Tahj Williams in a costume she created (304298)
Credit: Justen Williams photo

It’s a peculiar irony of Black life that we grow up routinely seeing people from far-flung communities and cultures working in “Black neighborhoods” and “Black institutions” without giving much thought as to whether or not they “fit in.” Yet for many Black women, reaching the end of college and thinking about a professional career is fraught with anxiety about whether or not they will fit into “white” culture in order to make a living. They wonder if they are enough.

At her job teaching at an HBCU a few years ago, Dr. Yaba Blay noticed this disturbing trend among the female students coming to her during office hours. “It seemed like so many of my colleagues were training them, or attempting to train these students away from themselves,” she explained in an interview. She believed they were being taught that in the professional world, Black women could not have a name that sounded “too Black,” or they needed to change the way they spoke. “All these things are essentially communicating to them that they weren’t okay as they were and that they had to change themselves in order to be seen as professional,” stated Blay.

Wanting these girls, and others like them, to feel more optimistic about their potential as professionals, and not carry around the burden of respectability, Blay decided to create the web series “Professional Black Girl.” The series was recently showcased during the annual AfroPop: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange, with episodes from season two combined into one, and is still screening on the WORLD Channel website.

“Professional Black Girl” follows six women in New Orleans as they go about their lives. There is singer Tarriona “Tank” Ball of the acclaimed group Tank and the Bangas, media personality and wedding planner Fresh Johnson, speech therapist Gina Marie Smith discussing Creole culture and her family’s strong business ties to the city’s Mardi Gras celebrations, and Tahj Williams, second queen of the Golden Eagles tribe, who explains Mardi Gras Indian culture, and how her self-made costumes became a viral sensation. Curator and filmmaker Shantrelle P. Lewis details how she was able to have the “Blackest wedding ever,” as she visits little-known cultural spots in her hometown, and Chef Linda Green, winner of “Food Network’s Chopped: Pride of New Orleans,” gives viewers a taste of her famous ya-ka-mein soup, a dish heavily influenced by the city’s historic Chinese immigrant population.

She wanted, Blay says, to show that “many of us in this world are able to be exactly who we are, show up in the world as we are, and still be regarded as professional in our fields.” She states that in naming the series “Professional Black Girl,” she was being deliberately subversive. “It’s not about the degrees or the level of success that these women have achieved in their careers as much as it’s about the extent to which they represent for Black culture, for Black girl culture specifically.”

The scholar-activist, public speaker and cultural consultant who has authored “One Drop: Shifting The Lens on Race,” re-examining definitions of Blackness in the context of features and color, is also a sought-after public speaker. She has also launched several viral campaigns including Locs of Love, #PrettyPeriod, and #ProfessionalBlackGirl. The popularity of the latter motivated her to start the web series.

What is most striking about the collective of women featured in “Professional Black Girl” is their comfort in their skins. Although aware of issues such as colorism, or being perceived negatively because of their race, these women don’t let it slow them down or dampen their spirits. They are essentially Carefree Black Girls, smiles always at the ready.

Season two of “Professional Black Girl” also deftly works as a travel series, highlighting the nuances of New Orleans’ distinct Black culture, something Blay suggests was deliberate. “When we were thinking about who to present, we were actually thinking, how do we best represent the city and the culture of the city?” Blay was clear that food, music and Mardi Gras would figure prominently in season two. Indeed, most of the personalities featured have an intimate connection to Mardi Gras, the annual festival for which the city is arguably most known. Smith’s family has for decades made the beads many sport during the festivities, and Fresh Johnson and Tajh Williams perform in Mardi Gras each year.

Blay said she would love to expand the travel aspect of the series. “Like New Orleans, I’ve traveled to other places like Puerto Rico, Brazil, West Africa. Even when folks go to those places, they only go to the resorts, but the real people live outside of that.” She would love to bring to our screens real Black women’s lived lives as they play out across the diaspora. “I’m open to that idea because I do think it’s important for us to see ourselves outside of the mainstream projections of who Black women and girls are.”