How Ernestine Johnson Made Me Check Myself With Her Poem “The Average Black Girl”

Who exactly are we referring to when we say “the average Black girl”? A term so widely used and very manipulative. I have asked myself this question plenty of times before. But never before did I have to walk to the nearest mirror I could find and demand I evaluate where I stood on the matter after having watched Ernestine Johnson’s performed her shattering spoken word piece “The Average Black Girl.” She introduced her poem on an episode of the reboot and last season of late night’s The Arsenio Hall Show.

As it was recommended I hear Johnson’s poem (because it is astute), I thought I knew what it’ll be all about and more arrogantly, how I would feel. From the start, Johnson went right in, at expressing her agitation at the kind of micro-aggressive comments she’s had to endure for most of her life, such as: “‘I remember my ex’s mother telling me. I didn’t know how to react to you because he brought home a Black girl, but I like you because you talk so White’. When did me talking right equate to me talking White?” I pursed my lips and thought “girl, you already know.” I chuckled to myself that if rest of the world knew how whack it was to feel like a science project because you were Black and educated, and didn’t speak as if your vocabulary was supposed to be limited. Already a minute in, I felt comfortable and smug.

While listening to the perpetuation of Black-girl on Black-girl comparison, my sista-girl smile morphed into a worried tight line. Soon I became aware of the type of behavior Johnson was speaking of, because I recognized it from none other than the self-proclaimed pro-feminist in the room that was myself:

“See luckily for me, I don’t fall into that category. I’m not the average Black girl because I speak with so much class. And I don’t have too much but just enough ass and not too much but just enough pizzazz. You know just a little bit of attitude because you don’t want to come across as one of those average Black girls that come across as rude. You know, popping their gum and shaking their neck, because those Black girls they get like no respect.

Something about the those words made the edge of my bed (where I was watching this brilliant poem) suddenly become a flaming hot seat. Through the computer screen, I was confronted that from time to time, I had been one of those people that either pitted Black women against each other or participated in the criticizing (aka “Yeah, she’s ‘ghetto.’”) I felt ashamed. Awful. I was better than that. And not because I believed I was better than anyone else, or any other Black women not like me, but because I knew that my participation didn’t come out of genuine co-signing but out of plain hurt.

The pride I had in being educated, with no kids, cultured and raised in a decent home, such accomplishments placed me in the unicorn club with White America but such attributes I had in the past as ammunition to separate myself from the type of Black girls we’ve all called ratchet, low-class, loud and unbecoming.

I was hurt that when I didn’t have a boyfriend, the “hot mess” or “low-class” girl did. Annoyed that when I didn’t get the callback for a job, the “ratchet” reality women of VH1 and Bravo were making too much bank. Confused that although I did my part and went to school, in a city like New York, Black men were intimidated by such everyday people achievements, or were off dating non-Black women exclusively. Hurt that when I did have a boyfriend I was made to feel guilty that I obtained more interest in being a renaissance woman than an indentured slave to his self-esteem, as he dreamt of the days he was with a simpler girl who only cared if he ate his breakfast, phone bill was paid and got his daily fix of oral sex. As a single girl, I was made to feel like a prude because I didn’t want to wear bodycons everyday and appear as sexually free (right off the bat) but that so-called “ghetto” chick always had her phone ringing. Hell, I was even hurt over the fact that if I admitted I was a fan of Lady Gaga or a rock tune, I was viewed as “less Black” or amusing at best (because when did I say I didn’t own all of Beyoncé’s albums?) All these trivial and first world “factors”, I was the opposite of what would consider the “average Black girl” or “girl” for that matter, and if they were all of these things that were deemed as “bad”, why was I left to feel I was inadequate? I never did quite fit the “mold.”

Ernestine Johnson

But I knew this then and I know this now that every representation of a Black girl, from the Ph.D. carrying boss lady to the urban model mainstay, should pass because we are who we are first and not our skin tone, ethnicity or nationality. How is one’s experience more valid than the other?

I began to cool off when Johnson went on to declare that the average Black she knew of was one that broke ceilings and couldn’t cared less if she was “different” or not.

made nineteen trips through the underground railroad to free the slaves. Sat on segregated buses, refused and paved new waves! See the average black girl that I know were Egyptian queens like Hatshepsut and Nitocris who were ruling dynasties and whole armies of men, excuse while I set fire to this poem because I am tired! Tired of the stereotypes Black girls have fallen into because of American mentality. Oh. But not half as tired as Ella Baker, Diane Nash, Septima Poinsette Clark, I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer, Daisy Bates, Anna Arnold Hedgemen and Dorothy Heights are far more tired than I am, but do you think the ones that say I’m not the average Black girl even give a damn? No. So pardon me if I can’t openly accept your compliment.”

I felt at ease again when Johnson further explained who we ought to think “the average Black girl” was because I also knew it wasn’t the girl who is #teamnatural or the one who wears a 22-inch weave. Like the poet, the Black women, the queens, I admired immensely were the only kind of “average” woman I wanted to be: groundbreaking and talented. The kind that makes an impact. Johnson was so correct on calling out the many that have lugged the insensitive term know but know every little of the beautiful accomplishments and diversity of Black women at all. Then get for when we are not not being able to sit still in the pre-shaped boxes they had set aside for us. With her history-laced passage, my soul collected itself and in the process I too forgive myself for past ignorances.

Though I could continue on with a rant that I’m certainly just tired as any Black woman, a woman of color, as any Afro-Latina woman of the bullshit theories I hear and read everyday, the biggest revelation I left because of Ernestine Johnson was to stand up with and for my fellow Black women. Since watching her on Arsenio Hall, I’ve truly felt less inclined to judge and I thank her for her exquisite poem that was celebratory, afflicted and informative all at once.

The public needs to hear her proclamation of “The Average Black Girl”. And I hope, on a personal level, that together, as women of color, we can unite whenever society, or even men, try to tear us down because if we are not our sister’s keeper, who will be?

One response to “How Ernestine Johnson Made Me Check Myself With Her Poem “The Average Black Girl””

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