“…I can’t even imagine what it would be like to get to middle age and never have seen a positive representation of myself in literature, because that is the story I hear from a very many of my friends who are people of colour. Imagine only ever seeing yourself reflected back as a terrorist, a thief or a drug dealer during the whole of your formative years.”
Kath Cross, “Why Diversity and Representation in Literature Matters,” August 27, 2016
I was raised in a mostly white, medium-sized city in Illinois, but I attended a university near Detroit in the sixties along with many Black students. I went to classes and lived in a dorm with Black students; I mourned the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. with them; I listened to Motown with them; I felt the first stirrings of the Black Panthers on campus with them, and I eventually worked with Black colleagues in a small adult group home in Virginia. I currently live in an apartment complex with Blacks and many other persons of color. However, as the Black Lives Matter protests and its leaders have tried to make clear, as a White person, I don’t have anywhere near a real grasp of Black lives and culture.
To gain some needed insight, I decided to choose from a stack of to-be-read books that various sites had recommended, including White Fragility (Robin J. DiAngelo) and How To Be An Antiracist (Ibram X. Kendi). However, the book that appealed to me most was Glory Edim’s Well-Read Black Girl, with a subject after my own heart: reading. Edim is the founder of the book club and online community, Well-Read Black Girl, and she organized its first-ever Literary Festival in 2017. She writes in her introduction to this book: “I was fortunate to inherit the words of Maya Angelou at the perfect time in my life, and they gave me a new sense of myself.”And so the premise of this book begins with a simple question: “When did you first see yourself in literature?”
Twenty-one Black women contributed the essays that are included in this book, and almost every one of them described their childhood selves almost exactly as I would have for myself: introverted, an outsider, a bookworm. However, they are Black and I am not. Almost every book that I read as a child had White characters that I could relate to. How did Black children identify with these books? What on earth did they make of Dick, Jane, and Sally? How did they find books that spoke to their own experiences? I hoped to find some answers to these questions.
In her essay, “Go Tell It,” Barbara Smith wrote, “What it was like to be a Black girl,…in the 1950s. A Black girl who loved to read. There was nothing for me, nothing to tell me who I was, nothing to tell me what was possible, no place in print where I could glimpse the slightest reflection. The world of books was a blizzard of white….” Smith goes on to write that, out of thirteen years in school, she found only one book with a Black character she could identify with.
(Are you surprised, reading that? Intellectually, I knew that this had to be the case with persons of color. There were very few books and characters at that time they could relate to. However, it wasn’t real for me until I read about this lack of identity over and over in these essays.) When she was a teenager, Smith’s aunt then gave her the book that she said changed her life: James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. However, she had to wait years in order to read such a book.
Marita Golden (“Zora and Me”) “found herself” when she discovered the writer Zora Neale Hurston. She writes “that the Black people chronicled in her novel, folklore, journalism, anthropology, and plays offer to the world a people who are a symphony, not some trembling minor key.”
How did Golden find the writer she calls “Zora”? Hurston, at that time, had sunk into obscurity. Golden came across Alice Walker’s essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” and, when Hurston’s book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was reprinted, she read it and every other book of Hurston’s that she could find. When Golden visited Turkey as a cultural ambassador for the State Department, speaking in public venues and Istanbul University, she introduced students to Hurston. She was told that the students there also felt “seen” and validated, finding “echoes and remnants of their own rural family.” Golden ends her essay by writing: “I see Zora in myself because she knew I wanted to fly and she showed me how to unfurl my wings…” What can other Black girls do without reading books like Hurston’s?
Renée Watson wrote that “I spent my adolescence feeling free, loved, and beautiful at home and suffocated, interrogated, and abnormal with these (white, thin) girls (at school).” She attended a poetry workshop in her senior year of high school, one of only three Black girls in a group of twenty. She was introduced to the poetry of Lucille Clifton just as Watson was considering leaving the workshop. Clifton had written a poem titled “homage to my hips” and “homage to my hair,” and they were the first poems Watson had ever read about being “a big and black and beautiful woman.”
Watson writes, “These poems healed every aching part of the seven-year-old girl in me….Her words revived me. Because of her I let out all I was holding in.” Renée Watson went on to teach poetry to both Black and White students, including the poetry of Clifton, and took her group to hear Lucille Clifton read in New York City on the eve of Election Day in 2008. She read her poem, “Listen Children,” and Watson wrote, “I know she was talking to everyone in the room, but I like to think she was especially talking to me.”
