Nichole Perkins, a renowned pop culture commentator and former podcast host, is not afraid to dive deep. On the award-winning Thirst Aid Kit podcast, for example, Perkins — alongside co-host Bim Adewunmi — put a magnifying glass on the ways pop culture can shape our desires while allowing us to lust out loud. And in Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be — her new, unflinching memoir that explores the ways pop culture shaped her existence as a Black woman — she follows a similar formula, this time baring her bones in the name of affirming and empowering Black women.
“I think one of the reasons that I wanted to write the book is I wanted to show the diversity in Black womanhood,” says Perkins. “I wanted to make sure that people see that being a Black woman is not just suffering because that’s not how I feel at all. I did not want it to be about all the hardships and obstacles of being a Black girl in the South. I wanted to show that there were some challenges, but I still feel good now, even though I don't have all the answers.”
Throughout the book, Perkins recounts her most central and intimate experiences — from counteracting sexual stereotypes of Black women while learning how to express desire from a young age, to grappling with ideas of acceptable Black femininity all throughout adulthood. Perkins’ point is that being a self-realised Black woman is not necessarily about neat, happy endings. Sometimes, it’s simply realising that it's never too late to discover who you are, and it’s okay to embark on the journey in whatever way works best for you — no matter how many mistakes you make along the way. It’s a poignant message in a world where Black women are often not granted permission to mess up or exist on their own terms. Perkins is giving both herself and Black women like her permission to be perfectly imperfect.
“You can shake off all the expectations that don't fit for you,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that [Black women] give themselves permission to do it the way that works best for them and not the way that was prescribed to them by somebody that they never met before.”
During a call with R29Unbothered, Perkins discusses the impact of Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be and how one iconic Prince lyric inspired it all.
R29Unbothered: Your new book, Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be, is really transparent and so vulnerable. Were there any memories that were difficult to relive? If so, how did you motivate yourself to write through them?
Nichole Perkins: “Oh, yeah, there were a lot of memories that I [didn’t think I could write about]. I've always considered myself a confessional writer, particularly in my poetry. Poetry is my first writing love, and I was always very open and honest about the things that I was sharing. But as I've gotten older, I realised that the stories that I am telling about my life are not just my own. I have to be careful of what I'm sharing of other people's stories. I don't want to expose other people.
There's one chapter in the book about my brother who is on the autism spectrum, and I originally had not written it. But a good friend of mine [read it and] was like, ‘I think you need this story.’ I really didn't want to talk about him because I did not want to leave him open to be criticised or made fun of or anything like that. I'm very protective of him. And so I wrote the chapter and sent it to my editor and she was like, ‘yes, we were going to put this in the book. It's a really important part of your life and your story.’ I kind of just realise that hopefully maybe me being vulnerable will help somebody else be vulnerable. (I didn’t speak to him about what I was writing. He knew I was writing a book but not any details)”
Let's talk about the meaning of the title, Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be. I would love to have you break down its meaning.
“It is a line from a song called ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ from [Prince’s] album, The Sign of the Times. That is my favourite Prince album, and it is my favourite song, which has taken me years to figure out because I love his music so much. The song is written from the perspective of this persona that Prince created, Camille, and it is about someone who is [telling their lover], ‘we can't be together romantically anymore. Maybe I can be your girlfriend and still be a part of your life and still share a certain level of intimacy with you.’
At one point, Prince sings, ‘Sometimes I trip on how happy we can be’ and then he begs and pleads. The song just always struck me as one of the most beautiful expressions of yearning and longing and the ultimate sacrifice to change — to change who you are for someone, even though it's probably not healthy to change yourself completely. I never had anybody who seemed to want to sacrifice to keep me around, so I just think that that's really romantic.
For the book, it applies because I feel like I have constantly been wondering what would it be like for someone to sacrifice their happiness for my happiness? And what would it mean for me to just feel good about myself completely in totality? I think about all the ways that I could be fully happy, and sometimes it is like a trip. It's a really magnificent fantasy to think about being fully satisfied in your life.”
And to think about, as Black women, how happy we could be if society just allowed us to be and stopped policing our existence. I’m now thinking about how Black women are being treated in this year's Olympics, and the ways in which society has always failed them.
