The Bay Leaf Archive: Melissa Denizard

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Photo by Kyle Payen

“When I’m not feeling my best I ask myself, ‘What are you gonna do about it?’ I use the negativity to fuel the transformation into a better me.” Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter

Reading through Melissa’s titles alone is like an endless Tumblr scroll. A documentarian, YouTuber, blogger, writer, creator of cool ass digital graphics – cue Ms. Chaka’s “I’m Every Woman.” But one conversation with Melissa taught me that she is not one to be boxed in by any label; she does everything, and she does it all so fucking well. After what could have been anywhere between 5 and 25 minutes of me aggressively admiring her work and work ethic, creator and activist Melissa Denizard and I explored what it means to be young, audacious, and Black.

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So when I was watching one of your videos…

You watched videos! [Laughs] Wow, okay, okay.

Oh. [Pauses]  I watched videos. I was watching the “What’s Good with Feminism?” video, and in the description, you talked about how around the age of 14, you became more engaged with politics and activism. What sparked that interest?

It was in ninth grade and it was around the time when the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign was circulating after the extremist group Boko Haram kidnapped a group of young womxn in Nigeria. They were basically my age – teenagers… I remember reading about it, and I felt pulled to do something. I ended up writing a letter to my principal like, “Hey, I want to have this fundraiser to donate to the Malala Fund.” Around May that year, we had a fundraiser; I think we raised around $200. It was the first time I was challenged to do community outreach and actually talk to people about issues that I thought mattered.

And the summer of my ninth grade year was basically when the Ferguson movement happened. Mike Brown had just been murdered. And I had just started using Twitter so I was exposed to not necessarily [just] mainstream news, but also activists who were on the ground and trying to get the truth out. It was around the time where I started questioning things, like “What the hell is going on?” Mind you, I wasn’t born here. Everything I had come to know about the United States was through history classes. I was thinking, “We have a Black president. Racism is out the door. Boom.” It was around that summer that I had an awakening moment.

Yeah, I remember that summer.

And December of my sophomore year of high school, J.Cole’s album 2014 Forest Hills Drive came out and it was a very political album. I remember I was just sitting in my bed in tears. You know, you can read about racism, but for me, it comes to the point where you can either act or you can sit around and watch. I didn’t want to sit by and watch. It was definitely a process. But I’m here now. [Laughs]

[Laughs] You’re DEEP in here now. So before this, if a political issue arose, how did you address it?

To be honest with you, I don’t remember politics before I was in ninth grade. I just remember we had a Black president.

But, I was just telling my boyfriend the other day that Harriet Tubman was my role model. I stanned Harriet Tubman. I was born to be a stan I was stanning Harriet Tubman, the Cheetah Girls. It laid the foundation for my stanning of Beyoncé [laughs].

But anyway. I always clung to the little bit of information that my school taught us about Black people And so I think I was bound to be this way. I just didn’t think the world was… what it is.

Were you looking at their work and seeing yourself in it? Did you see it as “This is the work they did for me to be where I am?”

I mean, when I was younger, I used to hate calling myself an activist. I was always thinking, “Why do we have to have a separate word for just helping other people?” It just seemed like it was what everybody should be doing; it didn’t seem like there should be a separate category for someone that gives a fuck. But, it was nice to have the blueprint of “This is what people were doing, this is the fight that they had.” They helped me question things, and to act now instead of waiting and acting later.

I hear you. Something that’s been on my mind lately is that when it comes to advocacy work, you look and often see Black womxn doing all of the work. Putting this in conversation with who is expected to do most forms of emotional labor, I can’t help but wonder sometimes: are we doing this work because we want to or because we think that we have to?

It’s always Black womxn, Black trans womxn, and all of these marginalized groups on the forefront saying, “What about our Black men?” Looking back on the activism I did in my high school years, I centered Black men in my work a lot. Now I’m just like, “Black womxn are dying, too. Black womxn are getting shot, too.” I have to come to terms with the fact that my life also matters. It’s not like “Black Lives Matter, Black men get the first pick.” If you’re not supporting me, I have to question whether I should be on the frontlines for you.

