I can’t tell you the exact book that made me fall in love with reading or the exact moment I fell in love with writing. To be honest I didn’t even know I was in love. I grew up reading all the big hit scholastic favorites like The Baby Sitters Club, and Goosebumps, as well as Judy Blume, Nancy Drew, and R.L. Stine. I especially liked R.L. Stine. Anything other worldly made me happy, a true escape, not just a re-location. From a young age I loved reading, there was no question about it, but there was one series that really solidified it for me. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. The books weren’t just about magic for me, they made me feel magical. Not a lot of kids my age were interested in those kinds of books, but I liked being different. At the time, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was considered a hefty read. Most kids in my age group steered clear of it, but not me. The length intrigued me even more. It was a challenge, one that I gladly accepted. The first time I tried to read it I was overwhelmed and gave up. I was accustom to finishing books within a two or three day window. Day three of Harry Potter and I was only half way through. I was discouraged. Maybe this was more than I could chew.
Months later I came across the book again as I was cleaning my room. This time I was determined. I cracked it open, got lost in the pages, and a week later I finished it. Once over that hump no book was off limits. To this day I gravitate to the thick books, the ones promising to engulf me and bring me to new worlds. Harry Potter made me appreciate them. Back then only those with interesting things to say could publish a book so prolonged. Unfortunately I can’t say the same about today, with many books being a never ending road of fluff.
I never really thought about books as Black and White or questioned it. It was normal, common at the time. White people existed in books, Black people didn’t. I accepted that. The first time I felt seen in a story was in Harry Potter, but not because of my race. As a child I was an outcast and a book worm. Compared to my cousins I was at the bottom of the barrel. I was the only one with no brothers and sisters and my mom made significantly less than their parents. In school I was popular, but I was always the smart kid. I made good grades and behaved well. I liked to read, write, research, and explore, while my peers liked to gossip, hang out, and run after boys. So it’s no surprise that Hermoine Granger was my hero. Before her, being smart wasn’t cool. Before her, I pretended to not be excited about learning. Before her, I wasn’t sure who I should be or wanted to be. She gave me the courage to be me. Hermoine Granger was a bad ass and I wanted to be one too.
I loved filling up the pages in my journal. Before, I would often come up with stories and scenarios in my head but never wrote them down. They were my best friends. I laughed with them, cried with them, and then locked them away in the far reaches of my psyche. I decided to one day put them down on paper, but what came out was troubling. I had an active imagination as a child and always wanted to write but soon realized I was severely brainwashed. Whenever I would think about a story I automatically inserted white characters. It was strange writing about worlds so unfamiliar, so I didn’t.
I grew up in a predominately Black neighborhood, went to predominately Black schools, and was raised in a Caribbean household. I never felt marginalized. Everywhere I looked I saw myself. I guess that’s why I identified with Hermoine beyond race. My interactions with White people were far and few in between. Even most of my school teachers were Black and even more, many of them were Caribbean. I was surrounded by Melanin. I grew up in a house where we were taught to measure people (including ourselves) by intelligence and abilities, not the color of someone’s skin. Being of Caribbean decent I never really saw the Black American identity as my own. My family came from a country where the majority of the population is Black. Being better than someone had nothing to do with race but everything to do with class and education. Those views transferred over to American life and transferred over to me. Maybe that’s why those White characters never bothered me. I just enjoyed a good story.
In Junior High School I continued on my journey through the magical world of Harry Potter, but was quickly introduced to the Sister Souljah’s, Terri Woods, Omar Tyrees and Zanes of the world. Fly Girl was thee book to read at the time. Oh, how those stories intrigued me. Black people, yes! I didn’t know we could tell those kinds of stories. I didn’t know it was allowed. The characters that lived in the pages of those books reminded me of people from my neighborhood, my friends, and my family members. I guess you can say for the first time I saw real pieces of myself in literature. Was I exactly like those characters? No, but I could identify with them in some regard and that was enough for me. I devoured each book one by one, each one igniting my passion to write again. So, I sat down and tried to write. This time, I would not only dream of white characters or their world. I tried to tell stories only about Black people. At first I felt like this would be my calling, my genre, but I was wrong. I wasn’t those characters in the books, and although I loved reading about them, I wasn’t interested in telling those stories. Again, I gave up. Maybe I was just trying to be something I’m not.
The Harry Potter films played a large role in my journey to becoming a storyteller. There were Black people at Hogwarts, O MY! It changed my entire view and opened my mind to new possibilities. We could exist outside of the ghetto, and outside of violence. We were magical and here was the proof. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan and seeing those brown faces in that realm gave me hope that there were stories out there we could exist in, stories that did not only involve drugs, sex, and lies. Those movies also inspired me to study filmmaking.
