won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of a life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
GLORY EDIM, the Brooklyn book club and literary festival founder extraordinaire, opens her debut book, an anthology, with “won’t you celebrate with me,” a poem by Maryland poet laureate Lucille Clifton. Clifton’s call to action: “won’t you celebrate with me / what I have shaped into / a kind of a life?” It’s the perfect entrée to Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves, a powerful collection of essays and conversations exclusively by black women writers. They respond to Clifton (and Edim) with a booming yes. We will celebrate with you, celebrate together, “that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.” They explore “how, as readers, as Black women, we are constantly seeking to define ourselves and discover our reflections in the pages of a book,” writes Edim. “what did I see to be except myself? / i made it up,” each essay echoes boldly.
In an inspiring prelude, the Virginia-bred, Nigerian-American editor defines her ambition as a “tribute” to the many “brilliant Black women who have made us,” including “the first published African American female poet, Phillis Wheatley.” As editor, she gathers an exemplary list of contemporary authors who “pay vibrant homage to the stories and storytellers who shaped their lives as creators.” Indeed the mélange is filled with formidable figures like Jesmyn Ward, Jacqueline Woodson, actress and author Gabourey Sidibe, Morgan Jerkins, Tayari Jones, Rebecca Walker, and more, who reflect upon how black women writer legends such as Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Jamaica Kincaid, Toni Cade Bambara, Ntozake Shange, and others have saved their lives through words. It’s an ode to the vast contributions these artists imprinted upon our literary heritage, and such is the subversive message throughout — our ancestors not only belong in the canon, but look here, they made the canon. We made the canon, “we had become headstrong, devious, arrogant. Nobody paid us any attention, so we paid very good attention to ourselves. Our limitations were not known to us — not then,” wrote Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye. The “titan” is referenced repeatedly in a book that “remind[s] us of the magnificence of literature; how it can provide us with a vision of ourselves, affirm our talents and ultimately help us narrate our own stories,” says Edim. Her project successfully honors literary females throughout the African diaspora.
The anthology’s premise, “When did you first see yourself in literature?” is a seemingly simple question each author is asked to illuminate, yet for the black women here it opens a glorious Pandora’s box and sparks a telling journey of how black girl readers become black woman writers. The reality that “we all have stories” runs through the veins of every syllable, as 21 black women from a variety of perspectives “share intimate memories around discovering literary reflections of themselves,” writes Edim. Rebecca Walker’s conversation with the editor explores what it’s like to have a legendary writer for a mother and how from an early age it gave her incredible access to a diverse artistic community. Stephanie Powell Watts recalls the people she met in rural North Carolina, as a young Jehovah’s Witness. It was then she realized how desperately “people need to hear their stories.” In “Two New Yorks,” Zinzi Clemmons tackles gentrification and the “vanishing” New York she “knew as a child of an immigrant family.” Several pieces challenge mainstream ideologies of the black body. One particularly poignant example is Renée Watson’s “Space to Move Around In.” She writes that, as a teen, “I learned how to contort myself — physically and emotionally — in order to fit into the confined spaces available for me.” The anthology is also a thorough encyclopedia. Kaitlyn Greenidge authors a list of 10 books, synopses included, to “serve as a kind of blueprint for the many selves we have the pleasure to create over the course of life” as black women. Before each section, Edim highlights a specific topic, such as “Black Feminism.” Below the topic she suggests related titles, and in the index she documents every title, every author featured within Well-Read Black Girl.
The book is also artfully designed. The feminine cover is purple and pink with a silhouette of a curvy girl and her big afro. Book in hand, she rests upon the large sturdy edge of a tropical leaf. Her pleasant picture of serenity foreshadows the salvation that can be found in words. It’s an image mirroring the physical pleasure I felt as I held Edim’s work in my own hands. Her “Well-Read Black Girl” movement-at-large is well attuned to the power of aesthetics. As the story goes, a gift — a custom-designed T-shirt that read “Well-Read Black Girl” and the phrase “‘Erudita Puella Africae’ (Educated Girls in Africa)” — inspired Edim’s New York–based book club. An inside joke between her and her partner, the idea was that she “was the well-read Black girl.” The emblem sparked conversations with other black women so intriguing that Edim did not want them to stop. Thus, in 2015 an Instagram page that centered photos of novelists and poets from the Black Arts movement, images that “asserted a sense of pride and collective empowerment,” was born. There, the editor quoted “powerful affirmations” of her heroes. With the social media page’s incredible success, she realized readers were “hungry for book suggestions and inspiration from writers.” Several years later, the page has gone from a nationwide book club to a powerful, vibrant, uniquely positioned literary festival — all bearing the name “Well-Read Black Girl” after the original T-shirt and entirely focused on Black women writers.
