You remember your high school prom. The excitement, the anticipation, the hours you poured into finding the perfect dress and accessories to boot. Well, instead of turning to clothing store dress racks and generic online retailers, some teenagers, like Ohio Garfield Heights High School student Makalaya Zanders, are opting to design their own prom dresses. But Zanders’ dress isn’t your typical run-of-the-mill prom dress. Inspired by an Ankara gown worn at a gala by Nigerian model Jessica Chibueze, Zanders teamed up with a local designer by the name of DeAndré Crenshaw to create a beautiful royal blue fishtail dress emblazoned with colorful print to make a bold statement. And that, it did.
In an Instagram post, Zanders wrote that she created her dress to show that “African style is beautiful,” that she is “comfortable with my Melanin and roots” (loving her capitalization of the word melanin), and that “there’s nothing like Black girl Magic.” There’s not enough yasssses or Amens in the world to applaud this young, creative woman’s zeal.
And like New Jersey teenager Kyemah McEntyre famously did last year, Makalaya Zanders absolutely slayed in her Ankara-print prom dress. Yet a white teacher of Zanders was quick to diminish her astounding style choice, suggesting that an African-inspired dress would be inappropriate for prom. Le sigh.
I almost loathe to bring Zanders’ teacher up because the real, empowering story here is more important than this teacher’s misguided, culturally insensitive remarks which, according to the student, she later apologized for. But, alas, the teacher’s comment is an integral part of a story in which details matter. The comments made by Zanders’ teacher bring up important issues that affect Black girls and women on a regular basis: the policing of our bodies, of our individuality, of our cultural heritage and our beauty, which is consistently pitted against that of White women.
This story is about more than an article of clothing and a White teacher’s opinion about her Black student’s style of dress. And while I want to keep the focus on Zanders and her goal of empowering other young women of color, I can’t help but be reminded that her teacher’s statement is exactly the kind of thinking that resulted in some schools banning afros and locs. It’s the kind of thinking that prompted school officials to send Black students home for wearing Black Lives Matter and Black Girls Rock shirts, claiming they were distracting, inappropriate, racist or offensive. It’s this type of thinking that prompted West Point Academy to conduct an official inquiry concerning the 16 Black female graduates who posed for a photo with raised fists. Mitigated by fear, propagated by stereotypes and prejudice; remnants of a not-so-distant past clashing with a present that still equates the combination of youth and Blackness with violence, uncertainty, and bruteness, we live in a culture that teaches our children that their Blackness is dangerous, their Blackness is other, and their Blackness is an affront to White privilege, something worth being punished for. Our culture also appropriates Blackness while cultivating ways to tear it down in its natural state. All of this needs to stop and it needs to stop especially for the sake of our children. Can they please live?
Which brings me back to Makalaya Zanders. I applaud and congratulate her for being her authentic, unapologetic self. She is yet another example that 2016 is indeed the year of unapologetic blackness. I’m grateful that Zanders is sharing her experience via social media and that media outlets are circulating her story. I’m happy that #AfricanProm is trending and that young Black women are finding creative and innovative ways to inspire themselves and others. Black Girl Magic is alive and well. Clearly, the only thing that was tacky or inappropriate about Zanders’ prom dress was her teacher’s unwelcomed comments about it.