Black Joy & Poetic Eloquence: Sitting Down with Jolie Brownell

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Black Joy and Poetic Eloquence: Sitting Down with Jolie Brownell
by Megan Loreto

Jolie Brownell is a rising junior at LMU majoring in women and gender studies and minoring in African American studies and sociology. She is a writer, speaker, artist and the author of several collections of poetry. She recently sat down with Megan Loreto, Agency’s Arts and Culture Editor, to discuss the release of two new ebooks: You’re Cute, But Are You Woke? and Nappy Headed Teachings Vol. I. You can purchase them on her website

Megan Loreto (ML): Jolie, thank you so much for interviewing with us. I love your work and I am so excited to hear more about it. When did you first begin to write and when did you begin to consider yourself a writer? 

Jolie Brownell (JB): I started writing when I was 13 years old. I was never good at journaling or grammar even, but one day I came across this blog that had a lot of toxic messages geared towards teenage girls. This blog had an open blogger format and so I became one of their bloggers and started counteracting those negative messages with positive and empowering ones. It was so much fun and I gathered quite a following… that is, until they literally kicked me off their site a year or so later, because my uplifting messages “tainted their brand,” LOL. I didn’t consider myself a writer at that time, just a girl who wanted to empower girls through writing.

It wasn’t until I published my first book at 17, that I considered myself a writer. Selling hundreds of copies of my book all on my own (without a publisher) was a really rad feeling. It was like, “oh, people like my writing enough to buy it,” that must mean I am a writer or at least a decent enough one. 

ML: What do you enjoy most about poetry, which seems to be your preferred medium? 

JB: It took even longer to consider myself a poet. I can’t actually remember the first time I started writing poetry, but I also think it was around freshman year of high school during our poetry unit in English class. I liked how beautiful, simple, and concise poetry is, and started playing around with it a little. Now, poetry is my main writing style. I love writing research papers too, but that’s a whole different thing.

ML: What does your process look like? Who/what are some of your inspirations?

JB: I write poetry almost daily. It has become integral to the core of who I am. I think, process, and exist through poetry. “I am a writer; I feel in syllables” (JVB 2017).

My writing process usually starts with inspiration. I may see an image, come across a certain color (usually bright fun colors) and/or hear a word that inspires something in me. I’ll screenshot it and or jot the word down and then when I have some time, I’ll write from that place of inspiration. Actually, my entire Instagram “saved” folder is filled with images, quotes and or people who inspire me. I have countless images of beautiful Black women, pro-radical liberation quotes and shots of Beyonce (because Beyonce). It’s the new Pinterest. A lot of my inspiration comes from there. 

Also, sometimes poems just flow right out of me, no inspiration needed. This does not happen often, but when it does, these poems always turn out to be my favorites. 

ML: Your work is very much centered in the idea of intersectionality, first termed by KimberlĂ© Crenshaw in 1989. One of my favorite parts of your collections and something I first saw on your Instagram was your "disclaimer" that really does a great job visually illustrating the way your work is (to borrow a phrase from you), "pro-dismantling all systems of oppression." 

JB: I learned about KimberlĂ© Crenshaw’s “intersectionality” freshman year of college and it changed everything for me. It changed how I see and understand the world and myself in the world. Many times, I believe we are taught only one perspective, one side of a story, or one part of a person’s identity, yet intersectionality challenges this notion and pushes us to consider different viewpoints and completely different ways of analyzing. Intersectionality complicates things (in a good way), as it shows what is possible, what new solutions are possible, when we dive into the complexities of the world and who we are. 

On a more personal note, intersectionality has helped me understand how my multiple identities (Black, adopted, femme-identifying, immigrant, etc.) relate to one another and make me who I am. I am beautifully complex, and Crenshaw’s “intersectionality” helped me revel in this fact. 

And YES, I am pro-all forms of liberation. I believe that while fighting for my own liberation, it is absolutely necessary to fight for other’s liberation, even if their liberation looks different from my own. There is not one form of freedom, but in order to give everyone access to these forms of freedom, we must first dismantle all forms of oppression. There is no other way! 

ML: The way you explain your ideas is very accessible even to readers not familiar with Crenshaw's work.  Why is it important to you that these ideas are clearly and explicitly expressed?

JB: Thank you so much for asking me this question, because it is central to my goal for my work. I want my work to be as accessible as possible. This said, I understand that my story, my intersection of identities does not make me palatable for everyone and that is okay. So, what I really want is to be accessible for those who choose to read and engage with my work. 

Studying in college I’ve learned a lot of cool new words and concepts, which is great, but at the same time I’ve learned just how inaccessible many of these words and concepts are. Not only in the costs of buying such resources, but also in the very language these resources are written in. I almost always need a dictionary when reading these “college-level” texts, and while I appreciate this opportunity to learn, I realize this is not the reality for everyone. My hope and mission then, is to take what I’ve learned, process it for myself and then relay it back through poetry. In other words, take these huge “intellectual” words, and make them smaller, more accessible and more beautiful. 

Especially now, when there is a revolution emerging and there are a lot of big concepts being thrown around like “police brutality,” “abolishment,” “white supremacy,” etc. people fear what they don’t fully understand and therefore, there is a need to break these concepts down for people to understand them and hopefully be inspired to get on board. Like Toni Cade Bambara said so eloquently, “The purpose of a writer is to make revolution irresistible.” 

