Gorgeous, gleaming melanin and body confidence aside- it was obvious, this woman is a warrior.
By Jae Rodriguez
From the moment I viewed her now infamous picture at Afropunk, her smile wide and confident, arms raised unapologetically over her head, her double mastectomy scars quite literally in-your-face – I made the exact same assumption I’m sure everyone else with a smartphone had already made – Ericka Hart is not your ordinary woman.
Gorgeous, gleaming melanin and body confidence aside- it was obvious, this woman is a warrior. Her image all over the internet, followers and audience growing steadily, and story amassing only more and more attention daily, we were excited to meet not only the survivor, but Ericka, the woman behind the seemingly new movement Breast Cancer Awareness – a la Bombshell – and she did not disappoint. From the moment our call was accidentally routed to voicemail, and I was greeted with one of the most bubbly, corky voice mailbox messages I’d ever heard, I knew there was so much more to the beautiful face all over the internet. Below are some highlights from our intended 15-minute conversation. Women Cultivators proudly introduces you to the dope-ass Ms. Ericka Hart.
Ericka Hart The Wondrous Woman
Photo Courtesy Of ihartericka instagram
Thanks so much for speaking with us! I imagine with the mounting publicity you’ve gained, you get asked a lot of questions, which past a certain point, may even grow repetitive. So my first question:
what’s the most annoying question(s) you’ve been asked since you’ve gone viral?
I wouldn’t say necessarily that any one question is annoying per se, just a little difficult to sum up in a single statement. I get thrown when people sort of expect a short, simple answer to ‘how I felt right after the diagnosis’ or when I was ‘going through my treatment’; Because it wasn’t just a single process. It’s not something you can just “sum up” – there’s so many emotions, feelings and processes you experience which constantly change so for some people to kind of expect a simple “black or white” answer gets me sometimes.
When it came to your own experience, had you always done self-examination?
Yes, I’d always done self-examinations. My mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was in second grade. She actually put my hand on her chest and made me feel the lump (in her breast). She’d ask me ‘Do you feel that? That’s what a lump feels like. That’s what you want to feel around for.’ And after her (Ericka’s mother’s) passing, my father started telling me also, ‘Ericka, you need to be checking for that.’ So eventually when I felt my own, it made the alarm go off. I remember thinking, trying to remember like, ‘Well, my mother’s lump didn’t feel exactly like this one….’ (laughing) you know… the things we try and tell ourselves to feel better and deny what we know.
So you discovered your own lump?
Actually, it was my wife at the time who discovered the lump. We were being intimate and you know, in a lesbian relationship especially, there’s a lot of touching and breasts are involved!
That’s right, I didn’t want to touch on any subject(s) that may have made you uncomfortable, but I did see you were previously in a relationship and marriage. It’s tough enough managing any long-term relationship period, without factoring in being in a bi-racial and LGBT relationship, and getting a diagnosis! What was that like?
She was amazing, she went with me to every single chemo session and was there through it all. We were together for 7 years, so really all throughout our 20’s. She really played an essential role in my diagnosis and treatment and I literally have her to thank for my being here today. I’m so blessed because I know a lot of other people, men and women alike, have very limited support. And in my case, I had my her and my family. So I’m very thankful for that.
Absolutely. Was it the actual diagnosis or attention afterwards that contributed to the dissolution of that relationship? Or did you two just have your own issues to sort through?
Yea, you know, just like any other couple we had our things we had to resolve even before the big C and after we found out, that kind of ran its course.
So what is dating even like in the life of Ericka now?
Shortly after my marriage, I started seeing someone and that relationship was, as I’m beginning to understand, emotionally abusive. So in healing from that I met who, I believe, is my soul mate. She is literally, the most supportive person I have met in my entire life. She’s really there for me and so committed to me, to my vision, what I want for myself. She’s my biggest cheerleader. And it just feels so good to be loved in that way, especially at a time like this. A lot of the things I’ve done, like AfroPunk or the (cover of the) Washington Post, I don’t know that I would have been able to do those things if I couldn’t have called her like ‘hey, I’m gonna take my shirt off now.’ (Laughs) But when we’re walking around and people are approaching me, she’s the first to be like ‘yea, this is Ericka Hart.’ So besides being my lover and partner, she really is just a good human being.
She sounds amazing and it’s obvious even through the phone, that you’re absolutely glowing. Speaking of dating, when would you divulge that you’ve survived cancer and have scars? If at all?
Well in my experience, I’ve always just been very open and I’ll let someone know right away. I’ll tell them ‘I’m a breast cancer survivor and I don’t have nipples. I have scars for nipples.’ I tell them the story I tell everyone else, especially if it’s just gonna be a random hookup. Those have been challenging when I’ve had them in the past. There’s not a lot of talking in a random hookup! I’m getting older now and don’t see myself having more of those but in the few times I did, it was interesting to navigate. I’d have to stop and just say ‘OK, let’s talk’ and they were either going to take it or not.
