Shannon Gibney, what are your imaginings for Black girls?
I want a library, a classroom, a home where a Black women or girl — in all the complexity and difference that that identity entails — can see some facet of her experience on the bookshelf. Maybe it is just a picture of her hair on the cover. Maybe it is the story of dragon-slaying by a powerful young woman in a body like hers. Perhaps it is a poetry collection about the joys and challenges of Black motherhood. Or in my case, a novel about a mixed Black girl adopted into a white family.
When we see ourselves, we can finally let go of the need for external validation. That is the paradox at the center of all issues of representation for historically marginalized communities. It is the kind of pure freedom — of sight, of direction — that I want for my own daughter, for my friends, and for myself.
That is why I not only search out and read and write our stories, but why I work to build entryways and scaffolding for more of us to enter the schools and libraries and faculty offices and personal writing spaces. Because of course, every Black woman and girl is not the same. I am not a refugee. Nor am I queer, poor, trans, immigrant, or dark-skinned. I did not grow up in a rural area, or on the coasts, and I did not enjoy my first gatherings of all Black people until my early-20s. Very simply, Black girls and women are multifaceted, and defy categorization. And yet, we know we are Black and female, and that this matters. And that if we don’t tell our stories the way we know them to be, no one will.
So, we take a good look at the bookshelf in front of us, the empty ear that has never heard our stories, and decide that we fill that space with the truth of what we know. We will tell our story, “…even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood,” (Audre Lorde), and create space for other Black women and girls (and others, who like us, have been historically and structurally locked out of the conversation) to do the same.
Because that’s what Black women and girls do.
That’s what we have always done.
Above all else, that’s who we are.
Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, activist, and the author of Dream Country (Dutton, 2018), and See No Color (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015), novels which both won Minnesota Book Awards. Gibney is faculty in English at Minneapolis College, where she teaches writing. In October 2019, University of Minnesota Press released What God is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss By and For Native Women and Women of Color, which she co-edited with writer Kao Kalia Yang. She is currently at work on her new novel, Botched (Dutton, 2022), which takes on identity and possibility in the context of transracial adoption.