Kenya Hunt On #BlackGirlMagic & What It Means To Be A Bad Bitch

If you haven't heard of award-winning journalist Kenya Hunt, you may well have seen her on your Instagram feeds during fashion month, sitting on the most exclusive front rows in Paris, Milan, New York and London. During her career she has worked for some of the most influential titles on both sides of the Atlantic, from her postgraduate days as an assistant editor at Jane magazine to becoming the first Black deputy editor of ELLE UK. Now, she's the fashion director at Grazia UK and is publishing her debut book next month.
Girl: Essays on Black Womanhood is a hilarious and timely collection of original essays about what it means to be Black, a woman, a mother and a global citizen in our ever-changing world. Kenya takes a deep dive into her own experiences as an American export in London and one of the few visible Black women on fashion's front row, and explores the realities of motherhood, loss and modern activism. She also investigates the meaning of 'woke' – a term favoured by the right-wing press – and the rise in racism and white supremacy groups in the United States and the UK.
Featuring contributions from prominent Black voices such as Candice Carty-Williams, Jessica Horn, Ebele Okobi, Funmi Fetto and Freddie Harrel, Girl aims to highlight the successes and the milestones – as well as the everyday lives – of Black women today.
In the following extract, Kenya explores what it means to be a Bad Bitch, #BlackGirlMagic and why our society holds Black women to such high standards.
The Internet has several definitions for Bad Bitch. According to Urban Dictionary, she is:

Totally mentally gifted and usually fine as hell.

An amusing, inspiring, fun-loving and independent bosslady who is mentally gifted and also fine as hell.
A female who knows what she wants and knows exactly how to get it. A female who is always ready for anything physically, emotionally, and also intellectually (one being book smart as well as street smart). One who is classy and all about business. Last but certainly not least one who knows how to take care of her man at home and in the streets and remains loyal to him, herself and the game at which she plays.
That is just one of many entries, but the gist is clear. A bad bitch is a lot of things. Probably too many things for one woman to live up to. But she is usually Black — the phrase was popularised in hip-hop and remains a mainstay in rap lyrics from Lil’ Kim and Jay-Z to Lizzo and Cardi B — and always a woman.
I love Black women. I love us with a pure, bottomless, concentrated, no-added-ingredients kind of adoration that goes beyond the love I have for my mother, sister, aunts or even myself.
Rather, it’s an enduring devotion rooted deeply in our stories; the winding, bendy, journeys through small setbacks and enormous obstacles that make each of us who we are. The full lives that make each of us bad. Not bad meaning bad, but bad in the Run DMC sense. Bad meaning good. Better than good. Excellent. Goals. Magic. Bad bitches.

I love Black women. I love us with a pure, bottomless, concentrated, no-added-ingredients kind of adoration that goes beyond the love I have for my mother, sister, aunts or even myself.

I love us. We are beautiful, powerful, queens. Master of slays. Leader of movements. Makers of culture and changer of games. We are Michelle Obama’s leadership. Grace Jones’ radicalness. Maxine Waters’ candour. And Tarana Burke’s compassion. Yara Shahidi’s optimism. Dina Asher-Smith’s speed. Serena Williams’ stamina. And Sade’s elegance. Ava DuVernay’s vision. Patrisse Cullors’ activism. Missy Elliott’s innovation. And Megan Thee Stallion’s knees. We are all these things and more.
But in the course of writing this book, and contemplating my own experiences, it’s dawned on me that as we celebrate our heightened visibility in this era of inclusivity, the spotlight moves ever more in the direction of the exceptional, leaving many out.
I have grown tired of conversations that only look at our exceptionalism in relation to misconceptions about us. And I have also grown equally tired of conversations where we must explain our chosen states of being, whether that be self-improving, excelling and flexing or slowing down, muddling through and figuring it all out.
White people aren’t expected to slay all day. And when they do, they aren’t asked to defend said excellence. Why should we?
Yes, we slay. But Black Girl Magic is not just in the headline-making feats but in the magic of just being. Unbothered. Unencumbered. No questions answered, except those asked of ourselves.

White people aren't expected to slay all day. And when they do, they aren't asked to defend said excellence. Why should we?

