Joshunda Sanders | Longreads | November 2018 | 10 minutes (2,718 words)
More than three years ago, in July 2015, Glory Edim sent her first Well-Read Black Girl newsletter, describing how she came to personally experience Black Girl Magic for the first time: through an “enchantment with storytelling” that began with Eloise Greenfield’s Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems.
Greenfield’s first book of poems, Honey, I Love was initially published in 1978 before subsequent reissues and has become a modern-day classic. Long before renewed calls for representation and increased diversity in children’s literature, Greenfield wrote a picture book inspired by the title poem alone. It was illustrated by Diane and Leo Dillon and features a Black girl on the cover — in part because, though Greenfield went on to write 40 books, she was unable to find books for her own children to read and see themselves in before she wrote her own.
“I liked that phrase, ‘Honey, let me tell you,’” Greenfield said in a 1997 National Council of Teachers of English profile. “It was a phrase that was used a lot by African American people, but it had not reached the point where it had become stereotyped. So I wanted to use that, and that’s where the title came from. And I wanted to write about things that children love, about childhoods where there may or may not be much money, but there’s so much fun.”
These sentiments from Greenfield — taking a Black expression usually uttered with intimacy between women and making it a public affirmation of love centered on children — shaped for Edim a landscape of possibility. “I recognized myself immediately on the page;” Edim writes, “a Black girl with wide eyes, full lips, and thick braided hair. The book was my first introduction to poetry that was full of rhythm and everyday language. I was delighted to learn that my trip to the grocery store could be a poem.”
At five years old, Edim was proud to be Black. It set her on a path that would lead her to establish a lifelong ritual of reading as self-discovery — from Greenfield to “authors like Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou – and many more…their books and profound literary legacy have become my inheritance.”
What Edim has done with that inheritance is beyond impressive. While she was working for a start-up, she published a bi-weekly newsletter, grew a Brooklyn book club, a sizeable social media presence, crowdfunded, organized and successfully created an annual festival and gathered the beautiful work of some of the most famous American writers of our time into a distillation of an experience that is hard to do justice to without giving any author short shrift.
Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves, edited by Edim, is both very much of our times and will resonate far beyond it. It is located squarely in a classic American tradition of letters, featuring writers whose work is rarely made visible with proper context, reverence or reference. From the internationally-recognized authors — Jacqueline Woodson, Tayari Jones, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Jesmyn Ward, Rebecca Walker to name just a few — to a few lesser known names, it is at once both a political statement and an apolitical one. Edim puts it best:
“Maya Angelou, and the rest of the inspiring authors I’ve encountered throughout my life, have taught me that, as Black women, we define ourselves for ourselves… We are not looking for anyone else to give us validation; because we have each other… Instinctively, Black women writers have always had to take care of ourselves. Creating our own limitless boundaries, whether we explore taboos, stereotypes, the theoretical idea of love, or the literary cannon itself. We are writing ourselves into spaces that neglect or ignore us. Headstrong. A necessary quality to withstand the losses and celebrate the victories.”
Well-Read Black Girl’s first Instagram post in May 5, 2015 garnered 62 likes. To give you a sense of how much the community has grown, an Instagram post with a photograph of a stack of the brilliant blue spines of the new anthology had more than 10,000 likes from her community’s more than 144,000 followers as of this writing. The book was published on October 30th, ahead of the second annual Well Read Black Girl Festival, which will be held in Brooklyn on November 10th.
“Well-Read Black Girl is growing — so many of the conversations before were online and social media. Now there’s the festival, there’s a book you can hold, it’s tactile,” Edim said. “I’m really proud of it. I want the festival to be a lifelong thing. I’m thinking about what the organization will look like in five years or 50, something that will have longevity beyond me. Now, I’m thinking in generations. I’m really excited to see how this will change the legacy of black womanhood, as a lens for Black women across the African Diaspora.”
Joshunda Sanders: You say in the introduction that this anthology represents your inheritance of a profound literary legacy. Was that daunting to bring to bear in this collection?
