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).

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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.

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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.

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.