BY BEATA GARRETT ’20
Mount Holyoke College welcomed author and pop culture blogger Luvvie Ajayi to campus on Feb. 22 to discuss her book “I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual.” The book analyzes cultural obsessions, relationships and how to improve them.
Anne Demosthene ’18 and Maria Lewis ’19 began the evening with an interview in which they asked her to describe her experience as a Nigerian immigrant. She talked about the “othering” effect of being both African and African American and how she distanced herself from the former until ultimately accepting and celebrating both identities in college. Due to the word being used by people of the African diaspora to understand themselves as sharing an ethnic or racialized identity on par with other peoples and nationalities, Ajayi capitalizes "Black" in her writing to celebrate both her Nigerian heritage and her African American identity.
Ajayi advised all writers that are interested in activism to donate their time and words to telling the stories of those at the front line of movements. She explained, “You can’t be an activist if you can’t correct the people who you can touch day to day, so start there.” This sentiment encapsulated in her book stems from a comfort with being more truthful toward people that surround her daily.
“In our silence, we’re saying [that bigoted remarks have] air,” she said. “Choke the air out of it… make people uncomfortable. You’re not comfortable sitting there anyway!”
Beyond activism, Ajayi encouraged more truth in social media and daily conversations with friends and family. She discussed the ethics of fake news and the lack of trust that divides us as a result of it, emphasizing that she “would prefer a later truth than a quicker lie.” The need for comfort over truth is ultimately a harmful desire, and prevents us from becoming stronger and improving one another. Ajayi used three rules to decide when to talk to friends and family about problematic behavior “do I mean it, can I defend it and can I say it with love?” She uses the same rules in her writing.
This point was particularly important to Demosthene. “I was extremely excited for the opportunity to interview such an inspiring, experienced and honest voice in the media-sphere,” said Demosthene. “What resonated with me most was Luvvie’s call to truth-telling. Specifically, how even when it is most uncomfortable, telling the truth has an invaluable impact on our lives. Whether it be speaking up when inappropriate or hateful comments begin taking up space, or letting your best friend know, no, her haircut was not the best you’ve seen it. There is a freedom in truth-telling we can all experience and enjoy.”
Ajayi discussed finding a new identity as a Black woman. Her experience as a child, navigating and learning about what being black means in America, still resonates with her today as her mother reads her blog and goes through the same process.
She continued to discuss the tension between her Nigerian identity and her Black identity in high school. She explained how her success and the success of all African immigrants who arrive in America is based on the fight African-Americans waged and continue to wage against oppression. Ajayi calls for solidarity between the diaspora and Africans as they are all black in America. After all, “we all spice our food, and our chicken is lit.”
Lerato Marshale ’20 said that “It was a great discussion. What I took from it is that we are doing greater harm by removing ourselves from conversations that need to happen as people of color.” Ajayi talked about her blog and book as a platform for having these conversations, and when the floor was open to questions, one student asked her “how to go against the tide and speak the truth about what you feel...shooting through that and standing up for what’s right.” Ajayi’s response was that to tell the truth is not easy, and to believe in one’s individual voice over the mass is a practice and that someone has to do it and that no one has the perfect opinion.
The interview finished with a book signing. “I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual” is being turned into a Shonda Rhimes cable company production. Ajayi also recently released the first episode of her podcast, “Rants and Randomness,” in which she talks about “Black Panther” and Valentine’s Day.