Nicole Dennis-Benn grew up in Jamaica, where the principal of the Catholic school she attended beat the girls with a rubber switch regularly for any and all infractions. She grew up in a country of all Black people, “Yet, all the books we read were by white British authors. I never questioned what was fed to me, nor found it strange that I was erased…”
Then, one day, when in the school library, she saw a book lying face down on a table, and she picked it up. She saw a photo of a Black woman on the back. “I had never read a book by a black person, much less a black woman, A black woman who looked like me.” The book was Beloved by Toni Morrison.
Dennis-Benn kept the book. Toni Morrison showed her that she could write about people like herself. As other writers in this selection have noted about particular books, “I felt she was talking to me, telling me over and over again as a young black girl that I am my own best thing.”
Mahogany L. Browne, in “Complex Citizen,” tells us her parents split up when she was young, her father staying in Berkeley, California, while her mother moved to Sacramento. Browne describes herself as “invisible everywhere I went. Brown skin. Gap-toothed smile. Un-petite. Nappy hair. Not funny or smart or enough of any one thing to fuss about.” And then she found books. The first ones were her grandmother’s Harlequin Romance books and she was twelve at the time.
However, at fourteen, Browne was tired of the stories of “petite white girls.” One day when she was at the library she discovered Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. It was “the first time I ever saw myself. Black girls go missing all the time. And missing doesn’t always mean disappeared, never to be seen again. It can also signal the loss of one’s self…. I pulled apart the pages, sometimes seeing myself, sometimes seeing my cousins, but always witnessing my kin and the negotiation of here and gone; ghost and girl.” (Do White girls take it for granted, and I think we do, that we will be able to identify or relate to at least one character in books we read? How damaging is it not to be able to “see” yourself in any book as a child? As a teenager?)
Jamia Wilson states, “Blackness is poetry,” in her essay, “Soft Black Song.” She had asked her mother to buy her a copy of Nikki Giovanni’s poems for children, Spin a Soft Black Song, after seeing a copy of Giovanni’s adult poetry on her parents’ bookshelf. “For me,” she wrote, “(the book) was a master class on what it meant to be an African American child in the eighties, no matter where in the world you lived…In Nikki’s world, my name fit in with the vibrant characters…Like them, I had a beautiful “black girl” name, and I was brown-skinned, joyful, resilient, and supported by my multidimensional parents in a world that pathologized black parenthood… Nikki gave me a sense of place that was grounded in my experience as a black child during a time when it felt like most of the books in my school library represented everyone else but me.”
N.K Jemisin, in “Dreaming Awake,” writes about the strangeness of having ancestors who were “the unwilling, unintact one; children torn from parents, parents torn from elders, people torn from roots, stories torn from language” as opposed to those who emigrated here. Yes, she writes, she could research genealogy and try to “reconstruct” her past – or she could steal her own mythology. In school years, her parents read to her from various mythologies, Egyptian, Roman, Greek. “I have nothing,” she writes, ‘I have everything, I am whatever I wish to be.”
Jemisin states that, as a writer of speculative fiction, her strongest detractors have been other African Americans, the ones who say Black people don’t read, Black people can’t write. Or no one wants to read about Black people. (And, as Jemisin points out, she believed these myths, too, at one point. For a long time, she was ashamed that she wrote science fiction.) Now, she points out, “we all have futures. We all have pasts. We all have stories… And – we all get to dream.”
I am in awe of each of these Black women, not only for the quality of their writing, but also for the challenges that they each had to overcome. Some had parents, teachers, or other mentors who steered them to the right books at the right time. Others stumbled across books, like Nicole Dennis-Benn seeing one of Toni Morrison’s books in a school library. Some of them had critics panning their work. And yet others wrote the books that they had needed or yearned for as a child – for other Black children, to help each of them find their own way in this complex world.
Lucinda “Cindy” Knox, raised in Illinois, is a retired social worker who also worked as an English teacher and a legal assistant. A member of OLLI-USF since 2007, Cindy has taken numerous courses in literature, writing, theater, poetry, science, humanities, history and politics. She is a regular Great Books course participant.