Our mere existence makes us worthy, and valuable.
Afro-normalism (ahf-roe nörm/a-leišm): the art of capturing, depicting and celebrating Black people doing things that are considered mundane and ordinary to the general public. e.g. - Black people fishing; Black people making tea; Black people reading comics; Black people living.
Justine Allenette Ross’ work is a portrait of the lives of Blackness that lives outside of the conversation surrounding Black excellence—the idea that being extraordinary is a means of celebration. Her art lives in a world where existing as a Black person is not wrapped in the trauma of media headlines nor warped by the triggers that have become a part of social soundbites. Her art lives and breathes in the mundane moments of how we as Black people venture out into the world: in our homes, resting in a bath; dining at a restaurant, head tilted back; camping or fishing, tents waiting for us to return to a burning campfire.
Seeing her art made me think about how so little attention is paid to the Black experience outside of us being excellent at everything or dying for nothing.
Justine’s art reminded me of how easily white people get to slip into a scene and become background noise, and how Black people want so desperately to simple be, without our bodies getting in the way, our skin getting in the way. Our normalcy is usually replaced and turned over by something tragic, something that assaults our present moment, interrupting our day, and our lives. We want to blend in. We want to be regular. We are regular. That is what makes us beautiful. Afro-normalism is what springs forth from that beauty.
Blackness, our day-to-day existence, is normal. Black people, we look at rainbows. We ride trains and buses to work. We make love, we steal sandwiches from the work refrigerator. Black people, we read books. We drink coffee and get the names wrong of our professors; we show up late to class. We go shopping for water filters and get wrapped up in Ikea like everyone else. Far too often, our art and representations of us in media don’t get to depict this. We don’t get to be normalized. We don’t get to be human.
The Black experience as a whole is usually festishized, metamorphosed to superhuman capabilities, or reduced to criminality. Our range is depicted in meaty love stories with multiple love triangles happening at once, or the stories of fallen martyrs or enslaved peoples nearing the end of their runaway status. We’re not afforded the luxury of being seen as something that isn’t meant to be worked, to be harmed, to be athletic, to be soulful. Seldom do we get to be ordinary. So much is asked of us—in our homes, in our workplaces, in our bedrooms.
Afro-normalism speaks to our being as enough. There is so much pressure to go above and beyond, to be more than you were yesterday. But our days are not made up of miraculous feats. We wake up, we call our lovers, we text our parents; we commute from one place to the next, breathing and yawning and stretching like everyone else. Some would argue us being alive is miraculous enough. Some days we are barely making it out of bed.
A lack of a phD or MBA, the inability to start that LLC or to have 100K followers across social channels does not speak to your value or merit. We have been programmed to believe that our excellence and magic is rooted in what we contribute to the world. But this is unequivocally false. As we look at the wide range and breadth of our experiences as a community, we begin to see that true art lies in the mundane, exists in the space of being.
But Afro-normalism speaks to the beauty of our being. It speaks to the art that is our lived in experience as a people, all moving and seeking and searching, all failing, and floundering, all glowing and growing and grieving. Our lives are a mishmash of stars, of orbits, of gaps and snores, drools and kisses; we are made up of delayed trains and tea kettles kettling and laundry being sorted and sneaking kisses before the alarm goes off.
We get to sit in the joy of streaming Snowfall, of wiping away tears and the last crumbs of a Wingstop order. It is trivial and heartbreaking, the lives we lead, but they are ours. And they are unalike and so similar to everything else that lives, loves and breathes under the sun.
We don’t have to look to some dystopian future or Wakanda-type entity to take us away from what is here. The action is here, the freedom is here; the fight for abolition and restorative justice is here on this soil, on this land, in both our hearts and hands.
We are alive. We are normal. We are Black.
Joél Leon is a father, dreamer and storyteller. Follow him @joelleon.