Black Girl Magic: a term used to celebrate the power, beauty, steadfastness, and resilience of black women. Coined by CaShawn Thompson in 2013 as a hashtag.
Third Question: Do you see your work as an activist tool? Should it? Are we truly the mules of the world as Zora Neale Hurston put it? What are our responsibilities as black female artists to our community?
I personally believe everything a black woman creates—including her children—has activism at its core because daring to create at all is a revolutionary act when you live in a world that often sneers at your existence. The debut I mentioned, DEAR MARTIN (out 10/17/17 hint, hint, wink), tells the story of a boy who is profiled by a police officer while trying to help his white-passing girlfriend one night, and as a result, begins writing a series of letters to Dr. King in an effort to process that experience, among others. Though anyone who reads it will definitely say it’s an activist tool, that wasn’t my intention… I just got sick hearing about of death after death after death of black men, and so I channeled my rage and confusion into something I could control: my writing.
As I stated above, historically speaking, black women have had to wear a number of hats simultaneously without complaining about the weight on their necks. There’s been an expectation of self-sacrifice to the point of abnegation since we first touched down on North American soil, and while we are definitely more in control of our destinies than ever, that “mule” paradigm is too deeply embedded in our psyches to shake it off entirely. As such, I think most of us do feel some sort of obligation to insert activism into our art (“If you have a voice, you MUST use it for the people!”), but in fiction, there’s a fine line between stories people learn from and writing to “teach a lesson,” and I feel that in order for fiction based activism to be effective, it needs to be the former. As such, I think the responsibility we have to our community and the best means of creating art that moves the reader/hearer/viewer without dogmatism are one in the same: we have to be our most authentic selves. No fear, no frills, no filters. Our hurts, healing, frustrations, triumphs, failures, joys, devastations and the like will show up because they’re a part of us.
The Magic will speak for itself.
Nic Stone was born and raised in a suburb of Atlanta, GA, and the only thing she loves more than an adventure is a good story about one. After graduating from Spelman College, she worked extensively in teen mentoring and lived in Israel for a few years before returning to the US to write full-time. Growing up with a wide range of cultures, religions, and backgrounds, Stone strives to bring these diverse voices and stories to her work. Stone lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @getnicced or on her website nicstone.info
ZETTA ELLIOT: I see writing—and self-publishing—as an act of resistance. It’s revolutionary to insist upon your right to speak and have your voice heard; whenever a marginalized person refuses to be silenced, she’s reclaiming her power. I’d say my activism has shifted from critiquing white supremacy in the kid lit community to sharing my publishing expertise with others. I’ve given a few workshops this year on self-publishing, and would love to see someone like Marley Dias (#1000BlackGirlBooks) become an advocate for community-based publishing. Collecting and donating books is important, but teaching Black girls to put their stories out into the world would be truly transformative. I hope that I can serve as an example to young black women; I’m not rich and famous, and I get shunned and/or stigmatized because of the choices I’ve made, but I’m able to maintain my autonomy and define success for myself. I’d love to see more Black girls telling their own stories in their own way.
Are we mules? Only if we allow ourselves to be exploited, and too often I think we do sign up for roles and relationships in which there’s no reciprocity. To borrow a line from the Combahee River Collective, “the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us.” But “a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community…allows us to continue our struggle and work.”
Born in Canada, Zetta Elliott moved to the US in 1994 to pursue her PhD in American Studies at NYU. Her poetry has been published in several anthologies, and her plays have been staged in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. Her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. She is the author of over twenty books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book Bird. Her urban fantasy novel, Ship of Souls, was named a Booklist Top Ten Sci-fi/Fantasy Title for Youth. Three books published under her own imprint, Rosetta Press, have been named Best Children’s Books of the Year by the Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature. Rosetta Press generates culturally relevant stories that center children who have been marginalized, misrepresented, and/or rendered invisible in traditional children’s literature. Elliott is an advocate for greater diversity and equity in publishing. She currently lives in Brooklyn.
