The Black Magic Project focuses on people and organizations who carry on the spirit and legacy of the Civil Rights Movement in big and small ways. For Shirley Ferrill, a hobby to sell African clothing morphed into a mission to empower people through education about black history.
Inside an African clothing store in Birmingham’s Ensley neighborhood, Shirley Ferrill is proving that beauty should be observed as a spectrum – not judged by a set standard.
Energetic Caribbean music wavers through Ferrill’s African Wear store as patrons navigate the maze of fabrics like kente and mud cloth. Ferrill, 63, smiles when she sees customers oohing and ahhing at the sequins, prints and loud colors. She supports a man’s decision to wear bright hues to an event despite his dark complexion. Whatever is beautiful to him is beautiful to her. Children giggle as she tells them how nice they’ll look during their Black History Month program. Before customers leave, she takes a photo with them and tells them to be beautiful before they exit the store with their heads held high in pride.
The store has become Ferrill’s platform of physical, mental and spiritual empowerment. In the back is a community resource room where children can grab a free book from a shelf of adventures and knowledge. It’s also a place where teens can release their frustrations through words, dance and various other art forms during Express Yourself Saturdays.
The store is the heart of her purpose. Throughout life, Ferrill said she has encountered people who denied their African descent and those who don’t consider the physical features of black people attractive. By exposing individuals to African clothing, Ferrill hopes she is also exposing people to the beauty within themselves.
“We were taught by the absence of positive reinforcement to hate our African selves and to hate anything that looks like African,” Ferrill said. “I hope that as we learn more about African wear and about ourselves that we become more positive in our thinking about ourselves.”
She strives to be an encyclopedia of black history whether in the store, on the street or online through Facebook groups. She educates others about the different types of African clothing — where it comes from and how it’s made. Her salt-and-pepper colored dreadlocks are a symbol of who she is: a gloriously black woman who of African descent, she said.
“A lot of it is my rebellion against the white standard of beauty. I don’t have to have curly hair to be beautiful; I don’t have to have light, brown, or yellow-tone skin to be beautiful,” Ferrill said. “It’s horrible that society still asks that of women. If you wear more than a size eight or if you have hair sticking up on your head – it’s not slicked down and pressed – you are different. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Building a dream
Growing up in rural Sylacauga during the 1950s and 60s, Ferrill was called all the degrading terms. At first, she was the n-word. Sometimes people would try to be nice and call her negro, she said. Then she was colored.
But back then, she was never considered beautiful. The world isn’t for the dark-skinned and the kinky-haired, she learned. As the darkest child at her elementary school, she was nicknamed “wheat straw” because of her mane.
“I’m not that dark, dark black, but it was enough that I was teased, ‘Oh, blackie this’ and ‘big-lip blackie’ that,” Ferrill said. “We were not encouraged to be proud of who we are. I don’t remember hearing anything positive about Africa or Africans. We were basically taught that we were descendants of slaves who had been savages or heathens in Africa.”
DeReef Jamison, an assistant professor of African American studies at UAB, said in his entry in the “Encyclopedia of African Heritage in North America” that degrading black people’s physical appearances is an example of cultural misorientation. This is a condition in which black individuals disown their culture due to the pressure of social norms that appeal more to European culture.
“Higher preference is given to people with features associated with Europeans than those with features associated with Africans,” Jamison said. “Hence light skin, slim noses, small lips and light eye coloration are often given preferences over dark skin, broad noses, full lips and dark eye coloration.”
Ferrill said she has encountered individuals who have told her that they are not black – that they are not from Africa, but from a particular American city.
“They’re a darker hue than me, hair kinkier than mine and they say that they’re not from Africa,” Ferrill said. “Then where are you from? ‘Well, I’m from here,’ They say. But we’re all from Africa.”
Jamison said there is an economic counterpart to the condition that attempts to fill the void a person may feel due to cultural misorientation.
“For example, if people of African descent internalize the European worldview and believe that their features are inferior, they will make conscious efforts to purchase products that appear to aesthetically and cosmetically alleviate the pain caused by looking African,” Jamison said. “Behaviors such as these exemplify cultural misorientation in that they assume that everything associated with whiteness is right and anything associated with blackness is wrong.”
The first time she saw beauty in something African was during a summer program for high school students at Talladega College. She became inspired by an African student who wore a dashiki-like outfit. Ferrill rushed to her mother, who crafted beauty everyday as a seamstress, and asked her to make one. Her mother made multiple instead.
Selling the extra clothing birthed the beginning of a business that would go through many incarnations throughout Ferrill’s life. It started out by embracing African clothing herself. She found herself wearing it all the time during the 70s and attracting those who were captivated by the kaleidoscope of colors. So when she bought new clothes, she would buy extras and sell them. When she moved to Fairfield in the late 80s, she started selling clothing from her car during local events until she renovated her dining room into a store front in 2013. But building a business within her own home made her feel uncomfortable sometimes, especially late at night.
