Julia Mallory was in the blue waters of Puerto Rico with her best friend and her best friend’s niece when a piece of seaweed touched the niece’s leg. Between Mallory and her friend’s laughter and the niece’s screams, someone asked, “What if it was a mermaid?”
Years later, Black Mermaids stands as Mallory’s brand, which houses her clothing, accessories, books and more. Her T-shirts and hoodies include the words Black Mermaids in bright, vivid colors, messages of encouragement that randomly popped into her mind and names of iconic black women in literature like Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde.
Mallory also wrote six books under her Black Mermaids brand, including four poetry collections and two children’s books.
“My work seems to invoke a sense of cultural pride, and also connects with individuals that recognize its universal themes such as love, grief, displacement, dreams and purpose,” she said.
Mallory says she’s written all her life but didn’t consider herself a poet until her senior year of high school. Around this time, the Harrisburg native won a poetry contest that was sponsored by the African American Museum of Harrisburg. That was all she needed to keep going.
She then became active on the poetry scene. She and a group of friends would travel city to city and perform or listen to poetry readings at universities and other venues. As she dove deeper into the world of poetry, she saw more and more people publishing their books, so she decided it was time for her to do the same.
She started pulling all of her work together and outlining and figuring out the theme for the book. After a few bumps in the road, her first poetry collection, “Black Mermaids,” came out in 2016.
Though the idea of “Black Mermaids” originated from that moment in Puerto Rico, the idea goes much deeper than that. Mallory thought of her ancestors who were enslaved and forced on to boats and away from their homelands. What if those who jumped or were thrown overboard then became mermaids?
“So, this reimagining of life after death and linking it to modern day, and all the things that were made to destroy us and yet we still persevere,” she said. “We even turn what is absolute madness in our lives into something that is magical.”
Mallory was taken aback by all level of support she got from the book.
People would tell her how much her poetry spoke to them. Many people also came up to Mallory and told her how much her kids loved mermaids, that we need more mermaids of color and asked her if this was a children’s book. She laughed it off and said no, but it got her mind rolling.
A month later, she finished her children’s book called “Kareemah and the Black Mermaids.” The book follows a young girl named Kareemah who is rescued by a trio of mermaids.
“I let my daughter read it and she was like, ‘Wow, this is really good. Almost like a real writer wrote it,’” she said laughing.
Mallory sent the book to her friend and illustrator Taqiyya Muhammad, who also illustrated the cover of her first book. Muhammad said she would need three months to create her designs, so Mallory planned for the book to come out in May 2017, but then her life was turned upside down.
Choose to Live
On May 30, 2017, Julian, Mallory’s oldest son, was shot while trying to break up an argument between his friend and her family members. He died in the hospital four days later.
During this time, Mallory felt like time stopped but was accelerated at the same time. The last thing on her mind was anything related to Black Mermaids, her career, or anything other than her son. But she knew she needed to anchor herself and try to find some goodness to cling on to.
“My son’s tragic death made it plain for me how fleeting life is,” Mallory wrote in a blog post on her Black Mermaids website. “Julian’s earthly absence has made my choices exceptionally clear—either I renew my commitment to living daily or I offer myself as a sacrifice to grief. I am unwilling to do the latter. And so I choose to live.”
She threw herself back into Black Mermaids and created three more T-shirts. She created calendars and buttons with random phrases that popped into her mind such as, “Nah, this lifetime,” a play on Erykah Badu’s song “Next Lifetime.”
By the end of 2017, she published her children’s book, “Kareemah and the Black Mermaids,” and an anniversary edition of “Black Mermaids.” Her second children’s novel, “Breathe,” was published the following year, as well as a chapbook edition of “Black Mermaids.”
Black Mermaids was becoming much more than Mallory had imagined.
“Black Mermaids is slowly evolving and becoming its own thing,” she said. “I am continuously looking for ways to not just be in the pursuit of what’s next, but how I can deepen my relationship to the work that I already created.”
Throughout this time, she was working on another book that would later become her most recent collection, “Survivor’s Guilt,” which was published in October.
The death of her son amplified the survivor’s guilt Mallory was already grappling with from losing childhood friends and family members.
“I think my son’s death really gave me the language to be able to articulate what I had been feeling, and so the closest thing I could come up with that describes that feeling is the concept of survivor’s guilt,” she said.
In the book, she talks about not only her experience with grief but how grief affects communities, especially black communities, and how she learned to heal.
Along with poetry, the book includes the victim impact statement that she gave to the court the day the woman who killed her son was sentenced, letters to her son, uncle and grandmother and photographs.
“I think there is something about being here and being able to talk so boldly about my son’s death that will also be healing to other folks,” she said. “It was obviously healing to me too. Like, I’m not going to hide in this pain. I’m going to talk about it.”
And Mallory continued to talk about her experience with grief either through her work or actually speaking about it.
Aside from raising her kids Kareen and Jaya and working at Perry Media Group, she has a few creative projects going. She’s nailing down a courier poem she has been working on for over a decade, another children’s book and a book related to her “Do Your Work” phrase.
“Hell, that’s enough,” she said, “And that’s just what I’m planning to do. Black Mermaids feels like what I’m supposed to do, but I could literally get another assignment and go off doing something else.”
For more information on Black Mermaids, visit www.blackmermaids.com.