As we continue to work to reclaim Black narratives and exercise autonomy over our own stories in 2018, Black women’s stories have never been more important to tell. Enter Sofiya Ballin, the 25-year-old award-winning journalist, writer, and event curator who is shifting the ways in which Black people’s stories are told as she empowers women of color and focuses on the future of Blackness.
Ballin is passionate about storytelling and unapologetic in her Blackness. She is the founder of the #BlackHistoryUntold project, described on Ballin’s website as “an identity series that explores the importance of a comprehensive Black history education through personal essays… The first year, February 2016, was an overall look at the untold stories in Black history and the second year focused in on the history and perseverance of Black joy.” This year, Ballin is asking writers to look to the future. Jesse Williams, Senator Cory Booker, CNN commentator Marc Lamont Hill, and poet Sonia Sanchez are just a few of the recognizable folks who have participated in the series, which won an award from the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) in 2017.
In addition to the #BlackHistoryUntold series, Ballin writes candid pieces that explore her own identity, including her story for HuffPost, “Why #UnconventionalBlackBeauty Celebrates People Like Me.” In the essay, she discusses realizing her own unique beauty as the daughter of Jamaican-born immigrant parents in a world that exalts whiteness.
When I first came across Ballin’s #BlackHistoryUntold project on social media, I knew I wanted to get her story straight from the source. It is powerful witnessing another creative Black woman empower and collaborate with other women of color when the running narrative in Black culture is often that there isn’t enough opportunity for all of us.
In honor of Women’s History Month in March (and Black Women’s History Month in April), I sat down with Ballin to discuss Black History Untold, Afrofuturism, and sex positivity. Get into our conversation below:
Hello Giggles (HG): Why do you write and who do you want to read your work?
Sofiya Ballin (SB): I write to understand the world around me, as a way to break it down and explain it to other people. Catharsis… I grew up wanting to act — I knew I loved being able to change the way people feel. And with writing, I can change the way they think. I write for Black people and I want Black people and people of color to read my work. Our destinies are all tied… and I think Black people specifically, their stories have been the most twisted and misunderstood.
HG: On your personal website, you said, “All my life, I’ve learned that there were stories untold and that not every legend is etched into bronze, my goal is to tell their stories.” In 2018, whose stories do you want to tell?
SB: It’s interesting because today I saw that Quinta Brunson is releasing this book called She Memes Well — I love her. I want to tell Quinta’s stories, I want to tell Ava DuVernay’s story, I want to tell identity stories. I want to change the way we think about legends… for me it’s about expanding the idea of a legend. I want to tell more stories about Black women… whether it’s the Black immigrant story or the Black queer story. We do so much; we are the forefront and the backbone, and without accolades and without recognition.
HG: For the most recent installment of Black History Untold, you chose to focus on the future of Blackness. How important is it that we focus on the future of Blackness?
SB: For one, Afrofuturism was always something that I wanted to learn about, but I could never really wrap my mind around it. After the election of our current president, I knew that many people of color — specifically Black people — were like, okay, so what does this mean for our future? After I talked to some Afrofuturists to get some more background, I realized that Afrofuturism is a thing the same way Black joy and Black love is a thing. When you’re talking about kidnapped or enslaved Africans that were brought to the Americas, these things were kept from us… because if we felt love, if we felt joy, we could no longer be controlled. I think so much of our existence is wrapped up in survival, [so] we don’t have the space to think about our children and our children’s children, and our children 100 years from now. What does that future look like? I wanted to give people the opportunity to do that… to see the implications of the work that they’re doing 100 years from now. This is the future I foresee… this project is a guidebook to revolution.
HG: What challenges have you faced in your career?
SB: The challenges have been mental and emotional. Sometimes people ghosted, so I have to do everything — and without a full team behind me. I had to learn when to ask for help. I wanted to make sure the essays, the editorials, and interviews were all great [while] managing social media and organizing with the photographer Sean Theodore. I know how this machine works now so that I can understand it moving forward.
HG: You struck out on your own for this year’s installment of the project, using a lot of your own money to fund it and collaborating with friends who are creatives of color. How important do you think collaboration is among Black creatives? What do you wish you saw more of?
SB: I think collaboration is essential. You can’t do everything, I’m learning that I can’t do everything, and I have to know when to ask for help. I wish there was more support in terms of Black people supporting Black-owned businesses, and not waiting for validation. We can’t wait for someone to steal it [Black culture, as Yaba Blay said], we have to see it first. We have to embrace all the different versions of us and not just one idea of Black excellence.
HG: What’s one piece of advice for Black creatives of color?
SB: Do it!
HG: You are one of the creators of The Electric Lady Series, a collective of women of color producing a week of women-centered events each year with co-creators Alexis Mercado, Lara Witt, Keturah Benson, and Melissa Ly. What was the original vision and inspiration for the series?
SB: Girl, this took on a life of it’s own. I was listening to Amerie’s “1 Thing” and decided I wanted to have a party with all-women music. You can’t have this party without unpacking what it means to be a woman and a Black woman. I went through my phone and reached out to women who I knew were vocal about women’s empowerment… I had thrown some events, but I didn’t have all the answers and I was a full-time reporter. When we usually talk about women’s empowerment, we are talking about white womanhood or men [are the ones] throwing these events. We want to throw events that are intentional. Everything that we do is raw, edgy, and honest. This is one of the best teams I’ve been a part of; I didn’t do this independently.
HG: For this year’s The Electric Lady Series, there will be talks on ending rape culture, female entrepreneurship, and sexual pleasure. Can you tell me more about the conversations on sex positivity and women’s sexual pleasure?
SB: I instantly knew I wanted to have that sex conversation. As I’m exploring my agency and my empowerment, I need to explore that in the bedroom. The same way we demand equal pay is the same way we should demand equal pleasure. There is this shame surrounding sex amongst female children of Black immigrants; I wanted to free more women that were raised to be ashamed of what brings them power and what brings them pleasure.
HG: What do you think has been missing from conversations about Black women and their sexual pleasure?
SB: I think, when I look at the media, on the one hand we are perceived as sexy, but our sex scenes aren’t always shown. It is important for us to see Black women having sex outside of rape scenes, exoticization, and fetishization. [I want us to] see Black people on screen having sex and enjoying it. It’s important for us to see each other.