When you first get started with activism work, a lot of the work and the heroes you are exposed to center men. And it will be told in a way that says, “You have to respect Black men, no matter who the Black men are.” I’m starting to see a lot of womxn and femme-identifying people saying, “What about my life?” I’m at a point right now where I’m not putting myself on the back burner.

[Pauses] No. It doesn’t make sense.

As a Business major, I’m always learning about re-strategizing. And [centering Black men] is nothing new. Right now, people are re-strategizing and I’m ready to continue challenging people to value our lives and our stories, and putting us at the forefront.

I think sometimes when people don’t want to stick the old ways of [Black] activism, they get seen as a traitor. The same thing rings true with feminism. I remember reading about you transitioning from feminism to womxnism – same. I felt validated. [Laughs] Saying I’m a womxnist and not a feminist is one way to get called a traitor. People get nervous to re-strategize and rethink their approaches.

Yeah. For me, it’s so weird. I wouldn’t say that I have low self-esteem, but I can be very insecure about myself and my position. I’m often thinking, “Do I have enough power to make this decision?” Looking back, I put myself in so many compromising positions. The first issue I ever talked about was womxn’s rights. Feminism seemed clear, no shit. But when I started looking at history…

Someone’s missing! [Laughs]

Right. [Laughs] Like, you didn’t want Black womxn in your movement, you didn’t want trans folks in your movement. You didn’t want anyone who wasn’t white and cis in your movement. Cool. It’s one thing when you’re looking at how the movement was. Then you look at pop culture, and you see very little has changed. I mean, Taylor Swift is still out here… So,  I quickly became disgusted with the conversation around feminism. It’s so corny to me. Step up to the plate or just stop. Don’t try to pander me, don’t tell me you’re here for me when all of your actions are saying something totally different.

Among the people I grew up with, I was always just a little bit ahead in terms of how quickly I was able to grasp ideas about the world. And this is not even an elitist statement. When I started gravitating toward activist work, no one [around me] was really on that. So, as I was starting to question things, people were starting to gravitate toward them. Just when I was starting to question feminism, people were starting to gravitate toward feminism. So I would question certain statements around feminism in class and people would try to ostracize me from the conversation.

“The audacity!”

It’s like, if you say you’re not a feminist, you must not believe in womxn’s rights. But I’m questioning the pillars of feminism and who is centered in this movement. I think it’s okay to do that. Our thoughts are not cemented in stone. If I enter any ideology, there is a problem if I decide I’ll never change my mind; that means I’m gonna think the same way for the rest of my life. So, the more I can plant those seeds and make people question things, the happier I’ll be.

It’s highkey wild that with advocacy work, people are trying to question why we have these convenient, cookie cutter answers for everything… by attempting to create cookie cutter answers for everything. We’re so scared of confusion. It’s like with education; [higher] education is normally the main solution that is proposed. In another one of your videos, you talked about how [higher education] seemed like the main solution to most things when you were younger. Can you talk more about this?

I’m an immigrant. And I’m also first-gen. Coming to the United States, it was pushed upon my siblings and me that [higher] education was the way out. We also grew up poor; it was that “American Dream” mindset. You know, if you get the GPA, you’re gonna make it somewhere. Looking back, that mindset is mad unattainable and mad elitist. And when we talk about education, we’re normally talking about academia. What about self-educating yourself, exposing yourself to different kinds of people? Had academia been expressed to me as just one way and not the only way, I feel like I honestly wouldn’t have ended up in academia. You know what I mean? [Laughs]

I thrive outside of the classroom. I thrive when I’m speaking to people about what really impacts them. I recently had the opportunity to go to Puerto Rico and Flint, Michigan and the most important work I did this year happened out in the field – seeing the systems I learned so much about play out in real life.

So when we talk about higher education, it’s kind of just like, “I guess.” I’ve been to so many panels where people have PhDs, and what comes out of their mouth is absolute garbage. We tend to use education as a gatekeeper, and we say “If you don’t have a degree, you can’t speak about this.” It’s corny. I just feel like a lot of things are corny. [Laughs]

[Laughs] And it’s so hard when you think about Black people’s history with education, and how much we’ve invested in gaining access to these spaces. And it hurts to think we’ve invested so much time, money, and energy into a space that honestly might just be trying to kill us in another way.

