To My Mom, Who Was the Definition of ‘Black Girl Magic’ Before It Had a Name

Photo: Courtesy of Mara Schiavocampo; Graphic: W+G Creative
Who has inspired you? Challenged you? Shaped you? In honor of Women's History Month, we're recognizing the women who made us who we are today. To all who came before, the mothers, grandmothers, mentors, teachers, and trailblazers... thank you. Here, Emmy Award-winning journalist and podcast host Mara Schiavocampo honors her mother, who recently passed away.

Dear Mom,

I remember that day, several years ago, shortly after your first stroke. While your mind and wit were as sharp as ever, your body was not. We were headed down a flight of stairs, and you needed my help. I held your arm, you held the railing, and slowly, we descended. One step. Pause. One step. Pause. It took a long time. It was hard on you. When we got to the bottom of the stairs, you began to cry. It caught me off guard, because you never cry. Yet that day, at the bottom of the stairs, you did. You looked up at me with the vulnerability of a young child and said, “Please don’t remember me like this.”

In the years since, more of you has slipped away. Most days you sit on the couch, looking at magazines you can no longer read. “What did you have for breakfast?” I asked the other day. “Ostrich,” you answered.

But here’s the thing. I view this version of you like a cloud in the sky. It floats past me, ephemeral and impermanent. This version will not occupy space in my memory.

Here’s what I choose to remember: You were doing hot girl shit before it had a name. In my favorite picture of you, you are in the middle of getting dressed and stopped to pose playfully for the camera. Decades before social media, you weren’t doing it for the 'gram, you were doing it for the person behind the lens—my dad. You look like a pin-up girl; seductively half-dressed, a glimpse of side boob, enough skin to be enticing, enough mystery to be irresistible. Yet the reason that’s my favorite photo is not because of how stunning you are, but because I know that at that time, you’d already earned a PhD and had two kids. Hot girl shit.

You’ve shown me that pretty girls can be smart and smart girls can be pretty. You’ve taught me to tell the conflicting rules of the patriarchy to f**k off and fully embrace all of me.

You’ve shown me that pretty girls can be smart and smart girls can be pretty. You’ve taught me to tell the conflicting rules of the patriarchy to fuck off and fully embrace all of me. You’ve taught me that I decide who I want to be, and that can be sexy-PhD mom if I want it to be.

You were woke before it became a movement. Raised in the projects in Boston, you saw firsthand how structural and interpersonal racism shaped and harmed Black communities, and you turned that into your life’s work. Your academic career was all about helping people understand systemic racism way before it became cool. You were unapologetic about it and full of fire. You used to say you were a migrant from the ghetto to the highest levels of society. Though you made it out, you never forgot those still trying to make their own journey out of the hood.

You were Black Girl Magic before it had a name, before it was celebrated, and when the world made it a lot harder for a milk chocolate girl with 4c hair to feel magical. In that photo, you are wearing an African head wrap, effortlessly proclaiming to the world that their beauty standards are not your beauty standards. Underneath the head wrap is your natural hair. You never straightened it, and much to my dismay, you wouldn’t let me straighten mine either. This was in the '80s, when being called “nappy headed” was the worst of schoolyard insults and store shelves were full of chemical straighteners, not curl enhancers. But the women in our house rocked those afros anyway—you proudly, me and my sister reluctantly—because, as you put it, “it’s the way it grows out of your head.”

Last month, you slipped away for good. You took your last breath in my arms. The next day I posted your picture on Instagram, my favorite picture, which you'd always loved, too. When you left us, that final deteriorating version of you did, too, the cloud breaking apart into wisps absorbed by the bright blue sky. What remains is this picture, and the countless other memories of that woman. She will rise with me each day like the sun, my warmth, my eternal light.

Looking for more Strong As Her? Check out these letters from chronic illness advocate Nitika Chopra and writer Kayla Hui

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