There's Something for Everyone to Learn in Aurora James' Memoir
"Social media feels like the mask, and the book feels like taking the mask off," Aurora James tells me after stepping out of the launch party for her new memoir, "Wildflower," at Rizzoli's flagship bookstore in New York City.
The first-time author founded the accessories brand Brother Vellies in 2013, and over the past few years has been especially busy with the Fifteen Percent Pledge, an organization she started that implores retailers to stock their shelves with at least 15% Black-owned brands. James may be known as an awarded designer who's on pace to redirect $12 billion to Black-owned businesses, but her journey has been far more convoluted.
"It takes a lot of courage to be vulnerable," she says. "At a certain point, it does a disservice to us as women if we don't open up, because ultimately, the bumps and bruises that we've got along our own journeys do not stop us from being able to be amazing in our jobs, to follow our dreams or to accomplish the things that we wanna accomplish. When we hide those things from others, we do a disservice not just to young women, but also to ourselves."
"Wildflower" is a powerful story of being human — of mistakes, of celebrating wins, of being hurt, of hurting others and, above all, of magnificently becoming. Sure, a fashion lover can appreciate how James takes the reader through learning about the footwear trade, but the book speaks to a broader audience. Specifically, it appeals to anyone who has ever questioned their path and purpose, especially women and women of color.
James is defenseless and open throughout, peeling into identity within the first chapter and describing what it's like being multiracial, the daughter of a white Canadian mother and Ghanaian father. She discloses painful years of sexual abuse at the hands of her mother's then-husband, and what she went through when her mother didn't believe her.
"I learned that birthing a child does not make you a mother," she writes. "It took me many years to understand that her denial was easier than truly and fully accepting the realities of our situation. It does not make this moment any better, but it does make it human."
The memoir moves out of adolescence into her teenage years and early adulthood, detailing the moment she discovered what "vellies" are (a traditionally South African shoe, officially called a Veldskoen). James emphasizes her intention to help people see the same beauty and luxury in "made in Africa" as in "made in France," and how she went from selling at a flea market to having Anna Wintour present her the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award. There are also moments of sinking and loss, like when her beloved grandmother passed away.
"I just thought it was more powerful for young girls who look like me to know that I didn't go to an Ivy League school... and that I dropped out of high school and that I got arrested and that I got evicted," James tells me. "That's actually the reality of what entrepreneurship looks like. It doesn't always look like the cover of Fortune. That's not really real."
"You have to straighten up your costume of identity all the time," she continues. "It's like we spend so much time just perfecting our masks to make sure that we're presenting appropriately. But in reality, I think that taking off that mask is actually more empowering for everyone."
It's like she's speaking in direct response to Paul Laurence Dunbar's classic 1895 poem about identity and oppression, "We Wear the Mask." "Wildflower" reveals challenges as weighty as her now-exploding success; concluding the memoir, James pointedly wrote: "I believe there is no such thing as Black Girl Magic. This is a story of a Black woman's hard work. My love, my passion, my frustrations. My mistakes, my wins and an ode to the path forward that creates opportunity for all of us."
The entire text is captivating. With James' honesty, each page leaves the reader hungry for the next, as if you're in the moment with her, traversing her reality. It's not just a great read, it's also part of a bigger impact James is making.
Brother Vellies redefines luxury, shifting away from Eurocentrism and celebrating African artistry. The Fifteen Percent Pledge is a forceful move for racial equity that started with an Instagram post. Telling her story in "Wildflower," James argues, is similarly an act of resistance and legacy-building.
"Sharing and vulnerability are very different things. When you're vulnerable, you're allowing someone into your heart space, and it's a type of access that you're giving them that can actually be quite painful, because it's a raw space, so they can come into that space and do real damage," James says. "That's really what happened for me over the past three years in a lot of this work that I've been doing around racial justice... because it's all imperfect. But go into a Sephora store down the street: It looks completely different than it used to look before the Pledge."
Behind us, Diane von Furstenberg slipped through the doors into the party, joining co-host Huma Abdein. Though we had shimmied away from the crowd, buzz grew noticeably louder in anticipation of the conversation about to happen between James and von Furstenberg.
"In the book, there's a Nigerian proverb that my mom told me when I was younger that's really important to me: 'Until the lion has a historian, the hunter will always be the hero,'" she says before stepping back into the room of cocktails, flowers and friends. "I think now more than ever, it's really important that Black women write their own stories. I think that's a large part of why I did this."
"Wildflower: A Memoir" by Aurora James, $25, available here.
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