Happy Black Girl Day! The Prototype: Gina McCauley

In early 2010, I introduced many of you to “Happy Black Girl Day!”, a holiday created by Brooklyn diva extraordinaire and fellow blogger Sister Toldja. This once-a-month holiday allows us to take a break from the constant media assault on Black women and to celebrate the sisterhood with showers of positivity. The way I choose to celebrate HBGD is by highlighting an extraordinary and prototypical Black woman.

November Prototype: Gina McCauley, creator of “Michelle Obama Watch,” “What About our Daughters,” and “Blogging While Brown”; Essence Magazine’s top 25 Most Influential African Americans, and TheRoot.com’s top  100 African American leaders.

We cannot celebrate Happy Black Girl Day! without acknowledging Gina McCauley’s role in combating the negative images of Black women in the media.  Through her award-winning blog, “What About Our Daughters?” Gina stands at the helm in defense of the self- and group-image of young Black women across the African Diaspora.  She calls to task the media, political figures, and the authorities for crimes against the mental, spiritual, and physical well-being of Black women.  She uses her platform to highlight such forgotten atrocities as the Dunbar Village gang-rape of a Black woman and abuse of her 12 year-old son in Florida, as well as the death of Private LaVena Johnson, a young Black soldier whose death in Iraq was “officially” ruled a suicide, though her autopsy showed signs of rape and murder.  She fights for us simply because it is necessary:

Before Don Imus called the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed hos,” I didn’t see sexism on the same level as racism; I think we tend to see racism as the ultimate battle. Then Oprah hosted a two-day show [on Imus’ comments] and had Spelman women on to discuss it and the Black men on the panel were so indifferent to what these young women were saying. They had a complete lack of empathy towards these Black women.

Feeling that Black women needed a voice and a platform, she started WAOD in 2007, with the intention of “encouraging Black women to organize to ‘Stop Funding Foolishness.’ In other words, to use economic power to impose economic sanctions on those who are producing destructive images of Black women and girls.”  She also emphasized the role that Black men play in the crippling images of Black women throughout the media, when she called on Al Sharpton to also condemn Black comedian D.L. Hughley with as much vigor as Sharpton had condemned Don Imus when Hughley agreed that the Rutgers women were “nappy-headed” and “some of the ugliest women” he’d ever seen.

[When Sharpton did not condemn Hughley,] it surprised me that we are so unwilling to confront each other.  Originally, I said I wasn’t going to do any activism, I’m just going to report on what’s happening with Black women, so I posted this tongue-in-cheek countdown called Sharpton Watch, to see how long it would be until he condemned D.L. Hughley. And then I went off to work.

When I came home, people had called while I was gone, and a week later, I got a statement from Al Sharpton. I’m at home eating ice cream, using the computer. I’m a nobody, nobody knows my name, and I think that was one of the first times a Black blogger had done anything of that magnitude.

So the two pivotal moments to start the blog were the Imus Oprah show and the double standard that we weren’t looking at ourselves and how we were treating each other, and then the Dunbar Village case.  I saw how all of these organizations that were supposed to be supporting black women were treating us as collateral damage. When I started out, I was complaining and trying to get Black women to be more assertive and then it transformed into getting people to act on what they were seeing.

And that was only the beginning.  Gina started a successful boycott of Hughley’s shows, and also successfully pressed advertisers to pull out of BET’s highly offensively-titled show: “Hot Ghetto Mess.”  Two weeks later, a journalist wrote a story about what she had achieved, and six months later, Gina was at an Essence Magazine photo shoot, named one of the Top 25 Most Influential African Americans.   She never imagined the level of attention that her actions would garner. She had only a simple goal:

I’ve always tried to teach through my blog and teach through example. Everyone wants to complain, but let’s stop complaining and do something about it! It’s easy. But I’m always motivated by trying to show people what can be done. I wanted my readers to see that there were so many things that they could do to change the world through technology.

