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Permission to Occupy: Giving Our Sisters Grace to Be

Can you remember the first time you saw yourself in literature, art or film?

As a girl, I immersed myself in familiar but far off worlds through text — Omar Tyree’s Flyy Girl, Sister Soulja’s The Coldest Winter Ever, Toni Morrison’s Sula. The content was arguably far too advanced for a young girl, but pieces of myself were unveiled on the pages of these literary giants. As I read and continued to engage with the characters and the realities they introduced to me, what I knew about black women was challenged. My thoughts were pulled and stretched. My eyes opened to new ways of thinking, seeing, and being. There was a spirit on fire within me that was reawakened time and time again as I journeyed through new revelations of what it means to be a black woman. In all of this, it wasn’t until I saw these women embodied that I felt free to push back against the black woman I have been conditioned to be.

Conditioning is unavoidable. For better or worse, we are the sum of our ancestors and experiences. There are things planted in us waiting to bloom that must be pruned and watered as we see fit for our individual needs. I remember the first time I was given permission to be… as I am. Her name was Nadia and she was 16. I was five-years-old and I watched in awe of her skin that was black like mine, with huge bright eyes no one was waiting for her to grow into. She interacted with the world as if no one had ever told her she was pretty for a black girl. The only thing that made experiencing her better was knowing people thought I looked and acted like her. It was like having the drop on the young woman I could grow to be. Of course, Nadia wouldn’t be the last influencer in my life. There have been countless Nadias, black women giving me permission to fully occupy my body, to take up space, to engage internal and external worlds, unrepentant. However, for every Nadia there has come a subtly aggressive voice planting seeds of inferiority, angst and uncertainty. For the feminine black body is the most simultaneously revered and feared truth in the natural world. This truth makes the presence of Nadias in the feminine black community that much more significant. So, what does this mean?

It means black girl magic and existence has to be about more than checking off some ridiculous criteria for what makes black femininity divine. It means refusing to feed into harmful narratives such as the strong and angry black woman archetypes. The women who have watered me and brought me into a brave space where I believed I could also go and be and do were not waiting around trying to complete any checklists and did not require me to. The witches were witchy, ministers were ministering, teachers were teaching, and the artists were creating. They were being and in their being gave me permission to pursue those parts of me -- the witch, the minister, the teacher, the artist -- and even as I have found myself to be more of a witchy minister who loves art and silence than a teacher or anything else I still carry gratitude within the depths of me for the Nadias who embodied who they were so well it made me want to discover whether or not those parts of them were a part of me, too.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? We water each other first by being unafraid to be ourselves, to pursue our callings, to climb our mountains, to knock down giants. This is how we support, align and tend to our collective tribe. When we show up to the table and blatantly refuse to succumb to a performative way of interacting, we tell the other feminine black bodies in that and similar spaces it’s okay to unfold. With all we are dealt in this life as black feminine beings, permission to occupy and unfold is our rest, our sacred space, and our church.

Our challenge as awakened women is to be church for the black women assigned to us. Whether that be at work, in community or in passing — as we have been given permission to be as we are, we must extend the same measure of grace with less conditions and more radical, relentless love.

Natalia holds a Bachelor of Science in Public Relations from Georgia Southern University and a Master of Divinity, Global Christianity and Urban Development from the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University. Natalia continues her studies focusing primarily on creative arts as a response to trauma in marginalized communities. She has vast experience in asset-based development, reform and reentry, and next generation programming in domestic and international communities. Natalia is a committed advocate and passionate speaker who believes the magic is in perfect playlists, watering our tribes and questioning everything.

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