Cultural Relevance and Black Female Protagonists: The Narrative of Representing the Underrepresented
Someone brought up a great point in class the other night: There aren’t that many sci- fi or fantasy books that feature black characters.
Immediately I thought of the fiasco that began as a result of casting a black man as the lead in a Star Wars film. Remember that? Maybe the fantasy is reading a book or watching a TV show about a black female protagonist that does not deal with her race as the overarching struggle featured in her story. Is it possible to have a realisticstory that features black characters, but does not mention skin color, hair texture, hip size, or the hood? I think so, but I have yet to find it. The fact is that race is a thing that forms a dumb but inevitable separation because someone decided long ago that it should. Even in Everything Everything (Yoon, 2015), a book that I pride in not making race a thing, Maddy‘s blackness was mentioned- and it had to be mentioned that she was half-black and half-Japanese. It had to be mentioned if not for any other reason than to balance that the neighbor she was crushing on was clearly described as white, and she was not. The only protection that Maddy had from all the other literary attributes of female blackness (which somehow must be included to make black female characters realistic) was that she was literally trapped in her house!
I wrote the following think piece for my Young Adult Literature class at the end of this semester, after thinking through many of the books that I have read and heard about that feature black female characters. Too often, I do not see myself in the characters. There are also times when I identify with them on crazy levels, but never 100%. I hope that educators, administrators, and parents, alike, will continue to explore the literature that is out there that our black girls can relate to and continue to push authors to write about more than the "safe" common narratives. I realize that I am in the perfect position to do this myself, so I plan on dedicating some of my summer to working toward publishing in that truly culturally relevant direction. For me, cultural relevance means nothing close to "same race, same experience". It means something a bit closer to being able to read a book, watch TV, listen to music, and see myself reflected in mainstream and acceptable ways that make me scream “Yaaassss, queen, yaaassss!”
Here's the piece:
One of the best decisions I made this semester was enrolling in the Literature for Young Adults course. I imagined that the class would involve “fun” reading- the opposite of the academic, peer-edited, and scholarly persuasion- a reading for which I found myself needing an excuse to intentionally set time aside to complete. The past two years of doctoral studies have involved research, reading, and study of young adults and their learning processes, but I had yet to find the time to read the same types of literature that young adults are currently reading. I began the first half of this semester by choosing the first few books I would read from a bestseller list. Throughout the remainder of the semester, I received feedback from classmates on books that they read. I found myself trading with and borrowing books from my classmates, and returning the next weeks with perspectives that were sometimes different, but usually expounding upon what I had already heard about the literature. Since many of my classmates were aware of my research interest in mainstream media literacy and its influence on black female identity, I appreciated the literature that they recommended I read in connection to my reading journey. Reflection and discussion around the reading helped me to set my focus on reading with purpose, whether that was for learning, relating, or perspective hearing. After all of the books I have completed, I have come to learn so much more about myself as a reader, which helps me to understand how I digest the literature that I read not only for this class but on a daily basis, encouraging me to make a difference of my own.
As a doctoral student, I first found it difficult to manage my time well enough to read some of the young adult literature that has been published, so being forced to find and read some of the best-selling, contemporary, critical, and not as popular pieces that are marketed to today’s youth was a rewarding opportunity. I saw reading this type of literature as liberating as I placed myself in the stories that I read to help me connect to the characters, their perspectives, and the stories that they told. With a focus on “The Danger of the Single Story”, my reading journey began almost too easily- identifying the silenced voices of people of color, usually women, and of other marginalized populations. As the weeks throughout the semester progressed, my journey did the same. I challenged myself to read different authors, and I turned to those to whom I could most relate- people of color then, more specifically, women of color. It was not until I read literature by authors who looked like me that I was able to take my reading more seriously because the stories did not sound as repetitive. The books I read by non-black authors all contained the common thread reference to teenage angst, usually rooted in some form of navigational struggle through puberty, sexuality, and relationships. While these are struggles to which all young adults can relate, I always felt like something was missing.
