Dear Black Designer,
I wish someone told me the peril of not knowing myself earlier. It’s exhausting to be overly compromising in an effort to make everyone around you feel safe. But this exhaustion led me on a quest to find my identity outside of others’ interpretation of my own motives. In the journey to find myself, I’ve found my ancestors. Now, I’m less concerned about offending and have found it more inevitable to share their stories. You’re going to be in spaces that reinforce a message that you don’t belong. In those moments, I hope you and I both can trade the path of least resistance for the one of greatest glory.
In art school, there were dueling identities inside of me. My core friend group was made up of Black neo-soul poets and activists, yet my art school friends were mostly white philosophers and makers. I was growing more into my black identity. The prophets in my ear were Common, Erykah Badu, Lupe, Floetry, Black Star, The Old Kanye, MF Doom, Goapele, and this new up and coming artist named K.Dot (a.k.a Kendrick Lamar). I would be crate digging for deep J Dilla cuts and dissecting every line of Blu & Exile’s “Below the Heavens” while covered in paint and steeped in western contemporary art colloquiums. But the more I grew into my Black identity, the more adverse feedback I received at art school—everything from uncharacteristically harsh crit sessions to nooses and pictures of Hitler hung in my studio. I would hear them say “Don’t explore Black art, just make ‘art’.” For a long time, I allowed people to reshape my story and convince me that it was normal, lighthearted feedback—just ‘jokes.’ It’s important to pause in these moments, take control of the narrative, and access all the abundance, power, and grace we find in our ancestry and heritage. I appeal to you to find your community and drink from the well of freedom to reenter the fray. The path of greatest glory requires you to tread through valleys of gaslighting and questioning your self-worth.
Similar to my college experience, I felt like the more I brought my blackness into work, the more it would be shamed. Now, it wasn’t just threats to my physical body, but the fear of closing off career opportunities or being labeled as an ‘unsafe negro’. Because of this trauma, I would keep asking myself in the back of my head: Will this harm future job opportunities? Can I trust you? Can I trust you with this beauty? When I was with Black people, I felt fluent and free. But in other spaces, I was timid and pious. Even when I wore a dress shirt to work, I was still confused for the garbage man or handyman. Perhaps like me you had to give multiple dissertations to different groups of white people on why (insert name of unarmed black person) should not have been murdered by a police officer having a bad day. It was exhausting, and it still is. But I’ve learned to name things and build rituals to not feel the obligation to be a black apologist.
My journey took me from living separate lives to finding intentional ways to harmonize them. I’ve grown to believe that the stress in my mind negatively impacts my physical body’s wellbeing. For your own wellness, it’s important to live as a liberated person. Your journey will look different, but I encourage you to insist and resist. To stay on the path, you need people in your life (in-person or through a recording) to remind you that your truest self possesses all you need to overcome any circumstance. Here’s what that journey has looked like for me:
Your mind is the place you go to to process information, get inspired, and make sense of the world. What I was given to practice design is so scarce. It’s embarrassing that nowhere in my formalized education were there serious conversations about the importance of Black historical figures and their shaping of design culture. In my work life I heralded mostly white authors and white blogs. Celebrating Dieter Rams because I didn’t know Tom Burrell or Emmett McBain existed. I began to slowly uncover my family tree. Looking at the artists who inspired me, I would look at who inspired them and who inspired them. I learned how many of the Black designers went through the same struggles and were whispering through their works to hold on just one more day.
I’m learning to bring more of myself, more of my ancestry from a place of honor, not shame. I tried cataloguing every book I'd ever read, and realized there were no Black women on that list. Nearly every book I owned was written by a white person or from a perspective of whiteness. I made a radical solemn vow to never read a book written by a white person ever again. Not from a place of hate, but from a place of deep love of self and my people. In the works of Isabel Wilkerson, I found a translator of the things I knew were true but lacked the words for; I explored the glory of Black art in the work of Kimberly Drew. I found the comfort of being held and corrected in the works of Toni Morrison, the freedom to see Black people in all their complexity in a not-too-unfamiliar fantasy world of Tomi Adeyemi, the ability to rethink the very concept of time with Rasheedah Phillips, a meditative embrace in the works of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, and a sense of ownership to author my own story in the mandate of Ta-nehisi Coates.
In my journey towards understanding my sources, it felt unnatural not to share them. It’s like learning a new language. It’s difficult to contain it. These creatives were giving language and visuals to my lived experience that left me in a state of fulfillment. My soul felt full. Though, this fullness would overflow mostly in my safe places. I was always struggling to feel as comfortable as everyone else is when they share what inspires them.
Gradually I grew to believe that as I climbed, I needed to lift. As in, hoarding all this beauty was unjust. People needed to be set free from the oppressive nature of seeing one culture as ultimate. It’s a terrifying and sad fate for those who breathe the air of white supremacy. So many of us have been inoculated with the idea that history and culture are centered on and filtered through whiteness that we lack the ability to celebrate the past and envision an emancipated future. The uninhibited person reaches a state of flow that leads to truer and more equitable design work. I want to see you that free. Free to free people. The epitaph of the person who chooses the path of greatest glory will read “Liberator”.
At a recent work related event, the question was asked “how often do you think about your race at work?”. Others went first and expressed an all too familiar refrain. It’s tiring. Being the only Black person in a meeting (or a Zoom call) can wear you out. Without diminishing that feeling whatsoever, I also acknowledge that I wear my blackness as a point of pride. Being Black inspires me, and I bring as much of the drumbeat of my ancestors as I can in any moment. Sometimes it’s a mellow tap and sometimes it’s a clanging cymbal. But again, it’s always love. This is the way. This is the path. There’s an African proverb that says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Dear designer, I invite you to bring your ancestors with you and I guarantee you will fear no person.
Dear Designer is a collection of open letters from our designers to fellow creatives, reflecting on the questions, advice, and inspiration that shape their practice.
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