It does. It hurts. The people who are less radical in their thought processes tend to be the gatekeepers. All I can continue to do is create my own things and be a representation of what I think “education” should look like. I’m just tired of going to these fucking panels. [Laughs] Whew, chile.

A lot of people are just really good actors. When you sit there and listen to them, you realize… these niggas don’t have the range. They’re literally copying someone’s thoughts word-for-word. When they get thrown off, they don’t know how to respond. Believe it or not, activism has become trendy. Some people don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. They just want followers on Instagram.

Oop. Straight outta range. Just like Alicia Keys.

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Source. We still love you, sis.

Something profound I’ve noticed in your work is your emphasis on highlighting the voices of youth. Why do you think we haven’t seen people doing this same kind of work in mainstream news production?

Because none of them value us. That’s the answer.

Something that happened to me recently was realizing a mentor that I trusted did not value my voice as much as she made it out to seem. We’re stuck in this archaic idea that just because someone’s older than you, it means they don’t have to give you your respect. In reality, young people have been at the forefront of all these movements for so long.

I’ve come to the conclusion that if [older people] aren’t valuing my voice and work, they don’t deserve to work with me. So to answer your question, I think the reason a lot of young people aren’t interviewed or given a voice in news, it’s because adults or people with PhDs think they’re the most important people in the fucking world sometimes. Gen Z is hurting and if people take the time to listen to us and hear our insight, they’re going to get the chance to learn new ways of moving forward.

Even dynamics in our generation can be painful. I feel like from a young age, we can spot some of our peers gliding through childhood and adolescence being fine without thinking about what’s happening to the world in critical ways. Have you noticed this?

Yeah. To be honest, I’m pissed off. We tend to look it as being our white peers, but along with that is class and access. It’s like when I look at Yara Shahidi or Amandla Stenberg, I gotta side-eye them. How much work are we doing for the young people who haven’t been given a stage? And how are we acting when young people with more money and access do or say something problematic? We’re not doing enough to check them, and they’re not doing enough to check themselves.

Trying to reconcile how to not lose my youth while also fully doing this work is hard. It’s a challenge. I just turned 20 on December 4th…

HAPPY BELATED!

[Laughs] Thank you. Right now, I’m trying to focus on unlearning all the things I was taught when I was younger. This includes not being able to be carefree, or to take a day off an do absolutely nothing,. I’m challenging myself to do all that I do while not giving too much of my energy to the world.  It’s tough, Rachel.

The director of this fellowship I’m in right now said something interesting that’s been on my mind a lot lately. She says that instead of canceling people, specifically Black people, she puts them on pause. But it’s a lot when you have to try to solve how toxic someone can be; like when I can say “fuck you”? Like Kevin Hart, he’s homophobic. Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, they’re transphobic. At a certain point, the toxicity is violent.

So, I’m still wrestling with the idea of putting someone on pause versus canceling them. We all have these spheres of influence whether we live in the middle of the forest or if we’re Beyoncé. We have to hold ourselves accountable for what we’ve done and what we’re doing. It’s a process.

I want to go back to talking about violence, specifically how desensitized we can be to violence. Sometimes people use violence in film or video just for a “shock” factor, with no warnings. Violence is real and alive, but that’s not really a shock for the people experiencing it.  In your work, I feel like you’re able to deliver the point that this dynamic exists without being careless. Is that an intentional goal?

Wow, thank you. I would say it’s intentional in a way; it’s not like I’m sitting at my computer like, “Okay. No. Violence.”

My life is already violent, and it’s one of my biggest pet peeves when people show clips that are violent with no warning. But a conversation that was just opened up for me by the video of the boy getting his dreads cut, is around how we define violence. I think we’re conditioned to understand violence as something that is mainly physical. But like, there’s mental and emotional violence. An image of Donald Trump can be understood as being violent because it incites certain feelings or threats for people. Trying to figure out how to handle these topics is hard but it’s about being mindful of the audience and who we are trying to protect and speak up for with our work.

I really never thought of my work as doing this, though. So thank you.

[Laughs] Thank you. I gotta say, the next few questions are a little bit lighter. I can guess, but is there a particular medium that you prefer using?

