The following is an ode to black girls who grew up in the ghetto. Black girls who stay in the beauty supply and seek refuge in the nail salon. Black girls who lay their edges with the utmost precision. Black girls who were carefree before it became an aesthetic. I write this to acknowledge you, to acknowledge us.
I was seven years old when I realized that I lived in the projects. I went to a school that had decaying ceilings with mould exposed on every surface. On the way home, I would pass multimillion dollar houses only to enter a building with pests and addicts circling the corridor. Most of my friends grew up in similar spaces with “ghetto” ass names that ended with ‘-anna’, ‘-aqua’ or ‘-isha’. By nature, we adapted familiar attitudes and behaviours. We would spend our days and nights on the block revealing family secrets and reciting Destiny’s Child lyrics whilst fighting over who was going to be Beyoncé or Kelly or who could rap a Lil’ Kim or Missy verse without screwing up. The sounds of our beads and bubbles bounced in a poetic harmony whenever we would play Double Dutch. They hung firmly onto our braids that touted intricate and complex designs.
Despite our low economic status, stretching a dollar was something we did best. We overcompensated in every aspect, especially when it came to self-expression and creativity. My mother’s long acrylic nails curled at the ends and were always decked in gems, charms and jewels with the flyest patterns. I would watch her get dressed every morning as she slid each gold ring onto her finger. I worshipped her gaudy beauty practices that included sliding gold caps onto her teeth mixed with the heavy usage of black gel to get her finger waves and baby hair just right. Bottles of Pink Lotion and Blue Magic resided beside her bamboo earrings that proudly showcased her name. I idolized the use of her bold lipstick choices and eyelashes that dancehall queens would envy. Sooner than later I adopted the essential stylings of the ghetto. I always stayed with some sparkly, dollar .99 lipgloss and a fine tooth comb to handle any hair that came out of place. My most prized possession? An airbrushed tee that bestowed my nickname, a faux Louie V purse (yes that rainbow coloured one) in addition to my extensive collection of Chinese slippers from the dollar store. My desire to show up and show out was fulfilled every time I left my house and onto the catwalk in the projects. I witnessed creativity and innovation at every stop as I admired the men and women who were their true, authentic selves without interruption. We didn’t have a lot but little did I know what we had was something much bigger — influence.
From the projects to the runway, I’ve witnessed the endless looks that have been created and/or influenced by black women in the ghetto being stripped down and sold to the highest bidder in an effort to erase its origin. What was once billed as “ratchet”, has been widely appropriated by those who comfortably watch from the sidelines and regurgitated into some watered down, Instagram-baddie aesthetic. Nameplate jewelry, nail art and colourful, synthetic wigs has cemented itself into pop culture without our identities being portrayed positively and certainly without reparations. A quick YouTube search reveals pages upon pages of women offering tutorials on how to achieve the following look in an effort to capitalize on the ghetto’s livelihood. Cheap clothing, risqué poses (most notably the hood squat) and an increased use of slang is often used to appeal to viewers and is almost always met with praise while black girls who reside in the ghetto are often met with resistance from the very women who emulate them. In so many words, the ghetto has been repackaged and curated to appeal to the masses whilst replacing black femmes and dark skinned women with those who look racially ambiguous.
Often times, the show-stopping hairstyles and outfits that are celebrated in the hood are seen as violations in the eyes of principals, employers and likeminded individuals who have suspended or isolated black girls for rightfully expressing themselves. On the flip side, it is seen as editorial or high fashion and renamed something more palatable when women from privileged backgrounds get a hold of them. “Boxer braids”, “mini buns” or rather “Bo Derek inspired cornrows”—as the leader of the ‘Kultural (no error) Appropriation Brigade’ calls it—are purposely being mislabelled to diminish the contributions of black women. Various blogs like H*****e and others are complicit when it comes to celebrating women for their “streetwear” inspired #lewks ripped from black women in the ghetto. These women are applauded immensely on social media for “breaking boundaries” when wearing oversized tees/hoodies, or dresses complimented with some Jordan’s but the hood done did that. Where’s the street style features on us? Where are the collaborations? The endorsements?
This is successfully illustrated throughout the phrase “soft ghetto” that has gained notoriety on Tumblr, which actively removes women who pioneered ghetto fabulous creations/trends. The individuals who engage in this community often have the words, “ratchet” or “ghetto” in their usernames and safely navigate in a space they redesigned to suit their appropriated agenda. The following is used as a way to consume and participate in the hood without actively belonging to it.
In other words: everybody wanna take from the hood but nobody wanna be a hood rat.
The ghetto has been commodified for the viewing pleasure of individuals who mock, laugh then copy the hood ‘aesthetic’ without a single contribution back to the people or places that have inspired them. The hood’s influence is displayed in various fashion collections and Instagram profiles that resemble the women who are consistently labelled unkempt and uncouth. Bubble coats, big hoop earrings, heavy monograms and diamonds in teeth’s are now a fashion statement for those who want to show how “urban” they are by channeling a black alter ego for views and likes. The recent manipulations and lines dedicated to “custom designing” luxury fashion labels in the form of head scarves, durags, bikinis, etc.? That’s not new to us. What was once looked at as tacky is now a staple for those who wanna be down. Privilege allows these women to remove themselves from the hood yet perform an appropriated identity all the while denying black women’s humanity and spewing anti-blackness in the process. In addition, performative blackness has allowed non-black women to succeed while women from the ghetto are vilified for our existence. To sum it up, brands and numerous individuals have successfully gentrified the ghetto and continue to ignore the geniuses within it by refusing to pay homage until being called out via social media. Even then, it still falls incredibly short.
Making the distinction and specifically centring black women who grew up in the projects is intentional. It is a way to acknowledge the innovators who broke the rules all the while defining themselves on their own terms. While black women as a whole share several experiences, black women who reside(d) in the ghetto have endured an egregious amount of respectability politics at the hands of black women and NBPOC who live(d) across the tracks. Often times, images of “carefree black women” and/or articles/threads displaying #BlackGirlMagic exclude those who live in the hood and portray a controlled narrative with an elitist undertone that fails to showcase the women who grew up on the block.
For that very reason, I wrote this for the girls who embody every single sentiment in LL Cool J’s “‘Round The Way Girl” to women who turn heads every time they step out. Girls who blast their music via their cellular devices on public transportation. Girls who run into the beauty supply with a headscarf on to get some pack hair for a quick weave. Girls who were carefree without flowers in their hair. Girls who would strut in bedazzled jeans and Baby Phat jackets in their prime. Girls who make cheap clothing from Rainbow or Urban Planet look top of the line. I wrote this for the girls who been slaying lace frontals and long 30″ weaves with Kool-aid dipped colours and the nails to match. This is an ode to the black girls in the hood, the original trendsetters.
“Ghetto is nothing but creativity that hasn’t been stolen yet.” — @JockinRonB
Fun Fact: My mama named me after watching the video for ‘Round The Way Girl’.
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Photograph by Keith Major.