“Since I’ve been in America, I’ve always been intrigued by one phrase:
‘She is beautiful like the girl next door.’ I have always wondered whose neighborhood they were talking about.” – Iman
A few years ago, I read these words spoken by legendary super model Iman, and I was immediately struck by the honesty and logic of her statement. She was able to articulate the bias of a popular term used to categorize a certain class of women in the fashion and entertainment industries. We’ve been made to picture a dark haired, doe-eyed, good girl whose supposed innocence creates the illusion of perfection. She’s typically a white girl. She’s Winnie Cooper, Rachel from Friends, or Topanga Lawrence if we let Hollywood tell it.
For our “Girl Next Door” series you’ll meet four women who share their own coming of age stories. As I explained in my editors note, “Our “Girl Next Door” project is not about associating black women with the stereotypical definition of “the girl next door,” it’s about celebrating our neighbor—the actual girl who might have had big dreams of one day being seen and accomplishing her career goals, or of falling in love, or one who might have had to take care of her siblings because her mom needed her. We couldn’t capture every story, but we dedicate this to every little black girl who eventually became a beautiful and confident black woman—one whose life experiences were both joyous and complicated, but not complicated enough to break her.”
Sieneih Lewis- Flatbush, Brooklyn,
I grew up in an apartment complex in Georgia and the community center hosted summer camp for the children in the neighborhood. I mostly remember the arts and crafts portion of that program. If I wasn’t at camp, my friends and I often visited the candy lady’s apartment to stock up on hand grenades, ring pops, airheads, and fun dips. We later rode bikes throughout the complex and to the adjacent complex, we double-dutched, hula hooped, roller bladed, and unsuccessfully tried to skateboard. We finished off the day with a rehearsal where I practiced being Kelly of Destiny’s Child.
I’m the child of a Liberian immigrant and my apartment complex had several Liberian families there. On any given day, we would get dressed in our traditional attire to celebrate a wedding, a baptism, a birthday, or simply to celebrate our culture.
I lost my mother to the HIV/AIDS virus at the age of 12. Her rapid decline in health made her barely recognizable, even to me her own daughter. She spent a lot of time at home instead of the hospital and she didn’t have a nurse that visited, so part of my childhood revolved less around cartoons and playing with friends and more around giving her medication through a catheter, bathing her, and helping her in and out of bed. I also assumed the role of taking care of my younger sibling who was later sent away so I could focus more on my mom.
We were ostracized by just about everyone we knew. I remember one friend coming to my house and saying her mom said she couldn’t come to my house because she would get sick. But she came anyway and in that moment I simultaneously learned about rejection and acceptance. I actually had no clue that my mom had HIV until after she died. All I knew was that she was sick and it was my duty to take care of her, and that was the least I could do to repay her for all the sacrifices that she made for me.
My mother’s death changed my life overnight. I went from a kid in a section 8 apartment, battling feelings of rejection and separation anxiety, to being one of six kids in the home of one of the most amazing souls to ever cross this earth. And although losing my mother still hurts, the amount of love that I receive from my extended family has helped me heal more wounds than I can count. That love also encouraged me to travel the world, to gain new experiences, and to create my own future. I still cry when I recall that time in my life, but I am very proud to say that big tall Liberian girl from that section 8 apartment who lost her mom to the HIV/AIDS virus is still standing with two degrees, knowledge of a second language, over 10 stamps on her passport, a budding business, and a community of friends that spans across the globe. I didn’t allow my pain to stop me from being the woman I wanted to be and have become, and I feel really good about that.
I’ve always been taller and bigger than my peers and as a kid they did not let me forget it. Even the adults would comment on how big I was and take turns guessing how old I was because I didn’t look my age and encouraged me to stop eating. In an effort to shy away from all the negative attention, I developed terrible posture which made the problem worse because then I was big tall and hunched backed. My hair also grew slower than my peers so I was often call bald-headed and all the non-Africans called me an African booty scratcher. Although I had no idea what that meant, it made me feel ugly.
In contrast, the pretty girl in my neighborhood was Antoinette. She was also black but had long reddish brown hair and wore braided pigtails with barrettes at the end. She was also a lot lighter than I was and had freckles. All the boys liked her and always commented on how attractive she was. She’s actually a model now and if she reads this I want her to know that I still think she’s pretty, I’ve just come to realize that so am I.
The Brooklyn culture is by far the most infectious. I live in Flatbush, where you can get Roti and organic juice on the same block. The art scene has taught me to tap into my creative side, the music has taught me to dance to the beat of my own drum, the food has helped me to embrace all my curves, and the people have taught me, in the words of an old friend, to just ‘chill bruh.’
