Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

by Krista White

“My responsibility as an artist is to work, to sing for my supper, to make art, beautiful and powerful, that adds and reveals; to beautify the mess of a messy world, to heal the sick and feed the helpless; to shout bravely from the rooftops and storm barricaded doors and voice the specificity of our historical moment.”

-Carrie Mae Weams

“I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”

-Zora Neale Hurston, “How it Feels to be Colored Me”

I adore black women. Partially for the narcissistic reason that I am a black woman, partially in defiance of the white male world that seeks to erase us. My mama is black, my grandmothers, cousins, and aunts, all black. The vast majority of the people I love most on this earth are black women. (Not to deny the wonderful black men in my life, like my dad, who loves all of me, without reservation.)

Most of all, I love to see black women making, creating, and reflected in art. In fact, my thesis in college was a solo performance on the representation of black femininity in the performing arts. Inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask,” my piece was essentially a theatrical collage. I incorporated everything from academic writings to Beyoncé choreography in my exploration of the different facets of black womanhood. It taught me about the complexity of my history, about the facades we use to protect ourselves,as well as the power we find in rebuilding shattered identities with our boundless creativity. The process of living in an academic space largely inhabited by brilliant black women taught me how much my melanin means to me.

I believe rhythm is omnipresent in black art. Playwright and personal hero, Suzan Lori Parks, muses on the influence of jazz on her writing in the essay “Elements of Style,” “Repetition and revision is an integral part of African and African-American literary and oral traditions.” What that means to me is that our art is a way of rewriting and reclaiming our history and ourselves.

I loved reading and dissecting Parks during my thesis research because her work is deeply political, very funny, and so in line with my own ideas about the performative aspects of black femininity. She became an almost mythic figure in my work; I used her words and imagined how she would move, naming my on-stage persona “Suze”. Naturally, I was thrilled when I met her at an event at the Public Theater in New York. I asked her whether I should be concerned that all of the characters I wrote felt like versions of me. She said not to worry, and that hers were too. Life. Affirming.

As a little girl, my skin didn’t feel like the blessing it does today. Growing up I was quieter, nerdier, and, well, blacker, than most of my peers. My shyness (probably, in hindsight, compounded by internalized racism) kept me on the fringe of my social world, I grew sadder and more anxious as puberty approached. What a painful thing for my parents, to see their little flower wilt despite all they’d sacrificed to see me happy, safe, and well-educated.

But my spirit did, currently does, and will continue to blossom. I coped with the help of my patient parents, my spirited baby sister, the support of my extended family, and the diverse network of friends I found in college. One through line of my growth has been in stories. From reading fantasy novels on a school night, to rolling in the grass for an outdoor Shakespeare performance, to writing these very words, the power of story and creation has been both healing and revelatory. I escaped myself while finding my identity. I’m a black, female artist, and I’m loving every minute of it.