TIFFANY JACKSON: Zora was spot on! We, as black women, carry an extra load that really defines us as writers. There’s a special microscope built specifically for our books to inspects its worth on shelves AND if it’s fighting for the cause. You think it’s hard trying to bust through the publishing glass ceiling as woman, try busting through the glass ceiling with the weight of the world on your back! Should every book we publish be an activist tool? Not necessarily.
However, it’s our duty to the community to show both sides of the story, the struggles and the joys.
I do hope my book inspires people to take in depth look at the effects of our children growing up in the system and in juvenile prisons. But just because my book deals with trauma, doesn’t mean I don’t want to also write about carefree black kids.
Tiffany D. Jackson is a TV professional by day, novelist by night, awkward black girl 24/7. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Film from Howard University and her Master of Arts in Media Studies from The New School University. A Brooklyn native, she is a lover of naps, cookie dough, and beaches, currently residing in the borough she loves with her adorable chihuahua Oscar, most likely multitasking. Her debut contemporary YA novel Allegedly (Katherine Tegen Books/Harper Collins) hit shelves January 24th, 2017.
RANDI PINK: Growing up black and female in the South fills every space of my writing, and I will not hold anything back. People need to understand what it means, especially now. My mother and father experienced tangible racism in Birmingham, Alabama. They heard Bull Connor’s horn, drank from colored fountains, and filed their way to the back of buses.
My parents could physically touch the hatred. But for my generation, it’s intangible at times. It’s denied and easily explained away by the trump card — twice elected President Barack Obama. The frustration is building, because we are charged with not only challenging racism, but proving it exists in the first place.
I don’t know if it’s my responsibility to use my writing as an activist tool to articulate that frustration, but if I feel compelled to do that, I am unafraid.
Randi Pink grew up in the South and attended a mostly white high school. She lives with her husband and their two rescue dogs in Birmingham, Alabama, where she works for a branch of National Public Radio. Into White is her fiction debut.
IBI ZOBOI: My work is absolutely an activist tool. I am telling the stories of dark girls and women. Given the historical traumas we’ve faced, from the Middle Passage to domestic violence; from the slums of India and the red light districts all over Europe, to objectification in music videos and sex-trafficking in inner city streets here in the U.S., we were not meant to survive any of it. That level of brutality should’ve wiped us off the face of the planet. But we’re still here. And we are indeed the mules of the world because, as a collective, we’ve been wet nurses, midwives, nannies, working mothers, educators, executives, politicians, groundbreaking entertainers, journalists, and writers all while being told that we are not as beautiful and not as worthy. This is why I respect every black woman’s choice to live their lives according to their own rules—whether it’s to empower other women or to simply empower themselves to heal old wounds. Self-determination is true freedom and we deserve that. That is my responsibility to other black women artists. Do you, booboo! Slay! Win! We deserve all the paper, coins, and glitter. And I absolutely want to be part of this collective “slayage.” It’s our divine right to now hold up the world as we see fit. It’s been pressing down on our backs for much too long.
Ibi Aanu Zoboi was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and is a graduate of the Clarion West Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Her short story, “Old Flesh Song”, is published in the award-winning Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, a collection of African American speculative fiction. Ibi received an award from the Women for her short story “At the Shores of Dawn”, which was published in One?Respe! literary journal. She won a “Tricky Talker of the Year” an annual tall-tale contest presented by the Afrikan Folk Heritage Circle. Her children’s fable, “Mama Kwanzaa & Her Seven Children”, was published in African Voices Magazine. She designed and taught a course on female archetypes in world mythology to the young women of the Sadie Nash Leadership Project where she also taught creative writing and leadership classes and she’s been a volunteer mentor with Girls Write Now, Inc. Ibi presented a paper entitled, “Oya’s Brood: Mythology and the African American Woman” for a symposium on Octavia Butler at the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College. She is a recipient of a grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council for her original program, the Daughters of Anacaona Writing Project, partnering with local organizations Dwa Fanm, Inc. and Haiti in Brooklyn, and Fondasyon Felicite in Haiti to conduct a 3-day workshop with teen girls in Port-au-Prince. Ibi has completed a teen fantasy novel based on Haitian myth and folklore. Her short story “The Harem” is recently published in Haiti Noir, edited by Edwidge Danticat. She’s a recent winner of the Gulliver Travel Grant given annually by the Speculative Literature Foundation and holds an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Ibi lives in Brooklyn with her husband, visual artist and educator Joseph Zoboi, and their three young children.