I figured out after railing against [BET CEO] Debra Lee and Tyler Perry that if Black women want to see different images of themselves, then they are going to have to create them. I think this whole journey has taken me to a point where I have to do more than complain, I have to create. The same technology that allows me to blog and make Youtube clips and create online registration for blog conferences, also allows us to produce movies and television online. It takes away the gatekeepers. I hope to get into the business of content production and go head to head with the BETs of the world. If I don’t like what BET is offering I intend to offer something different. Debra lee is not going to rescue you, Tyler Perry is not going to rescue you. The greatest gift Tyler Perry ever gave was showing black people that you can do it. If you don’t like his content, make your own, but break down that business model.

Though Gina has always been one to stand against injustice (in the fifth grade she organized a school-wide boycott of the cafeteria after school officials ignored the fact that roaches were baked into the students’ cookies), being an award-winning blogger, political activist, and head of the largest international platform of Black bloggers  was not on her ambitious childhood to-do list.

Barbara Jordan and Thurgood Marshall were my idols and I just identified early on that the way to change the world was to become a lawyer.

But after finding herself unemployed with a law degree and two Bar licenses, Gina’s sense of self was so broken down that she had no choice but to become who she was destined to be.

When I graduated from law school, I had one job offer.  I turned it down on a Friday, and the following Tuesday was September 11. I graduated in May of 2001. So what everybody is going through right now [as far as graduates’ dismal employment opportunities], I went through back then, because there was another recession. So, I ended up moving back home, and I went almost a year without full time work. I always worked. I always had work, but it wasn’t what you’d expect to be doing with a law license. So basically, I had defined myself my whole life by being an overachiever and my value and worth was tied into collecting things and whatever title I had. When I had all of that taken away, I had to figure out who I was. If I’m not the smartest in the room, who am I? If I don’t have a job, who am I?  That period broke me. I was very bitter and angry and I felt tricked because “they” told me that this was the contract: “work hard, don’t do bad things, then you’ll be successful.” All my childhood dreams were gone, everything just broke me.

But that had to happen. I had to let go of who I thought I was going to be in order to be who I am today. Also, I think it gave me an empathy that I didn’t have,  and it gave me a compassion that I didn’t have when I was flying high. I was really arrogant and very judgmental. And I think I’ve always been a compassionate person, but I’m definitely more compassionate, and can see things in a different light. I can better walk in other people’s shoes and that translates on my blog.

The blog is accessible to anyone whether you dropped out of high school or you have a Ph.D. A lot of times, feminists talk to the academy. The people who need to hear that message the most may be intimidated by that. So that experience helped me tremendously to be able to relate to other people.

Now looking back, I can see that I was being broken out of bad habits.  The arrogance was gone. And there is a certain boldness that comes out of it. If you can survive it, it takes everything extra away from your life so that you really learn what matters. You really learn what you can live without. And you really learn who your friends and family are. The people who will walk with you through the valley of the shadow of death and it’s the same network that I rely on today.  I could never have done what I’ve done if I had a six-figure salary, six-figure mortgage, and six-figure car note to worry about. I would’ve been caught up in what other people thought about me leaving it all behind that I wouldn’t have done it. But now that I had nothing, I didn’t care. I just wanted to live a life that mattered, and what mattered is different when you go through something like that. You never know what you’re being prepared for. And also, when you look at starting a business in the middle of a recession, I’ve been broke. I know what that looks like, so people just need to know that they will survive and thrive because at the end of the day it really is a mental challenge. If you change the way you think about the way you live, you’ll be surprised. Its not easy, but everyday as I’m watching this stuff unfold, I have tremendous hope.

I’ve retrofitted my life. If you go through it once you can sustain the worst. If I have to move back home with my parents, and live without cable and without a cell phone, I could do it because I no longer cling to anything. You can’t crave things. Craving leads to suffering. One of the main things bloggers crave are money and other bloggers’ success or press or the number of twitter followers they have. I didn’t care about any of that. The universe was giving me marching orders that if I didn’t say something, I would feel guilty. I felt guilty for not saying anything. The universe said, well you can start a blog. So I was finally able to release the dreams of a 4 year old girl and get to the dreams of a woman. I was born to blog. And I was born to create content.

