Representation Matters: For Black Girls

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).

Image result for homemade love bell hooks

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.

Image result for frisette en fete bell hooks

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.

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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!

Four further selections for the Free Black Women’s Library reading challenge

14. A book released last year. Spill: Fugitive Scenes by Alexis Pauline Gumbs.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs is an African American poet, artist, and educator, who has previously edited a collection of essays focused on women of colour and other marginalised mothers, Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Frontlines. Spill: Fugitive Scenes is an experimental and unusual piece. An interactive text, in dialogue with Hortense Spillers, another Black woman writer I’d not heard of and whose work I am now keen to read.

‘before black is bad and broken i am more. i am not coin or token. i am deepest spell spoken. and you are shook. i am the energy of birth that you took. i am every blackened letter pressing on the book. and before that.’

15. A Caribbean author. Pepper Seed by Malika Booker.

Malika Booker is a Guyanese-Grenadian poet. I came across this collection of poetry, Pepper Seed, when it was reviewed by Didi of Brown Girl Reading. These poems are infused with Caribbean history and culture, redolent with ancestral voices and the search for belonging.

I stand at this cliff’s edge waiting for the bones

to rise and reclaim their names.

16. A book by Toni Morrison. Song of Solomon.

Since reading Beloved I’ve been gradually reading each of Morrison’s novels. The next on my list was Song of Solomon, one I’ve been very much looking forward to reading and like each of her other novels I was enthralled by the deftness with which Morrison writes; her work is stunningly brilliant.

‘She needed what most colored girls needed: a chorus of mamas, grandmamas, aunts, cousins, sisters, neighbours, Sunday school teachers, best girl friends, and what all to give her the strength life demanded of her.’

17. Self help type text. Every Body Yoga: let go of fear, get on the mat, love your body by Jessamyn Stanley.

Jessamyn Stanley is a yoga teacher whom I’ve been following on instagram for some time and was excited to learn that she would be publishing this book. Every Body Yoga is part memoir part motivational text part yoga workbook. As my own yoga practice has been fallow for a long while I consider this book to be ‘self-help’ in the sense that i need all the help i can get to bring myself back to the mat and reestablish a home practice. Jessamyn’s writing is frank direct and unpretentious. Her accessible and inclusive teaching style is reflected in the accompanying photographs and illustrations. The sequences that i’m practicing include i want to feel strong, i need to feel balanced, i need to release fear. Gentle, refreshing, uplifting.

3 further selections for the Free Black Women’s Library reading challenge

11. A novel by Octavia Butler. Kindred.

I began reading Kindred with high expectations having not read any of her novels before and having heard such positive recommendations. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this book at all, partially this is explained by the descriptions of violence, these being difficult to stomach for good reason, but I also didn’t find myself emotionally engaging with the characters. Most particularly, the protagonist’s continual excusing of the slave holder’s brutality, her repeated attempts to persuade the object of his worst sadistic impulses into expressions of acceptance and love towards him, as well as her revulsion at his selling of enslaved people but not at his ownership of them all seemed incongruous to me. Why should Alice be exhorted to exhibit care towards the man abusing her? (and by a ‘modern’ woman?) What purpose does the pressure towards inculcating her in complicity serve in the narrative of the novel? This book has left me with questions to ponder, and I will read some more of Octavia’s work in future to see if it illuminates.

12. A play. for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange.

I knew immediately that for this selection I wanted to read Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls, and found this copy from my library, which contains three of her plays, Spell #7 and The Love Space Demands as well as for coloured girls. All three are life-giving, incisive and bold. Ntozake Shange’s works are landmarks in the inscription of Black women’s experiences; unmissably brilliant, her use of language is defiant yet grounded, quickening and brave. This collection spoke to my heart in ways no other play I’ve read ever has.

i want my own things/ how i lived them/ & give me my memories/ how i waz when i waz there/ you can’t have them or do nothin wit them/ stealin my shit from me/ dont make it yrs/ makes it stolen/

13. Short stories. What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi.

This pick is in addition to the poetry section, which although given as an either/or selection I decided to pick one of each. This is a collection of stories from an author, Helen Oyeyemi, I’ve been wanting to read for some time. I was drawn by the title, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, but underwhelmed by the stories themselves. Short stories are not a form that I tend to enjoy (one remarkable exception to this being The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which amazed me). Since reading this, I’ve gone on to read The Icarus Girl, which deals with some similar themes, mental illness, obsession, and I was sadly not taken by this either. Boy, Snow Bird is next on my reading list so I will continue to see if I can find a way into greater appreciation for Oyeyemi’s work.

