Prompted by the Free Black Women’s Library reading challenge to select a book i read as a child written by a Black woman, i could think of not one. I was an avid reader throughout my childhood, but i grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood, raised mostly by my white relatives. Still, it was a somewhat startling realisation. Over the years i’ve heard intermittently conversations around the self-esteem of Black boys, their need for positive role models in the formation of their sense of self. I’ve not heard comparable conversations relating to the need for Black girls to also be raised in an environment that fosters in them a sense of themselves as capable, beautiful, able to flourish and receive love. Might such seeing representations of Black girlhood have altered my own self-conception?
The abiding memory of my naissant sense of appearance, how it was perceived by others, how i was reflected in the world, was of not mattering, and of being less of a girl for being Black. My Blackness negated my girlness, any potential for pretty, and left me feeling both less and more visible. More visible in that i stood out, my hair grew in long, voluminous kinky-curls, my skin a deeper tone than the other children in the school i attended, my lips fuller, my nose distinctly African in its shape. I was conscious of this difference, and was made more conscious still of its connotations by the comments, the looks. It marked me out in a way that felt uncomfortable, and yet obscured me by its very definiteness. Whoever i was inside, that person was less perceptible behind the stereotypes.
I read. I must have engaged in reading more than in any other activity. I was searching for clues. For how to access this liveability the other girls seemed to wear with so much ease. In reading I felt more a person than in any other area of life. I could think through books without needing to be conscious of race, the word itself felt embarrassing to me, warmed me with a sense of having been implicated in something despicable about which I should be ashamed without knowing why.
It has only been in adulthood i’ve come to comprehend this was never my shame to bear; and it has been through reading the work of People of Colour that this understanding has blossomed into pride in the ancestry we share. All this brings the questions again to the forefront of my mind, how might my path have been altered had I learned to find joy and strength and beauty in Blackness, in Black womanhood, through hearing stories told of girls who looked like me? Seen books in which Black girls were neither absent not marginalised, but centred and celebrated?
I don’t yet have a daughter, but here are three books I’ve been reading with my son (I believe in the importance of ensuring that boys too read books with female protagonists, perhaps a subject I’ll return to at another time).
Homemade Love by bell hooks, illustrated by Shane W. Evans
Melodic language and endearing, vibrant illustrations make this a heartwarming book for children. Bell hooks has created a beautiful portrait of a loving family and the sense of safety within. A favourite in our household and still much requested by my child.
Frisettes en fete by bell hooks, illustrated by Chris Rauschka
Lively, bright, and joyous, this book is a delightful celebration of Black girls and the diversity of their hair. Bell hooks’ melodious language and Rauschka’s vibrant, whimsical illustrations make Frisette en fete a pleasure to read.
Niama’s Adventures by Renina Johnson, illustrated by Tiffany Gholar
A delightful book, ideal for stimulating imagination and inquisitiveness in young readers. The illustrations are enchanting and the story uplifting. In her reveries Niama encounters inspiring black women through the ages each one affirming her sense of magic and possibility. Carefree and fearless, Niama’s sense of adventure makes for a captivating, highly endearing character, one I hope to see in more books to come!