I love my work, but my work is not who I am. My career does not make me. I am a fashion and creative director, but there’s so much more that I want to accomplish outside of it. I’m definitely an Aries, in the sense that there are a lot of things that I want to be part of.
I was born and raised in Richmond Hill, Queens, but grew up in New Jersey. The area I grew up in was not diverse at all. There were only a handful of Black people, and that can form and shape who you are and how you view yourself. But I grew up in a very Haitian household, too. Both of my parents were very, very instrumental in making sure that I loved my Black skin. I loved my culture, I loved Haitian culture, and I loved being Black.
I loved my culture, I loved Haitian culture, and I loved being Black.
My parents did everything they possibly could to instill in me the beauty of being Black, whether it was putting me in specific after-school activities, or making me read and watch movies geared towards a love of being Black. They wanted me to embrace myself. Even though I was in an environment where there weren’t many of me, they wanted me to think very highly of who I was and where I came from—and where they came from.
My grandmother, who regularly came up to the U.S. from Haiti, exposed me to a lot of things, from art to music. She was a lawyer, but she was also an opera singer. She just loved culture. She’s the one who introduced me to the great artists of our time, the classic artists. I think this allowed me to expand my mind and delve deep into that realm.
One of the first American novelists I was introduced to at a very young age was James Baldwin, through my grandmother. Back in the day, especially in Caribbean cultures, people really didn’t talk about homosexuality. Baldwin was open about his homosexuality and his differentness. My grandmother would never touch upon that, but she would always say, “There is a beauty in not being the same. There is a beauty in not necessarily thinking the same way as everyone around you. There is a beauty of having your own kind of conviction. There’s a beauty about having your own thought process. There is a beauty about coming to the same conclusion as someone else, but not getting there the same way.” So Baldwin became a figure who really impacted the way that I thought, the way that I came about to things.
I was never a big fashion girl. I knew what I liked, and I knew I had great taste in things, but it didn’t necessarily mean that I was wearing them. For me, it’s more about the creativity behind everything. That’s what I love about fashion—not necessarily the boot, or this, or that, but the story behind it. How a particular collection, show, or photo shoot came together.
I never thought that you could have a career in fashion or even a career in the arts, as much as I loved both of those things. So when I was in school, I thought, Okay, I guess I’m just going to follow my parents and become a physician. That seems like what I should do. Or even when I knew that I didn’t want to become a physician, I thought maybe I should be a lawyer. I was going down that track, when my mom who was like, “Don’t do something that you don’t love. If you’re going to put that many hours and years into school, you better love what you’re doing or you’re just going to regret that you wasted all that time doing something because you think it’s what I want you to do.”
The cool thing about my career is that every place I’ve worked has always been so different. I get to learn about their world, and at the same time, teach them about mine. And along the way, I took what I learned at this publication and moving it to the next one.
If you’re going to put that many hours and years into school, you better love what you’re doing.
Teen Vogue was the first where it was a team of just young women. At the time, Elaine Welteroth was editor in chief, Marie Suter was the creative director, and Lynette Nylander had come on as deputy editor. It was a really nice group of women who were racially diverse—and socioeconomically, too. It was probably the first place where it felt like the stories that we were trying to tell were stories that I wanted to push. Previously, sure, there were ones that I loved and I wanted to push, but there were tons of others that I just didn’t understand. But it was above me and I had to execute it.
Maybe it was also because the world was changing, too. Culturally, there was a shift that was happening, around Trump’s election and beyond, and it was like, “We’ve got to nurture this conversation.” Those were the stories I was proud to present and I was proud to execute myself.
It was the same thing at Allure. When I started there, it was the science of beauty. But then we really started to dig deep into the culture of beauty. That shift made me excited to work on and put those stories in the book.
The idea of Building Black Bed-Stuy was something all three of us—my friends Kai Avent-deLeon and Nana Yaa Asare Boadu and I—were already individually working on. Kai was born and raised in Bed-Stuy, and has Sincerely Tommy, so she’s always had that community mission. As for me, being ingrained in a community doesn’t just mean moving here, but truly getting involved. So I would do block association things, and I got involved with the BELA Charter School, which is a school for Black and brown girls.
