Although the question posed in the newly released Well-Read Black Girl anthology was, “When did you first recognize yourself in literature?” I couldn’t help but seem to think about not necessarily feeling representing on the annual festival stage.
In their panel discussing the new book led by author and WRBG Founder Glory Edim with contributors Mahogany Browne, Renee Watson, Veronica Chambers, Carla Bruce-Eddings, and Bsrat Mezghebe, they all read from their essays and discussed the most influential literature in their journeys. Of course, the James Baldwins and Toni Morrisons were immediately mentioned, which led me down a hole of thinking about my own influences.
I may get kicked out of the “writers club” for saying this, but the writers that are most highly revered in many black literary circles, I didn’t grow up reading. As a writer myself now, I am going back to the works of people like Baldwin, and J. California Cooper, and maybe I’ll get to Toni Morrison, but my exploration in literature was different.
Of course, I grew up reading things like Goosebumps and The Babysitters Club series, but those were entertaining, not necessarily representative of my experience growing up as a Black child in Philadelphia. But I enjoyed them. And then fairly early, my mom started giving me the books that she read. Books like “Men Cry in the Dark” by Michael Baisden, “Mama” by Terry McMillan, “Tumbling” by Diane McKinney-Whetstone.
Great authors in their own right, but rarely referred to as the “Churches of” or with any of the worship that I seem to see for a select few of black writers. But their stories impacted me. Those early stories ignited something in me that made me feel like maybe I could write too. I’d dare to say that maybe starting with Baldwin wouldn’t have left me so encouraged.
However, the whole thing led me to think about the writers that we do revere and the odd relationship the literary community can have with commercial or upmarket fiction. It can feel like non-fiction or literary fiction are the only things that receive acclaim and adoration. But I’d like to see a more diverse array of writers receive their flowers too.
The literary world can feel stiff. And as much as I thought it was a given in the White world, I didn’t necessarily anticipate that there was a similar air in the black literary world as well. Sometimes I feel like it’s not good enough to say that you were influenced by stories like “The Coldest Winter Ever,” or “Milk in My Coffee.”
Even Mahogany Browne made a joke about her start writing Harlequin novels, but I felt like that influence as valid as reading Toni Morrison.
Being represented in literature is such an interesting concept so I can see why the book garnered interest. But in many ways, I still feel like I’m waiting in that aspect. But writers like McMillian and McKinney-Whetstone at least told stories I felt comfortable in, even if they weren’t a mirror. Although I have read great stories with characters that remind me of people I know or don’t but are simply entertaining, I often feel like a woman looking for her place. Not solely in stories, but in my writing career as well. I don’t always feel like I fit in. I left WRBG Fest feeling like I wasn’t smart enough to be a writer. That my taste and pedigree would never qualify me to sit on the stage with the likes of the women that we heard from.
Recently, there was a discussion, likely on Twitter, about the bar of entry into writing fields with the misconception that it’s an easy career to get into when it’s not. Often writing jobs don’t pay much if at all when starting out and I’ve seen a theme of many of the most acclaimed writers in this time coming from somewhat prestigious, if not at least middle-class backgrounds. The children of super “woke” parents often as well and it can leave you wondering if there is space for you too.
But not too long after traveling to Brooklyn, I sat across from Diane McKinney-Whetstone at a book discussion in Philly and felt a reinvigoration in my spirit. There’s a place for all of us.
So the question of representation can feel broad. I think that sometimes readers pick up a book where they see themselves. I, with no doubt, believe that there will be kids that read “The Hate U Give” that see themselves as Khalil or Starr and feel empowered by that. And then there will be the kids who aren’t quite like those characters but feel comfortable in that space. And lastly, those that will read the book and think, I can write something like this too. All feeling represented in some way.
I have felt most represented in the stories of neighborhoods and imperfect love and being driven, upwardly mobile, and maybe a little lost. I’ve found it in authors that may not be household names or on Oprah’s Book Club and I want that to be a part of our collective experience as black writers as well.
The panels were esteemed for sure and maybe meant to feel like something to aspire to. But I have to say that I think it would have been nice to sprinkle one or two more up and coming writers in their as well for the sake of representation. Some of us have as much love for Maya as we do for Omar Tyree and I would like to see a little more of that diversity especially in literary spaces made for us because, ain’t I a well-read black girl, too?