Two things that I really miss about South Carolina are the open roads and the 70 mph speed limits. It creates the perfect landscape for one of my favorite past-times: riding down the roads with my music as a soundtrack. During my time in South Carolina, I did anti-bias, diversity, & inclusion work as the only staff member of color in our division. The lessons that I learned during my time of anti-bias work in the South were incredible. However, as a young professional woman of color advocating for underrepresented students, I was not immune to bias & microaggression. In many respects, the world that my students inhabited and the struggles they faced was my world, too.
Janelle Monae’s project, Electric Lady, came out right before I started that work. However it didn’t mean much to me until I actually began.
Until I, as a Northern transplant, saw & experienced the ways in which women of color moved through academia in a Southern setting.
Until I needed something that would sustain me in the work while the rural landscape provided ample space for reflection and little space for socialization.
That “something” became Janelle Monae’s Electric Lady.
It is undeniable that the project “jams”. It’s one that you can dance to, clean to, and essentially “get your life” to. Yet under the jam is a fresh message of empowerment & uplift. In a Billboard interview, Monae unpacks her inspiration for the album, stating that it came from a series of paintings she did & was trying to make sense of. Throughout the process, she identified the figure she kept painting as The Electric Lady. Through these paintings and this album, Janelle Monae created, “a world where these electric ladies were realizing their super powers and doing self-realization into self-actualization and nurturing the community through their gifts and their unique perspectives on life.”
The Electric Lady, as described in the titled track, is a woman who,
“Whether in Savannah, K-Kansas or in Atlanta,
She’ll walk in any room have you raising up your antennas.
She can fly you straight to the moon or to the ghettos
Wearing tennis shoes or in flats or in stilettos
Illuminating all that she touches
Eye on the sparrow
A modern day Joan of a Arc or Mia Farrow
Classy, Sassy, put you in a razzle-dazzy
Her magnetic energy will have you coming home like Lassie
Saying “ooh shock it, break it, baby”
Electro, sofista, funky, -cated”
So, one evening as I was “shockin’ it” & “breakin’ it”, I decided that this work by Janelle Monae would become my strategy for empowerment and self-care. I decided that as long as I was doing the work, I would own my vitality, buzz, & worth as a professional woman of color. I would not wait for it to come externally. I was finally taking ownership of my inner Electric Lady. I hoped that by doing this, others would be encouraged to do the same.
Why claim this motif as a self-care strategy?
The Electric Lady is vital. The Electric Lady can transition through various environments. The Electric Lady has a keen sense of style politics, how she shows up in the world, & navigates through them creatively. The Electric Lady understands the power of oppositional gaze, is not afraid to look at the world around her, and require better. The Electric Lady is courageous in her love for others, fully realized. The Electric Lady has grit & finesse. The Electric Lady “illuminates all that she touches. She sparks something in other people that they did not know they had. She lights a path for those within her reach through knowledge and the audacity to simply be herself. This is what I wished to model for my students. I realized that in those moments of driving down stretches of highway, facilitating learning experiences, creating opportunities for underrepresented students, sharing written work, and having the audacity to show up as myself in the world… I am an Electric Lady.
When I was in graduate school, my professors required us to create a personal statement that would outline our professional philosophy. In that statement I talked about ” assessing your performance, receiving feedback, and adapting to the changing needs of students, cultivating relationships outside of work…” and so forth. Though these things still detail my professional values, I’ve since distilled it down to something I remember each day. It motivates me to do the work through education, writing, and student affairs. And that philosophy is… “Be an Electric Lady.”
Image credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Janelle_Mon%C3%A1e_19.jpg
Lyrics written by Janelle Monae, cited from Google Play
bell hooks (1992). In Black Looks: Race & Representation. pp. 115 -131. http://www.umass.edu/afroam/downloads/reading14.pdf