You are spot on. That's exactly it. I just sit there and I think about if I could just be completely free and be myself, what would that be like? I have been thinking about the whole Olympics thing, too. What does it mean when a Black woman says, ‘No, you are not going to push me until I am broken, you're not going to push me until I am a mess’?
[I’ve also been] thinking about what it means that I want to express my femininity and sexuality in a way that does not fit expectations. And I'm not even trying to necessarily look a certain way, I just want to be comfortable, and me being comfortable should not mean that I am less feminine. I just want to feel good in my body and not worry about whether someone thinks I'm exposing too much skin or not enough skin or that I'm not dressing in the proper way for a woman or, you know, whatever.”
It's a really magnificent fantasy to think about being fully satisfied in your life.
This is similar to the conversations we've been having recently around artists like Chloe Bailey, the policing of her body and her sexuality. Do you think that Black women will ever break through pressure and stigmas and be able to freely live full, liberated, sexual lives?
“Yeah, I think it's very possible and I think many Black women are doing that, but we’re still gonna be faced with disapproval. Chloe Bailey, she's a young woman. She's still figuring out a lot of things. Part of what we go through is an overcorrection where we were told that we have to cover up, and then we're fighting against that and we decide to be as naked as possible. Then we pull back from that and we realise, ‘Oh, this is actually how I wanted to dress with this amount of skin showing as opposed to that amount showing’ or whatever.
It's very interesting to me with Chloe or even Megan Thee Stallion and any woman who is in the spotlight like that. From like 18 to 15, [they’re] policed like, ‘You shouldn't be wearing these things. You're going to attract the wrong kind of attention.’ And then when [they] get to be in [their] late 20s/early 30s and [they’re] dressing in what can be considered a provocative way, people start saying, ‘No, you're too old for that.’ So what is the right age to be happy with your body and to want to show it off? There's never going to be a right time. Someone's always going to have something negative to say because they are jealous or uncomfortable or they're mad that they don't feel as good in their body as you do.
Speaking of self-awareness, I imagine writing this book has taken a lot of intentional self-reflection. And to me, it feels like you were looking at all the different pieces of your life and putting them together in a way that formed an even more powerful version of yourself. Did you learn any new things about yourself as you were writing this book?
“I learned that I still need to come to terms with what I want in a romantic relationship. So much of the book is about me figuring out who I am through relationships with men and how I had to change who I was a lot in order to be with certain men in my life. I feel really happy for who I am and what I want out of life when it comes to my career and just the pleasure of life in general. And then when it comes to sex and romance, even though I'm very assertive and clear and direct about what I want, I still have this niggling doubt sitting on my shoulder, that's like, ‘But you have to make him feel good so he sticks around.’ So I still have to figure out what that means for me. I just get really sad when I think about the fact that because I want to feel good in a relationship, that might mean that I might be single forever, because I should not have to feel miserable in order to have a boyfriend or have a partner. I guess something I should talk to my therapist about a little bit. [Laughs]
[Laughs] I feel this because I'm sitting with the same thing. I'm in a space where I'm happy with my life and I’m surrounded by love. And if I don't settle down with someone in the future, while I'll probably be a little sad, I'll be OK with that because I'm not going to water myself down to keep a relationship the way I previously have. I’m just not going to do it.
Yeah, it’s been really interesting [to sit with that]. I also realized that I want more softness and care away from myself, away from my body. I want people to treat me kindly and I want people to treat me softly. And I think that is part of the rejection of being a strong Black woman. I don't want to keep being strong. Who's going to let me be soft and crumpled up on the floor sometimes?
I also wanted to show that I've done some terrible things and I've made some really bad decisions. And those things were my fault, and I accept the responsibility for them. That's what I wanted to make sure that I got across, particularly in the chapter called ‘Scandalous,’ which is about an affair that I had with a married man. I just wanted it to be clear that I accept responsibility for my part in this. No one was fooled or tricked into it, and I was very aware of what I was doing, and I accept the blame, but I will not be ashamed of it.
[I wanted to emphasise] what it means to make a bad decision, recognise your responsibility for that bad decision, and own it without feeling like you should hide. I think we all have this idea that when we do something bad, we’re supposed to run away and hide and sit in a corner and be ashamed of ourselves and talk down to ourselves, [and while] that can be a part of your healing process, it shouldn't be the only thing that you do. It shouldn't be the lasting thing that you do when you are coming to terms with your role in a very painful situation.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.