Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it, #ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
The Black Girl Next Door: In Search of Specificity
By Roxanne Fequiere
As a child, Wednesdays were library days. Upon arrival at the old St. George branch of the New York Public Library, my mother would climb the front steps while I insisted on taking the long way up the two-tiered wheelchair ramp, but once we were inside, I’d make an immediate beeline for the children’s room upstairs, leaving her to catch up in her own time. The library was one of the few places my typically high-strung mother deemed safe enough for me to wander freely, and she rarely hovered over me while I sought out new Goosebumps and Nancy Drews or asked for recommendations from Mrs. Black, a kindly, soft-spoken librarian with translucent skin and a gray-streaked bob that I remember as an elderly Olive Oyl come to life. Instead, my mother would make her way to the biography section, pulling titles to supplement the stack of fiction I was compiling on the other side of the room.
When we met in the middle, she’d show me her selections: Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Phyllis Wheatley. The books themselves were thick, their covers depicting unsmiling black-and-white portraits. I sensed that their stories were important, but for a child that devoured fiction—the macabre whimsy of Roald Dahl, the warmth and candor of Judy Blume, the off-kilter humor of Louis Sachar—my mother’s picks felt like homework. Wasn’t my heap of books enough, I protested. My mother would not be moved.
Of course, my mother’s efforts to enrich her young daughter’s reading list with black history and pride were necessary and as an adult, I appreciate those efforts tenfold. In retrospect, however, I can now see the glaring issues embedded in a children’s reading room that only features books with black characters—fictional and nonfictional—enduring some form of oppression.
Perhaps it’s worth nothing that my hometown’s demographics were approaching 80% white during the 1990s, an anomaly for New York City and a statistic that almost certainly played a role in what kinds of books made it onto summer reading lists and local library bookshelves. Still, when I left my hometown for college and became an English major roughly a decade or so later, my syllabi continued to skew heavily white and male.
And so a large portion of my post-college reading has been, in effect, an attempt to catch up—to discover the authors, characters, and narratives that have been overlooked, skipped over, or ignored in favor of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “single story.” Meanwhile, Marley Dias is changing the landscape of school libraries across the country with her #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign, a drive the young reader and activist launched after she grew tired of being assigned books about “white boys and dogs.” (Shiloh. Hatchet. Shiloh Season. Where the Red Fern Grows. Saving Shiloh. I feel your pain, Marley, and I salute you.)
As Marley so beautifully puts it, “Frustration is fuel that can lead to the development of an innovative and useful idea.” After collecting over 9,000 books, she is now the main character and author of her very own book, Marley Dias Gets It Done (And So Can You!). I had Marley in mind when I decided to dedicate the second month of my bookish year to black female protagonists—ones who laugh and thrive, screw up and course-correct, succeed and fail, and simply exist. After all, we each play the leading role in our own lives and literature exists in part to reflect a bit of our own experience back to us, whether something specific or some universal truth. I’ve seen a lot of of the latter. This month, I’m seeking the former.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.