SHE CONTAINS MULTITUDES
Meet Christine Platt, the AfroMinimalist.
by Willow Curry
“You’re wearing your uniform.”
It’s the first thing I say to Christine Platt when she takes off the sleek, greatcoat-length black puffer essential for the cold March wind in Washington D.C. to reveal a blazer over a white collared shirt and skinny pants after we’re seated at a sunny corner table at Al Dente Ristorante. The spot is one of several classy bistros just a few minutes’ walk from American University’s Antiracism Research and Policy Center, where Platt is the managing director.
My observation makes her laugh the way an inside joke would. “Yes, I am,” she says playfully and knowingly—it’s something only a devoted fan of hers would point out, and I am nothing if not that. As a fan, I also know she’d debuted the uniform at the start of the new year since, as she noted in an interview with Glamour Magazine, “everyone has their thing, and mine is not fashion.” Minimalism, however, is far from new for her. It’s the beating heart at the centre of The AfroMinimalist, her blog and Instagram account with a following of over seventeen thousand.
Platt launched the AfroMinimalist Instagram account and blog in 2017 as an outgrowth of her author website, borne both of a desire to delve deeper into minimalism and, she explains to me, a very minimalist need to simplify content. “I found trying to curate the author page was very fake. I had such an issue creating meaningful content—there was this constant need to create writing content that just was not authentic, at all! The AfroMinimalist is so different because it’s just real snapshots of my life. But I’ve found that it’s been a great way to also engage with readers and other writers.”
The chronicle spanning two years of a minimalist life, which she began during her separation and eventual divorce from her husband and her concurrent move into a 630-square-foot condo with her teenage daughter Nalah, draws heavily from contemporary bibles of the minimalist lifestyle such as Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and the 2016 film Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things.
Her incisive essays reference familiar touchstones of the mainstream minimalist movement: mental health, mindfulness, authenticity, and so forth. But from her very first post, it’s clear that her focus is broader when she mentions “keeping my resources within the Black community and supporting women-owned businesses.” On her blog, all her interviewees are fellow Black minimalists and Black women entrepreneurs/creatives. The “Afro” in AfroMinimalist isn’t merely a self-description. It’s a critique of the prevailing whiteness of minimalist culture.
Christine Platt may be a minimalist, but as in Walt Whitman’s classic poem “Song of Myself,” she is large; she contains multitudes. She holds a B.A. in Africana Studies and an M.A. in African and African-American Studies, in addition to a law degree. Besides her current position as Managing Director of the Antiracism Center, she is a member of the Association of Black Women Historians, and an ambassador for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
She’s the author of an award winning historical/science fiction novel, a poetry collection, and a series of children’s books—all works that focus on Black/African diasporic history. On the “About” page of the AfroMinimalist blog, she describes the study of African and African-American history and culture as “her life’s work.” All this, she brings to her minimalism—and it’s what made her feel compelled to document her journey.
“When I decided that I wanted to pursue this minimalist lifestyle, I didn’t see anyone that looked like me,” she tells me. “I knew there had to be more people of colour out there, either minimalists or interested in minimalism. I was like, ‘Let me blog about it.’ It was so important for me to show a different side of minimalism.”
Besides putting a different face to the movement, she also eschews the mainstream minimalist aesthetic, which she describes as “white and simple and barren as possible” with an edge of disdain in her voice. Again on her blog’s “About” page, addressing her “nontraditional” minimalist home full of bright colours and textures, she defines Afrominimalism as “a minimalist life influenced by the African diaspora.”
The overwhelming presence of White and East Asian influencers in the minimalist space has been critiqued for the past half-decade, but only sparsely. Indeed, in all the profiles of Christine Platt I read, only rarely do interviewers mention the politics of her practice, or her background in antiracist/Black-centered writing and advocacy. She has even faced criticism for her approach—as we wrap up our lunch, Christine recalls the response to her condo being featured as an example of minimalism for the blog Apartment Therapy: “People were like, ‘That’s not minimalist. There’s so much colour.’”
I suspect this has roots in the centuries-old association of whiteness with purity and culture due to the presumed intentional bareness of Greco-Roman marble sculpture (we now know that this was actually merely the consequence of centuries of wear on once brightly-painted figures), and bright colours with lack of civilization, which goes at least as far back as the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The work of Expressionist, Fauvist, and Primitivist artists who used colours and patterns directly inspired by Global South cultures was derided by critics of the time as barbaric. I also suspect that there is a resistance to a woman, especially a black woman, being more than one thing—there is pressure from both the White majority and the Black activist set to be either personal or political. To be both is incomprehensible.
I mention that I am reading the biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry, mention that in addition to being an anti-racist activist and playwright, Lorraine was also a painter. I can’t help but draw parallels between the two women.
“What I love is that you’re able to be many things at once, like she was,” I comment. “A lot of people think that if you have an anti-racist perspective, if you care about civil rights, that you have to take a specific journey—”
“Right,” she rejoins, knowing the tug-of-war I’m speaking of, “that that has to be the only route that you’re on.”
“And yet you do so many things that branch out from that,” I say.
“I’ve always been in this space [of] caring about Black history and culture,” she says, “but also understanding that it can be very heavy, very depressing, very painful, and so it’s always been essential to me to have an outlet. And it’s tough because it is such important work, but thankfully I have my writing as an outlet, I have my daughter as an outlet, and talking about minimalism. I know where my breaking points are, and I don’t ever try to push myself beyond them. You’ve got to take care of yourself. You have to.”
When we walk back to campus, I know that her work will continue that day, and onward. There will be another of her Black-woman focused conversation clubs after I leave, and in two months there will be the Antiracist Book Festival, the third major event for the Antiracism Center. But I also know that when I get home, I’ll check her Instagram feed and see the evidence of the space she has made for her multitudes—the passionate intellect, the aesthete, the loved one, and above all, the woman who has learned, as Alice Walker would put it, to save the life that is her own—all within 630 square feet of endless possibility.
Willow Curry is an essayist and journalist based in her hometown of Houston, Texas. Her work, which deals largely with the intertwined identities of individuals and places, has appeared in print in Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Mosaics: A Collection of Independent Women Vol. 2, and From All Corners: A Nonfiction Anthology as well as online for VocaLady Magazine. You can follow her on Instagram @willathewisp.