 

You can find out more about the Free Black Woman’s Library and the reading challenge here: thefreeblackwomanslibrary.tumblr.com

Further notes on the Free Black Women’s Library reading challenge

A few words on some more selections for the Free Black Women’s Library reading challenge.

5. YA novel. Noble Conflict by Malorie Blackman.

I’ve not read a young adult novel in many years and it was a joy to revisit a genre that i adored in my teens. On seeing this category i knew immediately that i would choose a book written by Marjorie Blackman, as although i’ve long been aware of her work i’ve not read any of her books before. Marjorie Blackman is a Black British woman who has written many young adult and children’s books. This proved to be a very timely read, a story of resistance and the courageous struggle against hegemonic power. Whilst many have been speaking of the prescience of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which i also read for the first time this year, i highly recommend Noble Conflict as a still more relevant (and enjoyable) novel. Blackman deftly unfolds the duplicities of an imperialistic and authoritarian regimes alongside an exploration of human connection and the healing possibilities of empathy. I intend to read more of her novels in future and to read some of her children’s stories with my son.

6. Poetry. Citizen: an American Lyric by Claudia Rankine.

Claudia Rankine is a poet from the Caribbean, I had previously read only some of her prose pieces (see, The Racial Imaginary) and eager to read her poems chose Citizen expecting a more standard poetry collection. Citizen is poetic but defies categorisation. Included alongside poems are longer prose sections, illustrations, lists, and blank pages as Rankine details the various impacts of racial biases on an intimate scale. I was captivated.

You are not sick, you are injured–

you ache for the rest of life.

How to care for the injured body,

the kind of body that can’t hold

the content it is living?

7. A book with one word in the title. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

The word homegoing is so poignantly evocative of the many-layered experiences within the African diaspora and in this novel Yaa Gyasi brings the nearness of our ancestry into undeniable view. Yaa Gyasi grew up in the United States having been born in Ghana and this, her first novel, is phenomenal in its scope and daring, weaving from West Africa across America and through multiple generations from the beginnings of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the present day.

8. Romance. Destiny’s Embrace by Beverly Jenkins.

In one of her videos sensei aishitemasu recommends the series of which this is the first instalment. I was unfamiliar with Jenkins’ books, written in a genre I don’t usually read and I enjoyed reading something outside of the categories I’m usually drawn to. Although i had some preconceptions about romance this novel pleasantly surprised me in the quality of the writing, the compelling pacing, and historical details, which set it apart from becoming overly cliched. there’s a depth of emotion in the non-romantic relationships that lends breadth and interest. And most importantly the main characters are African American. Jenkins’ writing was so enjoyable that i had to check my library for more titles of which there was sadly only one, not from this series, . I would consider reading the rest of this series in future when i need a light-hearted yet never maudlin read.

9. Memoir. Assata by Assata Shakur.

This was another clear pick for me, as it’s been on my tbr for some time. I approached this memoir keenly and was not disappointed. Assata’s experiences are recounted with a breath-taking simplicity, her spirit and deep love for her people shine through her hardships. She does not shy away from emotion nor from nuanced political critique. This is a rare and astonishing book, from a woman of uncommon courage and compassion.

’I was in communion with all the forces on earth that truly love people, in communion with all the revolutionary forces on the earth.’

