Bilphena Yahwon is the founder of Gold Womyn, She is a Baltimore based writer, social justice advocate and the creative director at Broken English Co. She writes of the immigrant experience, of Blackness, of healing, and of African women.
You were born in Liberia, West Africa and raised in Danané, Côte d'Ivoire. How was it that you came to the United States and when did you emigrate?
I immigrated to the U.S. as a refugee in February 2001. I was welcomed with the harsh winter of New York and snow, two things I had never experienced in my life. At first it was quite exciting. For many foreigners, coming to this country is an accomplishment. So many people long for the American dream. I chuckle to myself when I think about it now, but we were truly convinced that this was the land of milk and honey. That everything was alright in America and we would be alright too.
The transition was difficult. I had to adjust to a new culture, new food, new belief systems and I just could not deal with the cold. I think the biggest transition of them all was the responsibility that came with Blackness. In Liberia, I never really had to think about my blackness. In America, that blackness took on another meaning. It had new consequences that I wasn't familiar with. That was a difficult identity to navigate for a very long time with it.
What was your biggest surprise when you came to the U.S.?
My biggest surprise was that this isn't the land of milk and honey (laughs) and that just working hard does not guarantee you a comfortable life. I had fantasized for so long about how this country would be and it really isn't any of those things. Of course I was grateful to not have to worry about war but life in the U.S. is hard. Back home, everything just seemed to go slower and easier. We didn't have everything but we enjoyed life. The U.S. lacks that easiness.
What is your favorite thing about the U.S.?
To be quite honest, I'm struggling to answer this question. Ask me in a few months and maybe I'll have something nice to say.
Why did you start Gold Womyn?
I launched goldwomyn.com in February of 2015 to document my own work whhile also documenting creatives of color, specifically African and Black women. I started my online presence writing the Women in Africa and the Diaspora column for Rise Africa (now Ezibota). I was able to create a community from there and once I left, I needed to find a way to continue the work I had started. Launching a website was the way to do that.
I also wanted to find a way to merge my activism, my writing and the other parts of my creativity I was still untapping. I wanted to create a Bilphena bum ultimately. It's important for me to add that everything I do creatively begins with myself. I ask myself what I want to say and then I create it. Goldwomyn.com is an example of that.
In addition to being a writer and curator, you are also a passionate social justice advocate. How does the concept of social justice differ for you in the U.S. compared with Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire?
I don't think there's a difference in social justice in the U.S. and social justice in Liberia or any other African country. While what we're asking/demanding may look different in the context of the country, it is still the same. Anti-blackness is global. Systematic/institutional oppression is global. Sexism is global. Corruption is global. It doesn't just exist in the U.S. There are people on the continent fighting against the lingering impact of colonization. There are people on the continent fighting against the injustices of the legal system. There are people on the continent fighting against poverty. There are women on the continent fighting to dismantle patriarchy. There are people within the LGBTQ+ community on the continent fighting for basic civil rights. This fight is global. I think people in the U.S. truly think that they're the only ones who understand the concept of democracy, freedom and civil rights. There's this idea that people in other countries are complacent in their oppression. This is false. Just as we are fighting her, others are fighting.
What issue(s) are you most focused on?
While I work to see the destruction of all forms of oppression, my work focuses mainly on Black and African women and higher education. As a womanist, everything I do, I place my identity as a Black and African woman in the front. Notice that I never separate my womanness from my identity as African or Black because those oppression intersect.
As far as higher education goes, I spend most of my time in an academic setting. I have to deal with white-washed curriculum, racism within the tenureship process, lack of representations in professors and faculty and just a disregard for Black students in university policies. Higher education is a hot bed for white supremacy. In 2010, I co-led a 1-hour sit-in with a list of demands on behalf of the Black students at my university. The university is a microcosm of the world. Don't forget that racism was backed by academia and still is. As a current student and future professor (crosses fingers), this is work that is close to me.
How do you promote it/them through your online presence?
If you've been on my social media, you know what my politics are. I do not hide where I stand on issues. I try to use my social media to teach my followers and to engage as well. I think when you do this work it's easy to get frustrated when people don't "get it" and I'm trying to be better at being patient as others learn.
What do you see as the number one social justice issue in the U.S.?
There is no number one social justice issue in the U.S. and to say that there is one would completely ignore how intersectionality works. There is honestly no way that I as a Black and African women with multiple identities that face oppression can answer this question. Let's say in a perfect world, racism no longer existed. I am still a woman. So now I have to worry about sexism. How about if we took out sexism? Well, I'm still back to being black and having to deal with racism. What if we took out sexism and racism? Well, I'm still African and must deal with the impact of colonization. You see how that works? We cannot create a heirarchy of oppression when many of us face multiple oppressions.
What is the role of the creative in social justice?
It is so interesting that you ask this question because I was just asking myself this. These past few weeks have been traumatic for a lot of people. People are hurting. On Tuesday, I texted my creative friends asking this very same question. What is our responsibility as creatives when our community is hurting? What part do we play? I think ultimately as a creative, you cannot ignore the plights of your community. It is your responsibility to reflect that through your art. James Baldwin was writing about racism. Nina Simone was singing about black bodies hanging from trees. We have no excuse.
What is your advice to young creatives who want to become more involved in the causes for which you advocate?
My advice would be to learn yourself first. You do not have to be like Bilphena or anyone else. Understand your identity first. Understand the consequences of your identity but most importantly understand the beauty of your identity. Go from there.
What's in store for Gold Womyn and yourself in 2017?
In 2017, I just hope to continue to produce consistent work for myself and my brand. My focus for 2017 is on community engagement.
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