You Are Major

Written by Shayla Lawson

Poet and essayist Shayla Lawson on connecting with what makes you great and finding your cool.

When the good people at Mailchimp asked me to curate a series of essays for their Summer Reading Program, I jumped at the chance to elevate writers I love, collecting their stories in this time of isolation. The theme for this series is connection because we, the people, are irrevocably linked by our shared humanity. There is no getting away from one another. We can, however, tell each other the truth, and listen with open hearts when the truth is spoken. Or written. I curated a series of creative nonfiction essays because I wanted you to feel the bare-knuckle truth in the words of these writers. When they swing for you, I want the blow to connect. Contributing authors write about relationships to parents, spouses, children, homes, bodies, and self. They write about threads running through the veins of us all. They write about the way we are all subject to each other’s lives and decisions, offering themselves to reality instead of running from the inevitable pain of the world. I’m so grateful. Nothing about this project would be as powerful without the inclusion of each contribution from each artist. Well, you could have been anywhere on the internet, but you’re here with us, and I can’t thank you enough for that. I’m so excited for you to read these essays. My hope is when you do, you’ll feel a little tug on the threads in your own veins. I hope you follow them all the way to the end.

All my best, Ashley

Author

Shayla Lawson

Shayla Lawson is the author of This Is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls & Being Dope (Harper Perennial, 2020) and three poetry collections: I Think I'm Ready To See Frank Ocean, A Speed Education In Human Being and Pantone. A MacDowell and Yaddo Artist Colony Fellow, Lawson is a professor at Amherst College and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

  • Four years ago, I had a gold nameplate necklace that spelled out “MAJOR” made as a gift for myself. It was inspired by three things: my love of Queen Latifah, Carrie Bradshaw, and my refusal to stoop to the patriarchy. I was living in Portland, Oregon. Portland’s got a lot to brag about when it comes to food, music, espresso and rose gardens but it's still got work to do when it comes to women of color. 

    I was a Portland, OR import; lots of hip, progressive, communities like Portland, around the U.S., love to import Us. They hire us for cool jobs and let us do rad art projects because they love our style and vibrant energy—the nostalgia they feel for 90s-era hip hop, midriffs, immaculate sneakers, and hood nails. If you’re like me, you love all these things. But you know these things are accessories. You are a person. You are not an accessory. 

    You don’t have to be in the hipster haven of Portland to experience pressure to be some super crew’s diversity adornment. In Portland, the ratio POC quoted was 1:6. We’d see our cultural cousins out in predominantly white public, flanked on all sides by happy hour buddy groups containing  no more than one person of each ethnicity, and no more than two people who were visibly ethnic. Groups got bonus points if you could count at least one additional member who read as nonbinary or disabled.

    These weren’t our rules. This was the world we’d grown into. The carefully-curated diversity of white millennial hang spots and work spaces is their go-to solution for not appearing openly prejudiced against any group.  If “I can’t be racist, my best friend is black” was the PC defense of Generation X, then “I can’t be ________-ist, Sally is ___________”, is my generation’s adopted equivalent.

    Why does this matter? Because just because we are seen doesn’t mean we are heard. There may have been one of us, a couple of us, holding it down at every hip hop club, arts gala, office building, and Women in Marketing empowerment event, in these liberal upscale enclaves throughout world, but we were there to remind white people how great they are for inviting us, how far they have come. It would frighten those same folks to accept us for what we are. Why we are actually here—because we are the future.

    I say women of color are the future because of all the uncredited and undocumented work we have done this far. Inspired by Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, I took my teenage dreams of becoming a writer and, in my early twenties, moved them to New York. I grew up in Kentucky, so Bradshaw felt like my closest approximation to the kind of grown girl I wanted to be—with brunch ladies, and bad dates, and fabulous accoutrements. But even I, with my small town frame of reference for metropolitan culture, felt Carrie’s penchant for nameplate necklaces, body-con dresses and fruit juice cocktails felt distinctly black. And the City only got blacker when Bradshaw’s blue-blooded homegirl Charlotte York revealed her secret baby name to be Shayla. That’s right, Shayla—the blackest white name in name/race history. (Trust me: if you write down “Shayla Lawson” on a job application, nobody assumes your mom’s WASPy Connecticut republican.)

    What I loved about Bradshaw in my teens, I first loved in Queen Latifah. Not just Kadijah—the character she played on the Living Single episodes I’d sneak and watch in middle school— but the Nefertiti-coifed, medallion of The Continent-toting Latifah. The Queen who rocked bamboo earrings, and sang/spelled “UNITY” and, no matter how famous she got, never gave up her rap moniker. I was always that girl. I always wanted to be that girl. But where I grew up, I wasn’t allowed. I’d head to school in my Cross-Colors jacket, or the Rasta beret I’d crocheted myself and, inevitably, some member of school administration or carpool mom would ask me if I’d joined some gang. 

    Is that a “black thing”? they’d ask, as if I should be ashamed to find pride in this. “Yeah,” I should have said, but I was young. And so I’d put my favorite accessories away, only to watch the white kids bust through the school doors a season later, in department store versions of the exact same clothes. 

    I wasn’t ahead of my time. I was right on schedule for my people. As women of color, we have always been waiting for the world around to catch up to us. In this lies a certain irony. I considered myself a black “Carrie Bradshaw” because it was the socially acceptable reference for the candor, coolness, and sexual independence I saw as part of my birthright in black girl culture. But I’m here to tell you: you don’t need to be a colored version of anyone, in order to get to where you want to be in the fight for women. That is the beauty of an international, intersectional feminism. The blueprint for your worldview has already been pioneered by women who look like you—women whose stories must be championed and shared more publicly—women who have influenced majority culture in ways we will remain forever ignorant to if we allow ourselves to be its one-friend representatives instead of its active leaders.

    We are major. This is hard. Every day, I have to remind myself. I had to have it plated into jewelry—an accessory—to let the world know that I see myself. 

    “MAJOR?” strangers ask. And I say: 

    “Yeah.” That’s what I am. I am not a minor character in someone else’s lead narrative. I am the whole story. I am the largest thing I will ever become.