In college, as a Film student, I fell susceptible to old ways. All the characters I wrote about were White as a default. It was a frustrating habit I couldn’t seem to break. I had to learn to see myself, and my community in my stories. It was a tough lesson. I would try and write in certain characters as Black, but it just didn’t “feel” right. I had never read about black characters in the worlds I wanted to explore, in the situations I wanted to highlight. Writing left me frustrated and at the time I didn’t know why. As I grew older I realized I kept running from writing because I was uninterested in writing about people, worlds, and experiences that were not my own. I lived in these worlds every day. I escaped to them while reading. I refused to also write about them. At the time, I didn’t know how to write about me. I needed a break. Writing left me again.
Black literature was loosely sprinkled throughout my life. The only book I really remember reading was “Kindred” by Octavia Butler. It was amazing but short lived. It was on a reading list for one of my English classes in high school. I’m not sure if I was too focused on other things but I never really explored Black authors after that. Looking back I regret not pushing myself more. Race wasn’t a big thing on my conscious at the time. It didn’t consume my world the way it does today. Maybe that was due to me never really feeling like a minority. I knew I was one because I heard it on TV and people would classify me as such, but I never actually felt like one. I never felt small. It wasn’t until I got to college that the cultural shock of my racial identity and what that meant really hit me. For the first time I felt like a minority. I longed to be seen.
A close friend of mine kept recommending that I read Assata Shakur’s Autobiography. I’m thankful for her persistence because that book changed my life. I rediscovered myself and for the first time I was in tune with my American identity as a Black person occupying space in this country. Assata opened my eyes and launched me on a journey to redefining my blackness. From there I started reading ethnographies and other non-fiction books detailing the plight and struggle of people of color in this country. I was obsessed. These new interests also redefined the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. I made a promise to change the world with my art and I’ve been on that course ever since. I realized that I wanted to tell stories that authentically reflected the society and world we live in, not just the stereotypical White or Black bubbles we exist in. Real stories about real people, their very real experiences, and what that looked like. I dreamt of stories that opened eyes, touched souls, and affected change even if only within an individual.
Throughout my life I’ve always felt out of place. Books were my escape and writing allowed me to free the raging thoughts in my brain. My journals were my best friends. They set me free and gave me a voice. I always tried to fit in, doing things that never truly resonated with me. I was very active in school, always surrounded by friends. Lots of friends. I was shy and introverted but no one ever believed me. Everyone saw me as something different, someone different, so I consciously made an effort to be that. I made up excuses on why I couldn’t make outings, or return phone calls. Truth was and still is I prefer staying home and spending quality time engulfed in the pages of a book or pouring out my soul with a pen. I was one person out in the world and a totally different person at home. I didn’t know how to be both. I struggled and when rough times hit the unbalance of who I really am or want to be, coupled with the impact that hard times bring, derailed me. Depression gripped me. Writing saved me. Writing is my therapy, it was what healed me. Seeing my thoughts and feelings on paper gave me new perspective. I recognized patterns within myself and my life, and made a promise to do something about it. Writing gave me new life.
My imagination swirled with elaborate possibilities for my future. What I wanted to dress like, look like, be like. Writing it down made it real. Made those dreams attainable. I saw glimpses of my real self hiding between those words. I finally started to pay attention. Like myself, my writing has evolved. As my self-confidence grew my writing style changed. I was no longer afraid to be myself and I was no longer afraid to write about it.
I got heavily into reading non-fiction and personal development books. Essays, and memoirs made me want to look back on my own life and understand myself better. Through this retrospective I gained insight, insight I decided to share in my writings. I was no longer afraid to write about my deepest feelings, my darkest day, or my controversial opinions. I was no longer afraid to confront them and put them center stage on the page. My life experiences governed my evolution and I’m grateful for them all. The nights I cried myself to sleep, the days and weeks of feeling worthless, the friends who abandoned me because they couldn’t understand, and the times I gave up on myself. In a weird way they built me up to be better, to be stronger. I needed those moments. I believe that everything in life happens for a reason, and all those experiences were necessary to get where I am today. I never want to forget them. I never want them erased. One day someone will read my words and have hope. So I write because I want all these pieces of me to live on.
Reading A Well Read Black Girl really made me look deep into what influenced my craft, what drives my curiosity, and what I want to define my legacy. When did I first see myself in literature? I hadn’t really thought about it until now. A much needed introspective.
Have you read the book? When was the first time you felt seen in literature? Why do you write?
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