NADIA HOHN: Yes, I see my work as a tool for activism. I would hope that the work I do has a double-duty. I want my work to entertain young audiences and help them appreciate “patois lite” (what I call the Caribbean inflected language used in my book) but also educate them… sneakily. I can’t speak for other Black women artists in our community but I find that our work to be inherently activist just by the very nature that we are a marginal group, historically faced state-mandated oppression yet we produce work and express ourselves in spite of these limitations. Personally, it is my responsibility to widen the door for the next artist in line. We haven’t made progress if I am “the only one” in whatever field that may be.
From the age of five years old, Nadia L Hohn began writing stories, drawing, and making books. Nadia is the author of the Music and Media books in the Sankofa Series to be published by Rubicon Publishing in 2015. She was awarded the Helen Issobel Sissons Canadian Children’s Book Award for her picture book manuscript, Malaika’s Costume, in 2014. In 2016, Malaika’s Costume was published as a picture book by Groundwood Books and won the 2015-2016 ETFO Children’s Literature Award. Nadia Hohn loves to write (songs, blogs, journals, stories), play piano, cook vegan dishes, travel, study arts and cultures of the African diaspora especially Caribbean folk music, Orff music education, and run. Nadia is an elementary school teacher from Toronto. She is currently working on a middle grade novel and researching biographies. The French translation of Malaika’s Costume will be published in spring 2017 and the sequel, Malaika’s Winter Carnival, in fall 2017.
TAMEKA FRYER BROWN: There is little doubt that the black woman has been saddled with an inordinate amount of the heavy lifting in countless ways throughout history. And while the related concept of community activism is a noble trait that many of us possess, I don’t think black women writers should be unduly fettered by the idea of that responsibility. I believe in writing heart stories – stories that are driven by what is most meaningful and poignant to the author, which may or may not contain activist themes.
Perhaps that is our foremost authorial responsibility: exercising our hard-earned right to freedom of expression.
Tameka Fryer Brown has gone from medical supplies sales rep, to full-time-mom, to children’s book author. Her first title for children is Around Our Way on Neighbors’ Day (Abrams Books for Young Readers). She is the author of My Cold Plum, Lemon Pie, Bluesy Mood (Viking).
BRANDY COLBERT: It’s been hard for me to use the word “activist” in relation to myself and my work, but I’m not sure that’s fair. I absolutely consider activism in art necessary and worthy, and I’ve always related to it. I don’t come from a place where people stage protests or sit-ins, but I did grow up with an older brother who listened to overtly political hip-hop, like Public Enemy, and groups that rapped about the crime, racism, and government neglect in their neighborhoods, like N.W.A. and Ice-T. I’ve been drawn to political and “conscious” hip-hop since I was a little girl, probably because it was the easiest and most honest way for me to process some of the everyday things happening to the black community while living in a very white town.
That’s not to say that art shouldn’t be fun. It can be, and it is, and I listen to plenty of music that doesn’t have much to say about anything important. Same with some books that I choose to read. And I don’t think that we, as black artists, necessarily have the responsibility to tackle political or racial themes in all of our work. But I do believe that art can convey a more palatable message for some people. Like, Oh, this is a dope beat but he’s also talking about police brutality, so maybe I should listen to the lyrics, or, Oh, this is a book about a ballet dancer who comes from a financially comfortable home and stable background, but she still experiences racism in her everyday life. I tend to write about black girls who have what are considered objectively good and fulfilling lives, but I think it’s also important to show that doesn’t make them immune to the harsh realities of society.
Personally, I do feel a responsibility to show the world as it is in my work. Black women are strong and fierce and amazing, and I truly believe most people wouldn’t last a day in our shoes, let alone a lifetime. Sure, sometimes we mess up and we fail and we let people down, and it’s important to show that humanity in books, especially those involving young adults. No one is an actual superhero. But I know that black women pick ourselves back up time and time again, no matter how many people try to bring us down, and it is ultimately empowering to portray that through my art.
