by Saaraa Bailey
I am often criticized for my love of fiction. However, it is through these tales of “make-believe” that I often find the most truth. As an undergraduate, one of my literature professors told a room of aspiring literary scholars, “When fact meets fiction, its function that matters.”
The function of fiction crafted my ability to think critically, granting me understanding in states of confusion. Particularly, fiction has guided me through the complexities of being black and woman. For it is literature that bridged the intersectionality of my blackness and gender through characters that looked a lot like myself.
While all my reading has been purposeful, some reads have resonated more than others. Specifically, the following three books by black women authors have seasoned my twenties with the tears, triumph, and beauty of a rich, yet understated legacy.
1. Kindred by Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler's Kindred centers on Dana, a 30-year-old, interracially married woman living in California during the 1970s. Dana experiences time travel that introduces her to her great-great-grandmother, Alice. Through time travel, Dana learns that Alice was raped by her slavemaster, Rufus. With a face and husband that looks like her own, Dana is faced with a life that mirrors hers, even if in a vastly different setting.
This is a compelling yet heartbreaking read. Being the product of rape is an often under-discussed facet of blackness, that Butler unveils to unsuspecting readers of her fantastical prose. This novel challenges contemporary complacency, forcing its readers to consider the actual blood, sweat, and tears that were shed by their ancestors for us to exist now.
Butler's Kindred initiated my undergraduate experience, as mandatory reading in my freshman composition course. As a fresh-faced 18-year-old, Kindred challenged my complacency and oblivion to the cruelty that comes with being of color. While Butler herself classified the work as fantasy, she showcases that the fantastical is often anything but.
Although marveling at Butler's talent upon my first read, it wasn't until years later that I was able to conceptualize the value of Kindred. The words of the novel stirred in me like a lesson from my elder, surfacing exactly when they were most needed.
2. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, captures the complexities of childhood. Specifically, the novel tackles coming-of-age and, more importantly, “coming-of-color” for black girls.
The Bluest Eye reads like a female version of Richard Wright's Native Son, where young black girls meet the sometimes harsh reality of living in a black female body. The novel serves as a reminder of how to have conversations about controversial topics. Society is great at bringing topics to the surface, but often fails to discuss why these problems exist. Morrison slices through many complicated layers, not revealing the depth of the cut until the very last word.
The book focuses on three black girls—Claudia, Freida, and Pecola—as they relate to their internalized beliefs about blackness, beauty, and self-worth. In one of many remarkable moments of the text, protagonist Claudia sulks inwardly following an insult gone wrong. She torments long-haired, light-skinned classmate Maureen, in contrast to the admiration she receives from their teachers and peers. She is granted an epiphany when Maureen declares her own beauty in the face of her lethal combination of black and ugliness. In reflection, Claudia realizes that it is not Maureen's beauty that she resents, but what makes her beautiful.
This challenge with finding ourselves beautiful, while living in a society that has constructed beauty to mean anything but black, is one that almost every black girl will face in her time. And Morrison’s novel does a wonderful job getting at the truth of this experience.
3. “The Eye of the Beholder” by J. California Cooper
In documenting this journey, “The Eye of the Beholder” is educational without being preachy. Cooper teaches readers the ambiguity of aesthetics, and most importantly, how to live beyond them. Despite depicting Lily at various stages of her life—alone, in love, and married—Cooper ends Lily’s journey with an unconventional happy ending. Cooper concludes the short story with Lily choosing herself. It is groundbreaking to have a happy ending for a black woman that doesn’t involve her being saved by any man, white or black.
Thus, J. California Cooper’s “The Eye of the Beholder” proves that one can be black, woman, and fulfilled, all on her own.
4. The Wedding by Dorothy West
Written by the last living writer of the Harlem Renaissance almost fifty years after her debut novel, Dorothy West’s The Wedding combines past and present in a fascinating manner. West intertwines African American history into beautiful—and at times restrictive—prose, relaying the events surrounding the much anticipated wedding of Shelby Coles.
Gram, the fair-skinned and light-eyed matriarch of Shelby’s family, proves that old habits die hard, if at all. West soars in the juxtaposition of black women separated by generations, but joined in the palpable problems of being black and woman in a white man’s world.
The Wedding depicts the realities of the black middle class—showcasing those who don’t have to worry about money, yet find themselves unable to escape the confines of blackness even with their financial privilege. From the pressure to maintain a “blue-veined” hue and white collar prestige, The Wedding portrays cringeworthy moments that challenge readers to consider how they too may internalize racism.
Acting as the big sisters that I never had, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, J. California Cooper, and Dorothy West entertained and enlightened my young adulthood by writing works that sought to answer the question of, “What does it mean to be both black and woman?”
While all four writers seek to answer the same question, their novels explore wildly different ways of grappling with an answer. The diversity in depicting black girlhood and black womanhood demonstrate that we are not singular, and because of this, it’s imperative that we all tell our own stories.
Saaraa Bailey is a regular contributor at For Harriet.