To CaShawn Thompson, the negative tweets, stories and articles about black women and girls kept coming.
The nasty comments about Serena Williams’ body as she dominated Maria Sharapova in the Summer Olympics and won the singles gold medal. Articles based on census data declaring a “marriage crisis” among black women. The controversial, and later retracted, Psychology Today article from a London School of Economics researcher who concluded that black women were the least attractive of all races.
Thompson was about to turn 40, grown enough to give advice to her own teen-aged daughter about not letting the world define her as a young black woman. Yet, there was a tender spot inside her that was wounded by the barrage.
When Thompson read fairy tales and legends as a child, she always imagined the princesses and heroines looked like her. And they always won. So Thompson picked up her phone and tweeted out that regardless of what the mainstream world was saying “#BlackGirlsAreMagic.” That hashtag took off and became #BlackGirlMagic.
If the rest of the world would not celebrate the achievements of black women, then the hashtag would stand as a marker. It became a rallying cry uttered by powerful black women from Michelle Obama to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
But power can be a relative thing. When Thompson, who lives in Washington, D.C., thought of the power of black women, her mother, grandmother, aunts and teachers came to mind.
“They took care of everybody, they cooked the food, watched the kids. My aunt, she would come home from the disco and teach us dances. I saw it all as magic,” Thompson said.
It has been five years since that first tweet. And while the words have found their way onto T-shirts, into speeches and videos, and been the source of inspiration, they have also met with pushback from both black and non-black women. To the non-black women who’ve said they feel excluded, if not affronted, Thompson is clear: “I’m not their mule. If they feel left out, then they can do it. I advocate for black women and girls.”
More bothersome to Thompson are the posts she gets from black women who say they don’t feel their lives are extraordinary enough to measure up to the phrase now used by some of the most influential black women in the nation. To them she says this: “I had my children early. I work in childcare part time and I’m going to community college in the evening. I’m a hood girl and hood girls like me are where creativity is born a lot of times. So when Ava DuVernay or Janelle Monae or Michelle Obama use it, you can feel left out if it’s not up to their standard, but this is a movement for all black women. Disabled, trans, old, young, the CVS employee of the Month. We don’t all have to have the same political identity, but we all have to be working toward something good.”
A lesson she learned growing up in a majority-black city, neighborhood and schools laces those three words together.
“I’ve always been affirmed. I was told I was smart, pretty and capable my whole life,” Thompson said. “I know a lot of black women did not hear that, so Black Girl Magic is an embrace.”
Here are 10 powerful, accomplished Atlanta women for whom the hashtag fits.
— Rosalind Bentley
Aisha Johnson is career development coordinator for the Atlanta branch of the International Rescue Committee, where she helps refugees and immigrants rebuild their careers in Georgia.
She credits her parents for instilling in her a delight for helping others.
“They were believers in community service. They were believers in connecting with other people,” says Johnson.
Before settling in Georgia, she spent more than two years working in Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa, while a member of the Peace Corps. She’s also traveled to Ghana, Haiti, Morocco, Benin, Mali and Niger. Johnson’s goal is to live on every continent and build positive relationships with people around the world.
The idea of hosting red carpets came to Dai Arceneaux from an impromptu interview with her mother, using a water bottle as a microphone. Since then, Dai has interviewed Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Storm Reid, Keri Hilson, Jermaine Dupri and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, among others. “I like to get different people’s opinions and different points of view,” says Dai. After writing her first book, “My Tutu,” when she was 5, Dai started “Reading is Lit,” a tour that promotes youth reading. “I go around to different schools in different states just trying to promote youth authors and (reading),” says Dai.
Dai does not spare any opportunity to promote others in her budding career. Her quarterly magazine, “Dai Time,” features youth who are doing positive things in their community.
“My whole goal with the magazine is to inspire kids to follow their dreams,” she says.
In addition to having a talk show, Dai’s goals include being a heart and kidney transplant surgeon. “I like science,” says Dai. “I like to try new things.”
Whichever road she decides to take, Dai knows that her mother, one of her inspirations, will be rooting for her. “My mom is just always there to uplift me when I am down.”
Joy Harden Bradford is a licensed psychologist whose mission is to promote mental wellness for African-American women and girls.
Talking about mental health in the African-American community has progressed, but there is still a long way to go, says Bradford.
“People still think they you have to be ‘crazy’ to see a therapist,” she says.
Her website, therapyforblackgirls.com, gives visitors an opportunity to read about mental health and offers helpful starter advice. “I wanted to make sure that mental health felt relevant and accessible to people.” It also includes a list of mental health professionals from across the country.
