In 1973 Rosa Guy’s YA novel The Friends [read the original Horn Book review here] electrified the world of African American children’s books. The Friends was one of the first novels for teens to tell a distinctly African American story, highlighting issues of race, class, and identity that black children deal with on a daily basis. The protagonist, Phyllisia, navigates an urban landscape and its dangers, from violence to racism and beyond. In her New York Times review, Alice Walker called The Friends an “important book,” and to support this designation, she drew readers’ attention to the state of the world of literature, in which it was possible for a black girl to go the first twenty years of her life without reading a story with a “person like herself” as the protagonist.
Fast-forward forty years, and novels for black teens now claim their share of the market. Comedy. Drama. Romance. Poetry. Historical. Literary. Popular. From Monster by Walter Dean Myers to Coe Booth’s Kendra to the Drama High books by L. Divine to the lyrical novels of Jacqueline Woodson and Angela Johnson, there is a wide spectrum of books written for, or about, black teens. And yet as a teenager growing up in this era of increased visibility, I had the same experience as the young black girl Walker described — the one who never saw herself in books.
When I was a teenager in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was into Sailor Moon, the Spice Girls, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but most of all I loved to read. I didn’t normally read African American children’s or young adult novels. I found those too gloomy. Instead I primarily read romance novels from Harlequin’s black romance imprint, Kimani Arabesque.
The reason I chose to read these books was not for the plots, which, let’s face it, were in most cases convoluted and predictable. Nor did I choose to read them for the sex, although that was a bonus. I read these books because they were the only ones I could find with regular middle-class black people leading lives to which I could relate and aspire.
I had a relatively typical middle-class upbringing. I lived in urban Minneapolis in a Tudor home that needed a lot of work but had potential. Sometimes I rode my bike to visit my best friend two blocks up, but I spent the majority of my days with my nose in a book. I went to a college preparatory school for middle and upper school, which I appreciated because all of the other kids there were as energized about learning as I was. In other words, I was a geek.
I spent a lot of time in the library, where I found plenty of novels about black teen girls — black teen girls getting abused, black teen girls getting pregnant, black teen girls getting exploited. (The best-known example of the books I was finding is probably Sapphire’s 1996 novel Push, made into the film Precious.) Like The Friends, each of these books tells an authentically African American story. But though I was supposed to be able to relate to these books because the characters looked like me, they did not tell my story.
With a few exceptions, the existing body of African American young adult literature focuses on the urban poor and the issues they face. In All the Right Stuff by Walter Dean Myers, a drug lord attempts to recruit the protagonist into a life of crime. I can’t relate to that. The title character in Coe Booth’s Kendra is a fourteen-year-old girl who fears teenage pregnancy so instead has oral sex around school with her best friend’s love interest — a guy she does not particularly like or care about. I can’t relate to that. In Broken China by Lori Aurelia Williams, the title character is a thirteen-year-old single mother who loses her baby to a fluke infection and is pressured by a predatory funeral home owner into beginning a career as a stripper. I can’t relate to that, either.
My aim is not to suggest that these types of books should not exist. Many of these books are beautiful and sensitively written, and they tell stories that need to be told. I also don’t want to suggest there are not books that break this pattern. One of my favorite books of all time, The Road to Memphis by Mildred Taylor, concerns a landowning black family in the 1950s. More recently 37 Things I Love (in no particular order) by Kekla Magoon tells the story of middle-class Ellis, whose major conflict is coming to terms with the idea that her father is in a coma and may never wake up, but also deals with more universal issues such as friendship and identity.
Still, it seems as if books written for black teenagers disproportionately feature poor families and their struggles to achieve fundamental needs. So even forty years after Walker’s review of The Friends, there are still black girls and boys who have spent the first twenty years of their lives without reading novels featuring characters like themselves.
The conflation of blackness with urban poverty is not something that occurs only in literature. In Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America, John L. Jackson Jr. discusses the “performative” nature of blackness. Jackson argues that though black Americans are from a variety of different backgrounds, they perform the culture of “Harlemworld,” which ascribes blackness overall to the culture of impoverished urban blacks. This conception of homogenous blackness has worked itself into depictions of African Americans to the point that it’s hard to find images that don’t conform to this idea. As a teenager I searched for books that dealt with the isolation I felt as one of the only black students at my school. What I found instead were stories about teenage mothers who could barely read. My inability to relate to the black protagonists in the books made me feel like I wasn’t black enough, and in the deepest parts of me I even wondered if this image was all I was expected to be. Now I know there is not just one way to be black.
Can we please see more black geeks in African American young adult literature? More protagonists who are so worried they’ll never date that pregnancy isn’t even an issue? More black teens living mundane middle-class lives? Just because urban ghetto life is one black story, it doesn’t mean that it’s the only story. As groundbreaking a novel as it was, can we move beyond The Friends?
From the January/February 2013 Horn Book Magazine.