Well-Read Black Girl
I was a reader before I was a writer. I fell in love with books when I was seven years old. It was partly a conscious decision, partly not. Stories were doorways that opened to other worlds: It was easy for me to step through the sentences and forget myself, to walk or fly or run or crawl through the unfamiliar, to swim through the magical. I remember grabbing a reading comprehension packet in second grade as my classmates were grumbling about how they loathed doing the work, and I thought: “Everyone hates reading. But not me, I’m going to love it.” And I did.
Wandering my small, one-room elementary school library, I checked out book after book. I read everything: Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries, collections of fairy tales, and children’s biographies of Mary Lou Retton and Prince. By the time I was eight, I had developed a certain taste. I loved books with girl protagonists. It didn’t matter when or where the story was set; if it featured a girl on an adventure, I’d read it, savoring the experience as the heroine lived the kind of life I didn’t. Had the agency I didn’t. I read The Secret Garden, Charlotte’s Web, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Anne of Green Gables, The Hero and the Crown, and Pippi Longstocking. These girls I encountered, whose skin I inhabited, felt like friends.
I believe there are two gifts that writers give young readers. First, they build vividly rendered worlds for readers to fall in love with and fall into. Second, they create characters that are so real, distinct, and familiar to the young reader that the reader has space to imagine him- or herself in that world during the reading and after they are done. When I read my childhood books, I felt a part of those worlds intensely while I was reading. I felt an invisible sister in the narrative. But coming out of the books was hard for me.
Although I could lose myself in the story while I was reading, once I was done with each of those borrowed books, their worlds were closed to me. I wanted to think back on the worlds and the characters and imagine myself in that place, with my sister character again, eating bacon sandwiches with Mary, or hiding in the dumbwaiter with Harriet, but I was never privy to the parting gift of immersion that some books afford readers after turning the final page. I could not exist in their worlds because no one who even looked like me spoke or walked or sang in those worlds—not even peripherally. It was another year of reading before I found the first book that allowed me to imagine I could have a place in it after it ended. But it was a place I did not want to occupy.
In Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Cassie, the heroine, is black and from Mississippi. Her family owns a large, hundred-acre farm during the Great Depression. Her family isn’t rich, but it isn’t poor like mine was, either. One of the chief struggles of the book is Cassie’s family’s effort to keep their land, to keep the material wealth they have as the white people around them attempt to pressure them into selling it. Cassie’s story was just unfamiliar enough to entice me to spend more time with her, to sink into the sisterhood. But as I read on, she became too familiar.
Cassie was as powerless as I was, living in a world of adults and bewildering circumstances, a world rotten with Jim Crow and sharecropping and “night men” and racism. I knew what it was like to be an outsider, to be ostracized for aspects of my identity beyond my control. To listen to white children in my classes tell racist jokes, or to hear stories about kids who said the n-word when they weren’t around black kids—this was one of the hallmarks of my Mississippi childhood. I knew what it meant to feel very small in a large, hostile world. To instinctively understand that racism was a voracious force, a blazing fire, and I knew it demanded submission. I knew what it was to watch a landscape burn, a house blaze and crumble to embers. I knew how to cower, to tremble.
I read to escape, to molt my skin. Something inside of me recoiled from Cassie’s world at the close of the book. I was a child leaning away from a warped mirror in fear of the distortion I saw there, the smile turned to a rictus, the neck elongated, stretched. Cassie’s story made me acutely aware of the fact that in that moment, she inhabited a black body, and so marked, would never be gifted with escape. So much of my horror stemmed from the fact that I recognized Cassie’s face as my own. It was too much.
When I was eight years old, I was obsessed with witches. I read any book with witch, witchcraft, or a vague allusion to magic in the title. I borrowed these books immediately and without reservation. I dressed as a witch every Halloween. I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Witches, Little Witch, Witch Family, Witch Child, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and on. I longed for a reality wherein girls could wield magic. So by the time I found Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, I knew it was for me. A famous witch’s name was in the title of the book: I checked it out. Before I put it in my bookbag, I gazed at the front, doubly transfixed. There was an image of two girls on the cover, fingers linked, caught in mid-twirl. One was short and light, probably white, with a long key hanging from her neck. The other was dark, tall, and skinny: Her face was shaded, her head was tilted up. This girl was black.
The shorter white girl, named Elizabeth, tells the story. This being one of the first narratives I’d read told from the first person, it took some adjusting to figure out that Elizabeth is telling the story as she lives it, and that the opening scene occurs as she is meeting Jennifer, the tall black girl on the cover, for the very first time. Their story begins when Elizabeth is walking to school through a patch of woods. She encounters Jennifer, who is perching on a tree branch. Jennifer speaks to her, demands the cookies Elizabeth is carrying in exchange for her name and conversation, jumps out of the tree, and introduces herself as a witch. Here, I paused, struck by the possibility that Jennifer, a black girl, could be a sorceress. Could harbor the power of magic in her dark, thin frame. What better key for escape from what one is born to than magic? I read on. After a few weeks, the two girls are fast friends: Jennifer is a master witch, and Elizabeth is her apprentice.
This mirror was beautifully blurred. I leaned into it, enchanted. I recognized that girl. Jennifer is an outsider, but she is an outsider mostly of her own making. She stands apart, insisting on her magical abilities, powerful and confident in her difference. On the first day she and Elizabeth meet, it’s Halloween. Jennifer walks across the stage during their pageant with a paper bag over her head, no eyes cut out. She gracefully curtsies in the center of the stage and stalks off. Elizabeth asks Jennifer “why she didn’t wear a mask. She answered that one disguise was enough. She told me that all year long she was a witch, disguised as a perfectly normal girl; on Halloween she became undisguised.”