It’s about the right to be a superwoman one day. Regular degular the next. Messy another.
Graduate degrees popping... or not. Hair and nails did... or not. Skin a little broken out... or not. Dream job offers forever out of reach... or not. Twerk a little off-rhythm... or not. Love life in the toilet... or not. Family dynamic a struggle... or not. Finances on fleek... or the opposite. House and wardrobe Instagrammable... or not.
The right to inhabit it all. It’s a luxury that seems to elude most of us. But rather than wait for it to be granted, maybe it’s time to create it for ourselves.
"Sometimes, I wish I was not a bad bitch all the time," an attractive woman in a support group on the HBO comedy series, A Black Lady Sketch Show, asks, her lace front thick and shiny, her makeup a full beat to Pat McGrath levels of perfection.
The other bad bitches in the group recoil in loud, audible horror, long gel nails clutching virtual pearls. "I want to wear normal house slippers. Not three-inch-heel house shoes," another adds. "Stop whining. Being a bad bitch is an honour. We didn’t choose this life. This life chose us," a third woman, Afro and smoky eyes full and flawless, says, indignant with outrage.
The other women, including Laverne Cox, lips lacquered in red, arms stacked with bangles, agree. "There is nothing wrong with being an okay bitch as long as you not a basic bitch," the group leader, Queen Bad Bitch Angela Bassett, cheekbones contoured and shoulders clad in fur, declares, settling the score.
As the women offload, the camera pans to a secret observation room and the viewers realise what the bad bitches don’t. They’re not in a support group, but a controlled medical study for Fashion Nova, the top-selling women’s apparel brand known for churning out bodycon dresses for the likes of Cardi B, Kim Kardashian and Nicki Minaj. Each bad bitch has been medicated to acclimate to the undue pressures of bad bitchdom.
The vignette in writer, actress and comedian Robin Thede’s hilarious series is a switchblade-sharp commentary on impossible beauty standards. But its punchline is also transferrable to any one of the many irritating expectations that can thwart us.

As women, we're often the recipients of instruction that was not asked for and policing that is not required. This is even more so for Black women, who have been subjected to a long history of systemic policing – of our bodies, behaviours and our beings.

As women, we’re often the recipients of instruction that was not asked for and policing that is not required. This is even more so for Black women, who have been subjected to a long history of systemic policing – of our bodies, behaviours and our beings. Profitable careers have been built doing exactly this.
To tell a woman how to live is big business. The self-help industry generates revenue that rivals professional sports. The phenomenon of the bad bitch was commercial enough to land Amber Rose a book deal writing a manual that would teach women how to become exactly that. In a statement, Rose defined 'bad bitch' as a 'self-respecting, strong female who has everything together. This consists of body, mind, finances and swagger; a woman who gets hers by any means necessary.'
To be sold unsolicited advice and be gifted with unasked for expectation, is not just a Black woman thing. It’s a woman thing. But I can only speak to the particularity of my experience, which is not only inextricably tied to gender, but race, education and class.

The idea of the bad bitch is not new.

For many of us, the notion that we had to be firing on all cylinders, at all times, was baked into our upbringing, with parents in all corners of the diaspora going so far as to instil in their children the idea of having to be twice as good as their white peers in order to earn just as much. A self-fulfilling maxim born out of the Jim Crow era and civil rights movement that followed, it permeated not just the parenting style of generations, but our entertainment, social groups and literature. It also birthed the bad bitch.
I can’t remember when or where I first heard the mantra; I don’t recall my parents ever uttering the words "twice as good" or "just as much". But I remember the sentiment being all around me — at family gatherings, in Sunday Bible school, during play dates with friends, and in the episodes of The Cosby Show I watched as a kid — colouring my childhood with a particularly bright shade of strive.
Any child or grandchild of the civil rights generation understood the lesson: due to an uneven playing field, it would require exceptional effort in order to achieve what the average white person might view as ordinary. And the effort was mandatory. The feeling among my elders always seemed to amount to the message that our ancestors didn’t come this far for folks to lighten the grip on their bootstraps — even as time and world events made it increasingly plain to all of us that respectability doesn’t really matter. That no post-graduate degree, high-powered job or rock-solid credit score can protect you from the indignity of being followed by a security guard in a shop or mistaken for being the nanny of your light-skinned baby in the park.

Any child or grandchild of the civil rights generation understood the lesson: due to an uneven playing field, it would require exceptional effort in order to achieve what the average white person might view as ordinary.

