In the fall of 1978, in Oakland, California, home of the Black Panther Party, a beautiful little baby girl was born. This baby didn’t go home in the arms of her mother; Due to a verbal dispute between her mother and father over who would be her custodial parent, she was placed in the care of Alameda County Child Protective Services. Several weeks later, ZaZa Ali’s father was awarded legal custody of his baby girl. After the end of this legal battle, ZaZa Ali didn’t see her mother very often. She would grow up as a biracial child in a black family and a racially divided country. During her formative years, her father enrolled her in an all-black school to ensure that his daughter was educated and understood the black experience. Ali was an inquisitive student in class and on the streets of Oakland. She observed her city transform from the center of Black Nationalism to the center of the Pimpin’ subculture. The black community quickly moved away from black empowerment to dope dealing, pimpin’, and drug abuse. During her youth, Ali had a difficult time processing the transformation that she observed in her hometown.
At the age of 25, ZaZa was pregnant with her first child and in search of employment. Ali made a promise to herself that she would be present in her child’s life. She didn’t want her child to grow up without a mother. During this time, the real estate and mortgage industry was booming and ZaZa found employment as a mortgage loan processor. She was able to work part-time hours and earn full-time pay. The mortgage broker who hired her introduced her to a corporate executive who taught her how the mortgage business works. After ZaZa learned how to make money in the mortgage business, she began closing more loans and making more money. Several years later, when Ali was questioned by the FBI, she learned that what the corporate executive had taught her was actually loan fraud. During the mortgage meltdown of 2007, federal agencies were pressured by the public to prosecute bankers for the financial crisis. The corporate executive who taught Ali the inner workings of the mortgage business was arrested and he implicated Ali in a mortgage loan fraud scheme.
In 1978, Ali was born into a child custody battle. Thirty-two years later, Ali returned to the courtroom to fight against the federal government for her freedom. If she lost the battle, she would break the vow that she made to herself and her son. If so, she went to jail, she would repeat the cycle of being an absent mother. During the majority of her trial, Ali didn’t speak. She was facing three years in prison for loan fraud. During the sentencing phase of the trial, Ali explained her side of the story. After hearing her compelling story, the judge placed her on house arrest for 18 months. During those 18 months, Ali went through an intense period of reflection and transformation. These life experiences shaped and developed the character of the mother, teacher, author, activist, and entrepreneur known as ZaZa Ali.
Phillips: What can black women do to counter negative social images communicated through mainstream media?
Ali: We must represent ourselves better and present images of ourselves to our community. We have a culture that embodies a certain caricature of black women; often times she presents herself as if she is standardized product. Some black women present themselves with blonde weave and dressed in an overtly sexual manner. There isn’t anything wrong with weave but what happened to uniqueness? If you are wearing a weave, it should not look exactly the same as everybody else’s weave. Black women are the most unique women on the planet. Why are so many of us presenting ourselves to the world in the same way? We are not putting out a unique message to the world about our many variations which make us beautiful. We can counter the negative images by embracing the uniqueness within each of us. We should style our hair, wear our clothes, and express ourselves in a unique way. Let’s use social media to show our young sisters that it’s okay to be sexy and classy at the same time.
Phillips: Some sisters say that the image that brothers see in music videos and movies is what they want so they are just presenting themselves in a way to catch somebody. What are your thoughts on that state of mind?
Ali: We always talk about our pussy and how pussy runs the world. No, it doesn’t. Women have undervalued themselves so much that now we think that the only thing that we have to offer is sex. So, now we are trying to use our sexualisation as a weapon. But we have so many women out here that are single. Most of the women who are presenting themselves in an extremely sexual way online are single and then often times they run into the type of men that are only attracted to what they saw online. Because the guys were probably in it for the potential sex that they saw, it usually ends up going bad. So instead of representing yourself as only a sexual being, why not try projecting a certain level of respect which will attract men who respect you. The natural order of the universe says like attracts like which means respect will attract respect. If you are representing sex then you’re going to attract men that only want sex.
The question I have for sisters is, “How do we get to a position where we allow men to dictate how we represent ourselves?” We are the mothers of civilization for the entire planet but we aren’t behaving like it. It’s a new year and it’s time for us to change the game. Our mind-set of acting, behaving, and dressing a certain way to catch a man hasn’t worked and isn’t going to work for us. We must set a higher standard and give our men something else to look forward to. We can attract men physically but can we attract them mentally? Can we attract them spiritually and emotionally? These are the questions that we must ask ourselves. We get into relationships with men based on the physical and then we get mad when they don’t mentally, emotionally and spiritually embrace us. It’s not working because we are going about this in the wrong way.
Phillips: What is your definition of beauty?
