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On Girlhood: 15 Stories from the Well-Read Black Girl Library

Review

On Girlhood: 15 Stories from the Well-Read Black Girl Library

edited by Glory Edim

Glory Edim introduces her anthology, ON GIRLHOOD, by explaining that the selections are meant “to illuminate the narrow space between Black girlhood and Black womanhood.” She knows that this time of life is particularly important for Black girls, as the world’s vista begins to expand and open. No matter the view, each girl looks for purpose and how to create a life.

Edim says her love affair with books began when she read Toni Morrison’s THE BLUEST EYE and felt understandable rage at Pecola Breedlove’s neglect. Pecola, a young Black girl, believes that having blue eyes will make her perfect, beautiful and acceptable. But readers know differently, and so did Edim. Morrison writes, “Anger is better. There is a sense of being in anger. A reality and presence. An awareness of worth. It is a lovely surging.” In Black women’s stories and novels, Edim found her voice and herself in the characters who looked like her and spoke like her, and she wants the same self-awareness for all Black girls.

"Several questions that may be used to prompt the reader’s curiosity and understanding follow each story, and they are useful. The brief biographies and a list of other works for each writer also help establish a framework and timeline for the stories."

The stories are divided into four themes --- Innocence, Belonging, Love, and Self-Discovery --- and the book features an Epilogue by Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.”

“Recitatif,” Morrison’s only published short story, connects Twyla and Roberta in five episodes throughout their lives. They first meet at St. Bonny’s, an orphanage in New York, as dumped eight-year-old girls, and they share a room for a few months. They later see each other in a variety of locations, and it becomes clear that they are not of the same race. However, Morrison never identifies which girl is Black and which is white.

Both were innocent of discrimination initially, but Twyla becomes aware of differences after she sees Roberta at a Howard Johnson’s when they are teenagers. Later events show even more clearly just how separated they are because of race. Even their memories of St. Bonny’s are separated by race. They bump into one another one last time as middle-aged women in a diner on Christmas Eve, and there is pain for both as the bias becomes clearer but not yet acknowledged. The innocence of shared fear and loneliness is gone.

Camille Acker’s “Who We Are” is a defiant, in-your-face list of how a group of Black girls in Washington are willingly terrorizing the neighborhood. They skip school, take up three tables when they only need two, and run out on restaurant tabs. Using “We” rather than “I” and giving no proper names, Acker elaborates on examples of increasingly outrageous behavior, which solidifies the sense of unity and belonging for the girls. The “We” reject the presumed white-only standards of AP classes and conversations about who were more evil during WWII: the Germans or the Japanese. The “We” sit on a splintered stage to smoke weed, not in the grass like white folk. “We” show them.

In “Seeing Things Simply,” Edwidge Danticat traces the self-discovery of Princesse, a young schoolgirl. In her Haitian village, she sees people live their daily lives --- attending cockfights and rejoicing or mourning at the finale, drinking rum out of leaf-lined bottles, arguing for compassion or attention from the others. Princesse walks through this panorama of brown people toward the foreigner’s colony where she poses for Catherine, a French painter from Guadeloupe. Even though she is shy and unsure of herself, Princesse is the only villager who is willing to sit for nude portraits.

At the end of one session, Catherine gives her the money and one of the drawings. Princesse is surprised, but after looking again and again, she begins to see her body as hers. It belongs to her. As she walks home that afternoon, she stops to sketch the face of an old man and woman in the dust. She knows now that she, too, will be an artist; she has claimed herself and will see the world in a way no one else has observed.

Finally, “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid belongs in the library of every girl, no matter her color. Kincaid’s long, three-page sentence is a mother’s set of instructions for life. “[D]on’t throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all.” She warns about promiscuity, explains setting a table, and details how to choose a loaf of bread. “This is how to smile at someone you don’t like too much.” Read it breathlessly the first time, racing to find the end, and then go back and start again.

Several questions that may be used to prompt the reader’s curiosity and understanding follow each story, and they are useful. The brief biographies and a list of other works for each writer also help establish a framework and timeline for the stories. In ON GIRLHOOD, Glory Edim identifies pieces of literature meant to show Black girls --- and every other reader --- possibilities for living.

Reviewed by Jane Krebs on October 29, 2021

On Girlhood: 15 Stories from the Well-Read Black Girl Library
edited by Glory Edim

  • Publication Date: October 26, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Liveright
  • ISBN-10: 1631497693
  • ISBN-13: 9781631497698