NEW ORLEANS — Under the sea, Ariel wished to be part of our world. The Little Mermaid, like black women, wanted to be free.
For a few days in July every year, black women do not have to fit into a white world. New Orleans is their world, as Essence Festival takes over the city with more than half a million black women flying in from all corners of the globe to celebrate the magazine that raised us.
Last week, as the pre-festivities were kicking off, we were given one more reason to celebrate: Actress and singer Halle Bailey was cast as Ariel in Disney’s live-action “The Little Mermaid.”
As a sea of sistas washed into New Orleans, where black women and girls are known to make history, we delighted in the news of a black mermaid of our own. Immediately, poor unfortunate souls tried to steal our joy with #NotMyAriel, an online movement decrying a fictional fishgirl’s blackness.
We aren’t surprised. We live in a world where a red carpet of racism welcomes us into every room.
But last week in New Orleans, where every step you took was in the direction of a black woman, our happiness was unbothered.
“I felt like I was at home,” said Danielle Taylor, 28, a Boston engineer. “Seeing all of these beautiful black faces from all walks of life, especially now that I live in an area where the black population isn’t as high, it was beautiful.”
Taylor, like so many black women, grew up flipping through the glossy pages of Essence magazine in her D.C.-area home.
For many black American girls, it is a household staple. Something kept on coffee tables, a monthly affirmation. From generation to generation, we grow up to become subscribers.
“Seeing beautiful black women on Essence was always something to look forward to each month,” she said. “Seeing people that look like you on a magazine matters, the different shades, sizes, women with hair like you is important. A lot of magazines don’t have that diverse representation, plus the articles are relatable in all aspects of life.”
In a 2016 report, Dove Self-Esteem Project found that nearly half of 12- to 15-year-old girls read magazines every day — looking at magazines for just 60 minutes lowers the self-esteem of more than 80 percent of girls. So having positive images, reflections of the real world that girls and women live in, is vital.
We need our cover girls. We need our Disney princesses. We need our spaces to be among each other.
In New Orleans at the Essence Festival, we had it all. New Orleans is where Disney rooted Tiana, its first black princess, in 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog.”
New Orleans is the city of Ruby Bridges. Nearly 60 years ago, the little 6-year-old black girl with big magic walked down her New Orleans elementary school steps surrounded by federal marshals and became the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South.
Now, New Orleans is led by Mayor LaToya Cantrell, the first black woman and first woman to hold the post.
Last week, New Orleans was home to the 25th anniversary of the Essence Festival, also known as EssenceFest. The celebration has lived there for 24 of its 25 years and, Cantrell said, generated a $4 billion economic boost for the city.
It is a black woman’s time to love herself and her sisterhood, uninterrupted. Melanin pops in all shades from desert brown and dark chocolate to white cocoa and caramel. Bold braids, cascading locs, a halo of Afros, coily curls, and hair laid straight are all proudly on display. There is no one way or wrong way to be black at Essence Festival.
On Saturday night, Michelle Obama and Gayle King were in conversation at the Superdome as a fanatic crowd of Essence readers clung to every word.
Black people cannot just show up, Obama said.
“We all know we have to do not only perfectly, but a little bit better than perfect to even be considered equal,” she said.
That’s what drove hundreds of thousands of black women to New Orleans: respite from the arbitrary standards and never-ending struggle.
At night throughout the weekend, the Superdome was one big party, as members of Boston’s own New Edition performed, as well as the iconic Missy Elliott, Nas, Maze, and Mary J. Blige.
And the days spread across several venues including a Fashion House debuting new designers and discussions, and a Wellness House where you could do Trap Yoga or get custom CBD scrubs and creams.
But none was more expansive than the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center — 1.1 million square feet of exhibit space — which was packed with everything you can imagine under a black woman’s sun. Authors such as former Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth and fashion historian Tanisha C. Ford set up shop in the authors’ market. A beauty carnival featured hair gurus such as MoKnowsHair, as well as model and “Pose” actress Indya Moore, the first black transgender woman to speak at the festival.
One of the most popular stops was The Disney Experience, where little black girls and grown black women alike stood in hourlong lines to put on princess crowns and mouse ears and take photos and live out their childhood fantasies.
We’ve always been part of Disney’s world. But at EssenceFest, Disney was in our domain among economic forums, professional development hubs, wellness talks, black artisan shops, film screenings, and performances from Lil’ Kim and Big Freedia. And there were photo ops galore, such as the faux Essence cover shoot.
Shanika Clayton and her squad stood in line to take a group picture in matching shirts that read, “Black Queens Slaycation 2019.” The group of nine, made up of family and friends from Florida and Georgia, started coming to EssenceFest in 2013.
“We have our own space and opportunity to come together and enjoy each other’s company comfortably, to let our hair down without judgment,” said Clayton, 44. “Everyone has their own style, their own identity, but we come together here and we are one.”
America cannot afford to ignore our collective worth. Black women make up a big chunk of what Nielsen estimates to be $1.2 trillion of black buying power. Black women set the trends. And as we’ve seen in recent campaigns, black women are some of the most impactful voters.
Which is why presidential hopefuls from Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren to Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg found their way to EssenceFest, trying to woo the women.
“Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party,” Warren said, noting that black women are also the backbone of the country and without them, we cannot move forward.
In her op-ed for Essence ahead of the festival, she wrote, “If we’re going to save this country — we need to trust Black women to show us the way.”
As Kamala Harris told the crowd: “When we lift black America, we lift America.”
Essence has been lifting black women for almost 50 years. And it’s probably going to be the last one standing of an old guard of black media. With Johnson Publishing Company — home of Ebony and Jet magazines — declaring bankruptcy earlier this year, and so many of the magazines made for black women over the years having folded, Essence is the black woman’s legacy media.
With a readership of more than 8 million, the magazine launched the festival as a celebration of its 25th anniversary. Now the festival is 25 years old and has endured the mag’s transitions, going from black-owned to Time-owned to black-owned again, when Babson alum Richelieu Dennis bought it last year.
MoAna Luu, chief content and creative officer of Essence, just started seven months ago. As part of the new charge, she attended her first Essence Festival.
“I have never seen something like this in the US or in the world,” Luu said. “All of these women came together. I will always be changed by this experience. They tried to explain the festival. You cannot explain it. You have to experience it.”
Essence being black-owned again is integral to owning our truth as black women and ensuring we are not erased.
“These are our stories,” Luu said. “I was born and raised in Martinique, but I knew of Essence. It was part of those big dreams I had as a little girl the way little girls in America dream of Vogue, I dreamed of Essence. Essence magazine, essence.com, and at the festival is our story; we are one global community. To define this vision and help put this platform together, this is just amazing.”
People want our votes, they want our money, but rarely do they want us. Essence is us, by us, for us — rejuvenation in a world filled with rejection.
Valerie Jarrett, former senior adviser to President Obama, was one of the many political powerhouses and authors at EssenceFest. But it’s not just a place to talk shop — it’s a place she comes for solidarity.
“For a quarter of a century, Essence Festival has been a safe place where black women can be true to who they are and never feel alone,” she said. “Essence is the one time of year we come together in love, in fellowship, and we listen, we talk, we learn, we play. We have a great time, and that it has thrived and survived for 25 years is a testament not just to the leadership of Essence, which has changed, but to the people who show up year after year.”
Like Ariel out of water, at Essence Festival, black women are wandering free, unapologetically in our own world.