The "twice as good" idea also played out for many of us on a generational front, the idea that we needed to accomplish twice as much as our forbears to keep the momentum of progress going. My parents, grandparents, aunt and uncles didn’t have to spell out to my sister and I that we were expected to grow up and surpass the generations that had come before us in terms of achievement. It was obvious. And for whatever reason, I never questioned it. Maybe I never questioned it because this thinking was all I knew. The idea of excellence was tied to purpose, community growth and uplift.
This feeling carried over into my university life, where I was surrounded by a small but robust network of students who lived Black excellence on various levels. I acquired girlfriends in bulk — a high-achieving mix of former valedictorians and class presidents, all unapologetically outspoken, all stylish, all swaggerific and beautiful. It was invigorating, if a little sickening. These were bad bitches in training. They watched Daughters of the Dust and could offer a critical analysis of the repertoire of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. They looked camera-ready without makeup and had regular hair appointments, while I mostly did my own clumsy wash and wraps in my dorm room and struggled to find the right MAC concealer to match my skin tone. I was awkward in comparison and much more of a work in progress than they looked to my eyes. Nevertheless, I found their friendship exciting and energising.
We formed a network that became a safe space as we went on to push into largely white work settings post-college, as young attorneys, medical trainees, writers, editors, doctors and investment bankers, traversing all the pressures these environments come with, as well as the expectations of our families, and ourselves.
But the tone and tenor of the expectations I encountered changed as I progressed in the world of media, and found myself swinging up the rungs in tandem with the rising Internet boom, which provided exponentially more space for critique and discussion about everything. Alongside this, a new wave of feminism emerged in the 2010s together with the first-person essay economy, and the two combined to create an environment rife with opinionators, deep dives and hot takes, all travelling at the speed of 4G and intensifying our ambitions.
And throughout, Black women were magic and slayed all day. On the tennis court. On the stage. On the big screen. And at the polls. And moves that would not make headlines had the executor been white (being elected to office in certain cities, for example) became the subjects of rounds of analysis and discourse.
Bad bitches were everywhere. As The Only. The First. The All Too Sporadic Moment in some incredibly long time. We revelled in being #carefreeBlackgirls. And living our best #Blackgirljoy. We got in formation and documented the glory of our visibility in beautifully arranged tableau, clothes coordinated in tonal variations, faces bright with accomplishment. All united under the wonder of #Blackgirlmagic. Our ancestors’ wildest dreams.
But gradually, the idea that we are magic and the notion of slaying became talking points that only applied to women of a certain type: marketable, camera-ready, and relatively affluent with quotable sound bites at the ready, sexy backstories and a large following tuned in to their every move.
And the magic in the ordinary began to get left out, lost.
Around this time, I was overachieving with the best of them. Off the back of my graduate studies at Oxford University, which I had completed during the two-year stretch when I was pregnant and on mat leave, I joined the editorial staff at ELLE, eventually climbing the ranks to become deputy editor, the most senior role ever held by a Black woman at the British luxury fashion magazine.
While there, I established a mentoring programme to help fix the criminal scarcity of people of colour working behind the scenes in the country’s £26 billion clothing industry. While doing all of this, I juggled television appearances, talks, columns and television and radio broadcasts. I said yes to the opportunities that intrigued me. No to the projects that didn’t. And throughout everything, I was a mother and a wife. Here is where I should add that, with the exception of my mentoring, this mix of work is not particular to race but instead the very unique experience of working in media in the 2010s.

Nonetheless my work was often ascribed to race.

‘Black girl magic goals!’ captions would sometimes read underneath my Instagrams, broadcasting my latest article, project or musing. I’d post a waving Black girl emoji in response to the rallying cry. "I don’t know how you do it. Aren’t you tired?" colleagues and peers on the fashion circuit would ask. The question would routinely annoy me. These were all things I liked, no loved, doing. A happy wife makes a happy life and all that. A fulfilled mum means happy kids, etc, etc.
But if I dug a little deeper I would have arrived at a more honest answer to that question, which would have been yes. I was tired, yes. But mainly tired of the explaining. I was fine minding my own business doing things I enjoyed, working to create opportunities for myself so that I could in turn provide opportunities for younger people like me and eventually my kids. But I was also tired of feeling the weight of responsibility to help fill a crucial gap in an entire industry. Tackling microaggressions on the job, while supporting other Black women who were The Firsts and The Onlys to do the same. I was willing and ready to do the work, I just wished there weren’t so much of it to do.

I was fine minding my own business doing things I enjoyed, working to create opportunities for myself so that I could in turn provide opportunities for younger people like me and eventually my kids. But I was also tired of feeling the weight of responsibility to help fill a crucial gap in an entire industry.

