Earlier this year I came across this article about a young girl in New Jersey who was collecting books with black, female protagonists under the hashtag #1000blackgirlbooks. Her name is Marley Dias, and she was tired of reading books about white boys and/or their dogs. We’ve talked in class about representation, both in watching MissRepresentation and with the election. One area we haven’t delved into is literature.
I was that bookworm child who grew up to be an English Lit major. I read everything I could get my hands on as a kid, and luckily I had a mother who made sure that most of what I got my hands on were books with female protagonists. But, like Marley, I hadn’t been exposed to that many books about people of color. We read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in middle school, but that was about it.
It wasn’t until college that I learned how much the study of literature was shaped by the stories of white men. In junior year I took a class entirely devoted to reading Toni Morrison’s novels. It was in that class that I developed a conviction that I not only needed to be reading more books by women and authors of color, but I needed to be actively encouraging others to do so as well. Law school dulled that conviction a bit. So, when I read about Marley’s quest to give other girls that looked like her heroes to read about, I was ashamed to look at the books that I had brought to Davis with me.
I own over 500 books. I had taken a full hour to decide which of my favorites to bring with me. As I looked around my bedroom I saw that of the 15 or so books I had brought along, only 2 novels written by women, and just 1 other was written a non-white man. I was surrounded by books written by middle-aged, white men: Tolstoy, Lewis, Tolkien, Martin. I made a promise to myself to pick out books to diversify my Davis library the next time I visited my parents.
A few months after the article highlighting Marley's bookdrive came out, Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade was released. Of the many responses to the album, my favorite was the Lemonade Syllabus. For it, Candice Benbow sorted through submissions from Twitter of books, poetry, movies, and more that further spoke to the themes of black womanhood that are found in Lemonade. I looked at the list of novels, and didn’t recognize any names beyond Toni Morrison and Zora Neal Hurston. I felt disappointment in myself. Here I was, 3 years after that class in undergrad, without having progressed any further.
So, I renewed my promise, and I challenge you to do the same. Every other (nonacademic) book I read will be written by either a woman or a person of color, preferably a woman of color. So much of what we believe as a culture is formed by so called “classic” stories. But we get to choose what is classic. If enough of us read books by people who are not white men, we can shift the standard, and, hopefully, make it so that there never needs to be another #1000blackgirlbooks campaign.