Teacher Lovely Hoffman had become disheartened by all the negative messages about race and beauty that were being perpetuated by her female students at Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy in Dorchester, Mass. One girl spoke of an aunt who used skin-bleaching creams, while another was overheard saying, “I don’t like dark skins or brown skins. … I would only choose white skins,” according to the Boston Globe.
Hoffman understood that the students were internalizing these messages about skin color, hair texture, and facial features, and that they were leading to low self-esteem. She also identified personally with the phenomenon, as she had experienced discrimination based on her skin tone when she was a young girl. According to the article, she was the darkest-skinned member of a singing group and was told at the time that she “didn’t have the right look” to make it as an artist.
But Hoffman knows she’s beautiful, and she made it her mission to help her students realize that about themselves, too. The teacher penned a song, “My Black Is Beautiful,” with lyrics that challenge society’s rigid beauty standards and celebrate the diversity of black women. “Look at her hair,” Hoffman sings. “Look at her braids. Look at her eyes. Look at her nose. Look at her ’fro. But it’s all about me. Who are you to say that I’m not beautiful? It’s your own insecurity because I know and I believe: My black is beautiful.”
What completes the song, though, is the accompanying music video, which she funded herself. Hoffman cast 12 of her students — 99 percent of whom are black and Latino, according to the Boston Globe — to star in the video, exploring and celebrating their unique looks. Students are seen examining their looks in the mirror of the school bathroom, and Hoffman is shown getting her hair braided at a salon.
Seventh-grader LaTavia Hobson was one of the students in the video, and she told the Boston Globe that participating in it helped her reframe the way she perceives herself physically. “The song lyrics saying how we’re all different but we’re beautiful, it really got to me,” Hobson said.
When Hobson showed the video to her parents, they were elated. “They were asking me: ‘Do you see your worth? Do you realize how valuable you are now? Do you see how pretty you are? Do you see the differences that you can see from when you thought you were ugly, but you really aren’t because you’re special?’” she recalled. “And I was, like, ‘Yes.'”
Another student cast in the video, Sheila Thompson, reflected on the pride she should have in the roots of her ethnicity, telling the Boston Globe, “Being African-American, being black, it’s like you’re struggling. … Being black is not just one thing. You can be Caribbean. You can be Cape Verdean. You can come from many different places and still be black, so I think it’s important to embrace where you came from.”
For Hoffman, that sense of self — and love of self — is the most important takeaway from her song. In the song, she sings, “In life, there’s one thing that you should remember. That love of self is more precious than anything else.” She says that a student can be “really, really smart,” but that she also has to believe in herself and have people believe in her. “You need to make sure children feel good about themselves,” she said, “and feel confident about themselves.”
“My Black Is Beautiful” is not a standalone effort, though. It’s part of a curriculum Hoffman created “to help promote self-esteem in black girls,” according to the article. When she first started teaching at Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy about a decade ago, she immediately began picking up on the negative race- and image-based messages floating around. So she decide to encourage conversation about race and culture, with the hopes of “instilling a sense of racial consciousness.”
Hoffman hopes her efforts will help her students to get a better grasp on “what it means to be a black woman in America.” Of the song, she says it was “in her heart” for the better part of three years until she finally penned, composed, and recorded it. Hoffman knew it was something she had to do. “As an educator, my job is not only to make sure students master their academics,” she said, “but also to educate the whole child.”
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