10. A spiritual text. Be Love by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel is an ordained Buddhist teacher, who has written openly of the specific peculiarities African American women face in coming to Buddhist practice. Having previously read and loved Zenju’s The Way of Tenderness, i was keen to read another piece of her work. Be Love is a very brief yet clarifying text on the way Buddhist practice can encourage each of us to embody love.

’The interrelationship of love between us is the foundation to our living together.’

 

This challenge continues to lead me towards some wonderful and world-expanding writers. This week I’ll be checking out the Free Black Women’s Library podcast, which can be found here https://soundcloud.com/user-16600216

Bibliophile World: May Book Challenge

For the month of May I’m participating the the bibliophile world photo challenge. The first post, simply a TBR. I have stubbled upon a few books whilst browsing my local library shelves. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus; Brooklyn Heights by Miral al-Tahawy; The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula le Guin; My Father’s Daughter by Hannah Pool; The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma; Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.

The second is an anticipated read getting published this month. This is another concept that has been introduced to me through bookstagram: knowing months in advance when a book is going to be published and anticipating it’s release. I think this may be derived from young adult series fiction, when understandably readers await the next instalment in a trilogy, quartet, etc. It’s been a while since I was young enough to engage in this delicious type of anticipatory excitement; unfortunately I am awaiting no new releases, my TBR consists largely of books I ought to have read some time ago, having been published in most cases for many years.

The third photo, a bookish rainbow, was a light hearted joy to construct. I’m in the process of reorganising my books having recently moved house and it was fun to play amongst my bookshelves, although I was truck by how lacking in colour my book spines are, having faded from too long in the sun, or simply been bound in muted colours to begin with.

Fourth, a recommendation. Recently read, The Algebra of Infinite Justice by Arundhati Roy. Her work bringing to wider notice the realities of neo-liberalism is immensely important and more timely now than ever.

Finally for today’s post, a quick read, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, is a short yet fulsome novel told from an adolescent perspective, with wisdom and pathos.

I’m enjoying this little challenge and the way it has brought me to a more lively interaction with my reading, old and new, bought and borrowed. I’ll be updating my progress later in the month.

Free Black Women’s Library Reading Challenge Update

Continuing with this brilliant reading challenge from the creator of the Free Black Women’s Library, I’ve read several titles, many of which have been noteworthy. I’ve set myself a little additional challenge of writing reviews for each book, as I’ve gotten into the habit on Goodreads of giving a star rating without a written review, which doesn’t do justice to how incredible many of these books are nor to the nuances of the reading experience.

Here are the first four books I read for the challenge this year:

  1. A book you read as a child. As I couldn’t recall reading any books written by Black women writers, for this selection I chose a book that I’ve read with my child, Niama’s Adventures by Renina Johnson is a joy, one we both delight in re-reading. This beautifully illustrated story is an exploration in self-love and Black girl magic, as it follows Niama through her dreamscapes encountering Black women from Nefertiti to Ella Fitzgerald. Renina Johnson is the author of a collection of essays Black Girls are from the Future and runs an online shop offering merchandise featuring the phrase. That I wasn’t able to fulfil this aspect of the challenge speaks to the need for more focus on Black women writers and representation in books for Black girls.
  2. A book set in your home town. Andrea Levy’s Fruit of the Lemon, set between London (where I’m from) and Jamaica (where my grandparents are from). I love reading Andrea Levy’s work, it gives me a feeling of what life was like for my grandparents, immigrating to post-war and inhospitable England. This is the third book of hers that I’ve read (after Small Island and Six Stories and an Essay) and I intend to continue reading all that she’s published.
  3. A womanist text. Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory by Michele Wallace. This collection of essays written after her first, controversial book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, spans personal reflections on her childhood and adolescence in Harlem, responses to critiques of her earlier work and  reviews of critical cultural moments in the development of the womanist movement throughout the 1980s. Wallace writes with a considerable, refreshing forthrightness on some contentious topics, mental illness, the Black family and community as well as the strife that occurs in any political movement. In each instance she centres the experiences and epistemologies of Black womanhood, as she asserts, ‘a certain portion of the population — women of colour, mostly — cannot be heard, understood, or adequately recognised by dominant mainstream culture. The considerable wisdom and knowledge of this population remains unincorporated, even as it is indispensable to the survival of the smaller and often marginal communities where women of colour participate and provide leadership.’ (1990)