Ali: My definition of beauty is internal. Beauty comes in so many different forms: the way that you speak to the world, what you communicate when you smile, and your compassion. I think that internal beauty is based on how you accept people that come into your presence. I think that it’s important, especially as women who embody being feminine, when I say being feminine I’m not talking about how you dress or how you cross your legs or how you speak. I’m talking about the compassionate nurturing aspect of a woman that makes her endearing to children, endearing to men, and endearing to our elders. Internally cultivating yourself, being a good person, being humble, being compassionate, and listening are qualities of beauty.
Phillips: During several lectures and videos, you mentioned that women should activate what you described as ‘the divine feminine energy’. Please explain what that means?
Ali: By fasting, by being very particular about what we put in our bodies, going back to the earth for our food, by making sure we have a high intake of water and natural teas, by surrounding ourselves with people who support us and encourage us and uplift us and if we don’t have those type of people in our lives we have to go at it alone. We must stop settling for low standard and low-quality people that come into our lives and sap our energy. We activate our divine feminine energy by meditating or praying which allow us to find time to be still within ourselves. A lot of women have difficulty sitting down for 20 minutes to quiet their mind and be still. We are so used to thinking, stressing, and worrying that we don’t know how to give our mind and body a break. If you can’t quiet your mind, then that means that your mind belongs to the world. You must find a way to reclaim your mind and take your power back; you can do this by being still, going out and being in nature. Try taking a walk and appreciating everything around you: the trees, the birds, the sun, and all the beautiful creations of God.
Phillips: Some of our readers may not be familiar with divine feminine energy. Can you break down the meaning of divine feminine?
Ali: We were created in pairs as male and female so we have male and female energy. Women have female and male energy and men have male and female energy also. So, the female, if we look at it from a yin and yang perspective, female qualities would be being receptive, nurturing, and passive (even though some people take passive as a negative term but it’s not the negative aspect that I am referring to). Every blade of grass, every tree, and everything in nature has masculine and feminine qualities. The universe needs both masculine and feminine energy for balance to exist. Right now, we have some women who are fighting for equality with men but don’t need to fight for equality. We both have equally significant and important roles. Many of us are losing our power because we neglect our feminine energy to focus on developing masculine energy to compete with men. Divine feminine energy is being balanced knowing the power of the womb, the physical womb and then the mental womb of the woman which holds her intuition, creativity, and nurturing. As women, we have the ability to see the full spectrum as opposed to just being linear which is a masculine dominant energy. The woman is the creator, the vessel through which all life comes forward. We have to know the male and the female aspect because we give birth to girls and boys, so it’s a full spectrum perspective being a woman as opposed to men that don’t give birth to either. Men don’t necessarily have that full spectrum view or what it means to be a man and a woman which is the reason that most men operate with a linear world view.
Phillips: What can men do to assist black women in whatever issues or obstacles they are facing in, what we consider, the developed world, like America, the UK, elsewhere?
Ali: This is a tricky one because of the vitriol and hatred for black women online by our men. We have black men who have gained prominence on the internet for being disrespectful to black women. Social media is the new tool used to tear down black women and this is an issue that must be addressed. I think we need to hear more men being vocal and out spoken against that type of energy. Also, men can make sure that they make time to take care of the women in their lives and that doesn’t just mean your significant other or your wife. Taking care of women in your lives includes: aunties, grandmother, nieces, female cousins, and people you grew up with. It’s important for us to start working on healing the male female relationship and it goes way beyond who you are in a relationship with. It’s important for men to start building bridges with the women in their lives and to speak about women in a positive light when they are in social settings with other brothers. It’s important to speak positive energy about women because it’s not just what you are saying but the intention and the energy that you are putting out into the universe. As far as love and compassion are concerned, black women really need that from our men in order to properly heal.
Here are three suggestions for brothers to help us in our journey:
- Spend time with young ladies in your family. Spend time with your sisters, nieces, and cousins. Take them on outings. Let them know you care about them, talk to them about their relationship with boys, and find out what’s going on in school.
- When you are having conversations with your friends, if one of your homeboys begins to disrespect black women, try to offer a different positive perspective. Try to educate your brother on the issues black women face to bring about some understanding as opposed to putting out negative energy.
- If you have issues with your mother, grandmother, or aunties try to resolve those issues. Men who have unaddressed issues with important women in their lives have an impact on their relationships with women. I’ve spoken to a lot of black men who were broken by their mother; they were abandoned or abused and it breaks down their ability to relate to other women. If that’s your situation, try to address it with your mother or grandmother. If you can’t address it with them, find a wise female elder in your community to give you guidance.
Phillips: What is your religion or your spiritual views?
