harris-Perry details are Jezebel, the black woman who is a sexual predator; the mammy, an older black woman ready to be the caretaker of white children at the expense of her own black children; and Sapphire, the angry black woman whom a black man will not even accept.
So how does a black woman combat the crooked room, the constant gender and racial stereotypes, and the non-stop noise of what a black woman should and should not be? If you were thinking “let us destroy the whole racial and gender system and start over in a new social order,” then yes I was also thinking the same thing. Or maybe you were not thinking that. Whatever your answer might be, it is clear that these stereotypes of black women are very much ingrained in the fabric of our society and will not be expunged so easily. One of the best ways to combat stereotypes and stereotypical images is by juxtaposing them with their complete opposite.
This is the goal of The Beautiful Project. The mission of this North Carolina-based organization is “to build voice and power for Black women and girls to contribute to conversations that too often happen about them, without them.” The Beautiful Project utilizes photography, writing, and self-care to “advance the representational justice and wellness of Black women and girls.” Jamaica Gilmer, founder and director of The Beautiful Project, created the organization in 2004. Since then, the organization has grown to support numerous black women and girls to create images for black women by black women.
The Beautiful Project works to destroy the crooked room by allowing African American girls and women to create a room for themselves. The workshops and projects offer up explorations of identity, experiences, ideas, hopes, and dreams that most black women do not have the time and luxury to explore on their own. When given the opportunity, African American girls and women can dig deeper to understand themselves as individuals who are more than the stereotypes they often see.
One of the greatest aspects of this organization is its willingness to allow for the collective while still honoring the individual. By no means are black people one entity with the same thoughts, ideas, and feelings, but we can acknowledge the fact that many black people have a shared experience. This is why one of the methodologies of The Beautiful Project is sisterhood. Sisterhood encourages engagement “in consciousness-raising and intentional care practices that re-articulate Black women and girls as beautiful, esteemed and worthy of care.” The Beautiful Project utilizes their idea of sisterhood in one of their online series titled Sisterhood Storytelling Series. This series works to promote the idea of black women as unified and kindred “despite negative portrayals of relationships between Black women in popular culture and entertainment.” Through the series, black women are given a platform to tell their stories of sisterhood. African American women can submit a story under five sisterhoods—sisterhood of joy, sisterhood of suffering, sisterhood of keeping, sisterhood of acceptance, and sisterhood of sharpening—through three different media forms: writing, audio, and video.
Their movement continues to grow. From December 6, 2019 to February 24, 2020 Pens, Lens & Soul: The Story of The Beautiful Project was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition explored the story and work of The Beautiful Project. With over a decade of work completed by African American girls and women, Pens, Lens & Soul shows how The Beautiful Project has combated the crooked room by allowing black girls and women to discover the strength, courage, and beauty within themselves.