    ‘Perhaps a multicultural women’s movement is somewhere in the future.’ (1975)
  4. A book you read in school. I’ve substituted a book I wish I could have read in school (as I wasn’t required to read any books written by Black women during my schooling — another reiteration of how crucial it is for greater attentiveness to the work of Black women writers), Black Sexual Politics by Patricia Hill Collins. This book is written in a clear and accessible style and gives historical background to contemporary themes, making it an engaging text suitable for encouraging discussion and critical thinking (other aspects of my education that were lacking at that age). Patricia Hill Collins is the author of several other books, including Black Feminist Theory, another useful introductory text.

The readings so far have provided enriching and rewarding experience; I’m anticipating more wonderful, thought-provoking reads throughout the rest of the year.

Read Soul Lit Photo Challenge

For Black History Month this year Didi of Brown Girl Reading has brought back her #ReadSoulLit photo challenge, continuing her impressive work encouraging readers to share their recommendations of books by Black authors. Participating has been enjoyable and inspiring; I’ve been so heartened to see such a diversity of books being shared and celebrated. Here are my notes on the first seven days of the challenge (with more to follow).

  1. #ReadSoulLit TBR: Meridean by Alice Walker, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.
  2. January Wrap Up: The Racial Imaginary by Claudia Rankine, Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy, Invisibility Blues by Michele Wallace. Wonderful, life-enhancing reads to begin the year!
  3. Book and a drink: I skipped this! Somehow the thought of posting a drink felt self-indulgent, but I wonder now if I’ll post one anyhow even though it’s late.
  4. Books that made you cry: Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie’s writing and characterisation are unsurpassable and reading her novels is an emotionally, as well as intellectually, evocative experience.
  5. 5 Star Reads: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Monstrous Intimacies by Christina Sharpe, The Racial Imaginary by Claudia Rankine. All three of these very different books were illuminating and thought-provoking.
  6. Favourite reads of 2017: This is Woman’s Work by Dominique Christina. An unusual and arresting read from an awe-inspiring poet. This is a book I intend to reread this year, to engage with the writing exercises more deeply.
  7. Under-rated authors: J. Nozipo Maraire, author of Zenzele: A Letter to My Daughter. I stumbled across this book on the instagram account of Jewels for Books, an initiative to raise funds to build a library in Elmina, Ghana. The novel is unlike anything I’ve ever read, written with such nuance and filled with a tenderness that is unforgettable.
  8. Most anticipated read of the year: Every Body Yoga by Jessamyn Stanley. Having followed Jessamyn on instagram for some time it’s heartening to see her growing success and I’m eager to read more about her yogini journey, particularly as I’m seeking to re-establish my own yoga practice this year.
  9. A favourite poem: Lemon Tree by Will Holt. A poignant and timely poem; the epigraph from Andrea Levy’s wonderfully touching novel Fruit of the Lemon.
  10.  Currently reading: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. This novel has been on my tbr list for a while, it’s been my intention to read all of Toni Morrison’s novels and this one, as expected, does not disappoint.
  11. Book spine poetry. This was the photo of the challenge that most excited me. It isn’t a concept that I’ve come across before and I enjoyed this playfulness. The other side of Paradise/ They are all me/ Beloved/ We need new names.
  12. A classic: Beloved by Toni Morrison. This was the second of Morrison’s novels that i read and the one that most impacted me. Incomparable.
  13. Black books tower. Having read so few books by People of Colour and by Black authors in particular throughout my childhood and early adulthood, I’ve been seeking out these for the past couple of years. Collection growing, never complete.
  14. ReadSoulLit haul. Single Mothers Speak on Patriarchy by Trista Hendren, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy, Assata by Assata Shakur, Invisibility Blues by Michele Wallace, Spill by Alexis Gumbs, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I’m thankful for each of these memorable and world-expanding books.
  15. A favourite poet, Nayyirah Waheed, whose poems are so steeped in love.
  16. Oldest TBR, Black Athena: the Arfroasiatic roots of classical civilization by Martin Bernal. I bought this years ago when I saw it in a second hand bookshop. As it’s quite in depth I think I’d need to do some companion reading to put it in context and be able to see it with a critical eye.
  17. A cover buy: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I didn’t buy this for the cover but I do think it’s one of the most eye-catching covers that can be seen in bookstores now. I chose this novel as part of the @thefreeblackwomenslibrary reading challenge, a book with one word in the title. The word homegoing is so poignantly evocative of the many-layered experiences within the African diaspora and in this novel Yaa Gyasi brings the nearness of our ancestry into undeniable view.
  18. Required reading: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde. Indispensable.
  19. A selfie and a book: Beyond the Masks by Amina Mama. Hiding out a little behind the cover. This is a book that deserves a wider readership. Here’s a snippet: ‘The frequency of references to other times and places in black women’s poetry and discussions demonstrates a willingness to reach across the seas and centuries in their creative effort to forge new subjectivities which invoke subaltern images of female heroism.’
  20. Non-fiction. My well-loved copies of bell hooks’ All About Love: New Visions and Salvation: Black People and Love. ‘A love ethic is the only foundation for transformative renewal of ourselves.’
  21. A book that’s been recommended to you. In one of her videos @sensei_aishitemasu recommends this series by Beverly Jenkins. I was unfamiliar with her books, written in a genre I don’t usually read but as I’m taking part in @thefreeblackwomenslibrary reading challenge I chose Destiny’s Embrace for the romance category and I enjoyed reading something different.
  22. Books and a bag (a sweet gift from the past holiday season). Staceyann Chin’s memoir of her childhood in Jamaica, The Other Side of Paradise. The Spirit of Intimacy by Sobonfu Somé. Overcoming Speechlessness by Alice Walker, her poetic account of her travels in Palestine, Rwada, and Congo.

