Rediscovering the Black Girl Magic in literature that was snuffed out of my childhood
I had no teacher or authority figure to steer me towards more inclusive authors.
By Jessica Dulaney
All my life I have believed in the magic of literature, but only a few years ago did I witness one of its most incredible tricks – to help me see myself. I am a Black girl who spent a childhood with little access to literature by or about Black girls. I knew of no authors or characters that resembled me on the most explicit level who could encourage me to be more confident in my identity as a Black girl. No one told me those books existed; in fact, my education and upbringing actively hid them from me.
Today, I am grateful to have found literature with representations of Black girls as imaginative, inspiring, and magical.
The subject of representation is fraught with nuance, but the author of the most current literary incarnation of Black girl magic to grace my bookshelf, Dr. Eve L. Ewing, once described on Twitter the type of representation that would have benefited her when she was a child: the visibility of complex, empathetic characters of color. While Ewing wishes she had access to more of these stories as a child, she asserts that she still can benefit from the access she has today, and I share her sentiment.
Indeed, Ewing’s debut collection, Electric Arches, encapsulates many of the literary elements that I needed when I was a little girl – the historical, cultural, and political wonder of Black girlhood and womanhood distilled into ninety-four pages of vibrant artwork, poetry, and prose. Ewing celebrates the communities of the hair salon, the church, and the therapist’s office. She strips racists of their power through magical realism. She creates depictions of Black girls as whole, worthy, and powerful.
Ewing’s vibrant vision of Black girl magic is a far cry from the literature I read growing up, which consistently diminished the stories of Black women and girls.
My evangelical homeschool curriculum focused on white authors like Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder, but never their black contemporaries. This whitewashed, politically conservative approach to literature necessarily eliminated most Black authors who were outspoken about their identities and experiences. One of the few exceptions was Phyllis Wheatley, an enslaved woman who wrote religious poetry and was thus considered ideologically acceptable by my teachers. Her singular appearance in my curriculum made me believe that Black women worth reading were a rarity.
Some of the books I read outside the classroom represented Black women and girls, but only added negative stereotypes to my conception. My bookshelves were full of mystery, science fiction, and young adult novels (many of which were recommended by my curriculum) that excluded or misrepresented people like me if they did not exclude them. In one series, the lone Black girl had a violent temper and an inability to express emotions.
Some books depicted Black girls only as maids or slaves, narratives that are certainly historically accurate and valid but can also feel limiting and discouraging in overabundance or without nuance. Still others featured Black girl sidekicks who spoke in broken slang and only existed to help the white protagonist. In a teenage advice book, the white author dedicated a chapter to hair but dismissed Black girls’ questions, suggesting they ask their mothers for help.
I had no teacher or authority figure to steer me towards more inclusive authors. No matter what I read, I felt like an oddity.
Fortunately, my professors and advisors pushed me towards college classes that introduced me to a wealth of writing by Black women far beyond the confines of my childhood curriculum and teenage library. I read and wrote about authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Zadie Smith, Toni Cade Bambara, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Nella Larson. I attended events with poets like Natasha Trethewey, Rita Dove, and Dominique Christina and bought copies of their books.
I found my literature, and it is vibrant, audacious, outspoken, eloquent, and alive, full of women and girls with fears, challenges, triumphs, secrets, ambitions, and dreams. I return to this literature to understand who I am and who I can be.
The Internet has also played a crucial role in my exploration of Black girl magic in literature. Online outlets like Well-Read Black Girl and Button Poetry, for example, spotlight authors of color, and their active communities recommend even more writers and creators. It was through diverse, bookish communities like these that I found scholar, educator, and artist Dr. Ewing on Twitter a few years ago. Her advice about grad school, quips about pop culture, and inquiries about waffles resonated with me, and I laughed as much as I learned.
As I read through her book Electric Arches, I cannot help but think of my younger self, who never had access to a book like this but needed it desperately. Ewing’s book resonates with my memories of those days in a way that feels like magic. It reminds me of hours spent at my mother’s feet while she braided my hair, the night my aunts stripped greens at the kitchen table, the night we put faux locs in my cousin’s hair, and Easter Sundays in church with my grandmothers.
Ewing’s words could have affirmed so many of my experiences back then. “Shea Butter Manifesto” and “why you cannot touch my hair” could have empowered a younger me to not see my hair as a burden, but as a gift worthy of gentle detangling and coconut oil. The allusions could have helped me fill my library with Black female authors. The magical realism and Afrofuturism could have shown me vibrant, confident representations of people of color.
I could lament the time I spent without books like Ewing’s, but I will not. Instead, I will be grateful for the access I have now have to communities, scholarship, and outlets that create and uplift the stories of Black women and girls, and make sure to provide that access to others when I can. I am still on a journey of growing and learning, and with texts like Electric Arches as my guide, I hope to embody Black girl magic for myself.
Jessica Dulaney is a writer who hails from the state of Mississippi. She has strong opinions on pop culture, politics, and the Oxford comma. She can be found on Twitter at @hullojess and on her website, jessicadulaney.com.