Race should not always be the most pressing issue in a book, but it also should not be ignored or assumed to be inconsequential, and seeing that so many books ignored the existence of race and its impact on characters of color made me realize the messages that are silently passed down to our students. Realistic fiction that ignores both the strengths and struggles that are unique to black female characters, for example, make a black female reader feel like she is one of few who possess those strengths and experience those struggles. In light of my research interests, I realize that the first few weeks of my reading journey revolved around much of the literature that did not feature black female characters. Once I began receiving more recommendations for reading, I found myself gravitating more to literature that featured black female protagonists, and black women usually authored these books.
I first heard the perspectives of my classmates, and I honored and respected their interpretations of the reading. I listened to the connections that they made between their understandings of the characters, their narratives, and society. I read these same books through the lens of a community member, much like I imagine my students of color would read books about characters to which they can relate socially. Were the stories realistic? Yes. Were the characters reminiscent of the friends that I had growing up? Yes. Was the world that these stories created much like the world that we live in today? Yes. Still, I found a common theme in many of the books that I was reading about black females. In all but one, Everything Everything (Yoon, 2015), all of the black female protagonists grew up in neighborhoods that alienated them from the rest of the world. In both Piecing Me Together(Watson, 2017) and The Hate U Give (Thomas, 2017), for example, the main characters were attending predominantly white suburban private schools and trying to understand how to be a part of both a wealthy white society for the sake of education, while maintaining their reputations back home in every other part of their lives.
The interesting thing about these readings is that I found these pieces most interesting and realistic, more so than some of the other readings that I was hearing about that featured black female main characters in urban environments. I was not interested in reading stories about teen pregnancy, gang activity, and drugs because it is a narrative to which many black females are too often compared. My journey became seeking the voice of black female author and character examples that still held truth but did not carry the same discouraging backdrop of tough times at home that made it almost impossible to advance in society. And again, I thought of my students, where I grew up, and the life that I lived as a young adult. I heard about and was even exposed to most of the negative things that many of the stories talked about, but the reality is that most of my friends and I never followed that path. The reality is that the same is true for many of the students that I taught in the past, and most likely for the students of today and the future.
Reading these books and discussing my reading experience became much more meaningful as I looked forward to meeting with my classmates and reflecting on how I felt, what I thought of, and how I related to what I read for the week. I appreciated hearing the perspectives of my classmates, the majority being white females, which is also reflective of the majority population of today’s teachers. I related their perspectives to those of teachers who may include these books (now amongst my favorites) in their classroom libraries. I thought about how they may interpret books differently from their students and how valuable my perspective and insight could be to their views on the books that they make available in their classrooms. I also imagined myself in the seats of their students, eager to read books that featured characters like myself: aware of my youth, race, and gender, and also conscious of the daily experience of micro aggressions and the complicated navigation of intersectional identity when social issues impact everyday life experiences.
As a reader, I’ve learned that I have a preference for literature to which I can relate. I like reading about characters of color who are used to being underrepresented, and seeing their stories told as if they matter just as much as those that receive more acclamation. I enjoy when the stories are told unabashedly, not caring if cultural references or language are misunderstood by readers who are unfamiliar because, just as in more mainstream literature, the expectation is that the reader does their own research and reading for understanding. I learned that books that make me think, pause, and reminisce about similar experiences easily captivate me. It is so rare for me to find books that remind me about most of my childhood, so reading about characters’ obsessions with pop culture that is relevant to my own (as in The Hate U Give) or references to natural hair and traditions (as in Piecing Me Together) make me feel more valued as a member of society because these inclusions are everyday topics within my cultural community, but literature exposes them to everyone else. I have yet to read a book that perfectly fits my description as a young adult: a Guyanese-American, youngest daughter of a blended family including four siblings, classical piano and cello-trained, daughter of a professor and therapist, second-generation college attending hopeful with huge shoes to fill, but very little certainty about what she wants to be when she “grows up”. This course has reignited the fire within that reminds me that maybe I am the one who needs to write this story because although I see more of myself and my black female students in some of the contemporary young adult literature that I have read and plan on continuing to explore, much like academic research, there are still many holes to be filled and untold stories to be shared.
Thomas, A. (2017). The hate u give. New York, NY: Balzer Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins.
Watson, R. (2017). Piecing me together. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
Yoon, N., & Yoon, D. (2017). Everything, everything. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.