An award-winning organist and pianist who has taught music at Spelman College and Morehouse College for more than 50 years, Joyce Johnson was a musical prodigy who grew up surrounded by music in her Kentucky home. Her mother taught music, her father played the trumpet, and Johnson played her first concert at age 11.
She holds a doctorate in music in piano from Northwestern University.
While Martin Luther King Jr. lay in state at Spelman College, Johnson was asked to provide background music as mourners viewed his body. She performed throughout the day and night. With her back to the visitors, Johnson didn’t see any of the dignitaries pay their respects.
“I had to think about what I would play next, what would be appropriate,” says Johnson. “Also I probably, at that time, was dealing with some amount of grief.”
Executive director of the Georgia Health Information Network and CEO of eHealth Services group, Denise Hines is a first-generation Jamaican-American who grew up in a family of health care providers.
She always knew she wanted to be involved in the profession some day. While helping take care of her terminally ill sister, she saw a need for technology to be more integrated in Georgia’s health care system, so she founded eHealth Services Group in 2011.
“We work with health care providers to help them adopt technology,” says Hines.
In 2017, she was recognized as Woman of the Year in Technology-Small Enterprise by Women in Technology. Named the 2017-2018 Chair of the North America board of Health Information and Management System Society, Hines is the first African-American woman to hold the position.
After coming home to a ransacked house one day, Daphne Jordan decided to become a gun owner.
“Prior to getting the firearm, I wanted to be educated,” Jordan says.
She signed up for a firearm instructors class and was the only woman and person of color at the range.
She did not let her circumstances deter her from reaching her goal. “I realized if I didn’t know the proper way to use a firearm, there were other women out there that could benefit from the information.”
The CEO of Packing Pretty Firearms hopes to one day open a shooting range of her own in metro Atlanta.
During the 2008 presidential election, Janelle Jones voted Democrat. But a little research during her time at North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University made her realize she was not staying true to her ideals.
“I believe in small government. That is something that really stuck out to me, as well as personal responsibility. That’s how I was raised,” she says.
Today she is regional field director for the Republican Party of Georgia.
In 2006, MARTA Police Chief Wanda Dunham became the first woman and first African-American police chief with the nation’s ninth largest transit system.
After earning a criminal justice degree at Jacksonville State University, Dunham sought employment as a probation officer but was told her gender stood in the way.
“Today people would probably be suing over that statement,” says Dunham.
She was told to “try back next year.” Instead of waiting around, Dunham was hired by the MARTA police department.
That was not the first time she was discouraged from her aspirations. In high school, Dunham says a guidance counselor advised her to pick a trade, not a four-year education.
People like YOU, they don’t go to college. They learn a trade and they get married, she was told. That just made her determined to prove her counselor wrong. With hard work and determination, she did.
Sisters Kelley and Traci Wright started the pop-up bakery Two Dough Girls in 2015 from their home in Stockbridge. Their goal was to create cakes, cookies and other tasty foods that were also good for their clients.
“It doesn’t have that refined sugar in there, which causes so many health problems. No artificial dyes, no bleached flours,” says Kelley. “People don’t realize even though it might be in a little cookie, if you’re having that every day, it can have an effect on you.”
The treats also come wrapped in compostable packaging, making them environmentally friendly. In addition to building a brick and mortar shop with a food truck, the sisters dream of developing a community garden.
“We want to be infectious. We want to be a movement, not just another bakery,” says Traci.
ABOUT THE STORY
AJC photographer Alyssa Pointer was inspired to produce this portrait series when Keisha Lance Bottoms was elected mayor of Atlanta last year. “That day I was reminded of the impact that black women have in metro Atlanta,” she said. Pointer culled through social media and consulted with others to come up with these 10 exceptional women. “As an African-American identifying woman, I felt inspired every time I finished photographing each portrait,” Pointer said. “All these women are resilient, dedicated to their purpose in life and charming to be around. They are all exceptional in their own unique way and their accomplishments, whether big or small, should be celebrated.”
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Rosalind Bentley is an award-winning reporter who has worked at the AJC for 13 years but began her career on the frozen tundra at the Minneapolis StarTribune. Her coverage has ranged from allegations of police brutality to the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, to arts and culture. Though proficient in stories of 140 characters — @rozrbentley on Twitter — she’s a practitioner of long-form narratives and her work has recently been anthologized in the book “Best American Newspaper Narratives.” She was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist for race coverage during her time on the tundra.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Alyssa Pointer is a staff photojournalist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She graduated from Western Kentucky University and has worked as a visual storyteller in Wisconsin, Illinois and Kentucky. No matter her surroundings, she strives to create impactful images of the people and places within a community. She loves challenging her visual perspective with daily assignments and finds the most joy in working on long-term projects.