I think I’ve finally come to understand the meaning of the word “beautiful.” I used to think beauty was physical, but when I finally got out of that neighborhood, when I finally left Georgia, and when I finally traveled the world, I realized that being “beautiful” is attributed to one’s character, to one’s compassion for others, and to being able to identify one’s self-worth without denying someone else their own. That’s exactly what I want people to see when they call me beautiful because then I know that they have truly seen my essence.
Zehira Jirvis – Ozone Park, Queens
My childhood summers in queens were very memorable because 139 street hosted annual block parties until I was 14 after the lady who was president of the block association passed away. The block parties were always filled with riding our bikes back and forth and vibing out to whatever was popular in the early 2000s. The summers always consisted of cold ices, fireworks for no reason, and random beach days at Jones Beach when my parents had cars and weren’t working.
I was the pretty girl on 139st because I was around everyone’s age and a lot of the boys my age made it known that they had crushes on me but I never gave any attention to it because my dad wasn’t having it at all.
Growing up In queens shaped me to be a strong independent woman with class and has tested me in many ways with my patience and pride and also my ability to have a voice for the inner city youth who want to become that college going girl from the “south side.” People say that I live in the hood but I can’t really agree with them because my mom made sure I stayed in the house and away from all negativity that New York can sometimes offer young teenagers. I was always involved in sports and activities unlike a lot of the kids. My mom literally saved me from being non-ambitious and disrespectful. My grandmother taught me to love people who aren’t like me and Queens always taught me how to have tough skin.
I have had many life changing experiences in my life. Some things I shouldn’t have gone through as a teenager because they forced me to grow up to fast. The experience of my parents divorce literally shifted the way I thought about life. Having a dad for 13 years of my life and then for him to one day decide to not be a part of the American Dream was traumatic for my mom. We were left with four kids on our own and my mother didn’t have any help financially besides her twin sister and my lovely grandmother, may God rest her soul. My father literally sold us out to become the ultimate play boy and left my mother and I stranded in the middle of Pennsylvania which made us move back in with grandmother. Everything I wanted [to do for] fun never happened in high school because I always thought about my siblings and mother if they would approve or not. A 13-year-old shouldn’t have to worry about cooking dinner for her siblings. I really wanted to be outside playing with friends.
My mom has always taught me to always get up and dust myself off no matter how impactful it was and always pray to God and he truly has blessed me. The one experience that has changed my life for the better is seeing how hard my mom struggles for all five of her children, including me. She is literally my rock and I don’t know what I would do without her!
When I left for college I was ready to only worry about myself and become the positive kind of selfish. I currently go to the illustrious Clark Atlanta University located in Georgia. I am a rising sophomore business accounting major so school for me is still very new. College is really a place where you find your talents, purpose and understanding of who you really are when you are away from your parents. The dating scene in the ATL isn’t anything I recommend so if you believe you’re going to get a relationship like ATL the media has fooled you darling. Always go to school for education and to learn who you truly are as a black woman. That’s what I tell a lot of youth who ask for advice.
Yasmeen Wilkerson- Fort Greene, Brooklyn
I am a Brooklyn native. I lived in New York all my life, although I have traveled to the islands and surrounding states. I grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly black area. I lived on McDonough Street near the C train on Ralph Avenue.
Given the chance, I chose to go to a middle school in Bushwick near Knickerbocker Avenue, a predominantly Hispanic area. There, I learned about diversity and found an interest in learning Spanish and other cultures in general. Through my last year of middle school, I moved to Madison Street, a 30-minute bus ride from my original home. At the time I lived with my 2 sisters, brother, and mom; we moved in a private home with my Grandma and Uncle who owned the whole building. This was a good move for my family, helping us to stay connected and also to gain support from loved ones. In my second year of high school we moved to Carlton Avenue [housing projects] in Fort Greene, a nearby neighborhood.
Summers in Brooklyn were all about the cookouts with family back then. I used to be an introverted child, with a few people around I could confidently call my friends. I kept close to my family and family friends where we would hold these cookouts in our front yard or backyard. During my childhood, block parties were very common. The city would make plans to close off a street and all of my neighbors would come together and throw a compilation of barbecues filled with cotton candy machines, the occasional bouncy houses, grilled delectable, and tables/tents set up with games and activities.
I was always a good student so I never went to summer school. In middle school I was part of a contemporary jazz band, so a few days out of the week, I would take time to practice on my clarinet. My band also went on trips to waterparks, museums, festivals and events. There was always something to do.
My most memorable past experience in Brooklyn was being in my jazz band for a few years. I was a lead clarinetist and even had my own student-in-training.
Before finding skateboarding as my release, I was considered a band nerd. I loved the way I was able to manipulate music to my liking and the way the music washed over me. My first set of friends was made there, I learned so much, not only about music theory but about myself also. Because of band, I was able to slowly start to peel away and out of my shell.
