I was 12 when my best friend at the time, a Jewish girl, noticed one commonality in all my drawings of women. I was a capable artist from my elementary school days right up until the end of high school. My artwork, which depicted everything from landscapes to animal sketches to clothing designs would often earn me the admiration of my classmates and teachers, but on this particular Fall day in my 7th grade art class, my friend would question my art in a way that no one ever had.
Enna looked through my painstaking hard work — 10+ pictures of the most fashionable ladies I drew using coloured pencils and water paints — looked up at me and asked, “Why don’t you draw any pictures of black women?”
In all the pictures I’d drawn, there wasn’t a single black woman depicted. When I first heard her question, I was shocked and stumped. I had no answer because it was the first time ever I realised I had drawn many beautiful women but none had ever had any darker complexion than “suntan”.
For almost a decade, I had been putting colored pencil to paper and up until then I’d never thought about drawing a woman of color. It simply never crossed my mind to. I lived and went to school in an ethnically mixed area, I attended an all black church every week, yet I somehow managed to only ever depict white people in my artwork. I interpret that experience as a window into my psyche at the time, revealing that I didn’t believe black women could be the sole subject of any piece of art. It’s like black women were invisible in my mind up until my friend made them visible by asking me such a pointed question.
My friend’s question challenged me so much that I made it my mission to draw my very first black woman ever. Apparently, I did an excellent job because it received accolades from my art teacher, and Enna thought it was rather good. She even noted that the woman I drew looked very much like my mom and my sister.
I was recently reminded of this disturbing episode in my life. My daughter is only a year and half, but I’ve made a point for her to “see” black women. I actively choose to buy her brown dolls and tell her how lovely her complexion is. I try to let her know that black women don’t always have to be in the background or be the side kick/supporting actress, but they can be the star. I hope that my simple acts of helping her to “see” will mean that she won’t ever be susceptible to the erasure of her own visibility as a black woman.
How do you relate to my experience of finally “seeing” black women? What are some things you think we can do to make ourselves “visible” to the next generation?