What started as a way for a mom to inspire and bond with her daughter has become something more. For the past two years, Sasha Bonner has been dressing her daughter, Riley Johnson, 4, like famous black women each day of February for Black History Month, and the response has been overwhelming.
“I have gotten a lot of great feedback. I am still surprised,” Bonner, 35, of Charlotte, North Carolina, told TODAY Parents. “I want Riley to have a strong foundation so that she knows she can be anything.”
After reading a book about famous Black women, Bonner thought it would be fun to dress her daughter like the women in the book. She wanted Riley to have heroes that looked like her.
“Growing up, it wasn’t really showcased for us even when it came to female (role models) let alone African-American women,” Bonner said.
She decided to keep it simple and use Riley’s own clothes for the costumes. Every few days she posts Riley's new picture on Instagram. The first famous woman was easy: Misty Copeland. Riley enjoys ballet dancing and already has a tutu.
“Once she puts on a tutu you can’t tell her she’s not in the ‘Nutcracker,’” Bonner said.
That fun photo shoot set the tone. Though, like every toddler, Riley has her limits.
“When she’s is over it, she is over it,” Bonner said.
Bonner and Riley share a favorite photo shoot: Beyoncé. Bonner loved the picture because she is a huge fan of the “Formation” singer, while Riley felt thrilled that she could wear lipstick.
“She always wants lipstick. She always says, ‘Mommy lips,’” Bonner said, adding she’d never put lipstick on her daughter before. “When I put the lipstick on her she was like ‘Mommy, WHAT?!’”
Riley began dancing and slaying. Even when she tired of being Beyoncé, she begged her mom not to wipe off the lipstick.
Riley has dressed as loads of inspiring women, including Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill, Michelle Obama, Whoopi Goldberg, Shirley Chisholm, Ruby Bridges, Shuri (from “Black Panther”), Henrietta Lacks, Ilhan Omar, Amanda Gorman, Kamala Harris and Naomi Campbell.
And one of Bonner's heroes even commented on the photos: Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams posted after Riley dressed as her.
“Riley — the outfit is perfect. And something tells me you will be in the history books one day too,” she wrote.
Bonner tried to stay calm.
“I had to click on it. This is the real Stacey Abrams,” she said. “I had to keep it cool. I don’t want to be the creepy mom.”
This year, Riley loved being Missy Elliott to recreate an album cover. As soon as she put on her bucket hat, Riley was in character.
"She started posing and break dancing," Bonner said. "She likes Missy. She thinks her moves are super duper fly."
Bonner said she is glad she started the project, because she and Riley are both learning.
“I’m even teaching myself. I didn’t know that much about all these individual women as well,” she said. “It is an inspiration.”
It's so inspiring that Riley started talking about how she is going to develop vaccines when she grows up, just like Kizzmekia Corbett, who worked on the COVID-19 vaccine. Already Riley thinks she's on her way to becoming a researcher because they made slime. ("Sadly, the slime got in the dog's hair so we don't play with slime anymore," Bonner said.)
"She was like, 'I'm really a scientist,'" Bonner said. "She's like, 'I don't like vaccines, but I don't like the coronavirus.' And she's like, 'I can do it, I can make vaccines.'"
Corbett also sent a message to Bonner and Riley.
"She was like, 'I have tears in my eyes,'" Bonner said. " She comment on the post like, 'Well, you'll be a little scientist one day, too.' That was very heartwarming."
Bonner said she believes it is important for her daughter and other Black girls to be represented in all fields, from literature to science to politics to music.
"As she's gotten older she's understanding more. I just wanted to continue building upon her image and making sure that she sees herself in others," Bonner said. "Riley recognizes that she can be anything."