How ‘This is Me’ Became My Black Feminist Anthem (Part 3 of 3)

In part two of this series, after naming my emotional response to This is Me, I posed a critical question. I asked myself, “what do these tears represent?” Why is it that almost every time I hear this song I am fighting back tears? Am I just that sensitive or is there something else present here that is worth unpacking?

Those closest to me know that I am a true empath. It takes me entirely no time at all to drop tears of compassion for others. It can even be a little embarrassing at times. When I was in high school, I would watch The Montel Williams Show after school and cry each time he helped reunite families after years of separation. Same is true of the cliché Hallmark commercials and the obligatory romantic comedy films I grew up watching. As I’ve grown in age and experience, I’ve learned that all tears aren’t created equal. Some tears are profoundly personal and some tears though they may fall, they were never yours, to begin with. In this case, these tears, they were mine.

As I’ve journeyed through the lyrics and listened to the song far more times than I would care to admit, I can now say that I’ve adopted This is Me as my own Black feminist anthem. The emotion and tears that arise are linked to the resounding themes that illuminate my own lived experiences and the experiences of my sister and my cousins and my friends alike. All that was required for me to arrive here was to do what my identity as a Black feminist requires of me — to put Black women and girls at the center.

When putting Black women and girls at the center, This is Me tells a story of resistance and defiance against the varied forms of interlocking oppression Black women and girls face every day. It also explores the power of the collective and the strength and empowerment that takes place when we tap into our shared experiences. And finally, I claim that the journey of unconditional love present in the song is one not just present in relationships with partners, friends or family, but the ultimate love that comes through a revelation of who God is with us and in us.

Resisting and Defying Oppression

I am not a stranger to the dark/ Hide away, they say/ ’Cause we don’t want your broken parts

From the song’s outset, I could immediately identify with its lyrics, not just as a Black woman but as a Black girl. Black women in the U.S. have long been on the receiving end of racism, sexism and a litany of other forms of oppression. We are made to feel hypervisible or not visible at all. Tropes such as mammy, Jezebel, welfare queen and my personal favorite, the angry Black woman has negatively shaped popular discourse on Black women. Unfortunately, the adverse outcomes have gone beyond mere discourse and continue to impact governmental policies, educational inequities and pay disparities just to name a few.

As the songwriters in This is Me go on to state, Black women are both bruised and brave. These are multiple personas embodied by Black women and girls on a regular basis. We often are vulnerable to the conditions which face us; however, there is an expectation of strength. There is a fragility that Black women cannot afford, unlike their White women counterparts. We parade our strength to maintain our #BlackGirlMagic persona though we rarely come out unscathed.

While Black women and girls may be making strides toward advancing their careers and education, there is still cause for much concern. In particular, Black women continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions, and there is growing discourse around the serious disciplinary inequities experienced by girls in schools. Dr. Monique Morris’ crucial work outlined in her book Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools examines these factors. Her book challenges the language of the school-to-prison pipeline; she says that for Black girls, it’s more appropriately named sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline, as that is the reality of their trajectory to detention. These girls are survivors though they are more often problematized, oversexualized or made invisible in educational settings.

My Black feminism means that I am concerned for these girls and their welfare with a commitment to protect and act among community.

The Collective

Similar to the care and concern many Black women have for their girls, the reality of a Black feminist is one that is rooted in the collective. Patricia Hill Collins in her 1990 text Black Feminist Thought speaks of Black women having collective identity, wisdom, and knowledge through a history of resistance. This, in some ways, parallels with the work of adult development theorist Carl Jung who introduced the collective unconscious as a ‘psychic inheritance,” a reservoir of experiences that influence us unknowingly.

Through analyzing This is Me by way of the collective I was present to what was a noticeable shift in voice. After the first verse, in the pre-chorus the voice goes from the individual (I) to the collective (we):

But I won’t let them break me down to dust/ I know that there’s a place for us/ For we are glorious

The writer’s position us here in relation to one another, requiring us to go where there is room for us all and all our glory. This we (collective) is the spirit of Black feminism, and it’s inherently intersectional. It requires the liberation of Black women and girls to be bound with the liberation of others.

The Journey of Unconditional Love

I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars/ Run away, they say/ No one’ll love you as you are

This is Me could be summed up as a journey to discovering unconditional love. When thinking about the experiences of Black women and love, there is much to explore. Popular discourse and data show that Black women are often deemed undesirable in marriage and are much less likely to marry than their White counterparts. If that wasn’t discouraging enough, there is ongoing tension between the status of hetero cisgender Black women and men, which challenge contemporary perceptions and conceptions of wokeness. So when the song arrives at the bridge, and Settle bellows out:

And I know that I deserve your love/ There’s nothing I’m not worthy of I am left wondering, how did we get here?

Positive affirmations and self-talk are good and all, but as a Black woman I’ve never known them to do the job alone. Not when there is so much systemic oppression to facing us on a consistent basis. But then, I (re)member the tears. I (re)member that I always feel the most tender when we arrive at this place in the song. If I were less astute, I’d think it was the melodic nature of her soprano notes that get me, but that isn’t it. These lyrics, in particular, are more than a positive affirmation, they’re a mighty declaration.

To unpack this further, I have to go beyond Black feminism alone as an ideology or political stance and ground myself in womanist theology. Alice Walker defined womanism as a way to distinguish Black feminist from the restrictive and frequently oppressive aims of White feminism. So here, I use the terms Black feminism and womanism interchangeably. In the same way, womanist theology complicates Black theology (which leaves out issues of sexism, misogyny, etc.) and Feminist theology (that subjugates racial identity, etc.).

I theorize that the notion of deserving and worthiness of love toward the end of the song is not offered in the same light as the song began where we are responding to abuse and neglect. Here, we are basking in the joy that is the receiving of God’s love, and the power that comes when you declare that you are, in fact, worthy of it. My theology says this worthiness comes despite anything we’ve done or anything that has been done to us.

As I close, in the Black faith tradition (broadly speaking), an “oh” can take on various meanings. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a good gospel or contemporary Christian song without its own series of “Oh’s.” The “Oh” is often reserved for when words just aren’t adequate. Somehow the songwriters knew this applied here.

Black women and girls in America have a long legacy of championing and sustaining hope in the contexts of their own lives, their communities and beyond. They’ve claimed joy and love at the intersections of misogyny, bigotry, and hate. My life’s prayer is that every Black woman and girl may live from a place of grace and peace, grounded in God’s unconditional love. In the meantime, however, until my prayers are answered, I hope that every now and again when she, like me, experiences self-doubt and exhausted of the projections of others onto her…When she needs reminding of who she is and has run out of words to describe her emotions. I hope that a single line will rise up in her spirit from a familiar hit song, and she’ll sing:

Oh-o-hoh, oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh, oh, oh, This is Me.

I’ll be singing along with her.

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Khalia Ii

Higher Education leader with 10+ yrs of experience. Khalia is currently a full-time Ph.D student at the University of San Diego where she also leads & teaches.