I skipped a few! This was a lovely concept to engage with and encouraged me to find new recommendations as well as encounter more diverse readers to share thoughts with. I look forward to next year.

 

 

The Free Black Women’s Library Reading Challenge

The Free Black Women’s Library, an interactive pop up library in Brooklyn, New York, began as a community book exchange in 2014 to share books written by Black women authors. The collection now features over 500 books donated by the public and available for exchange at the mobile pop ups, held throughout the city and open to all. This year the initiative has expanded to include the Free Black Women’s Library Reading Challenge: in 2017 read 26 books written by Black women (see categories below). I’ll be reading along and sharing my picks (and some thoughts) throughout the year!

Find out more at thefreeblackwomanslibrary.tumblr.com facebook/FreeBlackWomansLibrary and on instagram @freeblackwomanslibrary

A book from your childhood
A book you had to read in school
A book by a Caribbean author
A book by an African author
A romance or erotica novel
A memoir or autobiography
A Black feminist/womanist text
An urban fiction story
An Afro Futurist novel (Science Fiction/ Speculative/ Fantasy/Horror)
A collection of poetry or short stories
A book based in spirituality, religion or sacred ideology
A YA novel
A book classified as self help, personal development focusing on things like pleasure, self-care, finances, health, life strategy
A recipe book (attempt to cook 1 to 3 items)
Any book by Toni Morrison
Any book by Alice Walker
Any book by Zora Neale Hurston
Any book by Octavia Butler
A book that would be classified as “Chick Lit”
A book from 100 years ago
A book classified as LGBTQ via its author or content
A book that came out in the last year
A book set in your hometown
A book with a one word title
A book with a person’s name in the title
A book that is (or became) a play or film
Please tag The Free Black Women’s Library in your photos of the books you have chosen and use the hashtags –
#TheFreeBlackwomensLibrary #TFBWLReadingChallenge #TFBWL #26BlackWomen #TFBWL26 #BlackWomanBibliophile