Some say a woman’s closet can show you the many facets of who she is. I’m sure there are many ladies whose clothes can tell a story, but for me, my memories and my milestones lay sprawled out across many bookshelves—pages and pages stacked in many piles.
Ever since I was little, words have been my cashmere—the comfort I wrap around my skin. I remember spending evenings after school hiding between the library aisles that felt like towers. My mother made me read ten books a week, writing page-long book reports on them all. To this day, there are four moving boxes filled with composition notebooks of my experiments to find my own handwriting.
At first, I fell in love with Goodnight, Moon, then The Princess and the Pea—didactic stories that were meant to teach the importance of the values perseverance, honesty and forgiveness. They were basic lessons—childish even—but I’ve found that even in my twenties there are no simple lessons, that there are lessons I continue to struggle to fully learn and understand.
While women of color have broken barriers in many places, their words are seldom heard in classrooms. Of course Zora Neale Hurston cannot be ignored in “Women’s Theory 101”, nor can Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” be omitted from any comprehensive Black History Month program. Though the Western canon remains home to far more White men than anyone else, the list of writers I treasure is filled with women whose skin looks somewhat like my own. It is not to say that their experiences are exactly like my own, or that a non-Black writer cannot capture the feelings of a Black girl, but rather that there are certain lessons that Black girls learn distinctly and often alone.
There are some lines I will always remember. Moments when the author’s words resonated in my soul. These are three very different women—some we all know and others I hope we can come to embrace into the fold of writers we quote and love.
All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.
Hurston wrote these words in Their Eyes Are Watching God after describing the plights of a Ms. Turner, a bi-racial woman obsessed with the idea of attaining a Caucasian appearance and ideal. While many read these lines as a condemnation of self- hate, the words are also Hurston’s warning against loving that which we are not meant to have. Just a few pages away, the main character Janie is struck in the face by Tea Cake, her newly discovered love. While she quickly rationalizes it away, I think Hurston wanted to warn all sisters against using our misled logic to dissuade our inner voice. Just as Janie knew she did not deserve a man who slapped her around, many of us know we should not give away our love to men who don’t fully treasure the diamonds we are. While Eatonville seems almost unimaginable to us today, I think Hurston wanted us to know that there are some mistakes even the most modern of women can still make.
“When she awoke there was a melody in her head she could not identify or recall ever hearing before. ‘Perhaps I made it up,’ she thought. Then it came to her—the name of the song and all its lyrics just as she had heard it many times before. She sat on the edge of the bed thinking, ‘There aren’t any more new songs and I have sung all the ones there are. I have sung them all. I have sung all the songs there are.“
Toni Morrison’s Sula was a woman whose flaw was one many of us still share: she gave her love away. There are many moments when she makes love to men whose full names she doesn’t know, and lets others take from her more than they were worth. But in this way, we all can relate with Sula. In moments of insecurity we often give away our bodies, our time, or our faith—hoping to trade them in for just the quick, slight feeling of being loved. What I love about this quote is that it is Sula on a better morning, when her thoughts are lighter, and yet still she cannot open them far enough to believe in new songs, new possibilities. She is incapable of believing the world can be anymore to her that it has been.
While we all can’t stand the “bitter Black woman” label, many of us push ourselves closer to it when we give away the love and innocence we need in order to see possibility in the world around us. It is not just Sula’s story, but the story of every woman who has been so bruised and so hurt that she finds herself no longer interested—no longer surprised by the world.
“She wore her sexuality with an older woman’s ease, and not like an awkward purse, never knowing how to hold it, where to hang it, or when to just put it down.”
Of the group, writer Zadie Smith may be considered the newbie. For many, she is not even considered part of the group. The category of women of color includes individuals outside the category of African-American women. While her heritage may not be identical to Hurston, Walker, or Morrison, her insights into the subtleties of brown women ring true for all of us. Reading her description of Kiki, the thick African-American wife of a pudgy White Art History professor, we gain insights into the gracefulness with which women of color carry themselves. I think the awareness of body is a silent but essential piece of knowledge for women, especially women of color whose beauty is often eroticized or used for satire.
My library card remains more worn in than my favorite pairs of heels. It is my hope that our generation will produce more women writers of color who I know will fill the minds of my (future) daughters. I hope their lives will be filled with words of wisdom and insight, that they will sense in someone else’s writings a commonality, a shared struggle and joy. With hope, I will remain hooked to words, lost in comforting stacks of books or maybe even glued to latest Nook, Kindle or iPad.