Ali: I grew up Christian in the Baptist church. Around age 17 or 18, I started studying African history, the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, and The Nation of Islam. At that point, I didn’t really have a religion, I was just kind studying different things and trying to figure out what was the best fit for me. I’ve studied Orthodox Islam, Orthodox Christianity from the African perspective, Buddhism, and Hinduism. I’ve basically studied all of these different spiritual walks of life and I take the best part of all of them to feed my soul and my spirit. I leave the parts of the different religions that don’t work for me. When I was younger and growing in my understanding, I would try to tell black people not to be Christians. As I matured and became wiser, I realized that all of us take different paths and evolve on our own time. If you ascribe to any religion or any type of spirituality, make sure that its leading you toward freedom. When I refer to freedom; the question that we need to ask ourselves is “Does my religion or spiritual system help me to become my highest and best self?”, If your religion or spiritual system isn’t freeing, then find another path. I’ve studied all of the major religions and I take the best parts of each of them that I can apply to my life. I read the Quran, the Bible, and Bhagavad Gita but I don’t have a religion. If I had to define my religion, I would say that Love is my religion. I practice my religion by striving to be the best person and finding peace of mind.
Phillips: In your book entitled Plagues of Dysfunction, you devote a chapter to hair. Can you please give our readers a teaser from your book?
Ali: I wrote about the scientific aspect of hair. Many of us aren’t familiar with the science of our hair and how relaxers are connected to thyroids disease and cancerous tumors in our women. Also, I wrote about the energy in hair. When black women buy hair weave, the hair was taken from another woman in India, Korea, or China and the energy that that woman had at the point of that hair being taken from her is going to be intertwined with the energy of the woman who is wearing that hair. In India, women relish having beautiful and long hair, it’s seen as a symbol of beauty. In poor communities in India, women are forced by their husbands to cut their hair in order to make money for the family. It’s a sign of serious shame for these women to be forced to cut their hair. The feelings and emotions that these women feel before and during the time their hair is cut is energy that is held in their hair and that same energy is going to be transferred to the person who purchases and wears her hair.
Phillips: What are your thoughts on the dark skin versus light skin paradigm? Can you share your experiences being a sister of the lighter complexion?
Ali: I meet a lot of negative energy and a lot of negativity has been thrown at me because of the light skin verse dark skin element in our community. It didn’t start when I became ”Za Za Ali” to the public. It started in my own family. I came from a very dark-skin family. My biological mother is white but my father got custody of me when I was a baby and I was raised with my father’s family. So, growing up amongst my sisters, my aunties and my cousins was real difficult for me because I always felt like I wasn’t really all the way in but it was the only family that I knew. Fast forward to middle school high school, my mother wasn’t in my life so; my friends never knew I was mixed. It just wasn’t a part of my reality. I was just the light skin girl with long curly hair who constantly got jumped in high school.
People say all the time that, there is this light skin supremacy thing in black communities but it’s not really true. Growing up in a black community, when you are light-skin, you really have a hard time especially if you are a woman or a girl. You have a lot of negative energy or overtly sexual attention thrown at you. I wrote about this topic in my book, I said there is a difference between a man interacting with you because he respects and wants to marry you versus men just wanting to always have sex with you. In our community, it’s typical for men to view women through a sexual lens. I know there are varying degrees of suffering. I know dark skin women like my sister had specific struggles and I tried to understand her struggle. I think some of the darker skin sisters think that light skin sisters have the world thrown at our feet. We don’t feel that way, and it’s not a good feeling to be constantly being rejected by your own people.
In conversation, the Stef and Ayesha Curry situation comes up about him and his wife. I’ve seen people comment that ‘he is doing this because he is light skin, she is doing this because she is light skin’ Personally, I’ve heard similar comments too. People have said that I’m only popular because I’m light skin which takes everything away from my study. I’ve spent years studying and working on myself to get prepared to be in this position. All of my years of diligent study have been reduced to me being light skin. I know light skin women and men who think that they are better because of their light skin but we can’t assume that every light skin person shares their viewpoint. When we have these conversations, they have to be balanced. It can’t just be, ‘I am dark skin and you think you are better than me because you are light skin’ or ‘I am light skinned you don’t treat me right because you are dark skin and your life is harder than mine.’ It has to be that we are looking from both perspectives at one another and are really trying to heal because this is a serious issue in the black community, especially with our women.
This dark skin versus light skin is an issue that is preventing us from bonding and developing sisterhood in our community. It’s the big elephant in the room that we really don’t talk about but we need to discuss it to start the healing process. As black women, we are the mothers of civilization. We must start embracing one another and accepting all of our beauty. We must stop being competitive and debating over who has it worst. Let’s listen to each other, embrace each other, and love each other for who we are.