I love that you speak so openly about sexuality. It reminds us that yes, you’re an amazing kick-ass survivor, but you’re also a woman! A gorgeous, sexy woman.
Thank you! Although I’m thrilled I’m raising awareness, I’m still a sexual woman. I have a presentation that I’m doing on a curriculum I wrote called ‘Sexualizing Cancer’. It’s about bringing more than just a single narrative to cancer, whether that be ‘survivorship’ or being ‘warriors’; Relating to us just as our chronic illness and not the fact that we also are sexual beings. We deserve that. I am aware that I am an attractive person and I have privilege in that. It also makes me think though, if I were someone that was not considered as attractive in society, would it (the picture) have been out there? Would people have still wanted to take photos of me? So that’s just something to be responsible for, that I certainly benefit from. This is something I’ve been wanting to write about.
It’s clear you are a woman who is very body confident. Looking at your Afropunk picture, among many others, and your social media tags (hashtag #sometimesIwearshirts), you don’t strike me at all as a woman who is or ever was self-conscious. Have you always been so free with your body? Or was there a moment before or during Afropunk you were apprehensive about being topless or showcasing your scars?
I’ve always been free with my body but I was also born and raised in the country. So I still have ingrained and internalized certain limits about body, about blackness, about a lot! I still have those things and I still have to navigate those things. Every time I ever walked into Afropunk, it was with a shirt on; I didn’t arrive there topless, I didn’t walk in topless; Which is different from someone like Paulette Leaphart (fellow Breast Cancer survivor who walked from Mississippi to Washington D.C. – topless). I didn’t do that. I still walked in with my fears about how people were going to perceive my scars, whether or not they’d freak out or scream. But I’d always been the person to be like ‘hey, let’s take our clothes off!’ But that changed a lot when I had a double mastectomy. I got way more self-conscious. So my doing that at Afropunk, was my way of reclaiming that (confidence). Because I never used to care about that kind of stuff (other people’s opinions) before. Now I have a lot more comfort and love for this body. But it was hard for me initially. After a while though, I was just like ‘OK enough.’
Has your perspective on breast cancer programs for minority women changed at all since you yourself became a patient?
In a word, no. I’d always known that we have to do better and unfortunately that didn’t change. I’m so fortunate that I came from a supportive home, and had access to education and information but so many do not. There’s a very particular kind of advertising when it comes to breast cancer awareness. And even though some groups are now trying to diversify their styles (of advertising), we’re still in the minority; There are queer and trans people that are survivors and no one’s talking about them. There are so many people who internalize trauma because of past negligence inside medical institutions. There’s so much out there on how women of color have really been taken advantage of by medical institutions. Right after I had my double mastectomy, maybe 7 months afterwards, my insurance company said they were going to deny a payment on coverage for my double mastectomy. I couldn’t believe it! I thought ‘this is the kind of shit that women of color have to fight all the time’.
But I’m a young person – I had the energy, resources, privilege of education, and the privilege of understanding social media to know if I blew their shit up enough times on Twitter, they’d pay for it; And they did! But what about the other person that doesn’t have time for that, that doesn’t know how to navigate that? They die. That has to change. So the answer to your question is no.
You’ve done such an incredible job advocating for your cause and spreading knowledge on prevention, treatment and resources. Was this, this level of attention, the goal? Did you think you would have this much of an impact or are you still surprised by it?
I am so surprised by this! When the picture from Afropunk went viral, I thought this may not be a big thing. But the picture is still everywhere! And I’m beginning to see this is something that won’t die down. My entire October calendar is insane! People recognize me in cafes and on the street and I’m just so moved by the whole experience. All I want is that it makes a difference. Whoever is touched by any intersection of my life, and is encouraged by it – I’m happy with that. If this keeps going, fantastic. I’m going to keep it going because this is my life’s work.
So now. What does the woman, who’s comfortable being (half) naked in public, has made her presence felt in the world by having her topless picture go viral – dress up as on Halloween?
You know what! I just so happened to be standing inside Urban Outfitters today. I’m not super into comics or anything, but I kept being drawn back to this leotard costume of Wonder Woman. So I think I may just buy it. I can wear it at the airport (Ericka will be at a speaking arrangement in Barbados the last week of October) or on November 1st. I thought, why not? I’m feeling pretty wonderful these days.
Be sure to follow Ericka on her social media pages:
ihartericka (Instagram) & @IHartEricka (Twitter)
A warm thanks to the lovely Ms. Hart for the pleasure of her conversation and a unique insight into her wondrous mind.
Model/Breast Cancer Survivor-Warrior: @ihartericka
Mua/Art Director/Concept: @moshoodat