What underlines all of this is privilege. The privilege of being able to afford the childcare that allows me to do a job I love that has raised my profile enough to be able to do projects, like this book, that I find personally fulfilling.
But increasingly I’ve discovered the real personal growth happens in the ordinary day-to-day moments rather than the big, life-defining ones. The unnewsworthy and unremarkable, but no less meaningful. It’s in the one-to-one exchanges with my closest girlfriends about the banalities that don’t make the highlights reels — the pushing through and the figuring it all out, the winning and the fucking it all up. To me, this is where the magic is.
The origins and the ownership of the phrase "Black Girl Magic" has been subject to much debate in recent years. But most agree writer Joan Morgan was one of, if not the definitive, first to put it out into the world through her 2000 book, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, a cleverly titled collection of writing that excellently captured, chronicled and interrogated the rise of hip-hop feminism. Interestingly, she writes of a Black girl’s magic in an essay about her rejecting the unrealistic notion of the Strong Black Woman, the original Bad Bitch.
In a passage describing how she left New York to seek a slower pace in California, she wrote:
In Frisco I did a few wonderful things. I fell apart regularly in the arms of two deliciously brown men (one a lover, both friends) who faithfully administered the regular doses of TLC I needed to breath again — unafraid of my tears or fragility. I wrote. Spent lots of time near the water. Heard Oshun’s laughter twinkling like bells, urging me to recapture the feminine and discovered the fierceness of a Black girl’s magic. I did and had what I now know to be a powerfully feminist time. Back then though, I was just saving my life.
Thirteen years later, CaShawn Thompson, a mother, wife and Early Care and Education Specialist, based in the Washington, DC area began using the hashtag #Blackgirlsaremagic as a source of uplift. "The hashtag was born of a childhood understanding of how wonderful Black women are. I first used it in a Tweet in response to someone saying that Serena Williams looked like a man and that is why she was a superior athlete," she told me. In an interview with the writer Feminista Jones she explained, "The difference was, I was the first person to use it and reference Black girl empowerment. Other times it was used before, it was always something about Black girls’ and Black women’s hair. I was the first person to use Black Girl Magic or Black Girls Are Magic in the realm of uplifting Black women. Not so much about our aesthetic but just who we are."
The phrase spread in her network and a friend suggested she put it on a T-shirt. She sold 330 within weeks.
The hashtag, which Black Twitter eventually abbreviated to #Blackgirlmagic, grew from there, becoming a global phenomenon that transcended borders, rousing generations of women around the world. It spoke to me, and the women I knew, as well as an entire world of people — of all races and backgrounds — who I didn’t. The hashtag became a cultural moment in itself, even as it celebrated a series of cultural moments. And in the process the phrase became associated with the superlative: the record-breakers and the history-makers.
Simone Biles wins five Olympic gold medals #Blackgirlmagic. Dina Asher-Smith becomes the fastest woman in the world #Blackgirlmagic. Beychella #Blackgirlmagic. Rihanna becomes the first Black woman to launch a fashion label funded by LVMH #Blackgirlmagic. Google dedicates an ad to Black Girl Magic #Blackgirlmagic.
It speaks volumes about the trajectory of Black Girl Magic that the Google ad about #Blackgirlmagic failed to include the woman who popularised the phrase, a move that devastated Thompson. "Because women like me have always been erased or taken out of stories, one way or the other," she told The Root. "Women like me — poor women, poor Black women; women that — like I do — work at day cares, women that work at CVS; women that wear their hair a certain way, women that talk a certain way; women that didn’t go to college, or didn’t finish. You know, those of us that exist on the margins, even within Black communities; those of us that aren’t traditionally looked at as 'Black excellence'."

Thompson wasn’t the only one who felt left out.

My friend Amy is a woman who on paper has all the qualities of a bad bitch (law degree, gorgeous Brooklyn loft, Morehouse alum husband and a Gap ad gorgeous son). Those gleaming, inspiring women I described from uni? She was one of them and to this day is at the centre of the group of women who make up my safe space. Amy, a woman who our mutual friends routinely refer to using the word ‘goals’, admits to feeling displaced by it. "I feel like I’m surrounded by all these unicorns with these colourful manes, everyone killing it. But I feel like this idea of Black Girl Magic doesn’t always leave room for the ones who are just trying to figure it all out and that’s because we don’t always get to see the fallible as powerful."
Issa Rae voiced similar concerns when doing the press rounds for her show Insecure. "We don’t get to just be boring," she said about her show, which stands out in the television landscape for depicting Black women as being ordinary. The great irony: critics hailed the simple act as revolutionary.
To be clear, this is not an anti-Black Girl Magic treatise. Instead, it’s commentary on the celebrification of it and a case for steering the movement back to where it originated, a place that highlighted the magic in the regular degular, whether that be figuring out a way to get your child collected from summer camp at a moment’s notice when your husband drops the ball or managing to roll out of bed, step into the shower, and resume a job search when a string of demoralising phone calls from a debt collector has you wanting to do otherwise. A space where the okay bitch is a bad bitch and the bad bitch can just be. Free.
Girl: Essays on Black Womanhood by Kenya Hunt will be published by Harper Collins on 26th November 2020.

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