What 3 Black Women Taught Me About Cohorts, Crews & the Creative Process

Solange, Melissa Harris-Perry & Anna Julia Cooper

This past week, Solange and Melissa Harris-Perry came to Stanford University for an intimate conversation about Solange’s new album, A Seat at the Table. The lovely, but sometimes overused hash tag, #blackgirlmagic was meant to be the guiding principle for the evening. But what really came through was the power of cohort learning, what it means to learn as a group and what it means to be there for each other during times that continue to be challenging. (Cue Solange’s brilliant song, Mad.)

Solange (who asked that the conversation not be videotaped or recorded) spoke about how much she had learned and continues to learn from her circle of creatives and friends, her extensive travels and especially her parents, calling her mother “the smartest woman I know.” She also spoke about the searing memory of being in 3rd grade, and having her teacher explain — in a room full of white students — “what a n — is.” And how her parents tried to explain, to no avail, to the teacher why her own actions were misguided.

Melissa Harris-Perry (aka MHP) spoke about two of her scholar cohorts: the Elle.com scholars and Wake the Vote, a “civic learning and democratic engagement experience.” “I enjoy watching students learn from each other,” MHP explained. She went on to say that students only spend a few hours a week in a classroom, but cohort learning means that the students are together and learning from each other, when they travel to conventions, for example; over meals and while working on projects. Somone mentioned that this would prepare the students for the “real world.” MHP paused and said, she hoped that her students would reach for something greater than the current models of engagement being offered. “The actual world is really quite cruel and lacks empathy,” she said, thoughtfully. “I feel like I’m preparing them for something outside of the actual world.”

It’s an interesting conversation for me as a John S. Knight Fellow. I’ve come to Stanford as a part of an international, interdisciplinary collective of journalists, in pursuit of innovative ideas that we believe will help shape the future of journalism. I’ve spent most of the last four years, writing books: projects that involved many hours of collaboration with creative teams but also required that I spend just as much time alone. I’m learning a lot from being around these journalists and in true cohort style, much of that learning happens in the most informal settings.

The last time I held a university fellowship was at Princeton, more than a decade ago, when I was a Hodder Fellow. It was at Princeton that I first met MHP and I remember thinking: this woman has a beautiful brain. A Sherlock Holmes mind palace kind of brain.

Which is why I was so happy that before the Solange event, Melissa came over to the JSK Garage with her Elle.com Scholars: four young women from Wake Forest University who are spending the year as journalists in training working with Melissa (Dr. Harris Perry to the students) and award-winning journalist, Sherri Williams.

I loved meeting the scholars, pictured clockwise below, Mankappr Conteh, Ann Nguyen, Erica Jordan and Alex Dean. We talked about navigating journalism internships (and how precarious it is to have to make a living while being offered unpaid internships.) We talked about money and work, writer’s block, relationships and motherhood.

We were joined by two of my fellow JSK fellows, Stacy-Marie Ishmael and Elodie Mailliet Storm. I was so moved by how generous they were with the young women and how by virtue of the questions asked, I got to see a new side of my colleagues that I might not otherwise know.

I knew that Melissa had become an editor-at-large at Elle. I didn’t realize that she had leveraged her status as an influencer to create such an incredible opportunity for young women at her university. But it made sense to me: among the many hats that she so gloriously wears is the one of founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest.

It was Anna Julia Cooper who so famously wrote in her 1892 book, A Voice From the South:

“Only the black woman can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”

Anna Julia Cooper

Those words, “When and where I enter, the whole race enters with me” are a powerful call to service that is at the core of every amazing black woman I know. MHP lives that “When and where I enter” edict and so does Solange.

A Seat at the Table is an extraordinary album, but the gift — the gold mine — for anyone who has ever aspired to make anything is how Solange has shared the creative process.

Beginning Stages: A look into Solange’s songwriting process & jam sessions

Towards the end of the evening with Solange and MHP, someone brought up the hash tag, #blackgirlmagic. The two women had been talking for nearly two hours and it had not yet come up. Both women spoke about the upsides to the term and the movement of elevation and inspiration that it has inspired. At the same time, they emphasized how vital it was that the hashtag not erase the actual work. Melissa spoke about being “#blackgirlmagicked” by a supervisor who in an attempt to praise the elegance of her scholarship failed to note the many long hours of reading, research and writing that had gone into it. Solange mentioned how baffled she’d been when she became, for a time, the poster girl for #carefreeblackgirl. “I have cares,” she assured the audience.

Hearing them talk about their work, their dreams, their hurdles and how they faced them, I was reminded that #blackgirlmagic is not the stuff of fairy tale godmothers who transform rags into ballgowns and pumpkins into carriages. #blackgirlmagic is vision work and work work and the courage it takes to put that work out there into a world that is still not always welcoming to your race or your gender.

Anna Julia Cooper was born a slave in 1858. She earned a master’s in mathematics in 1887. She was 56-years-old in 1914 when she began doctoral studies at Columbia University and earned her PhD ten years later from the University of Paris-Sorbonne. She lived to be 105-years-old. If #blackgirlmagic has a lineage, surely it begins with women like her.

When Solange and Melissa Harris-Perry appeared onstage for their talk, they walked to their seats, arms wrapped around each other. It was a word-less embrace that spoke volumes, as if to say: when and where we enter, into spaces of privilege and power, let us make sure that we do not enter alone.