I’ve been casually following the Well-Read Black Girl Instagram account for a while, but my financially conscious brain was winning when the book first came out, so I didn’t buy it right away. That said, when I saw that this anthology was on display at my local bookstore on the Black History Month table I couldn’t resist. Part of the reason I was so interested in this text (and the Instagram account in the first place) is that I haven’t always considered myself to be that much of a well-read black girl, at least not when it comes to black literature.
Certainly I am familiar with much of the traditional Western canon; I’ve read Homer, Ovid, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wilde, Dickens, Hemingway, Salinger, Orwell, and I could go on naming dead white men, but unfortunately enough, I didn’t read very many books written by black authors, particularly black female authors. The only female author who wrote about women and whose work I knew and loved was Jane Austen, and she was white. (I also read and loved Harry Potter, as would be impossible not to notice, but that was also written by a white woman and about a white boy, and rather unfortunately many people still don’t consider it literature, but we are getting beyond tangential here).
This trend continued into college — I was one of those people whose secondary major formed around them. I started Brandeis intending to major in Linguistics and minor in Creative Writing, but each semester I also ended up taking classes in other disciplines, and by Thanksgiving of senior year realized that I had inadvertently completed the major in European Cultural Studies. I don’t think that it’s necessarily a bad thing to be interested in what I am interested in, and I was happy to be an ECS major, but what was unfortunate was what got me there and what got me interested. Growing up I had internalized the idea that to be cultured and knowledgeable I had to first ground myself in the Western canon, and to count myself as educated I needed to be familiar with European thought at the center of my philosophy. It’s complete bullshit of course, but it’s what I’m ashamed to say that I thought for a long time.
This year (2019) Brandeis celebrated 50 years of the AAAS (African and African American Studies) department and I was wistful and disappointed with myself for not engaging more with my blackness with a more rigorous and academic lens, for all that I have found myself reading more black literature outside of the academic context. I have become determined to become more well-read outside of the eurocentric context I grew up in, and when you take all that in, I think it becomes obvious why I was drawn to Well-Read Black Girl.
This anthology brings together a cast of strong women writers from varying backgrounds who each contributed an essay about an aspect of themselves that was close to each of their hearts, that of reading and writing. One essay in particular that called to me was “Her Own Best Thing” by Tayari Jones, which reminded me of the value of returning to a text and how the layers of a book shift depending on what space you are in when you read it — physically, mentally, emotionally and temporally. Other essays that I particularly enjoyed were Jacqueline Woodson’s “Continue to Rise”, “To Be a Citizen” by Morgan Jerkins, and “Amazing Grace” by Carla Bruce-Eddings. Each of these 21 narratives were beautiful and unique and soul-provoking, and I don’t think I could possibly do them each justice in one review. What I will say was that many of the essays focused on a particular book or books, and many were done in such a way that my to-be-read list has now been readjusted once again, though to be honest, that happens quite frequently. Some of the essays also brought back fond memories of books that I have read and enjoyed and kept close to my heart, and that element of nostalgia is also something that I savor in this text.
And yet I found myself distressed upon completing and contemplating this book and realizing that all of these strong women writers were not from such a unique series of backgrounds as I thought they were, because all descriptions in the book and all of my Google sleuthing has indicated to me that each of them is a cis woman. To my disappointment with myself, this wasn’t something that I realized right away. My original hot take was “Reading Well-Read Black Girl, reading the loving passion that was poured into every page, felt like coming home. A safe kind of comfort in the idea that there are women who are like me and who are different from me, and regardless we all belong and all have a space in which we can feel and be represented.” It was upon reflection that I realized that nowhere in the text did I remember coming across a single mention of a trans woman. I googled all of the contributors, examining their public profiles and Wikipedia pages if they had them, and at least on a surface level they seem to all be cis women, and even though there are many that are queer in the sense that they are non-heterosexual, I was dismayed to discover that this book that I loved so much had let me and every well-read black girl down by being cisnormative, because cissexism is toxic and terrible for everyone, especially trans folk of course, but cis folk as well.
I can tell that this is a book of essays that I will return to more than once, but with the knowledge that the narrative it tells is exclusionary and incomplete, despite its great potential. The content of the essays aside, the physical book is aesthetically very nice to have and hold. Each contributor has a small illustration that accompanies the title of her essay, outlined in black with a splash of orange. Interspersed between every three essays is a list of recommended reads for the well-read black girl, many of which I am pleased to see that I have at this point read, although as I said before there are also plenty new recommendations for me to explore. Also included in the back is a helpful list of every book that is mentioned in the anthology, including those recommended and those mentioned by the contributors in their essays.
I did enjoy Well-Read Black Girl, but I find it to be an imperfect text in a way that I find deeply concerning. I’m no longer as comfortable in the home I found for myself within it. The thing is, Well-Read Black Girl told me what to do about this very issue from the first essay in the book by Jesmyn Ward. The essay, “Magic Mirrors,” reflects on how we find ourselves a home that lasts after we close the last page of a book, and she notes that she never found that place until she wrote her own story.
So I guess I know what I gotta do now.
Let the record show that this is a pre-written post and I was caught up with my homework when I read this book and wrote this review over February break. ✌🏾