I got into skateboarding when I was 16 in late 2013. My story started with a friend of my sister’s being a skateboarder, I vibed with him well and I admired his dedication to the craft. I bought a skateboard but at that time being 15, I never rode it. I was more of a poser, I was too scared of failing that I would barely try to skate in front of people. I could barely push my board around and I couldn’t do any tricks. Close to turning 16 in 2013 I came across a longboarder who, later, became a love interest. He was a big part of me learning how to skate and taught me the basics. A half a year had passed and we were going our separate ways in our lives. I lost him and kept the longboard he gave me.
Now at 19, I’ve been skating consistently for a few years. I started off as a longboarder, where I was having fun developing skills in downhill skateboarding. It wasn’t until summer 2015 that I switched to a smaller board, that I was able to learn how to pop my board and skate bowls and mini ramps.
I’ve made a place and reputation for myself in not only the longboarding community but the skateboarding community also. I love looking back and realizing how far I’ve progressed within these few years. I want to help the community grow, lately in 2016 I’ve been working on promoting girl skating in NYC and partnering with companies like GRO (girls riders organization), girl skate groups like Femmeskate, and recently, Brujas to help put girl skaters on the map.
Regular skateboarders don’t accept longboarders because they believe that they are posers in a way, without any knowledge of how to successfully move on a wooden board. Not only was I formerly a longboarder which has gotten me 50/50 backlash and positive reinforcement, but I am a black girl. As much as I don’t want my race to be something to be focused on, it has. Being a black girl living in Brooklyn, I am defying stereotypes by becoming a fearless skateboarder. Especially one living in the projects, NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority) housing developments.
Michelle Hopkins- Harlem, NY
Having a military background, summers were very different for me. I grew up in Germany since I was a baby until I was about 12-years-old. I just remember growing up in a neighborhood where the saying “it takes a village” to a raise a kid was definitely a motto we lived by. I believe we lived by that motto too much in that we all knew the negative and the positive things of everyone’s lives. However, growing up in Germany with an African-American and Korean background was amazing. My mother is Korean, my father is black. I just remember my mom cooking both Soul and Korean food. Everyone in the neighborhood loved her cooking. She would cook all day for the kids. She had me dress up in a Hanbok (Korean dress) for school pictures. I truly believe, that my diverse background, the military culture and German culture allowed me to become the diverse, open and honest woman that I am today. My fondest memory there was just being a child growing up in a close-knit neighborhood. I felt safe and I felt loved by everyone.
As a little girl I was always given compliments but I figured that was normal for all kids. However, as I got older I was bullied by girls for being pretty. I was picked on for having an Asian mother. As a teenager in Kentucky, I was pretty much liked; well to my knowledge. I was somewhat confident and I was learning myself. I started to pick up my weight then too. I guess, you can say I was big for my age, because I wasn’t skinny. I could tell that I was being judged because of my weight. However, being raised around four brothers I grew up to be nonchalant towards a lot of things so I paid no attention to what people thought then. Like I said, I was learning myself, I was confident and in the most awkward situation I would be comfortable.
I am not a native New Yorker but deep down I always felt that I was. As I got older and attended college, I knew I wanted to eventually move here. Of course, I was told to move here, I would need to be financially stable, have a job, a place, etc. I had nothing. I took a leap, packed everything in my car and drove for 12 hours. I looked on Craiglist and was blessed to find a sane roommate. This city has made me stronger and more independent as a woman. I am proud of who I am as woman, ethnicity, size, and attitude. I take no shit from no one!
I absolutely love Harlem. The culture and style here is crazy. It’s full of history and flavor. Everyone here is unique and diverse. The style here is eclectic. It’s a bit of everything, from being flashy, to classy, sophisticated, natural, etc., I love walking down the street and hearing music blasting from the windows, hearing people playing the bongos at the State building, people dancing, singing and just having fun. I love being surrounded by people who are entrepreneurs. The hustle here is infectious. When I moved here I knew Harlem was my home. I fit right in and it even added a little flavor to my style. I am more bold now with things I wear. I definitely add more color to my style.
One of the things that stand out most in my life is that I set a higher standard in my family by being the first to graduate from college and earning a MBA. You never notice who is watching or looking up to you. I am so proud to say that my niece is now going to college this year and attending the same school I attended; The University of Kentucky. I was so shocked when she told me this was the school she wanted to attend. My nephew, who has a few more years until college, also wants to attend this school. I am honored to have been the one to start this tradition for my family; setting an example by letting them know you can be anything you want to be.
Abi Ishola, Editor-in-Chief
Models Sieneih Lewis and Michelle Hopkins: makeup by Yetty Bames, YettyBames.com
Sieneih Lewis styled by Tanya Jean-Baptiste of ClothesConscienceBlog.Wordpress.com, Abi Ishola, and Yetty Bames
Zehira Jirvis styled by Abi Ishola
Michelle Hopkins styled by Abi Ishola