Why Black Female Characters (and Authors) Matter

We Need Diverse BooksI read this delightful story recently about a young girl in New Jersey who is collecting 1,000 books featuring a black female protagonist. Marley Dias, an 11-year-old black student, said she was “sick of reading books about white boys and dogs.”

“I was frustrated … in fifth grade where I wasn’t reading [books with] a character that I could connect with,” she said.

The sixth grader started her own social media campaign #1000BlackGirlBooks, with the hope that she can donate the books to a school in Jamaica and help other young black girls relate better to the books they read and the characters in them.

What a great idea!  I only wish I was half as thoughtful as she was when I was 11.

This made me think about the books I read when I was younger.  Unfortunately, I really couldn’t think of that many books by black female authors, let alone books with black female protagonists, at least not in elementary or middle schools.  When I finally started reading books by or about black females in high school and college, the subject was a bit intense for my liking at first.  I remember reading:

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

These ground-breaking books were written by dynamic writers, but the subject matter in all of them can be hard to deal with.  All of these books have either been banned or censored by some school districts around the country at one point.The themes ranged from rape, incest, teen pregnancy, colorism, harsh depictions of racism and domestic violence.   

When I first read these books as a teenager, I was especially horrified and saddened, but then amazed and excited, mainly because they were talking about issues I could relate to as a black female in America.  It makes a world of a difference when you can empathize with the protagonist in a book, and this is especially true when the protagonist looks like you. 

I met up with a black female friend who is the mother of a tenth grader the other day, and we were talking about this very subject.  She said she didn’t want her daughter reading any of the above books because she felt they were too vulgar.  “These books make us [black people] look dysfunctional,” she said.  “This is unfortunate because any of these books may be the first book a student of any color will read about women of color during their school years that can set the wrong kinds of assumptions and tones about black women.”

Okay, I can see where she is coming from.  I know there are a lot of other black people who feel the same way.  Maybe this issue of diversity in the protagonist skin tone should also include diversity in subject matter as well.  Statistically, it is still hard to find books in schools with black female or male protagonists on any subject.  According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, out of 3,500 children’s books in schools surveyed in 2014, only 180 were about black people.  The numbers are even worse for books about Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans.  This is especially troubling as America will soon become a minority-majority country.

Now, I am not suggesting that we get rid of the white guy authors altogether!  William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are all wonderful authors, who made significant contributions to literature, and kids should still read their books.  But it is time to add more books to school reading lists that better reflect our world today.  

The first step in doing this is to start identifying and putting together book lists that can be used as recommendations to schools and public libraries.  Getting involved with your local school or public library also makes a difference.  Below I put together a list of my recommendations for books by and/or about black females.  I think in the following weeks and months I will also pull together more book lists showcasing many different types of underrepresented groups.  I think if more people did this, there would be more discussion and, thus, more change in the type of literature our kids read.  There is strength in numbers!

However, this is not meant to be a complete list because there are so many books.  While most of them are adult books, many of them can be read by young adults, depending on their maturity level and reading comprehension. I draw this list from my personal experience working in a multicultural book store once and doing advocacy for my local library.  The top ten books on this list are definitely for young adult readers. These are just ones that I thought of off the top of my head.  Please email me if you have any other suggestions for this list or future lists, especially titles for elementary and middle school kids.

The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

The Chaos By Nalo Hopkinson

Fly Girl by Sherri L. Smith

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs.

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange

Caucasia by Danzy Senna

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

Push by Sapphire

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Wedding by Dorothy West

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy

Never Far From Nowhere by Andrea Levy

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Reading Amazing Grace Jones

grace jonesOne of the things I want to do more of this new year is read and review books here.  I get so many books for free to read from publishers and publicists, that maybe I should take more advantage of these opportunities.

A great way to kick this off is with Grace Jones’ new memoir ironically titled I’ll Never Write My Memoirs.  I was first introduced to Jones by way of the 1990s film Boomerang, where she plays an crazed supermodel who throws her panties around and says p*ssy a lot.  She also had a few hit songs back in the day, notably Slave to the Rhythm, My Jamaican Guy and La Vie En Rose – all songs I have currently on my iPod.

She is best known for her androgynous look and wild antics, but I didn’t much much about her beyond that.  With David Bowie’s tragic death this week, it is easy to say that she is his female equivalent. She popped up last summer at AfroPunk in all her glory.  I think her performance was amazing.  So I was happy to hear that she was finally releasing her memoirs a few weeks afterwards.

Her book really gave me a chance to get to know her better.  She is a little before my time, but she is still very relevant. There wouldn’t a Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj or even Madonna if there wasn’t a Grace Jones.  But as she says in the book, unlike many of the today’s singers, she wasn’t putting on an act, she really is a unique wild child.  

