Midway into a conversation with Michaela Angela Davis, she suggests a slight case of self-deprecation and cracks a warm smile as she comes to grips with her impact on young women.
“It’s not until moments like this when you kind of pause, look at what you’re doing, and go, ‘Oh, I really might mean something to somebody.’ I just still feel like I’m so frivolous,” she says, laughing.
Contrary to the matter, Davis is far from frivolous. The self-described “image activist,” who has worked as a stylist, editor and cultural critic, has made it her mission for the past several decades to promote self-esteem for Black women. Davis has successfully balanced creativity and feminism to encourage conversation.
In fact, her new novel that’s in the works, “The Revolution of Happiness: A Book and Digital Conversation Project,” is a culmination of “honest and innovative cross-generational conversations with revolutionary-thinking Black women about disturbing the pain that has burdened or molested our natural exquisite selves.”
Davis believes this is the time for young people, especially young women, to have conversations and discuss feminism and race with men and people of other races.
“You need people on the other side to be your partner. We can’t end violence among women with just women,” she said. “We can’t talk about racism without white people. If we don’t really get more people having these critical conversations, our children are going to have them.”
Known for promoting cultural discussion, the Washington, D.C.-bred, New York resident initially made her mark more than 15 years ago as an associate fashion editor at Essence magazine. She later served as editor in chief of the now defunct Honey magazine.
Both career moves not only catapulted her to success, but they also inspired her to create projects such as Take Back the Music for Essence, which encouraged conversations about women’s images in music and entertainment.
“BET was the main distributor of the disturbing images that we were challenging,” Davis said. “We weren’t saying, ‘Hate BET,’ we were saying, ‘We need to have a conversation, we want to challenge you about understanding what these images are doing, particularly these images in the absence of others.’ It’s kind of like how we were challenging hip-hop.”
Although Davis identifies as a feminist now, she didn’t always embrace the title wholeheartedly. While Davis was focused on creating images, her friends, writers Joan Morgan and dream hampton, chronicled the effect of Black female images in media.
“At the time, I was a fashion girl first,” she said, laughing. “So, it took me a while to identify with that. I felt like I was an artist. Until I put myself with those women [like hampton and Morgan] and saw myself in alignment and in solidarity and in sisterhood with these women, I didn’t identify as feminist but…also, there was a part of the feminist movement that didn’t include Black women, and it was a turnoff.”
Even with her initial hesitance to the term, Davis continued supporting the idea, showcasing Black women’s achievements and endeavors. In 2006, Black Girls Rock! a youth empowerment and mentoring program for girls 12 to 17 years old, was established by DJ Beverly Bond, a friend of Davis’. After the fold of Honey and the end of the Take Back the Music campaign, Davis wanted to work with a modern program that counterbalanced feminism.
“‘Black Girls Rock!’ as a brand was set,” Davis said. “The award shows were already star-studded. They just weren’t on TV. They were not far from what you saw on television already. By the time BET bought into the brand, they just elevated it to television, but that’s what Black Girls Rock! was…To me, Black Girls Rock! is the closest thing to ‘My Black is Beautiful’ that this generation has seen.”
Yet, even with the glamorous annual televised event that boasts actresses Nia Long and Kerry Washington as former hosts, Davis continues to help the foundation and says it still struggles with investors supporting the progressive organization.
“It’s funny because I think people are interested in us, but they don’t know how to invest,” she said. “We can be popular, but can we be supported? I think that’s what’s going to be interesting in watching how Black Girls Rock! and things like it progress, like, ‘Can you write a check? Can you support Black girls in this way that is substantive?’”