A Discovery of Black Literature
Growing up, the only people who encouraged my love for books taught in my classrooms. Teachers who went above and beyond for the young foster girl who’d rather read fiction than her textbooks (and often got in trouble for sneaking a novel beneath her desk where she thought no one could see her).
My adoptive parents weren’t champions of my reading. If anything, my adoptive mother tried everything she could to stop me from reading. Especially if it wasn’t about religion – Christianity. Once, she went through all my shelves searching, just searching for something to tear to shreds. Books by black authors often fell under the category of “too mature” for me – obviously, my parents had no idea what reading level I was on. So, any attempt to branch out was quickly extinguished.
This had the reverse effect on me.
I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. Anything that I could pull off the front of the shelves, check out with my secret library card, and shove in the bottom of my backpack. However, this fingertip-convenience meant more books by white authors than black authors. This meant more stories by people whose books never represented me or my culture. Whatever that culture was.
As a foster kid, I grew up daydreaming about who I was, who my ancestors were, and what kind of magic might flow through my bones. I knew my biological mother and a handful of siblings I’d been split from. However, I didn’t know where my people were from. I’d been given so many answers, African (of course), a blend of Asian in there somewhere, something else with light skin, and something loosely coiled hair (evidenced by my own head than anything). Something with thin hips and rhythm and short stocky women.
What I really wanted to know about was Literature. Who were my people? What did they write? What did they read? Were they all slaves? Did anyone create a new language, or code, or shorthand? Were they intelligent? If they were, does that mean I’m intelligent?
These questions weren’t answered.
So, I searched for them in books. I didn’t realize, until I was much older, there was an oppressive reason behind the lack of representation in the books I loved. I just read. Absorbing each page and regurgitating them to my teachers with a childish enthusiasm that shocked them.
I remember one teacher (Mr. Vincent Potts, a handsome man who listened to me drone on about fictional characters and how “1984” changed my views on…everything) sending me home with a letter saying that a recent essay was absolutely phenomenal and that “if her love for literature is fostered, she could be writing essays at a college-level very soon”. As you can tell, my love for literature and writing wasn’t fostered. No one seemed to care.
There I was, a love for books unchecked, far away from the black women writers I wanted to discover.
At some point, our lack of knowledge is our responsibility. Especially when recognized. Once I became an adult, I spent years reading anything that interested me because I didn’t want to close myself into a box. I didn’t want to be like those readers who said “I only read books by black writers because what can white people teach me?” I was astounded by this and I clutched my bookish pearls. I’d read so many books by so many authors of other cultures that truly blew me away. I couldn’t imagine never discovering them.
So, why would I assume I had put enough focus on my own culture?
Over the years, I read many books (articles, interviews, essays, and short stories) by black writers but I didn’t put any more focus or light on them than the white writers. I never cared what race they were. If the synopsis sounded good, I read it. Most of the time, I didn’t even look at the author’s name or picture on the flap. Stories can come from everywhere.
If I loved it, I told everyone about it. If I hated it, I told everyone about it.
I still read books by all sorts of writers, but the importance of intention can’t be overlooked. A few years ago, I recognized that my connection with the black community had begun to slip due to my cross country move and my extreme introversion (which kept me from making new friends and frankly, leaving my house). I realized I wanted to focus more on literature written by African Americans. More specifically, Black Women like me.
Yes, I’ll eventually sign up for Ancestry.com and discover what’s in my blood but first I need to discover what is in my heart.
I intentionally read books by black writers and appreciated them for the masterpieces they were. I shared them on my book groups and talked about them with my online writing friends. I spread the word about them with renewed excitement in “my” history. They also worked as a creative catalyst to opening up my writing “eye”. I discovered my Voice and didn’t feel like my blackness was diminished because I could see myself in the work I was reading.
It still isn’t enough.
This year, I want to put a spotlight on black women writers like I never have before. It’ll be a “Study Black Lit” intensive. I’m on the search to find an author that will spark an academic flame in me. Someone who will inspire hours of scholarship, collections of essays, and true passion. To do this, I plan to read works by a different black woman at a time and deeply study them. Taking notes. Deciphering clues, metaphors and intentions. Recognizing frustrations. I want to get to know the writers through their words. Align my experiences with theirs and see that we are the same and yet oh, so different.
I’m not sure what I’ll do with all of this studying or if it’s just for me but…I’m going to enjoy the journey of rediscovering Black Literature. And I’ll take you along.
P.S. I will say, I always wondered why black women writers are always relegated to that one very tiny university course titled “African American literature” or posted under a very long list of “optional diversity courses”. They’re so jam-packed into these courses that there’s only space for one. How does this do them justice? Us justice? How amazing would it be to see these works by black women highlighted instead of boxed away? How great to have a range of black women writers join the ranks of “classics” literature and be taught as a major focus and not a supplemental one? How inspiring would this be for young black girls as interested in books as I’d been?
I’m getting ahead of myself but…you see the love, here.