On Wednesday afternoon, I received a text message from creative director and photographer Sarah Huny Young linking me to a new CNN documentary series called American Woman. Created by Brooke Baldwin and displayed as a digital interactive, it features trailblazing women who have “shattered glass ceilings, whether in music, fashion or film,” and includes Ava DuVernay, Sheryl Crow, Diane von Furstenberg, Ashley Graham, Tracy Reese, Pat Benatar, Issa Rae and Betty White.
Everything, from the artistic depictions of each woman profiled (seen as still images in each of their videos) to the red-white-and-blue color scheme, suggests a delicate intentionality in this work. It looks amazing and it feels important. Which is vital, because these are amazing and important women, and any homage to or recognition of them needs to reflect that.
My initial reply to Huny was a congratulations. For the past year-and-a-half, Huny (who is also my cousin) has been working diligently on a photography-and-interview series also called AMERICAN WOMAN.
From the AMERICAN WOMAN about page:
AMERICAN WOMAN is a multimedia portrait and documentary series about black women in America—American for multiple generations, first-generation American, or American via naturalization or dual citizenship. Pitched for grant funding in January 2016 and launched in July 2016, the series intends to reframe the face most people picture, and the characteristics most associate with, the term “American woman.” It’s about intersectionality and womanism. It’s about our complex relationship with this country and the labor we’re tasked with as its most resilient, brilliant population.
(An interview from May 2017 on The Root expounds on her vision and mission for this project.)
in 2016, Huny received the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant to work on this project. And her work was recognized by The Root, which named her to 2017’s The Root 100.
Although Huny’s work focuses on black American women, considering the name and the thematic and aesthetic similarities between CNN’s interactive and her work, I assumed that this was some sort of partnership between her and them. Hence, the congratulations.
But as a follow-up text from Huny revealed, there was no collaboration. CNN’s American Woman exists independent of Huny’s. Damn.
When I first received that text from Huny, I was actually reading through some of the edits of the first draft of my book, which my editor sent back to me last week. When the subject of the book comes up in conversation with people, they often state that they can’t wait to read it. My reply is always the same: “Shit. Me too.” I would like for this process to be over. Not because I want to rush through it—and I don’t—but because I’m anxious to hold and read the finished product.
Also, related, I’d like to start reading books again. (Particularly Eve Ewing’s Electric Arches and Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us—both of which are sitting on the same table I’m writing on right now.)
Since I began this process, I’ve gone on a book fast. Not because I don’t have time to read them, but because I don’t want to be infested by them. I don’t want to read something in a book and have it sit in my mind and have it somehow subconsciously influence what I’m writing while I’m writing mine.
Of course, ideas don’t grow independently. They exist as congelations of hundreds of millions of stimuli you’ve engaged with and carry with you. But I want to be able to look myself in the mirror and know that nothing in my book intentionally replicated something in someone else’s book.
But before the book writing and the book fast began, I did something else. I Googled to see if something already existed that had a similarity to what I planned to write. And if something did, I made sure to make what I planned to create distinct enough from it for it to be able to exist on its own.
And this, a simple internet search, could have prevented CNN and Brooke Baldwin from marginalizing a voice while creating a documentary aimed to spotlight voices that have been historically marginalized. (And also giving said documentary the exact-same name.)
On Thursday, Huny released a statement addressing this issue (pdf):
This isn’t, of course, to say that I’m the only person that gets to celebrate women in the U.S. or that I have ownership of the title or moniker “American Woman” in any way. However, that the original AMERICAN WOMAN series is very specifically about black women in America—American for multiple generations, first-generation American, or American via naturalization or dual citizenship—is a very important distinction that I intend to protect. Namely, it’s about reframing the face most people picture, and the characteristics most associate with, the term American woman to include black American women. It’s about intersectionality and womanism. It’s about our complex relationship with this country and the labor we’re tasked with as its most resilient, brilliant population. That I named it AMERICAN WOMAN and not BLACK AMERICAN WOMAN is very purposeful.
I don’t assume that Brooke’s intentions were or are malicious; I believe she’s passionate about her project the same way I’m passionate about mine. I’m pleased to see that Ava DuVernay and Issa Rae are included in her series; I admire them and enjoy their work. I also give due props to talented women like Ashley Graham, Pat Benatar, and Betty White The Gawd, but I’d venture to say that they don’t get told to “go back to [their] own country” nor does their patriotism, their rights, or whether they even belong here get called into question as frequently as it does with black women in America. This is why my AMERICAN WOMAN project exists, why I feel it’s important, and why it shouldn’t be overshadowed or diluted by another conceptually similar series with the exact same name. That is where my frustration mainly lies at the moment; the potential added labor of distancing myself from Brooke’s series by explaining that my AMERICAN WOMAN series was first, that it centers black women, and that hers is derivative. I’m concerned that it will get in the way of my marketing and promotional efforts and even my fundraising ventures.
Do I believe that CNN and Brooke Baldwin plagiarized Huny’s work? I do not. (And I don’t want to.) But I do believe that someone, during the conception of this project, should have taken the same intentionality used in creating it to ensure that CNN’s American Woman didn’t replicate the work of a black American woman.