As a fellow Nigerian-American, black woman writer, reading the collection felt like therapy, a release. At times sentimental, it never fails to nourish the soul in how it relates the everyday heartaches and the myriad joys of black girls. Revel in one essay at a time and return to it often in those moments when “you think your pain and your heartbreak is unprecedented in the history of the world” (to quote James Baldwin, mentioned several times here). In Well-Read Black Girl, you’ll find a gentle reminder that, as Greenidge puts it, “if you read far enough and wide enough you realize every identity, even yours, has a corollary in a book.” You are not alone. Someone has seen the life you’ve lived — not only that, but she has lived it too, sister. Whether a character in the stories she’s written or the writer herself, sister is near. Gather round, listen as she tells you her story.
Jesmyn Ward’s stunning piece, “Magic Mirrors,” reminds us that:
[T]here are two gifts that writers give young readers. First, they build vividly rendered worlds for readers to fall in love with and fall into. Second, they create characters that are so real, distinct, and familiar to the young reader that the reader has space to imagine him- or herself in that world during the reading and after they are done.
She highlights how as a child in the late 1970s in rural Mississippi, the books she read, the books she was drawn to, “ones that featured a girl on an adventure,” like Charlotte’s Web, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, and The Chronicles of Narnia, allowed her to feel “a part of those worlds intensely,” but only while she read. To come out of them was an altogether different experience. They left no room to envision that she was a part of those worlds once she laid the book down. Years later, Ward found Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the 1976 classic about a black Mississippi family. The little girl heroine, Cassie, lives in “a world rotten with Jim Crow and sharecropping and ‘night men’ and racism,” a life all “too familiar” for Ward.
Roll of Thunder was required reading during the ’90s when I was in school. Though raised in Los Angeles, a world far removed from the ’70s Deep South, as a child I also found parts of the novel too close to home. I resonated “too much” with the pain the family experienced. I knew “what it meant to feel very small in a large, hostile world.” As an adult, I appreciate the novel, but as a child, like Ward, I “read to escape, to molt my skin.” It’s fitting that her essay is the first in the anthology. “I never found the book that allowed me […] a home after the last page until I wrote my own,” she writes, which is a common thread throughout, a refrain. In that way, Well-Read Black Girl also emerges as an inspiration tool, a challenge for black women writers, from their leaders, “what did i see to be except myself? / i made it up.”
“There is a strange emptiness to life without myths,” writes N. K. Jemisin.
Jemisin, the first person ever (of any race) to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel three years in a row, pens a powerful reflection called “Dreaming Awake.” She was raised on African-American and Egyptian mythology, such as “Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears” by Verna Aardema. However, early on she realized these great tales “[told] me where I came from, but not what I really want to know: where I’m going. To figure that out, I make shit up.” She watched Star Trek every night with her dad, when it was in syndication during the ’80s. The program inspired an early passion for dreams. However, set “five hundred years from now,” it was “a lesson in how hard it was to dream of the future when every depiction of it said you don’t have one.” Though placed in a time and space when humanity has apparently “transcended racism, sexism, etc. […] there’s still only one black person on the crew [Uhura], and she’s the receptionist,” writes Jemisin. As an adolescent, this had a powerful effect on her psyche, creating the myth that “[p]eople like me exist in the future, but there are only a few.” Yes, something’s “going to kill off a few billion people of color” and “despite it being, y’know, the future, my descendants’ career options are going to be even more limited than my own.”
It’s not surprising that with such a poor legacy of black people depicted in sci-fi, Jemisin was later ashamed to write science fiction and fantasy. At the onset of her career, her fiercest detractors were black people, “people who had, like generations before them, bought into the mythology of racism: Black people don’t read. Black people can’t write.” Painful lies reinforced by the work of Britain’s J. R. R. Tolkien almost universally considered the father of all modern epic fantasy. She also says, however:
I’ve heard it said that he was trying to create some kind of original British mythology using the structure of other cultures’ myths, and maybe that was true. I don’t know. What I see when I read his work is a man trying desperately to dream. Dreaming is impossible without myths. If we don’t have enough myths of our own, we’ll latch onto those of others — even if those myths make us believe terrible or false things about ourselves. Tolkien understood this.
What’s most interesting about her essay is that it reveals how her life became a myth, the ultimate fantasy, fulfilled. Like so many women in this profound assemblage, Jemisin’s narrative is about the “freedom to imagine,” the freedom to dream. “Black people have no talents other than singing and dancing and sports and crime,” critics said, but she was defiant. “No one wants to read about black people, so don’t write about them,” advice she refused to accept. “How can I not envision an epic set somewhere other than medieval England, about someone other than an awkward white boy?” where people kill “Always Chaotic Evil dark-skinned” folks. Instead the author leaned upon African- and African-American-centric stories. Epics like “Sundiata’s badass mother” and “Dihya, warrior queen of the Amazighs. The Rain Queens. The Mino Warriors. Hatshepsut’s reign. Everything Harriet Tubman ever did.” In the end, we the readers realize that each essay in Well-Read Black Girl embodies Jemisin’s call to action: “So here is why I write what I do: We all have futures. We all have pasts. We all have stories. And we all, every single one of us, no matter who we are and no matter what’s been taken from us or what poison we’ve internalized or how hard we’ve had to work to expel it — we all get to dream.”
Utibe Gautt Ate is a Black Cherokee, Nigerian, and native Angeleño writer and artist.