If Jennifer could be so insistent in her oddity, if she could walk in one reality while living in another, why couldn’t I? Why couldn’t I move through the world and expect it to adjust to me instead of me to it? During recess, I hung upside down from the monkey bars and read books while the blood in my head pulsed and my ears throbbed. I practiced reading and walking without tripping or bumping into anything because this is what Jennifer does.
Not only did I admire Jennifer’s insistence on her difference, I understood completely her love of books, of the written word. She and Elizabeth meet every weekend at the library, where they read and talk about witchcraft and history. Each week, Jennifer takes home a pile of borrowed books in her wagon. She writes poems and passes them off as spells: She and Elizabeth chant them and dance together in the local park, under the trees, in a magical circle drawn around a fountain. Jennifer reads Shakespeare, adores Macbeth for its powerful witches, and attempts to explain the play, rife with power-hungry adults, betrayal, and tragedy, to Elizabeth. Jennifer is such a prolific reader that Elizabeth says:
“Jennifer,” I asked, “what do you ever do besides read?”
She looked up at the sky and sighed and said very seriously, “I think.”
I might not have understood Jennifer’s explanation of Macbeth or many of her other literary allusions as a child, but I respected her reading prowess, her clever wordplay, and the fervor with which she loved words. This girl was a witch AND a reader. I wanted to be her so badly I imagined the mirror turning to an open door that would allow me entry.
And of course, I was continuously overjoyed that Jennifer looked like me. That she was the hero, an indomitable force on the page who was obviously black. Not until I was an adult would I think about the choices the writer, E. L. Konigsburg, had made in writing Jennifer as a black character. I realized that the illustrations on the cover and throughout the book indicate again and again that Jennifer is black, but her blackness is evident only once in the text, when Elizabeth says, “I saw Jennifer’s mother sitting in the audience. I knew it was Jennifer’s mother because she was the only Black mother there.” Konigsburg writes Jennifer without the burdens of racism, of powerlessness. The clarity and restraint of these choices were freeing. When the other children in Jennifer’s class snubbed her, it seemed to me that they did so because she was poor, not because she was black. As a child, I studied Jennifer’s face again and again, always in profile: her snub nose, her marked lips, that chin of hers tilted up. I recognized my face in her profile; in first grade, my class had cast shadows and traced our profiles in cameo illustrations to give our mothers for Mother’s Day. “She could be me,” I thought. “I could be her.”
Jennifer’s hunger was as familiar as her face. Much of Jennifer’s lessons in witchcraft revolve around food. Each week, Jennifer dictates a different food Elizabeth is not allowed to eat, and each week, Elizabeth must bring Jennifer food each day: a boiled egg one week, coffee cake the next. Elizabeth continually notices how skinny Jennifer is, how sparely built. When they trick-or-treat on Halloween, Jennifer acts out an elaborate scheme at each house. She knocks, breathes hard, leans on the doorway, and asks for a glass of water. The adults oblige, and while she is drinking water, they fill her sack with candy. As she leaves the houses, Jennifer dumps her candy into her wagon and then approaches the next house to enact her elaborate play for sympathy again.
As a skinny, knock-kneed kid, I understood what it was to be hungry like Jennifer. As an adult, I see a bit more about Jennifer’s socioeconomic status. Her father, a caretaker for the estate next to the apartment complex Elizabeth lives in with her parents, would not have earned much money. When Jennifer walks home for lunch, I imagine crackers, potted meat, perhaps a filched piece of fruit from the greenhouse her father manages. As a child, I once ate four hot dogs on buns in one meal. I snuck spoonfuls of vanilla ice cream out of a giant container in a deep freezer in my grandmother’s shed. I knew what it was to be poor and hungry, to long for sugar, for fat, for variety. In the scenes Elizabeth did not share, I imagine Jennifer counting her candy, apportioning it so it might stretch the whole year until the next Halloween, the last few pieces of candy gummy with age, sticking to the wrapper, but still hard and sweet at the heart.
When Jennifer isn’t deliberately setting herself apart, she still stands out. As a child, I intuitively understood the undertones of what made Jennifer an outcast among her peers. I understood the fact that her family was poor; my mother was, for much of her life, a maid and caretaker for other people’s children. I understood how alienated Jennifer might have felt as she observed that all the other children she went to school with lived in apartment complexes or homes, and her family lived in a small cottage on an employer’s estate. I understood what it was like to be the only black girl in the room in nearly every room, how that makes one perpetually aware of difference. Perpetually lonely. I understood what would have driven Jennifer to embrace an otherworldly identity for herself, unbound by race or class, in order to curry friendship. I understood what it meant to be black in a white world. That mirror image, achingly sharp at the edges.
But in the end, this book in which I could see myself, wanted to see myself, faltered. The mirror remained a mirror, and it shattered. After an argument over a pet toad and a potions pot, Jennifer admits she is no witch. Whether or not this was Konigsburg’s intention, I was crushed. The two girls carry on as friends, without the ruse of witchcraft or magic to bind them. Jennifer is clever and creative, but she has no special powers, is not gifted with otherworldly ability. She does not crackle with the possibility of agency married to wonder and made manifest in telekinesis or transformation. And ultimately, she is filtered, however admirably, through her friend, but she does not tell her own story. She was not there to answer all the questions I wanted to ask about the books she read, the calligraphy she practiced, the spells she cast. She is without voice. In the end, the Jennifer I recognized, that I fell in love with, the Jennifer who had so much confidence and power, was a mere human. She, too, was bound by her body. The girl I wanted to teach me witchcraft and courage, who I wanted to walk with hand in hand through a chilly northeastern park, did not exist in the book or without.