For students, messages about their blackness were everywhere.
Seventh-grader Tamirah Brown opens Snapchat and sees videos from “team dark skin.” Classmate Mariama Kaikai’s aunt once regularly used skin-bleaching creams.
And Michayia Howard, whose mother affectionately calls the 14-year-old “chocolate drop,” recently heard a classmate at Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy in Dorchester say: “I don’t like dark skins or brown skins. . . . I would only choose white skins.”
The girls’ teacher, Lovely Hoffman, watched female students internalize these messages. She saw skin color, hair texture, and facial features influence her students’ sense of self. So she decided to act by writing “My Black is Beautiful,” a song that explores stereotypes and idealized beauty standards.
A dozen of Hoffman’s students star in the music video, filmed and released this school year. But before they had their moment under the lights, the girls and Hoffman took an introspective moment — several, actually — to talk about identity, self-worth, and the vexing question of race that asks, ultimately, what it means to be a black woman in America.
Part of that conversation included not just talking about discrimination against black people but also the vestiges of racism, such as colorism, that create divisions within the race.
Historically, tensions have existed between blacks of lighter and darker complexions going back to slavery, when mixed-race slaves received preferential treatment from whites. This color caste system has permeated the African diaspora, with Western standards of beauty influencing cultures around the globe.
“This song was on my heart for three years. I sat down at the piano and said, ‘This is what I have to write,’ ” said Hoffman, who is an artist as well as an educator. “As an educator, my job is not only to make sure students master their academics but also to educate the whole child.”
And for three minutes and 27 seconds, she does that through song.
“Look at her hair. Look at her braids. Look at her eyes. Look at her nose. Look at her ’fro. But it’s all about me,” Hoffman sings in the video as the camera cuts to images of her students, showing a tapestry of complexions and hair textures, in the school’s hallways and classrooms.
“Who are you to say that I’m not beautiful?” she continues. “It’s your own insecurity because I know and I believe: My black is beautiful.”
The video and song, which are available on online via iTunes and YouTube, are part of a curriculum Hoffman created to promote self-esteem in black girls.
Hoffman’s personal experiences influenced the song lyrics as well as her philosophy as an educator. As a young person, Hoffman said, she was part of a singing group, “where I was the only dark girl in the group, and I was always made very aware that I was different.”
She was told she didn’t have “the right look” to make it as an artist, she said.
“And that stayed with me for a while,” she said. “Throughout high school and throughout college, always questioning whether or not I had the look to be an artist, to be a singer.”
So when she entered the classroom nearly a decade ago and heard the divisive — and hurtful — rhetoric of her childhood repeated by a new generation of students, she decided to teach them a different way to behave. In her classroom, and the Dorchester charter school as a whole, conversations about race and culture are strategic and intentional. Instilling a sense of racial consciousness in all 216 students, 99 percent of whom are black and Latino, is part of the academy’s mission.
“Because what happens when you have someone who is really, really smart but has no sense of who they are or no confidence in themselves?” asked Hoffman, who funded the video. “You need to make sure children feel good about themselves, and feel confident about themselves.”
Seventh-grader LaTavia Hobson said that “for a long time I used to call myself ugly.” She would compare herself to others, wishing for a different complexion and body type. But things changed, in part, because of her participation in the video.
“My mom and dad saw the video, and they were asking me: ‘Do you see your worth? Do you realize how valuable you are now? Do you see how pretty you are? Do you see the differences that you can see from when you thought you were ugly, but you really aren’t because you’re special?’ And I was, like, ‘Yes,’ ” said the 13-year-old, who wants to be a dancer, detective, or attorney when she grows up.
“The song lyrics saying how we’re all different but we’re beautiful, it really got to me,” she said.
Sheila Thompson said the video prompted a conversation with her parents, too. It’s a topic that should be discussed more because “it’s very important,” the 12-year-old said.
“Being African-American, being black, it’s like you’re struggling. You know?” she said. “You’re struggling about how you look, and you’re not just very confident — but not me personally.”
Insecurities begin to fade when people “embrace where you came from and different cultures and stuff,” she said. “Being black is not just one thing. You can be Caribbean. You can be Cape Verdean. You can come from many different places and still be black, so I think it’s important to embrace where you came from.”
Karmala Sherwood, the school’s executive director, sat off to the side of a conference room, listening as her students spoke. By the time they were done, tears streamed down Sherwood’s face.
“I’m sorry to get all emotional,” she said as the young ladies walked back to class. “That’s everything we want them to know and feel.”Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.