Too often the media and Hollywood cast a spotlight that illuminates only the pain and trauma of Black women. These tired, offensive stereotypes depict Black women as angry, ill-mannered or brash. It is rare to see the beauty of Black women lifted up in popular culture.
Charlie Billingsley, 32, born and raised in Denver, is a Black woman working to change that. Some time ago she began to notice her daughter’s insecurities about her features. One day, Billingsley (a fashion photographer), was snapping pictures of her little girl. Enamored by her daughter’s beauty, Billingsley wished everyone could see it.
“I want to show my daughter how beautiful she is, how beautiful her features are, help her center her power,” she says. Kicking around ideas, Billingsley says she “wanted to make a gallery, but didn’t want it to be something where people just walk in and look at pictures. I am big on immersive
On a whim, she decided to set up a Facebook page to gauge interest in an event to celebrate Black girls. She says she didn’t check in on the social media page until months later, and by then 3,200 people indicated they were interested in the event. ”Oh my God, now I really have to do it, because people are going to be waiting on it!” she recalls thinking. That’s how the idea for the Museum for Black Girls blossomed. It first opened as a two-week pop-up museum in several Denver locations starting in December 2018.
Billingsley says people requested an extension because they had not yet had a chance to visit, and the pop-up stayed open an extra month. During that month, the museum was offered space in a historical house in Denver. Not long after its move in 2020, the museum was shut down due to COVID-19 and everything had to be packed up and put in storage. But Billingsley was determined to be operational this year during Black History Month. The museum reopened Feb. 19 in Denver’s RiNo neighborhood and will be open through April (get your tickets at themuseumforblackgirls.com).
A popular exhibit is “Grandma’s Kitchen,” an ode to and replica of Billingsley’s grandmother’s kitchen — a place where she shared family meals and where she and her siblings and cousins, aunties and mama had their hair pressed and curled for school and church. The exhibit includes yellow floral wallpaper, a stove with a pressing comb, hanging rollers and a salon chair.
Another exhibit, entitled “Roots,” is made up of a “melanin tree” that represents and celebrates all shades of Black skin. It was created by Colorado Springs’ own professional balloon artist, set decorator and all-around creative Aisha Glenn-Bracey.
Billingsley says she also loves the cloud room dubbed “Heaven Sent,” by artists Kayla Washington and AunJanee Niblet. “It includes all the things God used to make a Black girl… a sprinkle of curves, a handful of magic, a handful of pearls,” Billingsley says.
Flowers are used in abundance to decorate the whole museum, and are meant as a beautiful reminder to adore our natural hair, skin tone and features.
“I think we are slowly evolving as a society to see Black women in a different way. … They [the media] love highlighting our pain, our trauma, our bitterness… which I can’t stand to see anymore. It breaks my heart. We work really hard for people to see us,“ says Billingsley.
Indeed, there is so much more to us, and Billingsley is doing the work to make people see us differently, to give us our flowers. “People don’t see how happy we are, how joyful we are, how we come together, how we bond, how we do things, how we invent things,” she says.
The museum (which is currently funded through crowd-sourcing) is open for everyone to learn about, appreciate and celebrate the beauty of Black women. Billingsley says visitors are coming from across the country and she hopes to eventually take this pop-up museum on the road.