It took her three years to hunt down the perfect spot, she said. She examined all her options before she landed at her current space. Maybe something close to home in downtown Fairfield, she thought. But the rent was too high. Maybe a place close to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute? As renovations increased in downtown Birmingham, so did the price tags.
“I wanted something that I felt would grow. I didn’t want anything I had to sink all my money into for six or seven months and struggling every month to make rent,” Ferrill said. “You’re talking about specialty products. This is not something that people have to have to live like groceries.”
The empty store fronts and boarded up windows in Ensley didn’t intimidate Ferrill. She took it as a sign that the prices would be cheap. After a series of phone calls with different property owners, she found her current landlord who showed her a two-story building on 19th Street.
Disappointed and disgusted, Ferrill said she stood on the sidewalk after checking out the bottom floor. The spot was seemed strategically perfect. It was located near a bus stop and had decent foot traffic for those who wanted to browse through Ensley. But she felt she couldn’t nail down the right location.
When she noticed a staircase leading to the top floor, she asked the landlord about it. He told her that no one had been in there for years and it had some minor ceiling damage, but he was willing to give it to her for a good price if she took it as is.
“The day I found this place, baby, I signed the lease that day,” Ferrill said. “I wasn’t letting it get away.”
She got to work soon afterward, camouflaging the broken ceiling with shimmering golden fabric. A friend made her a wooden structure that wraps around the room, where she shows off her fabrics on dark mannequins.
She opened the store on Jan. 18, 2016 – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
“He had a dream and I am realizing mine,” Ferrill said.
‘I feel like a king. I am a queen. I am a princess’
Within a year’s time, Ferrill’s clothing became the chit chat of the black-owned business community. Verbal referrals lured in new, local customers.
“I saw this beautiful headwrap on a friend one day at church,” the new customers often say, according to Ferrill. “‘They said they got it from you.'”
Social media gave her the power to reach out to people nationally. In a visitor’s post on Facebook, a man asked her how to make a purchase from California.
As the store became more and more popular, the need to teach people about African beauty became more apparent. It’s not uncommon for her to get customers who expect to see loose and unflattering clothes in her store, she said.
As they browse through the diverse array of garments, they quickly are proved wrong. They see the hidden beauty of Guinea brocade. Its elagent design is woven into the fabric, making the patterns nearly invisible in the shade until you step into the light. They glide their fingers against flowing dresses ornamented with golden beading and try on form-fitting outfits decorated with splashes of teal and orange and white and red.
African artists pull from their environment, Ferrill tells them. The brocade’s floral design that blooms in the sunlight could have been inspired from a nearby field. The colors may have come from the ground or the sky.
Ferrill said the false imagery of African clothing is rooted in miseducation.
“Most people think of Africa as a country not a continent,” Ferrill said. “So when they come in here, they look for that one African dress. Like there’s this one dress that represents one continent with 54 countries.”
She blames the negative images people have of black people on films and pictures of slaves looking disheveled in drab clothing as they picked cotton.
“You saw them in the ‘Tarzan’ movies — black people who were serving Tarzan. They were running all over the jungle and carrying Tarzan and showing him the way of life,” Ferrill said. “You never saw blacks in a positive light. You never saw them as attractive.”
Ferrill can give you a parade of examples about how the education empowers people in her store. There was a time a woman thought she wouldn’t look good in wrap skirts. The customer walked out with two, Ferrill said.
There was another time when a female customer was concerned about wrapping
a headpiece around her head the right way. Ferrill told the woman to take ownership of her own beauty.
“I told her, ‘What is right? Tie until you feel pretty,'” Ferrill said. “If it doesn’t
look right, take it off. That’s with anything – boots, clothes, anything — because it’s pulling your spirit.”
Her favorite moments seem to be with children. She helped kids discover their own confidence Feb. 17 during career day at Ephesus Academy Child Development Center. Most of the kids were curious about the clothes they had never seen before, she said. Their language about themselves changed as they tried on the shirts, dresses, skirts and headpieces.
“They said, ‘I look like a king. I am queen. I am a princess,'” Ferrill said. “They discovered a part of themselves that they didn’t originally know.”
At the end of the day, Ferrill said she wants people of all races to recognize the beauty of African clothing, dark skin and hair. Last week Ferrill received a phone call from a white customer who asked if she would be offended if she bought African clothing. Ferrill told the customer to come on down and they ended up having a deep conversation about the different types of clothing.
“I don’t have any animosity towards white people in general,” Ferrill said. “There are some I don’t like and there’s some black folk I don’t like either. It’s mostly behavior I don’t like.”
Giving back ‘little or much’
Sometimes the empowerment starts from within. Nearly every child that comes in the store picks a free book from the community room. Giving away books started as an outreach to get rid of her own books, Ferrill said. As she continued to feed her reading addiction, books nearly filled up her home. She had to shove over stacks of books just to lie down.
She credits reading for giving her different perspectives about life since she was three. As a child, Ferrill’s mother scolded her about peeling too much of a potato. It was a book that taught her how to shave the potato’s thin skin.