We all were doing our own thing and because we’re such good friends, we would talk about what we were seeing, what we felt was missing, and certain incidents that would happen in the neighborhood, like people calling the cops on the culture—things like that. 2020 probably lit a fire under our asses because the consequences and the need were bigger. So that’s how Building Black Bed-Stuy was born, but we had been talking about it for probably a year or so before we actually launched it.
The way that I live my life is community-based—it takes a village. Whatever it is I’m doing, whether it’s with BELA or Building Black Bed-Stuy or an individual thing—I always think about children and the world that I want them to live in. Obviously I have my individual goals, but everything I am trying to do is to help build a world that has never been seen before. I know I can’t take it all on, but whatever I can do to help, I’m going to try to do it.
We have such a rich history that doesn’t just start with slavery.
That’s what, in my head, I think I’m doing at Building Black Bed-Stuy with my team of friends: we’re literally helping Black initiatives and Black businesses empower themselves. Sometimes you need your community to help you. The first iteration of Building Back Bed-Stuy was to help buy real estate to build a community center that is run by the Black community, run by the people that live around the area.
The places, the initiatives, and the businesses that we truly try to get behind are not one-offs. We try not to do things like a candle company, or things like that. We focus on nurturing businesses that are about teaching Black youth, teaching our kids who are two or three or four years old what it means to be proud of being Black, and of their heritage. Growing up, we all had history class, but I had to learn how to unlearn the history that was taught in my high school. There’s so much that was missing.
When you think of the Black history you learn in high school, you think of slaves, then Martin Luther King, then kumbaya. Obviously, that’s not it. We have such a rich history that doesn’t just start with slavery. We weren’t these downtrodden people from the get-go. We had civilizations. We had working towns and working neighborhoods. With the Watoto Freeschool and Little Sun People daycare, it’s about teaching the youth these things when they’re young. There’s an ambulance network called the Bed-Stuy Volleys. It’s an all-Black run, volunteer group that provides free ambulance service. Essentially, when people don’t have money to call the ambulance, they can call the Volleys to be picked up au gratis. These are the types of initiatives that we try to back.
Self-empowerment is not only about money, it’s about taking care of your bodies.
We raised funds for the Life Wellness Center on Tompkins to talk about mental health in the Black community. Self-empowerment is not only about money, it’s about taking care of your bodies, it’s about making sure that you’re healthy, and that you can live a long life in order to implement all the ideas and things that you want to do.
We also want to build Black generational wealth. These are Black businesses and we want them to reap the same benefits a lot of our white counterparts have. We don’t take a cut. The money we raise goes straight back into their businesses so they can build their businesses. We’re helping create that wealth so that the next generation can build upon it and doesn’t have to start from scratch. The Black family dollar hasn’t moved since 1958. Meaning, for every dollar a white family has, a Black family has 10 cents. That statistic has been the same since the civil rights movement and has not budged for a second. So it’s just hard.
It’s one of those things where you look at it and you’re like, “Wait really? But it seems like we’re prosperous. It seems like we’re getting better.” But then I think, “I’m in a bubble, too.” I live in New York City, and there’s still obviously plenty of poverty here and people who are living below the line, but it’s just crazy that economically and as a whole, we are not empowered at all as a people.
I am not a big weed smoker, but have I done it? Of course. I mean, I definitely have a little chocolate here and there. Actually, maybe like three months ago when I couldn’t sleep because I had just way too much on my plate, I was taking Dusk. I take Dusk when I cannot fall asleep or when I know that my mind is racing and I know I want to go to sleep early. It’s super nice. And I use weed leisurely. If I’m with a group of friends and it’s just us and have no kids around and we’re having a good time, I’ll definitely take a little draw and just chill and have a glass of wine.
But so many Black males have gone to jail over selling and smoking weed on the street. Yet now it’s cute, now you want to profit. Now you want to create farms, and do all of these big, grandiose things, and there are so many people sitting in jail for years and years just for having weed. Now it’s cool? Now you want to legalize it? It’s kind of like that t-shirt that says, “Ghetto until proven fashionable.” That’s how I see everyone jumping on the weed bandwagon because people have gone to jail and are still in jail and God knows when they can get out.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Rajni Jacques photographed by Meredith Jenks around Brooklyn. Donate to Building Black Bed-Stuy here. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies. Subscribe to our newsletter here.