This is especially my mission and hope for my latest work, You’re Cute, But Are You Woke? poetry ebook. Breaking down what the word “woke” really means, not only for myself, but also in relation to eradicating systems of oppression. 

ML: One of the collections of poetry you recently released, Nappy Headed Teachings centers around the deconstruction of the beauty standards that our society upholds for Black women, girls and femmes. In several poems you very eloquently speak to the way that these standards are imposed by racism, sexism and capitalism. Will you expand on this idea? How do you integrate the work of combating these standards into your daily life?

JB: The simplest way I can further explain this is through hierarchies. Sexism is the hierarchy that places men above women and heterosexuality above anything else. Racism is the hierarchy that places value on lighter/whiter skin (on top) and darker/blacker skin with less value (on the bottom). Beauty standards then, as a mode of sexism (increasing a woman's value through appearance) also ties to racism. Society places greater value on lighter/white women than they do on darker/blacker women. Another term for this is colorism. Additionally, society’s valuing of skinnier/thinner over curvy/fatter bodies is also historically racist. A great book to read/learn more about this is Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings.

As a curvy dark skin woman, I grew up being surrounded by messages of how I was not enough; not thin enough, not light enough, not woman (feminine) enough. This depleted a lot of my confidence and it would take me a long time to learn to love and appreciate myself for who I am. As I mentioned before, I started writing in order to empower others. I also did it to help empower myself as well. Yet, through this empowerment I realized that woman/femme- identifying folks needed more than to just hear “love yourself.” They needed to understand why these outside messages telling them they were not enough existed in the first place and why they continue to be perpetuated. The “why” I keep coming across is capitalism. By teaching us that we are not “enough,” we are then sold things that will make us more beautiful. We are sold beauty. This can only work if there is a lacking (sexism) AND if there is a beauty ideal to aspire to (racism). 

My poetry ebook Nappy Headed Teachings is my celebration of me saying FU to these systems that are hell bent on telling me I am not enough. I want all women and femme-identifying folks, especially Black femmes to love themselves without the need to change themselves first. Our blackness does not need lightening. Our hair does not need straightening. Our bodies do not need tightening in order to be beautiful. We just are. How fucking radical is that?!

ML: Your work also touches very beautifully upon the topics of growth and self-actualization. One of my favorite poems from You're Cute But Are You Woke is "It is okay for your words to grow." What are some ways you challenge yourself to grow?

JB: I love learning. I accepted the title “nerd” a long time ago. My dad always told me that “the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.” This turns out to be very true, and while for many the “unknown” is a scary place to be, I challenge myself, through my poetry, to go there. Step into the unknown. In order to do this, I read A LOT. Yes, I am that student who reads the WHOLE 50 page reading before class. I love it. I am currently reading Pleasure Politics by Adrienne M. Brown. It’s epic! If you’ve read it, DM, and let’s talk about it!

...I also challenge myself to do a lot of “unlearning.” Living in these systems of capitalism, patriarchy, and racism, we are all conditioned into believing certain things. For instance, the whole idea that there are just two sexes/genders. This is bogus. Science has proven the existence of multiple sexes (i.e. intersexed individuals). Also, gender is non-binary. These truths just happened to be left out of our biology books. Like, WTF? I want to know WHY they were left out. Why weren’t we taught certain things? I am forever curious.

Finally, I challenge myself to sit in places of discomfort. This is all part of the “unlearning.” Thankfully, my curiosity seems to trump whatever fear or discomfort I may have with learning new things. So, every time I feel a sense of “ooh, but that makes me uncomfortable,” I push myself to sit in that discomfort a little longer. This is the ONLY way you grow, by stepping outside your comfort zone. 

ML: Though your poems explore deep themes, so much joy can be found in your work. You wrote, not long after the death of George Floyd, about the necessity for everyone who believes that Black Lives Matter to celebrate Black joy, invest in Black dreams and fight for Black life, not just justice after death. That being said, what brings you joy in these moments?

JB: Yes. Yes. YES! 

As an artist, I am putting myself up for consumption. I want readers to consume (or take in) my art, and in essence, consume me. This said, I do not want readers and viewers of my art to only take away with them the pain and frustration that I feel. While these emotions and realities are very real for me, I don’t want them to forget about my joy, laughter and light. 

I am all of it. I am my trauma, my happiness, my anger, my dreams, my joy, my sadness, my sexiness, my exhaustion. Therefore, I want you to take in my smile, as you read about my pain. I want you to see bright colors as you read through my anger. I want you to take it all in. Not to overwhelm you, but to remind you that we are both human. We are everything at once. We are complex. We are contradictions. We are multifaceted. We are beautiful.

Fighting for my joy is just as important, or actually no, more important than fighting to dismantle my oppression. My Black joy is important. My Black femme joy is my right. My joy is a big middle finger up to all oppressive systems trying to steal my life away from me. 

During these trying times, especially, my joy is crucial. Currently, things that have been bringing me the most joy are reading affirming texts by Black women/femmes, getting dressed up and doing self-timer photoshoots in my backyard, twerking to Beyonce’s SAVAGE remix, binge watching my favorite Netflix shows, making fun new things (like homemade Kombucha), and writing poetry of course. 

May we continue to choose our right to joy. 


1 comment

  1. C`est vraiment Jolie! After reading this article, I am going to get your book and read your poems.