I Didn't Find Myself Until I Found Black Literature | Gradient

I didn’t find myself until I found black literature

Books were the first thing I ever fell in love with. I was reading at every opportunity and was even more excited when DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time was a mandatory part of my elementary school day. But the more I read, the more I noticed an uncomfortable trend in the books we were assigned.

Most of the main characters in the narratives I had first been introduced to in school were animals, and as we grew older, the characters transitioned into humans. While many of my classmates connected to and favored stories with boys and girls who looked like them, I never felt the same way. There were no little black girls on the front cover happily holding new toys, there were no little black girls on the front cover enjoying a game of jump rope with their friends, and there were no little black girls on the front cover going out with their families to street festivals. I felt disconnected.

It wasn’t until I had gone through my first break-up in high school that I finally found a book that truly spoke to my identity. Post-break-up heartache is a tumultuous time. Though I was surrounded by friends who were tireless in ensuring that I always had a shoulder to cry on, I reverted back to my first love and found more solace there than I did in human comfort.

I scanned my personal library for a title that would help me transition into a better space but was unable to remember anything off the top of my head that spoke to the experiences of black womanhood. However, I had been cast in a school play earlier that year and remembered one line that stood out: “i found god in myself and i loved her / i loved her fiercely.” I found the book it was from and re-read it, but this time, it resonated with me in a much different way than it first had. Multiple cries and dog-eared pages later; I realized that Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When The Rainbow Is Enuf was a literary milestone. It allowed me to begin my beautiful journey of self-discovery.

Earlier this year, 11-year-old Marley Dias garnered international attention after she started the #1000blackgirlbooks campaign. This was the byproduct of the young girl’s frustration stemming from the lack of books in the education curriculum that spoke to black girlhood. Dias’ incident isn’t isolated. We’ve heard the cries for diversity in Hollywood, and this sentiment extends into the realm of literature as well. Yes, there are black women writers, but the more I think about the mainstream canons of literature, they’re never about folks who look like me.

What pulled me towards Shange’s work was its style. The stageplay disrupts the typical conventions of theater writing because it was written as what’s called “a choreopoem”. A choreopoem, a term coined by Shange, is a performance style that contains mime, music, song, dance, movement, poetry, and ritual. When I begin to think about the ways in which all of those factors have shaped how black bodies communicate and express ourselves, both historically and contemporarily, I couldn’t have imagined it being written any other way. As a black woman, I can retell my experiences and be my most honest self through poetry, through spilling myself into words and into movement. Reading Shange’s words made me feel less individualized in my experiences, and because these words are contingent on the intersection of various types of creative performances, I felt more in tune with who I was.

There is also something incredibly reaffirming in reading a text that not only acknowledges your identity through content but also acknowledges your identity through language. For Colored Girls maintains a specific mode of writing that rejects traditional spelling, grammar, and punctuation rules in exchange for language, phrases, and phonetic spelling that mirrors the communities she speaks to.

The way we speak and the histories and politics that dictate who uses AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) and how and when it can be employed can be a frustrating experience. Even if For Colored Girls had not garnered mainstream recognition, it still validated my own existence. Shange was conscious in penning the work because abiding by standardized rules of writing can be debilitating, especially given the history of how black bodies have had their native tongue removed through the process of the colonization and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

My introduction to Shange through theater had been an important moment for me, and as I continued into post-secondary studies, what became a more pressing issue was how many black scholars I was being introduced to (which at one point, was zero). I had trudged through college with little to no interest in any of the mandatory reading and glossed over most readings only so I could say that I finished them. It wasn’t until my third year that I came across bell hooks’ “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectatorship.”

It was the very first time I had read work from a black woman scholar, and I was more upset that it took me until the last leg of my academic career for it to have made its way to my lap. Hooks’ work was the first time I had read an academic text that powerfully used the word “I.” She tackled the male gaze from a black feminist perspective and “I” became so much more liberating. Hooks’ positioning herself in her work gave me a new kind of confidence: I finally felt like I had a place in academia, and there was literature in these spaces that put black women and their perspectives at the forefront.

To see black womanhood talked about in a scholarly lens was truly a life-changing moment. As so much of our experiences are erased or not considered in mainstream cultural production and mainstream academic production, reading the works of scholars like Audre Lorde and Patricia Hill Collins made me feel like I had stepped into a secret world that I once was locked out of. Though I’ve been privileged enough to have had the opportunity to be enrolled in college and the privilege to be introduced to their scholarship, I can’t help but think about other women never come across these amazing bodies of literature, and what it’d mean to never read them.

I’m always brought back to the line in For Colored Girls and have an alternative take on it: “i found myself in literature and i loved her / i loved her fiercely.” It’s an alienating experience to have gone through most of your life with little to no opportunities to bond over books. I read stories like Dias’, and the rare instances like the conception of Princeless and am elated at the possibility of a young black girl discovering that she can see herself reflected in these works. I also come across projects like the Lemonade Syllabus, spearheaded by educator Candice Benbow and contributed to from black women who are activists, spiritual leaders, academics, and writers, that allow me to take pride and be more fixated in my identity.

I know that literature is a uniting force that builds community, so when there’s an invisibilization of our narratives — the narratives of black womanhood and girlhood — missing from the mainstream world, entire potential communities aren’t made. Our identities differ, and for some of us, finding literature that speaks to our intersections are rare, but cherished moments. By sharing our narratives through literature, we create communities of sisterhood. And in literature, we find healing and understanding.