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  • Writer's pictureRachel Davies, Megan Griffin, and Kate Schenck

On Stories Celebrating Black Joy and Love

We are always reading on the side here at Her Voice at the Table, and this week we want to spotlight some of our favorite texts about Black joy and love: from the silly to the sacred. The novels below crossed our paths for different reasons–a friend’s recommendation or general happenstance, for example–but most are the result of our ongoing journey to enrich and reimagine our curriculum with voices that more appropriately reflect our world.

We have frequently posted about some of the various moments on this collective journey: Kate’s well-being work on identity that prepares her freshmen for more focused conversations about racial identity during their junior year; Rachel’s work to build a classroom community vernacular, a process which gives students the language as well as the linguistic tools necessary to have (difficult) conversations about race; Megan’s work pairing classic and contemporary texts to avoid perpetuating single stories; and our shared work on our American literature curriculum that has included reimagining the course through the lens of antiracism, finding art and beauty in Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, and the Citizen Rhetor Project (from its humble beginnings to its current state that concludes with a public symposium), a research unit that offers a space for students to build empathy and practice writing and speaking about contemporary issues that are often rooted in systemic racism.

We are grateful students of the ongoing public conversation, especially in teacher circles, about going beyond trauma stories when we feature Black voices in our classrooms. Our goal has shifted from asking “Whose stories and voices are we featuring?” to “Whose stories and voices are we featuring, and how?” All types of stories are needed, but what follows is a collection of some of our most recent favorites by Black authors, stories that highlight joy and love.

Within days of each other, both my school librarian and my junior advisee recommended Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, the first of two (but eventually three) in The Legacy of Orïsha series: my librarian declared it one of the best YA Fantasy books she had ever read and my advisee waxed poetic about how it was a new, reimagined Harry Potter–but better. This novel lived up to the hype, and as I type this review, Paramount has recently landed the rights to the series, with Adeyemi penning the screenplay and acting as an executive producer. So if you have not yet heard of this book series, steady yourself for an impending media blitz that will inevitably compare it to not just Harry Potter but also Percy Jackson, The Hunger Games, or The Grisha Trilogy.

Tomi Adeyemi

The story, inspired in part by West African mythology and Yoruba language and culture, follows the orphan Zélie Adebola in her quest to restore magic to the Orïsha kingdom. For years, her people, the maji (practitioners of magic) have been brutally suppressed by the ruling class, the kosidáns, and Zélie has lost nearly everything, including her murdered father and mother, to their violent rule. In the author’s note at the end, Zoboi connects Zélie’s pangs of hopelessness to the hopelessness she herself has felt in the face of police shootings of Black Americans, telling readers that "if [they] cried for [one of the characters in the book, redacted to avoid spoilers]...cry for innocent children like Jordan Edwards, Tamir Rice, and Aiyana Stanley-Jones.” In merging the mythological with the real, Adeyemi grounds us in the stark reality of a world divided by class, race, and difference–but in her cool, headstrong heroine Zélie, she creates a space for hope. -MG

In preparation for a senior level course on mythology and modernity called Gods Behaving Badly, I was searching for modern adaptations to share with my students. Along the way, I was delighted to find not only a book of modernized love myths, but Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold, by British-Nigerian “romcomossieur” Bolu Babalola. In a post about amplifying and celebrating Black joy, it is hard to overstate the joy of reading this anthology of mythology from around the world (from magical folktales of West Africa to Greek myths re-imagined to Middle Eastern stories to several new tales of love). As I was reading, it took me three stories to realize why this joy was so pervasive: no glorification of women’s trauma!

In the medium of mythology, which I had been consuming avidly since I was 7 years old, I realized that I had scarcely ever encountered myths not only narrated by women, let alone women of color, and never myths devoid of the passive female trauma that too often is allowed to drive plot. In this anthology, none of the drama, nuance, or (most of all) love is lost. Yet each of these characters (both those familiar to me, and those who I am now seeking out stories of as avidly as I dug through D’Aulaire’s illustrated mythology as a child) maintains her agency, her power, her voice. Scheharazade is still a storyteller without a sword hanging over her head. Psyche’s curiosity is not her curse. Osun does not need to be rescued to own her power and excellence.

I cannot think of a better book to remind me as a teacher that stories do not need to be built on trauma to be true and good and lovely. -RD

I am no longer ashamed to admit it: I will willingly read or watch pretty much anything in the romantic comedy genre, especially during those times in the teaching year when a dose of escapism seems necessary for survival (read: the weeks leading up to Christmas, any day in February, and any month during a pandemic). But even as someone willing to suspend all disbelief in the face of a friends-to-lovers tale of reunion and romance, I almost didn’t pick up K. M. Jackson’s How to Marry Keanu Reeves in 90 Days because the summary seemed to stretch even my limits: a Keanu Reeves fangirl learns of his impending marriage, drafts her longtime guy friend into helping her stop it, and then follows Keanu sightings all over the country? I immediately kept browsing, looking for something that seemingly had more “substance,” only to return because of the bright, breezy cover with a cool young woman cruising NYC in a convertible with her adorable dog. (Turns out the dog’s name is Morphie, short for Morpheus, just one of many nods to Keanu films throughout the book).