Brandy Colbert was born and raised in the Ozarks—more specifically, Springfield, Missouri—and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Missouri State University. Her debut novel, Pointe (Putnam, 2014), won the 2014 Cybils Award for young adult fiction and was named a best book of 2014 by Publishers Weekly, BuzzFeed, Book Riot, the Chicago Public Library, and the Los Angeles Public Library. She was also chosen as a Publishers Weekly Flying Start for spring 2014. Her forthcoming work can be seen in the upcoming anthologies Summer Days & Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories, Feminism for the Real World, and Triangles: The Points of Love. Her second novel, Little & Lion, will be released in spring 2017 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Brandy lives in Los Angeles where she works as a copy editor for magazines and books. Her writing is represented by Tina Wexler at ICM Partners.
RENÉE WATSON: One of my favorite Nina Simone quotes is when she says, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians. As far as I’m concerned, it’s their choice, but I choose to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself…at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved…”
This quote is hanging in my writing space and is in so many ways, my personal call to action. It keeps me focused and grounded in why I write and the larger purpose for being a storyteller. I hope parents, educators and community organizers use my work to talk about social justice issues with the young people in their lives. That is definitely one of the reasons why I write.
When I am visiting schools, I have explicit conversations about race and class with young people. I talk with young people about injustice. But that may not be another author’s approach and I think it’s harmful to be judgmental about how someone chooses to engage in activism. While explicit conversations and art that explores social issues are necessary, there is something to be said for the power of having black female characters exist in books that are not about them being black, that are not tackling serious topics. I’d love to see more black female protagonists in fantasy, magical realism, and sci-fi. Our girls should see their reflection in romantic comedies, in graphic novels. I think it’s important to expand what we think of when we hear the word activist or think about the term social justice. When I think about these terms in relationship to writing for children, I think about the issue of representation and the responsibility of black authors to show our young people—and in this case, young black girls—in a myriad ways of being.
In regard to the quote from Their Eyes Were Watching God, the symbol of the mule to portray the experience of black women in the United States is both powerful and disturbing to me. She compares the two, saying the black woman is also “worked tuh death,” “ruint wid mistreatment,” and so strong she can carry unbearable “loads” that no one else is willing to carry. This metaphor could be seen as derogatory or as a testament to our resilience. Reading this quote in the context of writing for young black girls reminds me that, yes, black girls are strong, yes we are “magic,” but it comes at a price. There is a danger in accepting these metaphors as default positions and absolutes. The pressure to be all and do all for everyone, to be perfect, to never show weakness, is not healthy emotionally and mentally. As a writer of realistic fiction, I have characters carrying the heavy “loads” of domestic violence, gentrification, loss of community due to natural disaster, poverty, and growing up in a single parent home. Because of this, I write in scenes where characters go to counseling, lean on the wisdom of the elders in the community, and use art as a way to express their pain and anger. As Jesse Williams so passionately declared, “…just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.” We need stories that show black girls living real lives, showing black girls coping, surviving, healing, thriving.
Renée Watson is the author of This Side of Home (Bloomsbury 2015), which was nominated for the Best Fiction for Young Adults by the American Library Association. Her books have received several honors including an NAACP Image Award nomination in children’s literature for her picture book Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills. Her novel, What Momma Left Me, (Bloomsbury 2010), debuted as the New Voice for 2010 in middle grade fiction. Her one-woman show, Roses are Red Women are Blue, debuted at the Lincoln Center at a showcase for emerging artists. One of Renée’s passions is using the arts to help youth cope with trauma and discuss social issues. She has worked as a writer in residence for several years teaching creative writing and theater in public schools and community centers throughout the nation. Her articles on teaching and arts education have been published in Rethinking Schools and Oregon English Journal. She is a team member of We Need Diverse Books and currently teaches courses on writing for children at Pine Manor College. Renée has given readings and lectures at many renowned places, including the United Nations Headquarters and the Library of Congress. In 2015 she was honored with the STEAM award for her work in arts education by Inner City Foundation of New York, Inc. Renée grew up in Portland, Oregon and currently lives in New York City.
