Amplifying the power in HER voice because today’s woman is #BeyondCapable

Amplifying the power in HER voice because today’s woman is #BeyondCapable
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Drawing a Line on Oppressive Beauty Standards with Red Lipstick

It all started when Austin-based photographer Leta Harrison documented a symposium by Kam Franklin at The Carver Museum in 2023. During the symposium, Franklin, an artist from Houston, was discussing resistance fashion and self-expression. 

Franklin also talked about her experiences of being told that Black girls don’t wear red lipstick. This inspired Harrison to create a photo series in a bid to undo the shame of daring to be bold imposed on Black women through the years.

“My personal journey with wearing red lipstick is that I had an ex-partner who would make fun of me quite often for wearing red lipstick and making me feel insecure for being a little bit more bright,” Harrison said.

For white women, wearing red lipstick is a symbol of confidence and defiance—a kind of war paint that traces its beginning to the Suffragettes movement in the 1920s. During that time, white women marched down the streets of New York to fight for their right to vote. 

However, Black women were not part of the fight for equal rights, according to Lisa B. Thompson, professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

“At that time, Black women were not included the way they should be in terms of having conversations about suffrage,” Thompson said. She added that Black women were not equal to white women. Domestic labor fell on Black women as white women fought for equal rights.

Since the suffrage, wearing red lipstick has become synonymous with strength for many women in privileged positions. But when a brown woman paints her lips red, the stigma of ill repute still tends to persist up to this day.

Harrison is pushing to break this sense of shame through her photo series called, “Black Girls Don’t Wear Red Lipstick.”

Harrison, 42, started dabbling in photography in 2017 when she was still living in Washington D.C. She made the move to Austin, Texas, in 2019 where her work quickly gained traction. Apart from taking compelling images, she also works as a project manager for the Active Urbanism Program with the Downtown Austin Alliance.

Harrison started working on her photo series by putting out an announcement on social media. She called on Black women who would be interested in participating in her project. She traveled all over Houston, Austin and D.C. to photograph 39 Black women donning various shades of red lipstick — all exuding grace and confidence in every portrait.

Patrons browse the portraits featured at the Black Girls Don’t Wear Red Lipstick exhibit held at the Austin Central Library.

Among her subjects is Sharon Mays, who is a chief of staff at the Austin City Council. 

“Red is my favorite color, so I spent years searching for the perfect shade of red lipstick and nail polish,” Mays said. “I used to wear red lipstick regularly, but I eventually stopped because it always seemed to draw so much attention, often negative.”

But after hearing about the Black Girls Don’t Wear Red Lipstick exhibit, Mays said the project resonated with her so much that she wore red lipstick to every City Council meeting for a whole month.

Thompson described the exhibit a “breath of fresh air,” adding that it is an amalgamation of all the work that other creatives have been doing to champion diversity in Black women’s bodies and modes of expression.

Harrison’s exhibit was initially featured at The Carver Museum in Austin, Texas, from April to July 2023. Harrison shared her most profound memory from this was of a little girl who created a scrapbook inspired by her exhibit.

“I thought it was pretty amazing to be able to have that kind of reach with such a young person,” Harrison recalled fondly.

The exhibit was well-received at The Carver Museum. Right now, it is gracing the halls of The Gallery at the Austin Public Library, where it will remain until April 21, 2024. 

Carmalita McKinnis-Williams, Austin Public Library equity inclusion manager, expressed her excitement on hosting the exhibit within their walls, especially since it opened during Black History Month back in February.

Exhibit co-curators Whitney Hamilton and Keyheira Keys from _OFCOLOR expressed the importance of this endeavor, especially to all Black women. In addition to defying oppressive beauty standards, Hamilton also wants to provide a space where people of color can be celebrated in every aspect of their life.

Austin based DJ Lauren Night provides music entertainment at the Black Girls Don’t Wear Red Lipstick Exhibition Reception at the Austin Central Library on Feb. 15, 2024.

“_OFCOLOR aims to amplify creatives of color in Austin,” Hamilton said. “There’s not a lot of us here, so we’re trying to create that space because where they don’t have to second guess themselves and put on a façade. This exhibit is a celebration of Black women, so hopefully feel that through Leta’s photos.”

But, as Keys stressed, this empowering exhibit also welcomes women in all shapes, sizes and yes, colors. 

“It’s called Black Girls Don’t Wear Red Lipstick but it’s supposed to speak to women,” Keys said, adding that it is also meant to inspire women to continue being bold in other choices that they make—may it be in their fashion sense or who they love.

Ultimately, Harrison just wants her exhibit to educate and help people realize that—a lot of times—Black women are not heard and are constantly told not to do many things. 

“I want people to understand that we can do whatever we want, especially when we have other women supporting us,” Harrison explained. “It is my hope that people be open to hearing our stories.”

Healing Through Words

To celebrate Black History Month, the Black Girls Don’t Wear Red Lipstick exhibit also hosted a spoken word event on February 24, 2024, which was facilitated by poets Christa Brown and Tonee B. Shelton. During the workshop, attendees were guided through harnessing the power of words to share their personal experiences relative to women empowerment and beauty activism.

Facilitator Tonee B. Shelton takes a photo with a participant during the poetry workshop at the Black Girls Don’t Wear Red Lipstick photo exhibit.

During the workshop, the facilitators and the participants discussed the messages they received about girls and women as they were growing up.

“A lot of the women stated that they were told that womanhood was about staying safe and living with a man choosing you at the forefront of your mind,” Shelton said. “We discussed and wrote and performed poetry about our nuanced relationship with red lipstick, and how it signified sex, or a lack of morality, or being ‘too grown’ too fast.’”

The workshop had a great turnout and Shelton shared that all the participants were pleased.

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