I would be speaking 100% truth if I said that I have never had an issue seeing my own reflection in books when it comes to race and culture. The books I remember reading as a youngster were Sweet Valley High and Trixie Belden and to be honest, I would probably cringe if I had to read a Sweet Valley High story today. There is no shortage of while female protagonists in literature, period, be the category adult, childrens or young adults. They’re everywhere and have been for a very long time.
However this cannot be said for female characters of colour and in this instance Black females. Over the last few years that situation has improved but there would be no argument when saying that literature has been predominantly white for much of its existence.
The idea for this book, Well-Read Black Girl, came from Glory Edim who is the founder of a book club, and wider movement of the same name, whose aim is to promote Black literature by focussing exclusively on featuring Black female authors. The premise of the book was to ask prominent Black women (activists, writers, feminists, producers) the question, When did you first see yourself reflected in literature? with the reference point being race.
I thought that it was an intensely interesting question which fed into other connected issues and questions such as when there are Black characters (especially female) how are they portrayed, and what is the importance of literature on the development of the way people view themselves.
Some of the themes that emerged when reading the various contributions were identity, sisterhood, a deep seated love of literature and the power of words to influence not just personal lives but the wider community.
One of the most fascinating things stated by several of the women was that when they did come across Black female characters, they recoiled from them, pushed them away or remained distant from them as it wasn’t the portrayal they wanted to see. The truth that was being portrayed was, at a young age, hard for them to reconcile with the idea of what they desired life to be like. Revisiting these works as adults, they discovered the beauty and power of the stories and words.
Reading this book also drove home to me just how important Toni Morrison’s influence was on literature, Black culture and self perception for Black women, at least those in this work. It is profound, as she gave voice to, in many cases, the voiceless. The same level of cultural impact applies to James Baldwin, a titan of literature, who’s sexuality gave voice to the Black gay male experience.
For clarity’s sake – I have not read any of Morrison’s or Baldwin’s work. I am basing these thoughts and words on how the contributors in Well-Read Black Girl feel about them and how they were affected by their stories.
For me, one of the most affecting pieces in Well-Read Balck Girl was from writer Rebecca Walker (daughter of prominent author Alice Walker). Her story describes the confusion she felt as a young woman when she witnessed an incident of domestic violence and the conflicting ideas it brought about regarding what love and relationships were or supposed to be after speaking to the female victim when trying to help. She channelled her thoughts and emotions into an essay which her teacher asked her to publish in her school paper. It subsequently sparked important conversations within her school about the issue of violence in relationships and in the process showed Rebecca the power of not only writing what you feel, but doing so without self censorship, of not hiding things even if they are messy and confusing which she realised is vitally important for the marginalised Black female voice.
There are many wonderful and moving quotes in the book as the writing is lyrical, deep and honest but the one that made me stop in my tracks was the following by Renee Watson…
What does it mean to celebrate the parts of you that others demean, disregard, disapprove of? How does a woman hold on to her self-worth when so many forces want to disvalue her? How does a Black woman make space for her truth, her body?
The questions asked here are important and deeply relevant.
I had many thoughts in my head after I had completed the book. Some of them were that seeing yourself or a version of yourself in literature is of vital importance especially when you or the societal group that you occupy is marginalised, dismissed, pigeonholed and brutalised (literally and figuratively) by society at large. Characters, stories and authors that you can relate to, open up and highlight possibilities that appear closed and can expand the vision/view of a person and what the world holds for you. And that books have a very powerful role to play in the shaping of a person.
It has to be hoped that what is on offer for modern black female readers in terms of material (volume, type, variety etc) has increased and continues to do so since the days when, as Barbara Smith said of the 1950’s … The world of books was a blizzard of white … and that new voices of black authors – especially Black female authors – mix and mingle alongside those well known names of the past to present an endless variety of possible selves to young Black female readers of today.
Rating: 4 Stars
(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)