But most kids aren’t learning that way, she said. While working in the Urban Ministry, an inner-city program of the United Methodist Church in Birmingham, she realized some children didn’t have access to books and that children were playing on the internet more often than reading.
“I was often in tears about the lack of reading material the kids would have at home. In order to navigate this world, you need to read,” Ferrill said. “I’m not limited to just kids in Ensley. Bring your kids from McCalla, Gardendale, wherever. Just give them some books to read so that they can keep up with what’s going on in the world.”
She started contacting libraries and churches for books that could be given away about a month after the store opened. The responses came in the form of crates and crates full books.
Clifton McMillan Jr. saw the community room as an opportunity to give back while also molding the minds and spirits of the next generation. A couple of months ago, he gave Ferrill books that would appeal to boys. He did it because he doesn’t want the boys to believe their futures are limited to the images of black men seen on movies and TV shows: the gangster, the rapper, the athlete, the tough guy. Those images alone are not enough to push a child down the wrong path, McMillan said. But if a child doesn’t have any positive reinforcement in their life, then all the child knows are those images.
“Contrary to the opinions of some, representation in books matter,” McMillian said. “Images matter in shaping the development of the young. So when you can find these books, they should be shared with those who need them most.”
Girls are combating the same issue, Ferrill said. Low self-esteem is a side effect of seeing and hearing derogatory, overly sexual images of themselves, Ferrill said. An advocate of the arts, Ferrill said providing safe venues and events like Express Yourself Saturdays and allowing young girls to release their emotions through art is necessary before they find another avenue.
“You get the girls talking and you’ll find that their self-esteem is so low. The way they deal with that is to dress sexy and attract as many boys as possible; when in fact they are just looking for love and someone to care for them,” Ferrill said. “I think we have to work with our young ladies and show them there’s more to life than just being physically attractive – to make them fall in love with their minds instead of their bodies.”
Ferrill said the urge to help the youth is inherited. While growing up, some of her mother’s clients quickly realized she was a bookworm, so they brought her books to read when they picked up an order. They didn’t hush her voice when she wanted to have spiritual debates.
She makes sure, loudly and proudly, she isn’t taking responsibility on her own. She’ll tap into her network of mentors, like McMillan and John Paul Taylor with Real Life Poets to do a poetic session with the children.
“We’re talking about two hours of your life once a month to help a kid and make them want to be really great,” Ferrill said. “Everyone has a responsibility to help. My aunt used to say, ‘Little or much.’ You either help a little. Or, if you can’t do a lot, just do what you can.”
McMillan has been a mentor with Express Yourself since it started about a month after the store opened. He takes pride in helping teens compose their poetry pieces because it shows they are taking ownership of their own world. Most kids don’t have time to creatively express themselves at school due to schedules filled with tests and lectures, he said. At home, their opinions are hushed out of respect, he said.
“Respect for elders is an excellent thing to teach, but some adults don’t allow their children to ask questions as to why a situation is happening or express an honest opinion,” McMillan said. “So they carry it inside themselves. They feel afraid to say anything or they act out in anger because they don’t have a valve to release that frustration safely.”
‘Love us for who we are’
Little by little, garment by garment, kinky hairstyle by kinky hairstyle, Ferrill said she is moved to tears when she sees people overcoming the oppression of their own beauty.
She’s seeing a growing acceptance of African styles in the fashion industry. She has sold material to those who make skirts and dresses out of African fabric. Headwraps have crowned the heads of both celebrities and civilians.
Those are sights she didn’t see in mainstream fashion while she was raising a family. The last time she went to the Riverchase Galleria mall was when her daughter graduated high school in 1997. She lives less than a mile away from the Western Hills Mall in Fairfield, but she hasn’t been in there for a decade because she knows none of the clothing will appeal to her taste.
“The colors are bland. The styles are boring,” Ferrill said. “I [would] much rather wear African clothing because I have a variety of styles to choose from. If I’m going to Macy’s or JCPenney or Burlington’s, I don’t see any of this.”
That may soon change. African wear is beginning to catch the attention of designers after former First Lady Michelle Obama started wearing different styles of African clothing to events. Ferrill wouldn’t be surprised if the African clothing followed the same trend as shea butter, a moisturizer that’s extracted from the nut of a shea tree.
“I remember when shea butter was hard to find. There would be two, maybe three, stores in Alabama I could go to get it from,” Ferrill said. “Now it’s in everything. It’s in lotions, it’s in shampoo, because the business community learned something new and put that in into action.”
Until she starts seeing African clothing hitting runways everywhere, Ferrill will find joy in what seems like small examples of black pride. She gets teary eyed when she sees a family wearing dreadlocks because she knows what they go through. Despite her past occupations in social work and customer service jobs, people still identified her dreadlocks as unprofessional.
But when she sees someone accepting their own black beauty – when she helps a mother who wants her newborn to wear African clothing in baby photos or dresses a child in kente print for a church production – she can’t help but to get goosebumps.
“It’s all that I really ever wanted,” she said, “For us to love us for who we are and to be loved for who we are.”