She has always been out there long before she became famous; she not putting on an act.  Jones is an original, and not, as she calls Kim Kardashian, a “basic commercial product.” “I cannot be like them, except to the extent that they are already being like me,” Jones says in her book.

So how did Grace Jones become Grace Jones?  The author goes back to her humble beginnings in Jamaica, where she was raised in a strict family of Pentecostal ministers.  When her family moved to Syracuse, New York in the 1960s, it was an opportunity to break away from her religious upbringing.  The book goes into her hippie years doing theater in Philadelphia and living in a commune.  She then moves onto Paris via New York, where her modelling and music careers take off.  She also talks about the many lovers she had over the years, including her on-and-off relationship with Jean Paul Goude, the father of her only child, Paulo, actor Dolph Lundgren, and her brief marriage to a Muslim man who is half her age.

There is also so much name dropping in the book that you start to wonder what famous people Jones doesn’t know!

grace jones

What I was really disappointed in was that there wasn’t much discussion in the book about her androgyny, from the vantage point of what people at that time thought of her look, since it was still pretty taboo in the 1970s and 1980s for a masculine looking, black woman wearing a suit.  

I was specifically hoping that would have addressed the accusation of racism in her image that was created by Goude, who said in 1979 “I had jungle fever… Blacks are the premise of my work.” I get from the book that she was equally responsible for her image, and most of it draws from exploring her Jamaican upbringing and cross gender feelings.  She also says that she connects more with men, or really gay men, who tended to collaborate with her the most throughout her storied career.

But I am looking at her from a more nuanced perspective. She comes from a different era where a lot of her racial imagery wouldn’t be scrutinized like it would be today.  She was asked in a recent interview about how young people today might feel uncomfortable about her image.  In true Grace Jones fashion, she essentially said she really didn’t give a …  “Somebody feels uncomfortable with a certain type of art,” she said. ” But it is an art form to me.”

Despite her public image as a wild child, she lives a pretty normal life as a tennis fan and jigsaw player in between being a grandmother.

As a veteran of the entertainment world, Jones gives sage advice, like don’t live in superficial Hollywood and eat pumpkins to stay young instead of Botox.  That is probably why she looks so young and fabulous on her book cover!

“In the end, I am quite normal,” Jones says.  “I don’t have odd habits.  I might dramatize things a bit, but only because I take things seriously, or sometimes not seriously enough.”

Give The Gift Of Literacy

My Librarian is a CamelI recently purchased a book for a young family member called My Librarian is a Camel: How Books Are Brought To Children Around The World by Margriet Ruurs.  Living in a Western country, we tend to take for granted our public libraries, where you can easily have access to millions of books.  This is not the case in most parts of the world, where access to literacy is far and few in between.

This children’s picture book shows how books are uniquely brought to different communities, whether by boat, bicycle, wheelbarrow, and, yes, even by camel.  In Thailand books are delivered by elephant in rural areas. In many countries like Australia and Azerbaijan, specialized library trucks go into underserved communities and also act as classrooms with built-in computers with WiFi and air conditioning.  For many users, this is the only way to access the outside world.

According to UNESCO, approximately 781 million people worldwide are illiterate, and many schools in the developing world have few, if any, books to use for educating students. Better access to books not only improves literacy, but also opens up more doors for social and economic mobility.

The gift of literacy is the best gift you can give someone. Worldreader is an organization that provides e-readers and digital libraries to children in developing countries.  If you are looking to make a donation to a worthy cause this holiday season, please consider them!

My Books Of The Year 2015

booksI read a lot of great books this year.  They were thought-provoking, educational and downright fascinating!  Some of them are review copies I received from publishers for free, but I never let that influence my opinions of the book.  Most of them are older books, but are still relevant.   

If you missed any of my book reviews and literary discussions, here are the links to them.

God’s Bits of Wood By Ousmane Sembene

Ousmane Sembène: The Making of a Militant Artist By Samba Gadjigo and Moustapha Diop

Mules and Men By Zora Neale Hurston

Tell My Horse By Zora Neale Hurston

The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference By Richard Wright

The Case For Diverse Literature

A Brief History of Seven Killings By Marlon James

The Politics of Change By Michael Manley

Kehinde Wiley: The World Stage: Haiti By Cynthia Oliver and Mike Rogge

Kehinde Wiley: The World Stage Jamaica By Ekow Eshun and Kehinde Wiley

The Untold History of the United States By Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick

Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga By Pamela Newkirk

Banned Books Week 2015

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking By Brendan Koerner

Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas By Emory Douglas and Sam Durant

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2016 is to read even more books and review them here.  There will be a mix of new and older books.  I like re-reading older, classic books because they are still so relevant to many social and political conversations we have today.   I have a bookcase and a Kindle full of books I just haven’t gotten around to reading, but I will do better in the new year.  Stay tuned!