I was immediately hooked by the opening lines: “People always look at me like I was half crazy. Made me feel like the odd girl out, but not True. Never True.” There is perhaps nothing like a friend who truly sees you and still says, “Hey, I’m all in.” And after spending time with feisty artist Bethany Lu Carlisle and her sweet, sensitive professor friend Truman “True” Erickson (eventually dubbed “The Sexy Economist” by the media), here is perhaps a more appropriate summary: a forty-something artist is at crossroads in her career, and, still grieving the loss of her brother, uses a celebrity crush to distract her from the chaos of her life; in her quest for Keanu, she reconnects with the best parts of herself—and lands a pretty sweet guy in the process. -MG

My comments on this book will be brief because the two things I have to say are that:

(1) Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers is the first book in a very long time that has made me cry in a good way; (2) in the two days it took me to devour it, three of my students begged me to let them borrow it when I was done.

Morgan Rogers, courtesy of Lambda Literary

I think at root that is because this joyful book is nevertheless a book that understands loneliness. The protagonist, Grace Porter grapples with the loneliness of being a queer Black woman raised by her divorced Army Colonel father, alone in her field of study (astronomy), and carrying the weight of the love and expectations of her families–both biological and chosen. As a white English teacher, I do not know a great deal of those particular lonelinesses. Yet at every turn in Grace’s story, Morgan Rogers shares the profound joy of being seen and known and recognized in the darkness. Grace comes to be really seen by Yuki, the strange woman from Brooklyn she spontaneously marries in Vegas (seriously, this book is so much fun!) By highlighting the particular joy of a Black woman Ph.D. being finally welcomed into her rightful place, Rogers invites us in as well. With each repetition of Yuki’s refrain of “Are you there?”–thanks to Rogers–we, like Grace, get to respond: “I am here.” -RD

Renée Watson

In Love is a Revolution, Renée Watson opens with Audre Lorde’s wisdom: “Revolution is not a one-time event…or something that happens around us rather than inside us.” Womens’ roads to self-acceptance and self-love are filled with sinkholes and booby traps, starting when we are young, and Black women face additional layers of oppression, complication, and roadblocks. However in Watson’s novel, her protagonist Nala Robertson is not totally without confidence- she just does what many girls do and compares herself to those she holds dear, and those comparisons hurt her and hold her back. Although Nala loves fashion, music, is a great friend and has an eye for design, she compares herself constantly to her perfect, straight-A, activist cousin Imani, whom she adores and has lived with since they were 13. After meeting Tye Brown, Imani’s colleague in the youth group Inspire Harlem, Nala thinks she must change and become more like Imani in order to attract and keep Tye in her life. Nala becomes a vegetarian (despite loving burgers), carries a reusable water bottle (despite not approving of plastic shaming), and starts to change her hair and dress from cute to protest chic. However, while thinking Tye will only want romance with a revolutionary, it turns out that lying and changing who she is leads Nala to the bigger internal revolution of learning she is worthy of love now, not if, or when.

I picked up this text as a possible class novel for my 9th graders after discovering it in a late night teacher Twitter rabbit hole, and I cannot wait to offer this story to my students. In the morning as I leave for work my husband often tells me, “Let your light shine.” After reading Love is a Revolution, I keep thinking that Nala’s story reminds us that, despite our absolute certainty that we are not good enough, there is room, and in fact, a need, for each of us to let our own lights shine. -KS

I first encountered author Ibi Zoboi when looking for smart, fun, contemporary novels to supplement my American literature class; if you have time, check out American Street, a haunting YA novel about teens, immigration, and the American Dream. Today, though, I want to share Zoboi’s second novel Pride: A Pride and Prejudice Remix. Jane Austen retellings are countless, especially in the film world, but Zoboi’s stands out, replacing Regency England for contemporary Brooklyn and the societal pressure on women to marry with the societal pressure on women to marry while also balancing college and career ambitions. Zoboi reimagines the opening line of the OG Pride and Prejudice in a way that immediately (and brilliantly) establishes cultural identity, class, and gentrification as the heart of this Brooklyn community’s pride—and outsiders’ prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up. But it’s not just the junky stuff they’ll get rid of. People can get thrown away too, like last night’s trash left out on the sidewalks or pushed to the edge of wherever all broken things go. What those rich people don’t always know is that broken and forgotten neighborhoods were first built out of love.

Zuri Benitez (our Lizzie Bennet) deeply knows this love and has an intense pride for her family, her community, and her Afro-Latino roots. And while the inevitable love she’ll have for the wealthy and aloof Darius Darcy makes for a pretty great story, it is her fierce love for herself and her identity that may actually be more intriguing. -MG

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