28 Days of Black Joy: Surrounded by the Black Gaze (A Collector's Story)

Illustration for article titled 28 Days of Black Joy: Surrounded by the Black Gaze (A Collector's Story)
Photo: Maiysha Kai

It started with a postcard. It arrived during my first semester at Sarah Lawrence, the private liberal arts college 40 minutes north of New York City (and as close to the city as my Midwestern parents would allow me to live) that I’d fallen in love with at first sight, bolstered by the fact that Alice Walker was an alum. Two months in, I was already struggling with the petty dramas that accompanied being among a smattering of Black students at an already small predominantly white institution (as Walker’s own writings recalled). Feeling more lost than found, I was heartened the day I opened my campus mailbox to find a postcard bearing a photo of Billie Holiday inside. The high school friend who’d sent it rote that it reminded her of me, a singer already well versed in the plaintive jazz standards made famous by the legendary chanteuse.

Absent her evening gowns and signature gardenia, it was simply a photo of an artist in her element, singing into a studio mic. But for me, adrift in a new city amid a sea of new faces, that black-and-white postcard felt like a grounding cord, reminding me who I was, where I was from and what I aimed to do with my life and work. Tragic ending notwithstanding, seeing Lady Day, I felt seen.

Illustration for article titled 28 Days of Black Joy: Surrounded by the Black Gaze (A Collector's Story)
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives (Getty Images)
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I remember affixing the postcard to the bulletin board over my dorm-issue desk, where Billie was soon joined by others; so many that by the end of that first year, they covered the doors of my wardrobe and framed my mirror. Always, they were black-and white, always Black people, always being beautiful and brilliant and spiritual and free. That single postcard grew into a decades-long habit—whether thumbing through a magazine, browsing a museum gift shop or passing a rack of postcards, I’d instinctively stop to seek us out, carefully ripping out a page or purchasing an image I simply couldn’t bear to leave behind. I still do.

Post-college, I stumbled into a modeling career, but my most impressive photos remained the growing array of now-framed images that turned my first apartments into galleries. Collecting whatever moved me, celebrities, civil rights icons and strangers posed unassumingly alongside relatives and friends as I built an extended family of familiars. Many of those same friends indulges my habit, gifting me photos and postcards whenever they saw one I might like.

Illustration for article titled 28 Days of Black Joy: Surrounded by the Black Gaze (A Collector's Story)
Photo: Maiysha Kai

As the aughts came to a close, my then-apartment was photographed for a book on interior decorating—my collection was the centerpiece. And truly, it was the heart of my home, photos spanning three walls of my main room like an embrace. When I made the abrupt decision to leave New York for my hometown a decade later, it was the photos I wept over as I carefully wrapped and boxed each for storage, leaving a few to cherished friends. I was heading home, but already feeling adrift without all those faces to remind me how far I’d come.

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With this new home came a new career; one in which grounding myself in the beauty of Blackness was not only a personal but a professional imperative. My photos still in storage, I began another collection, this time, defying the gray Chicago winter with color and femininity—but still Black and beautiful and brilliant and spiritual and free. Intent on surrounding myself with all iterations and eras of Black femmes, I filled a 9-by-9-foot wall of my office, a daily reminder of who I am, where I’m from and what I aim to do with my life and work.

Illustration for article titled 28 Days of Black Joy: Surrounded by the Black Gaze (A Collector's Story)
Photo: Maiysha Kai
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Of course, nine square feet cannot hold our multitudes—and rare is the collector who feels their collection is ever complete. Cloistered by the pandemic, in recent months I’ve graduated to canvases, finding new delight in seeing us rendered in oils, acrylics and watercolors, sketched and even decoupaged. Obsessive? Perhaps, but it’s ironically felt like sanity and sanctuary to me. To reference Walker, it is my version of “possessing the secret of joy”—because while I spend these days floating between the same few rooms, wherever I lay my eyes, I am greeted by us.

And I feel seen.

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, co-host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door...May I borrow some sugar?

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DISCUSSION

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Thotline Bling: black girl supremacy

First of all, shout out to you for blessing us with all this beauty on a gloomy Tuesday! I’m primarily referring to this selfie you’re serving, but of course my compliment includes the gorgeous black beauties on your walls.

This piece has even further confirmed why I love you, Mai! I feel seen—my familiar and my Aries sister!

My office walls are also a reflection of who I am, where I am from, and what I aim to do. <3 I have artistic renderings of Toni, Ida, Zora, Nina, and a few other black writers who watch over me.

However, now that I see you have turned your entire wall into a collage, I am inspired! I may also steal the idea behind your framed black and white images and put my own spin on it.

Thank you, fave! You’re the best thing since sliced bread.