Glory Edim: The word ‘daunting’ feels accurate, because I feel a responsibility to my community, as well as the authors and literary scholars I admire. One of the scholars I look to when it comes to Black women’s writing is Toni Cade Bambara, editor of The Black Woman: An Anthology. That anthology was such a major inspiration for the Well-Read Black Girl. A lot of the major black women writers we look to today — Alice Walker, Audre Lorde — were published in that anthology. They were the brightest and the best. I wanted an anthology that would feel as timeless. I wanted you have the same sense of reassurance, of Black excellence, whether you’re reading it in 2018 or 2050.
I re-read The Black Woman anthology and looked at its structure because I wanted people to be thinking about how they can reimagine what the Black literary canon looks like through reading this anthology. There are so many places where we are undervalued and undermined.
This was also my first time going from reader to editor. I wanted to understand how to go from being inspirational to being accessible.
The Well-Read Black Girl Book Club and organization is useful for pushing the conversation forward around publishing, and making sure publishing is more equitable, that there is not only symbolic representation, but that there is depth and analysis.
Tell me what your thoughts were regarding the cover.
Two things served as inspiration for me. (Influential Harlem Renaissance artist) Aaron Douglass — who worked with Zora Neale Hurston — and (acclaimed sculptor and printmaker) Elizabeth Catlett who worked with the Black Panther movement. A lot of their work was in black and white but even the woman on the color feels very symbolic of our community. It’s a feeling of adoration. Just a beautiful image, you can look at with intense pride.
I learned a lot about those those two artists in college at Howard University. I was constantly seeing their images. They’re part of my subconscious. I see that, I see myself.
I try to reflect that mindset on my Instagram page, with words that feel really grounding. The things that I reflect or write about on social media or Instagram, they’re what I’m talking about in the community. It feels personal because it’s what I lean on for personal therapy and sustenance. I never want to downplay how much words can inspire and help motivate. I imagine they help others in the same way.
How did you go about selecting the writers for the collection and what was that process like?
I’ve worked with a number of the writers over the years in some capacity. Tayari Jones is a dear friend and mentor. Zinzi Clemmons and Kaitlyn Greenidge, like a lot of the writers in the collection, had books that were part of the WRBG Book Club. Some were rather intuitive. There were some that were phenomenal writers on my wish list that I was hoping would say yes. Jesmyn Ward is on that list as is Rebecca Walker and Lynn Nottage. They are my own version of a Hail Mary pass.
With Lynn Nottage, we follow each other on Instagram and Twitter. She was very gracious when I asked her to write for the anthology. The same thing is true about Jacqueline Woodson. I’ve done panels with her before, I’ve gone to her house for fundraisers. Jacqueline is such a stellar role model for women because she makes time even though she’s terribly busy. Even the day I interviewed her, she was accepting the Astrid Lindgren award (the biggest international award in children’s literature). My friend Carla Bruce-Eddings has her first piece in the book. My friend Bsrat Mezghebe, who wrote about Roald Dahl, contributed a phenomenal piece on childhood trauma. We’ve known each other since childhood. The anthology is a mix of women who are established, and have incredible bodies of work and other women who are at the start of incredible writing careers.
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What was your instruction to the writers in terms how they should think about framing their exploration of their relationship to reading/writing for the anthology?
When I was curating this, I kept it simple and open-ended on purpose. I asked, “What is your origin story? It could be a story from childhood, from yesterday, an a-ha moment. When did you first see yourself in literature?” That allowed all the writers to tell their own truths. Like with Barbara Smith, writing about her upbringing and James Baldwin’s funeral — everyone had a different beginning. I was very clear about every author having a different direction.
Even with that instruction, I had concerns that everyone would give me an essay about Toni Morrison, but that didn’t happen. There are a number of references to Toni Morrison but they are so different — Tayari Jones and Nicole Dennis-Benn take different approaches to her work.
It all came together so beautifully, I couldn’t have predicted it. I very much left it open to the author to ask me questions. They each knew what they wanted to write about immediately.
Did you ask them to provide lists of their favorite titles by black women?
All the recommendations (in the anthology) were my lists of books that I have bookmarked, that I’ve read in the past and books that I refer to often, that I’ve read multiple times or were on my syllabus in college. That’s where the book lists came from, along with members of the book club. Then we pulled out every book that the writers mentioned in their essays.