As a result, many Black bloggers have sprung up in her wake. Affectionately nick-named, “The Blog Mother,” Gina has spawned a movement of Black bloggers dedicated to voicing their opinions, breaking down the technological divide, and recreating images of our community. Her annual conference, “Blogging While Brown” boasts the largest network of Black bloggers to date. She also sent the first delegation of Black bloggers to the White House to meet with President Obama, and has no qualms with this most recent controversial delegation of Black bloggers (including gossip sites “Media Take Out” and “Bossip”) meeting with the President.

I want black bloggers sitting on the front row [of the White House press room]. I just have a longer view [of the roles Black bloggers will play]. I’m an advocate for Black blogging. I wear so many different hats, but I also understand how one person sitting a room somewhere can send their message to the world. This is the kind of freedom that if we don’t get on board now,  we may never get on board, because technology moves so fast.  [Though she did not arrange this latest controversial delegation of black bloggers,] I think [the delegation] was important and laid the ground work for future interactions [with the White House].

[The White House] needs to see that we are not filters. there is value in us sharing our experiences with our audience. We don’t put any distance in our readres. But how do we give access to Black bloggers in the long term? Through my “Blogging While Brown” organization, Black bloggers found out about lots of opportunities to get exclusive content with the White House. That is my goal as the head of Black bloggers.

To those bloggers worried that their audience is not big enough, she says:

Niche audiences can be very influential. Its about the ability to start, stop and alter conversations. Bloggers have the ability to affect the narrative and the news cycle and have to do more than engage in political discourse. Use the internet to alter the political process. Start political action committees. Use your blogs to support candidates whose values line up with your mission and values. Because that’s what White bloggers are doing.  The Black blogosphere needs to be doing that.

Gina has actively shifted into the role of “content-producer,” as she elevates her battle for positive images of Black women:

I’ve written a draft of my first novel, and the main character is a goddess of war with afro puffs! She is a defender of women and girls everywhere.  I’ve since written about 3 shorts. I’m also in film school. I’ve produced a local television show, too. I’ll probably start shooting my first short in March or April and hopefully if that works out well, I’ll have a feature film by next year. But I have to get my technical skill to catch up with my ability as a writer. [Emphasis added]

After all is said and done, Gina hopes to leave behind a legacy of Black media warriors, unencumbered by social, financial, and technological barriers:

I’m just a woman trying to make a way in the world the best way I know how and trying to use my God-given gifts the best way I can. Just as I’ve been a cyber-crusading warrior princess, I hope to do the same thing with films. So many people have said to me, “I started my blog because of you.” So they can do that with films, too. Hopefully there will be another group of people that start producing films. I just want to show people what is possible. That’s the most challenging thing to break those barriers. We cannot afford to be limited. This technology is just waiting for you to embrace it. People are shooting television shows with cameras that cost less than $1,000 that give you the same look as a $40,000 camera.  We need to increase our use of mobile technology. Essence and Ebony and Jet are struggling in the digital space, I think it’s wide open for us. As many Black people as possible need to jump through. And I don’t want to be the only one there, because that is a very fragile place to be. We need a movement. Its not whether or not you’re the first, its whether or not you’re the first of many. My goal is to be the first of many, to walk through doors so that other black women know that they can walk through them too.

What we can learn from Gina: Go to school! Perfect your craft and produce quality work! Debra Lee is not going to save you. Tyler Perry is not going to save you. Create the stories you want to see! Get on board with technology, do not get left behind. Move from complaint into action.

“Unapologetic, Uncompromising, and Unbowed in Defense of Black Women and Girls.” Gina McCauley is: The Prototype.

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