On location at the film screening and panel discussion of “The Souls of Black Girls”, BB&W had the opportunity to speak with Panel member, the lovely Demetria Irwin, former Managing Editor of MadameNoire.com and mentor at Girls Write Now. We discussed role models, media images, family, and of course, writing. Its time for black women to start telling our own stories and defining our sexuality. Ms. Irwin is definitely one of the leaders to take up that great task!
ED: Did you have a role model or mentor in your life that challenged you or led to your writing?
DI: I wouldn’t say a mentor encouraged me to go into writing. I was making the transition from working as an urban planner and writing on the side. It was just myself. I was working crazy hours and I enjoyed writing. I was like at some point, I need to take a leap of faith and really try to do this. I don’t want to be 50 years old and be like I never even tried to write a novel. I could have been Toni Morrison or something. I had a very supportive partner at the time. So, I quit my job, started freelancing, cold-pitched people, and was picked up by people I was freelancing for two months. I took a staff job and gained a lot of experience, and made contacts that I still use today. One of those people actually turned out to be a cousin, just find that out. So, you never know how things happen for a reason. That whole saying is true.
ED: Back to finding your cousin. I read that you were a genealogy junkee. Where does that stem from?
DI: That’s how I found him. I was all up and through ancestry.com and I found living relatives from all around the country. So when I moved here 8 years ago, I didn’t have any family here. It was just my cat, and me I thought. But with genealogy, I actually have about 30 relatives in this area. I’m actually going to spend Thanksgiving with them this week. And I met a lot of this earlier this year at the Fourth of July. So it’s super exciting.
ED: What has been your experience as a black female writer? Females already have a glass ceiling in journalism, have you met any challenges?
DI: Probably just as a female writer in general. People not taking you seriously, especially if you do entertainment, my goodness. They may assume that you landed an interview because so and so likes you or because the interviewee is being a little extra because that is what he expects: groupie chicks. But as a black female writer, just trying to be very conscious of the image you put out there. That’s kind of one of the reasons I like being a freelancer now. Because I can work for a lot of different places and not feel completely caged in by a particular brand or a particular advertiser. If I don’t want to write about something, I can find someone else or write on my own blog, but I’m very, very conscious. I’m conscious about putting things out there that I won’t be embarrassed by. I have 11 nieces and nephews and I want to write things they would not be embarrassed reading.
ED: I’ve heard of this new idea of bringing black boys into dialogue about engaging black feminism and encouraging them to treat black females in a positive manner. Do you know about that or any programs?
DI: I don’t know of anything formal, but I do feel that it is incredibly important. Because if these little black boys are being indoctrinated into this exotic or white women only idea, that becomes their standard of beauty. I had a friend say at a party once, “I’m gonna take a white girl home tonight.” I think he forgets sometimes that I’m a woman. But he thought I couldn’t say nothing. No. I’ve dated everyone in and under the rainbow, but that is not my standard of beauty. I’m not going to go to a party and say, “I’m going to take a white boy home tonight.”
ED: So you know, BB&W is an interracial, intercultural dating blog. What do you think about teaching young females of color that they have that option would create a more positive image of themselves in their minds?
DI: I think that is a mentality that goes both ways. Where a lot of black women feel if a white man does approach them, it’s a jungle fever type motive and they’re not comfortable with that. And the white man is not approaching them because he thinks he doesn’t have swag and that’s what they know about black women. Black women love swag. They want they broad-shouldered, knucklehead, two chains mentality. And both of them are really confused. So it ends up with nobody talking to each other and they might have 10,000 things in common. Race doesn’t happen to be one of them, but they never know because they never make that initial point of contact. It really falls on both sides to open your mind.
ED: How would you encourage mothers or black females to mentor young black children to pursue their dreams in the Michelle Obama generation?
DI: You know I have 11 nieces and nephews and I have an 18-year-old mentee. So I have a lot of young people in my life. And a lot of times kids will tell the non-parent adults in their life, things they are not telling their parents. Sometimes serious stuff. Sometimes not so serious stuff. But one thing I have learned is not to be the secret keeper. If something is major, you need to let the parent know.
But for some of my other cousins and nieces, who see these positive images like Michelle Obama, there is a huge disconnect for them because that is what they do not know. Because they grew up in the same type of neighborhoods that I grew up in. So its just, you know, the mom who has the 3 or 4 kids by 3 or 4 different people and is just getting by. Like they just don’t understand that. They feel like people like Michelle Obama, although they know she exist, like they don’t exist. Like there is something special about that. So I always try to impart to them, that literally I grew up 5 minutes from where some of my nieces and nephew grew up. “I know where you’ve been, son. I know where you’re at. There is nothing special about me in that sense. I know the same thugs, hoodrats, prostitutes, like all the same characters you have in your life, I’ve had in mine. But nothing was given to me in that way. I just took a different path and you can too. Yes, you’re special in your own way, but its not like magic. But you can do this. You know, its not unattainable.
ED: What is something that you know now that you wish you could tell yourself back then? If you could go back, what would you tell your younger self?
DI: Not to be so concerned about the opinions of my peers. It’s really almost impossible to admit to that. You know a lot of these experiences that these women discuss in the film, I didn’t experience that. I never experienced colorism because I was just brown. I was always a beanpole. I always had long hair. I had different body issues. I had a friend who had like “the body” since she was 10. Here I am this beanpole (those were my issues) and I want that! I was always concerned with what some boy said or what so and so said about my shoes. But its like in 10 years, I’m not even going to know these people once we graduate. They will have zero impact on my life at all. And to let people like that influence you for years (‘cause that stuff sticks with you) when people say things, when you’re at a vulnerable 12 to 13 year old age. I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and everybody’s grandma’s red beans and rice, steak and potatoes trying to gain weight. I could have had a heart attack with all that cholesterol. So I wish I had known then: Don’t worry about it. Be you. Be smart. These people might be applying for a job from you by the time you’re grown ups. I wish I had known that.
Thank you for taking a moment to speak with us Demetria! It was a pleasure meeting you.