Prom is a big deal in the U.S. A really big deal. According to a 2015 study by Visa, families spend an average of $919 on prom and go all out with gorgeous gowns, stretch limos and professional photographers. Particularly in the African-American community, prom and the now ritualistic prom send-off is considered a rite of passage for many teens.
So imagine how devastating it would be for a young black woman to find out the day before her senior prom that her school has prohibited her from attending. Not for failing a class or being suspended for fighting, but for merely exercising her right to freedom of speech.
That’s exactly what happened to 18-year-old Taiylar Ball after she performed a spoken word poem “Dear Black Girls” at Homewood-Flossmoor High School’s talent show last month. Her poem was a love letter of sorts to black girls, encouraging them to feel valued and beautiful even though we live in a world that sees black women and girls as anything but.
Her words were powerful, however the school’s administration thought that some of the language she used was too explicit (she used the “N word”). As punishment, Taiylar, a National Honor Society member who has been accepted to 11 universities and received over $1 million in scholarships, was banned from attending her senior prom and her graduation ceremony. It took meetings between school administration and Taiylar’s parents and attorney before she was allowed to attend her graduation ceremony; however, she still missed out on prom.
In a time when we have presidential candidates (Good Lawd!) spewing hate speech on a daily basis, it seems rather striking for a bright young student like Taiylar to be punished so harshly for merely speaking a painful truth: Black women are the mules of the world. But when I chatted with Taiylar recently about her plans for the future and the alternative prom her community is throwing her later this month, I got the feeling she is totally unfazed. I was also blown away by her candor, maturity and entrepreneurial spirit (the girl’s got a blog, a book of poetry she’s working on and an online radio show). No wonder Harry Potter author JK Rowling and Ebony senior editor Jamilah Lemieux are fans.
Sisters, black women, Dear black girls
Your mind is filled with self-hate, and emotion but let me tell you brown girl
You are one of a kind
And you need to shine
Love yoself cus they don’t
Catch yoself cus the world won’t
–excerpt from “Dear Black Girls”
‘Skin Color Complex’
Hilary Christian: First off, congratulations to you on your graduation and for getting a full scholarship to Florida A&M University. That’s a huge accomplishment.
Taiylar Ball: Thank you. Go Rattlers!
HC: Your poem “Dear Black Girls” is powerful, and I’m sure speaks to so many young black women who may feel like they are not beautiful or valued by the mainstream and in some cases our own. What prompted or inspired you to write that poem, and were you hoping to help uplift young black girls?
TB: I always say that I am a writer first and foremost. I don’t really consider myself a poet, but I do write poems, if that makes sense. Most of the things that I write are centered around young black girls because I strive to be a role model for them. I have a lot of little cousins, and I have a little sister, so I want to be a role model for them. I wanted to write a poem about black girls and skin color because that is something that’s dear to me. My first experience with colorism was when I was younger. I guess you can say I disliked my brown skin. Boys would tell me they liked light-skinned girls more, and that had a lot to do with my low self-esteem.
When I was younger I would stay inside so I wouldn’t get darker in the summer. I would always tell people ‘You know I’m lighter in the winter. I’m not always dark like this’ just so they knew I was not dark-skinned. I would wear lots of sunscreen. I just had low self-esteem for a long time. I didn’t get over it until I got to high school. That’s when I came into my own person, and I decided that my skin is never changing and was beautiful, and I embraced it. I didn’t want my little sister and my little cousins growing up thinking that their skin was ugly because they saw me hating my skin. So I knew that I had to get over that and embrace it, love it. So that is what prompted me to write about that experience, which developed into an article I wrote for MTV and then other articles on the topic and then my poem.
HC: You know, when I was younger I experienced the same thing. That was a long time ago for me, but it’s unfortunate to see that colorism is still an issue. Do you see other girls your age experiencing the same thing?
TB: Oh, yes. Girls at church and friends, and like I said, I have a lot of young cousins. I just wanted to make sure they knew they were beautiful. Of course they (my cousins) won’t say ‘I have low self-esteem,’ but it was definitely in their mannerisms that they were very conscious of what they do and how they act and how they look. That’s something that they care about the most—how they look. But I didn’t want them to have the same experiences as me, so I make sure I tell them all the time they are beautiful. I make sure they know that they are important. They have to see it from me. I have to let them know that I love myself, and they should love themselves, and I love them. So that’s what made me want to write it.
HC: You talk about black boys in the poem and their seeming fixation with skin color. That could impact the way black girls feel about how we look and who we are because it’s sometimes based on male attention.
TB: Yes, definitely, I am actually reading a book right now called “The Color Complex” and that had an impact on me, too. It talks about how our brothers, black men have a severe skin color complex. What that means is that they believe that light-skinned women are more beautiful. I actually had an article–I am a feature editor of my paper–and in the article we had boys surveyed and said that light-skinned girls are more beautiful just because they are lighter. And that was just crazy to me! I’m like ‘Uh, you need to understand that we are both minorities, black men and black women are minorities. There’s no way you should be belittling a black woman when your daughter is going to be a black queen. So you have to make sure you are encouraging black women and make sure you get that skin color complex out of your mind.’
It’s important that black women and black men work together to combat stereotypes and it’s important that we are uplifting each other. Because Black women go hard for black men, but sometimes black men do not do the same. Some back men do, but it’s more common for them not to.
‘People Need to Speak Out’
HC: Well, your poem resonated with so many, and I loved how the audience can be heard cheering and clapping in support of what you were saying. However, publicly, there still seems to be general silence in our community when it comes to uplifting black women and breaking down stereotypes.
