“When did you first see yourself in literature?”
My mother says that I started reading when I was less than two years old. The book was Baby Bop Where Are My Shoes? She walked up on me in a room and saw me by myself, with my back turned to her reading aloud. It is unsurprising to say that she continued to fill the house with books and she has a chest full of African American children’s books that she will never get rid of. I followed in her footsteps and there is essentially a whole wall and a few shelves and ledges in my room that are filled with books. Through all of the books that I have read and the stories that I have absorbed, it’s a little difficult to say where I first saw myself.
I could go back to days at the book fairs in elementary, where I would take my time browsing as if I were studying rare jewels. I could go back to my childhood library escapades where I got as many books as the checkout limit would allow. I borrowed so many different versions of Cinderella and other fairytales. Yet, it feels like I need to move a little further forward to middle school. At the end of the academic year in sixth grade, we were taking the well-loathed standardized test. They were called the PACT tests and we took a different PACT test for each subject, day after day. On one of the test days, I finished my test a little early with some of my other classmates. However, in order for the school schedule to progress, the whole sixth grade had to finish the test, so each classroom was filled with restless pre-teens. My teacher, Ms. Montjoy, gave us a crate full of books for us to read while we waited for the testing to end. Paying no mind to some of my classmates’ disinterest, I eagerly tried to find something to read. Then, I came across a title called Romiette and Julio by Sharon M. Draper. My thoughts were as follows:
Pause. Romiette and Julio, like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. So, is this a black girl and a Mexican guy falling in love? I need to read this!
Maybe part of me was wondering how this Sharon M. Draper had the audacity to pen her own version of Shakespeare’s story. And to make the characters racial minorities? Through all of my reading, it seemed like there was an unspoken rule in regards to who got to have that kind of story and it didn’t seem like it was black girls. As I read the story, I got wrapped up in Romiette’s character and the fact that she was a black girl leading the story. She wasn’t the best friend or a character in the background. Ms. Draper had the agency and audacity to make Romiette an individual character who could have the agency to be whoever she liked and honestly the struggles that Romiette faced in the story made me feel another connection, as well. She and Julio struggled to keep their relationship together in the face of judgment over their interracial dating. Basically, her race was a problem in this narrative, but she still dared to go out and fight for her relationship.
It was that form of struggle and fight to be happy and live life that I connected with. I didn’t have a boyfriend and my first crush happened the next year in seventh grade, but I connected to a black girl fighting to be happy in a world that was complicated for her skin color. My paperback copy of the book is still somewhere in my parent’s house all worn and half-raggedy. Yet, as I got older, I held tighter to the idea of being a black girl turned black woman fighting to live and be happy.
Fast forward to the fall semester of my senior year in college and I was taking an Afrofuturism class under Professor Young where I became immersed in a realm of blackness that I had never experienced. However, of all the books and articles I have read, the music that I analyzed, and the films that we watched in that class, I have to say that one story grabbed me the most. That story was Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti. Just like I saw a black girl daring to live in the face of struggle in Romiette and Julio, Binti felt like a story that had the same kind of idea. Although I am not a Himba girl, I know what it’s like to desperately want to learn and to attend an institution where you are one of the few people of color. Binti still wanted to learn even if that meant facing discrimination and ignorance. On top of that, Binti got to face a whole new adventure before she even got to school when she comes face to face with aliens poised to attack. Obviously, I’m still down on earth, but I strongly connect with Binti’s innate want for adventure in the great wide somewhere, even if it means facing obstacles.
Fast forward to today, a month after graduation, and I am surrounded by evidence for my want of adventure in the great wide somewhere and a desire to fulfill that through stories. The evidence is in my Shuri pins, my Pop Funkos of the cast of Black Panther, my Pop Funkos of the Misses from A Wrinkle in Time, and books like (my newly purchased A Blade so Black). I would love to see more black girls in literature and in more story mediums overall. My flavor of stories that I want to present and create are those like Sharon M. Draper’s and Nnnedi Okorafor’s. I want to tell black girls that even if this world doesn’t love them, I do and that they are the world. I want to write an unreasonable, out of this world escapade, a flight of fancy adventure and romance, whether that romance is with someone else or with life itself because we deserve that kind of magic.