OLUGBEMISOLA RHUDAY-PERKOVICH: Black women bear a heavy burden in today’s societies around the world. And we bear it in all of its beauty, with the joy, the pain, and the murkiness in between and beyond. In terms of my work as a writer: I have a responsibility to respect my readers, to try to offer them my best work, to learn from my mistakes, to write with love, and to be loving toward other Black women artists (which doesn’t always mean to be in agreement with them). I think we should all be activists, doing our part to move this world toward a more just one, and I think we can have the freedom to express that in different ways.
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is the author of the middle-grade novel 8th Grade Superzero (Scholastic, 2010), co-author of Two Naomis with Audrey Vernick, and contributor to the anthologies Break These Rules (Chicago Review Press, 2013), Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices (Candlewick Press, 2013), and Imagine It Better: Visions of What School Might Be (Heinemann Educational Books, 2014). Her work has appeared in Scholastic Instructor, American Baby, and Healthy Kids, among others, and she has been a contributing editor to the teen publications Word Up! and Right On. She has taught at the Brooklyn New School, the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, and Cornell Cooperative Extension, and she is an Alumni Admissions Ambassador for Cornell University. She holds a B.S. from Cornell University and an M.A. from New York University.
LEAH HENDERSON: I feel that you ultimately have to tell the story that is in your heart. And for me, those stories will always be shaped in some way by my own experiences and those of others around me, at least in part. Even if a dash of magic is sprinkled in, I want my characters to remind me of the world that I see and the one I hope for. That being said, do I see my work as an activist tool? No, not directly, but when my black characters show a trait or possibility that so many in my past have said ‘you cannot’ or ‘you do not possess’, I am speaking for those kids who heard the same words, to let them know, “You can” and “You do possess” these gifts.
As the ones who came before me carved a way for me to experience many of the things I’ve been blessed to do, it is essential for me to continue showing others possibilities through my words and through my lens on the world.
When I was in high school, there were these coveted positions for seniors, and I remember sitting in a room, helping to decide who might have a chance at one of the spots for the following year. There was one black name in the pile and I fought fiercely to keep it there when others wanted to discard the application without even a second glance. In the end, people came around and that name was able to remain, simply for the chance to compete.
When those few selected students were allowed to present in front of a room of their peers why they deserved to be elected, I was so happy to see the person I’d spoken up for be given a chance to let their voice be heard. Once the final votes were in, that name I’d fought so hard for was at the top.
At the end, I remember thinking that if I hadn’t spoken up, this possibility would never have been. It showed me the importance of giving voice to things that matter, regardless of how daunting, scary, unpopular, or impossible it might seem. And even if words fall on deaf ears, continuing to speak for those who might come after me is essential. At that young age, I saw firsthand the power of voice and helping to pave a path for another.
I have never forgotten that.
So I hope that my stories reflect that desire to give voice to those that are often overlooked or whose voices go unheard. I have been blessed with the opportunity to write, and I do not want to squander that gift or ignore celebrating the richness of the black experience in all its shapes and forms.
I believe it is my responsibility to continue shedding a light on a culture that is often misinterpreted and misunderstood. A culture that is judged, before it is appreciated. A culture that is trendy when others adopt some of our practices and scorned in the face of ignorance. Too often we, especially our children, are robbed of our value. So yes, I feel a duty to shine a light on the beauty of our experiences. But I also feel a duty to tell stories that simply show us living and having fabulous adventures whether on city streets, dirt paths, or on a magical star!
Leah has always loved getting lost in stories. When she is not scribbling down her characters’ adventures, she is off on her own, exploring new spaces and places around the world. She hopes these experiences help add layers of richness to her writing.
Leah received her MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University and currently calls Washington D.C. home. Her middle grade novel, One Shadow On the Wall (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster), is due out June 6th, 2017. You can find Leah’s book on Goodreads. And can also follow her on twitter @LeahsMark. One of the many places she is trying to leave her mark on the world one sentence at a time.