TB: Yes, and this was such a touchy topic. But I didn’t know this would happen. I really didn’t. I’m just a writer. I wrote half of it (the poem) that morning. I just go from what I believe in, and I just write. I didn’t know that people would be impacted by it. I didn’t know it would inspire people. I didn’t know it would make people upset. These are just my experiences and what I have been through. But it was sad that people were scared to speak out because it is such a controversial topic. It’s hard for some people to speak out about it. But people need to speak out because there is racist imagery in mainstream media that we see all the time. It’s not OK. People have to be proactive in making a change. You can’t say you want to make a change behind closed doors but when it’s time to play, you don’t want to play because you’re scared of what other people think.
HC: True, and I think your poem helps start a conversation with young men and women. So, what do want to see more of from young girls to help challenge the stereotype?
TB: I want to see girls educating themselves and reading more. I love to read. I’m reading a book called “Hairstory.” I’m reading “The Rage of the Privileged Class.” I’m always reading, which I think is important. If you’re not a reader, I’m going to use my blog and my book and my radio show to inform girls about these things. So it’s important to do your research and learning about your history. The history that they show on TV and in history books is not our history. You have to do your own research to form your own ideas. That’s really important.
‘It Wasn’t OK That They Were Able to Do That to Me’
HC: It must have been devastating for your to miss out on your senior prom, and it seems as if the punishment really did not fit the crime. Some could even argue that a white student would not receive the same punishment. Do you think race played a part in the school’s decision?
TB: That’s a hard question. You could definitely argue both sides. Me personally, I don’t feel like it was a racist thing. However, I think it’s privilege. How can a white man tell you that you can’t use the N word when you’re black? We have taken back this word and made it a positive term that we are able to use. It’s not OK that I got punished for using a word that was used in a positive connotation and in no way did I mean it to be malicious or taken in a negative light. It wasn’t OK. It wasn’t OK that they were able to do that to me.
HC: No, it wasn’t. But I think with privilege comes a bit of ignorance. You don’t know what you don’t know…
TB: Exactly. That’s why I told my school (administration) that I want them to have more cultural competence. It’s all about education and just educating on different races. HF (Homewood-Flossmoor High School) prides itself on being a diverse school. However, black students are still feeling like we are at the bottom of the barrel, like we are not important, and we make up pretty much half the school. The African-American population has grown at HF, so the school has to learn cultural competence so that they are able to better serve their students. It’s the same way with PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions) and HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities).
It was so important to me to attend an HBCU. I wanted a school that cared about me, and FAMU (Florida A&M University) has been supporting me throughout this whole ordeal. I’ve had calls and emails from administration, and they care so much about this. PWIs have to look at HBCUs and see what they are doing right to better serve their students and make students feel at home. That’s why I think HF should have more diversity classes and learn so that they are better able to serve their African-American population.
(Homewood-Flossmoor High School could not be reached for comment for this article.)
HC: So was the school’s official reason for banning you from prom and graduation just language or something else?
TB: I think it was just language. I definitely don’t regret my language, though. However, if I knew that I would have gotten in trouble for it, I wouldn’t have used that language.
HC: So you didn’t know?
TB: No, I didn’t know. I finished the poem that morning, and I didn’t have time to get it approved. That’s the only thing I regret. I would have talked to the sponsor and made sure it was OK. It was just a rush. Prom was the next day, and I wasn’t really focused on my poem.
HC: In spite of the school’s decision, what has the response been from your fellow classmates and teachers?
TB: Everybody was supportive. My journalism teacher was really supportive. Parents in the community were supportive,. However, there are some that weren’t and, no offense, but they were white. But this is so controversial that you’re always going to have people that support you and those people who don’t. And that’s OK. But everybody isn’t me. Everybody isn’t able to speak out about something they care about.
HC: Speaking of support, your story has gained national attention. Author JK Rowling and Ebony Magazine’s Senior Editor Jamilah Lemieux spoke out, criticizing the school for its handling of the situation. How does it feel to get that kind of attention?
TB: I wasn’t expecting it. It’s very heartwarming, and it shows that there are very kind people in the world. This is something that I will remember for the rest of my life.
People that didn’t even know me supported me. JK Rowling—I just talked to her this morning about my book, and she’s been so supportive, and Jamilah from Ebony, she’s coming to my (alternative) prom. So many people have supported me, and I keep saying it’s a blessing in disguise. A lot of great things have happened out of this. I have a lemons-to-lemonade movement now because I was served lemons, and then I made lemonade. That was the theme of Beyonce’s album. This just shows that black women have been served lemons for years and now we’re making lemonade. We’re keeping it moving.
HC: You certainly have been keeping it moving. Even though you didn’t go to your high school prom, I hear the community is planning an alternative prom for you. How are the plans going, and when is it?
TB: Yes! Prom is June 18. I don’t know the location, though. That’s under wraps. But I’ve been giving out invitations to the community. I am giving out a yellow invitation with a lemonhead on it. Just something to thank people for their support. I had T–shirts made that have “Taiylar’s Ball” on it. That’s the name of the prom! And I really want Chance the Rapper to come. He is my favorite rapper. I am excited, though. I don’t know many details about it. But I will be wearing a yellow dress. That’s all I know.
HC: So what’s next for you? Tell me about your book.
TB: I have a blog and I will be logging my college life. I’ll speak out on issues affecting black women. I do plan to put out a book with my poetry in it. I have a radio show, and I record at Roosevelt University. It will be online. I’m doing that as a platform to help little black girls. So they don’t have to grow up and feel the way I felt. So that they can feel empowered, and know they are not alone. So they can just enjoy being a black girl.
Kudos to you, Taiylar.
For more information about Taiylar’s Ball, visit https://pages.giveforward.com/other/page-lr4bjt3/