The medium that I’m focusing on the most right now is film, but I’m also a writer. I still love to write. I’m trying to merge those two together, whether it be through writing scripts for my videos or making more video essays. Regardless of the medium, my goal will always be to talk about the intersection of gender, race, and social class.

And if you had to name your favorite film, Melissa. Of all time. That just does it. I don’t know what it is, but does it for you.

Even though I like films, I don’t spend that much time studying the craft. I know people say “How can you expect to be great if you don’t know everything about the filmmakers who came before you?”

I don’t think you necessarily have to do that…

It’s bullshit. [Laughs]

One film I used to like a lot was American Beauty.

I’m gonna fucking cry.

Turns out Kevin Spacey…

I fucking know.

I’m guessing it’s one of your favorites, too? [Laughs]

I navigate towards films that are really weird, but also that have great cinematography. That’s really important to me, too. Another film that I really love is Selma. I know it’s recent but I just love Ava Duvernay and everything she does. Her film does what I work to make my films do, which is to make sure people walk away knowing just how important the subject matter is.

Moonlight and the conversations in Moonlight are amazing. Something that’s so hard to do is have written conversations sound real; conversations have awkward silences and moments of tension, and movies that can convey what it means to be a dynamic, three-dimensional human being is so great.

It feels like niggas don’t even try anymore. [Laughs]

Right. The same thing applies to how people talk about diversity and inclusion in films. We say, “We need a movie full of Black people, full of Latinx people, full of Asian people.” But it feels like it’s the same people being shown. And some of them are not even good actors.

Who?!

[Whispers] Michael B. Jordan…

I knew you were gonna say it.

And yes we may get diversity in what we see, but what about in characters or ideas? That’s why I loved Moonlight so much. We saw different Black men in a way that we don’t always get to see Black men.

As we talk more about storytelling, we need to get the grassroots radicals and the young people who don’t often get to speak on or represent what they believe in. I think our generation is gonna get somewhere with this.

We have to stop settling for convenience and ease. I feel like it makes shit significantly harder to unravel at the end of the day. Through all of this difficult unraveling and unlearning work, what keeps you nourished spiritually and creatively? And what advice do you have for other creatives trying to finding their own nourishment?

One thing that offers me nourishment is my partner. I was talking to my friend the other day about what it means to build middle ground. Usually, we talk about building middle ground with white people on the other side of the political spectrum who do not see the value of our existence. Like… fuck you. [Laughs] But she said, we build middle ground every day, and [we have to] think about who we are building middle ground with. And I do that with my partner. He’s been the only person, regardless of gender and age, that I’ve been able to do this with every day. I wake up every morning like, “I might fuck up today, he might fuck up today, but we’re gonna get through it.”

And another thing is silence. Being able to sit and do nothing and ask myself, “How was my day? How do I feel about this conversation [I had today]? How do I feel about this person in my life?” I like sitting with myself and listening to the random noises in my house.

I also genuinely find joy in unlearning things. It means I’m still growing.

It means you’re still here.

And it also means that there’s a possibility to be so much more. I’m becoming a better community member every single day.

To other creatives, my advice would be to just get started. At the end of the day, if I see the need for something, I’m gonna do it. Get started. Social media, as much as we talk shit about it, it gives us the ability to see and say “I don’t see myself? Okay, I’m gonna create that space.” There’s literally somebody waiting for you, the most authentic you, to pop out. If you’re not gonna do it for yourself, do it for that person. That’s why following you gives me so much joy, Rachel. Like, you’re somebody who is just unapologetically herself. Someone is watching you, saying “Wow, I see myself.” That’s so important.

I appreciate that. Thank you.

I also would say, just be. I wish that I didn’t care as much as I do about my numbers and my following growing. When I take a step back, I think I impact somebody every single day.

Whether or not I have one hundred or one million followers on IG, if one person says I helped them, that’s enough. If I’m helping myself, that’s enough.

And this ties into accepting gratitude. Teach yourself to accept gratitude. Allows yourself to be thankful. Before when people would compliment me, I’d get so embarrassed. But now I challenge myself to stand there and ground myself and say, “Thank you.” Remind yourself that you are deserving. You’re doing the work. You deserve it.

Accepting: Bad Bitch Energy | Releasing: The idea that I’m not enough

Melissa’s Website | Instagram | YouTube | Facebook

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