Black girls start with a clean slate

Amonge Sinxoto (left) wears one of Blackboard’s first pieces of merchandise next to Nelisa Shabalala, a friend who is also music contributor for Blackboard. (Judd van Rensburg)

Amonge Sinxoto (left) wears one of Blackboard’s first pieces of merchandise next to Nelisa Shabalala, a friend who is also music contributor for Blackboard. (Judd van Rensburg)

Fifteen-year-old Amonge Elethu Sinxoto and her 21-year-old cousin Zingisa Socikwa are the brains behind Blackboard, a new online content platform for teens that aims to create a space for the difficult conversations that teenagers are having.

From identity politics to beauty standards, “blessers”, capitalism and history, the youth are finding creative ways to grapple with social issues.

With a growing social media following and an imminent website launch, Blackboard presents a blank canvas for South Africa’s youth to write themselves into history, yet again. Here the girls talk about their journey so far.

When do you find the time to work on Blackboard?

Amonge: Blackboard is something that is constantly on my mind, so on a day-to-day basis I find myself seeing or hearing something and linking it back to Blackboard.

Zingisa: I don’t find time to work on Blackboard, I make time to work on it. The time I used to spend going out with my friends or just going on the internet to see what’s going on is the time I normally work on Blackboard.

Why did you start Blackboard?

Amonge: Zingisa and I had wanted to create a blog.
I remember approaching my parents and they explained to us that it needed to mean something.

As we grew, we came across so many things that were challenging to us as black people and girls. We realised our friends were actually seeing and coming across the same challenges but there wasn’t a platform or outlet that spoke to us as black African girls.

Although the rise of “melanin pride” had become trendy, nothing spoke to the specific and complex needs of black girls in Africa. We were trying to navigate in this post-apartheid system and realised a lot of people believed the born-frees were living a carefree life in this supposed rainbow nation but we still had a lot of baggage to unpack.

Yes, we had opportunities and education that our parents fought so hard for, but at the same time we were losing ourselves in the process, both culturally and as a generation. We finally discovered our voice. It was born and rooted from wanting to abolish the problems that we had seen.

Zingisa: We started Blackboard because of the lack of media platforms that speak to young black girls in Africa. Social media has also added to the problem by misleading girls to believe that all that matters in life is superficial, and real issues are rarely spoken about, especially ones that pertain to our blackness.

What is Blackboard’s ethos?

Amonge: Blackboard, the name, is an analogy of black girls. We are made of a hard substance, but smooth at the same time. We are black yet have spent our entire lives being written on by white chalk.

It is now time to write our own stories, stories that resonate with us, in order to influence the mindsets of the next young black girls coming up.

We are unapologetically black and we have realised that we cannot just change our mindsets alone; we also need to engage with black boys because we do realise that other people can connect with what we are trying to do and they can also call themselves Blackboards. It’s a space for us black girls to reclaim our identity, a safe environment for us to voice our frustrations and triumphs and rewrite his-story, her-story, our-story.

Zingisa: Together we can, but alone no one can.

How supportive have your parents and friends been?

Amonge: My friends have been very supportive in terms of helping to build content.

My parents have also been extremely supportive, helping us with contacts and generally guiding us in the right direction when they see us heading on the wrong path. They keep reminding us to stay true to why we started this and to remain genuine. Most importantly to put aside self gain and focus on a collective goal.

Zingisa: My family has been very supportive. They keep encouraging us to pursue our passions. The friends I keep around me are already in the same headspace as me, so they are very like-minded and helpful.

Who do you want to read Blackboard?

Amonge: Blackboard is for the youth, by the youth and about the youth.

Zingisa: Mainly young black girls in Africa but also anyone who identifies with being a Blackboard.

What is the best thing about your life right now?

Amonge: My family and friends and how we have come together to work towards this cause that we all support and believe in strongly.

Zingisa: The best thing about my life is that I’m young and I’m free to do whatever I want.

Being a very passionate person makes me want to do a lot of things and having a supportive family allows me to explore my creativity beyond my wildest dreams. They sometimes challenge my creativity to see how far I can push myself.

And the most challenging?

Amonge: The more time I commit to research and read more, the more I discover there’s a lot to be done, which is sometimes overwhelming. The other challenge for me personally would be balancing it all. I am working on school and Blackboard, and at the same time still just want to be a teenager.

Zingisa: The most challenging thing is being too passionate and creative to the extent that other people don’t see your vision or understand where you are coming from and what you want to achieve or just understanding the bigger picture behind an idea you have. That for me, most of the time, leaves me so frustrated and angry that other people aren’t as open, that they don’t want to challenge the norm. It makes me feel crazy.

How has the response been?

Amonge: The response to Blackboard thus far has been incredibly positive. People want to be involved, even my guy friends are contributing where they can and everyone keeps saying what you have started is so important. It has made me realise how thirsty our generation is for something real, especially in this plastic world that we live in.

Zingisa: The response has been amazing and so encouraging to know that people want to know more about what Blackboard is or want to get involved because they relate to the things that Blackboard is pushing just by reading or seeing the things we post on social media.

What keeps you up at night, if anything?

Amonge: Recently I have been engaging in some conversations regarding capitalism and how the world system works. I cannot claim to completely understand the kinds of things that are happening but I know enough for me to recognise that there is a major problem with the way in which society as a whole has become so blinded to the fact that we as Africans are still literally being completely tricked out of our assets.

Zingisa: [Because of] the lack of willingness, we have to take a stand and change things as the youth.

Another major thing is the decline of basic morals – from the way we carry ourselves and seeing how normal it is to walk around half-naked these days, all the way to this craze of “blessers”. It’s disturbing and scary to think of the degeneration that has happened from my generation to Amonge’s in such a short period of time. The more we keep quiet the worse it gets.

What brings you joy?

Amonge: Seeing the fruits of our work.

Zingisa: Seeing people doing things for themselves and not waiting for hand-outs or expecting overnight success for self-promotion. Seeing people push their passions and going after what they want but with an overall drive to make a change. Having the courage to get up and take small steps towards the big plan they have. What’s also amazing is the willingness people have to help and mentor us where they can.

Does Youth Day mean anything to you?

Amonge: To me, Youth Day stands as a symbol of just how powerful we really are. Youth Day represents the capacity in which we can institute change within our communities.

Zingisa: Youth Day means a time to reflect on what was done and what we should be doing and what we can be doing in order for change to take place for me personally.

What are your long-term goals for Blackboard?

Zingisa: We want to have career days, to create opportunities to expose young girls to careers they are not exposed to.

We want to host motivational talks by people of substance with young girls of colour. We want to host events that bring like-minded people together. We also want to have a print magazine for girls of colour to have a reference for their looks, their experiences and the things that interest them. We want to have a buddy system where we connect high school girls with women in varsity so they get first-hand information about life outside school instead of getting their info from social media. There’s so much we want to do.

Blackboard will launch its website at the end of June. Follow their progress on Facebook and Instagram @Blackboard_africa

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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