How did you narrow down your own lists of books?
I’m working on my own memoir project and I’ve been going through old journals and my old yearbook photos… Reconstructing my childhood and thinking about all the things that happened. By making a finite list, an amalgam of my lists, I also pulled from a books-that-I-returned-to list.
I am not ‘the Well-Read Black Girl’; you’re all the Well-Read Black Girls. We are all well-read black women. It’s an empowering term that is a call to action.
You’re a curator, which is a word that is very much of this time, but you’re also a writer yourself and working on a memoir now, as you mentioned. How do you navigate these identities and the complexities of them so well both online and off? Could you talk about the importance of doing that?
I have been wrestling with that — am I a writer, an artist or… a cultural practitioner? I have been thinking about titles. It comes down to identifying myself and how I want to present myself in the world. Even the word entrepreneur — that word has been floating in my head — because I am running a cultural organization.
There’s so much duality in my personhood. I’m learning how to articulate that in public and be comfortable with it. I went from being a community organizer to being an editor.
There are different parts of my personal and professional life. One of my greatest gifts is being an advocate and doing my best to cheer people on. I’ve been looking at the milestones at my life, it’s always been community, always uplifting others, helping them find their greatest strengths. I’ve been privileged to find that space and work well for other people — I did that at a start-up, I did that for government. Now I’m learning to do that for myself, and it’s been a long time coming.
I love listening to other people’s stories, and now, I have to pose those questions to myself. The anthology was challenging to put together, but the memoir is a different challenge — but I’m ready to do it.
You’ve traveled the world evangelizing about black women reading and writing as a kind of vocation — what have been some things you’ve valued about this journey? Some things that were surprising?
There are so many parts that have been valuable: Building relationships with members of the book club, with authors and having mentorships that have been incredibly rewarding. I’ve been surprised that making book suggestions is powerful. It’s a way of people giving you authority and expertise.
People have entrusted me as a public figure and it makes me feel like I have a huge responsibility. But I also feel very honored that people have put their faith in me.
The other surprising thing is the nonlinearness of this. A lot of people ask me “How did you do it?” I don’t have a response to that. I would say be open to opportunities. Be open to working with others. Be generous.
Life has been super multidimensional. I’ve worked at a theater company, I’ve worked at a start-up. With the exception of some careers — lawyer, doctor…there’s a straight line to those careers. If you want to be a creative with a practice rooted in being curious, a lot of the examples I find inspiration in are plays. Looking at the stage, listening to actors and the words coming from their mouths. That intense focus on one thing. Building that platform.
It’s not the only thing that informs me… I’m surprised by all of it. How did this happen? It’s a mix of timing and opportunity. It’s not one thing that projected me to this stage. If I said it was just one thing that would be pretentious of me.
I had a passion that I was excited about for me and my friends. I thought, “How is this useful? To me, to other people?” The moment it feels like it’s not worthwhile, I’ll have to pivot. Having the Well-Read Black Girl Book Club and organization is useful for pushing the conversation forward around publishing, and making sure publishing is more equitable, that there is not only symbolic representation, but that there is depth and analysis. Because I am “not part of publishing” I didn’t study creative writing, I didn’t go to an MFA program, I’m even wary of the word ‘curator’ — I see that word to be watered down. I also have respect for people who study curation — me putting books on my Instagram feed is a small level of that.
I value so much of this as a first generation Nigerian-American woman. I also want to encourage progressive action. When I do book selections now, I want readers to know that reading can be activism; that literature can tie to social justice.
Like The Training School for Negro Girls by Camille Acker or Charlene Carruthers’ Unapologetic, a radical mandate about what it means to be a Black queer feminist woman. I want to encourage Black women and girls, wherever you are, to speak up and tell your story.
I am not “the Well-Read Black Girl”; you’re all the Well-Read Black Girls. We are all well-read black women. It’s an empowering term that is a call to action.
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Joshunda Sanders is an author working on her first novel. She lives and works in the Bronx, NY.
Editor: Dana Snitzky