Once there was a girl who couldn’t say what she wanted to say. Whenever she talked, her words were so heavy they fell to the floor without reaching the intended ears of those who needed to listen. People stumbled over her words, not seeing them, or completely ignored them, kicking them under the carpet.
The girl soon learned that the only way she could get her words to be heard was to not let them tumble from her mouth like normal, but to tilt herself in a way that the words slanted upwards, from an unexpected angle.
So she learned how to turn her lips sideways.
Stories hold the potential for breaking down barriers, creating empathy, and showing a human side of people who are normally considered outcasts or uneducated. But that only works if the story itself doesn’t descend into tired stereotypes or tropes. While there are plenty of good stories, there many, many more stories that see marginalized people as one-shots. One notes. And if you see enough of those depictions that are always flat, always negative, then you start to believe it.
Take the narrative we often hear about Chicago. I grew up in Chicago. Still have family in Chicago. Consider it my hometown. There was always the issue with security and crime, but no more than what you expect in most urban (and suburban) areas. Dealing with it meant having common sense. Make sure your doors are locked. Don’t leave anything valuable in your car. Always be mindful when walking home after dark.
Since moving to Wisconsin, however, I’ve noticed that when I go back to visit family in Chicago, I feel more wary, more vulnerable when walking down a street, whereas before I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Nowadays, when you think of Chicago, particularly the south side, you think of urban decay, gangs, drugs, baby mamas, shootings. We see it in movies like Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, which presents a hyper-violent, over the top view of Chicago. And then there is President Trump’s tweet from January, threatening to send the Feds to Chicago if it doesn’t shape up. According to him, Chicago is a desolate place worse than Syria. It doesn’t help that the news and social media choose to fixate more on the crime aspects of Chicago. It’s a flat view of Chicago. A single story.
This puts me in mind of Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk on a single story. This single story of Chicago is spun to so many people, and yet for those who live there, it’s their home. Their life. Their world. This is not to downplay the problems in Chicago—if you’re really interested, you’ll want to read Mikki Kendall’s thoughts on Twitter about it. But there’s also beauty and normalcy. And there are people there who look just like me. Act just like me. Have brown skin, just like me.
How, then, do we tell stories that portray our lives accurately, rather than through the lens of white supremacy or stereotypes? And furthermore, how do we get people to listen when they are so used to hearing only one type of story?
A couple of years ago, I made a joke in front of a family friend. She turned around and responded, “Girl, you better turn your lips sideways.” I’m sure she meant “Shut your mouth,” but to me, it was a perfect metaphor.
We have to turn our lips sideways. Slip our messages into unsuspecting ears.
When I first discovered fantasy books as a child, there was a period when everything seemed possible and magical. I thought I saw fairies dancing on broken glass in empty parking lots, or taking short cuts over abandoned train tracks and wondering if I put my feet down in just the right spots, I would emerge in a whole different world.
As I grew older, I stopped having those dreams. As I watched the news and listened to the radio, there was a disconnect between the world of books, where anything was possible and my world, which had, well, news reports that talked about crime and politics, and nothing that looked like fun.
There’s a phrase around the internet that a black person cannot escape their race. I, on the other hand, found I could easily escape through fantasy books. The characters in those books were mostly coded white, but they never dealt with drive by shootings, or struggled because of the color of their skin. They slipped into wardrobes and became kings and queens in magical worlds, fought majestic battles in space, dueled with swords, rode dragons and unicorns, and generally lived happily ever after.
Because I read so much fantasy that had white as the default, I didn’t know how to deal with the black experience translated into fiction. Most of what I found in the bookstore was always “Urban Fiction” featuring guys with gold teeth on the covers or serious subjects such as slavery or civil rights. Even the science fiction books that did contain mainly black characters were always serious (and it was always science fiction, never fantasy… unless you count magical realism). I remember the very first Octavia Butler book I read—Dawn—in my teens, and thinking “I don’t get it.” There was never that feeling of fun or wonder or adventure, at least in my mind. Furthermore, I was brought up in a religious culture where “good art” didn’t contain profanity or sex, but always had to contain Truth (with a capital T), be beautiful, and most importantly, be clean. “Keep it holy,” was our motto. Most black literature didn’t fit in that category, or, at least, I didn’t perceive it as such, so I stayed away from it. I was a good Christian girl.
Then Trayvon Martin got shot. And Eric Garner. And Sandra Bland. The Black Lives Matter Movement started. Here’s the thing. Police shootings and violence have always happened. But with the advent of social media, it was thrust into the spotlight. And there could be no sweet words, no sugar coating, no positive, uplifting songs or story that could cover up the ugliness of what was hard reality.
I found I need a language for the horror, the pain, the fear I felt. And the rage. But nothing I was reading at the time could express it adequately. Until one day, Erykah Badu released a mixtape called “Feel Better World.” That in turn, made me devour all her music, which in turn, led me to spoken word… which in turn lead me hip hop. And that was where I learned that hip hop had its own beauty. It spoke to those parts of me that I didn’t know existed. It also spoke Truth. From Aaron Burr belatedly realizing he and Alexander could exist in the same world in Hamilton, to Beyoncé standing upright in her video Lemonade with other black women dressed in white, forgiving herself for past mistakes. Hip hop had its own worth, its own beauty, its own explorations of faith, rooted deep in black identity.
And that caused me to ask myself, “Where else can I find work like this? How do I dig in deeper? What am I missing?
So I returned to black literature. There, I found a plethora of stories rooted in black identity, some which have always been there, and some that were not only brand new, but made my young reader self squeal in utter delight.
Currently, I’m reading a graphic webcomic called The Hues. It’s a magical girl comic with girls who are different shapes, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Audrey, the water user, is fat, quiet, shy, and utterly, utterly adorable. Whereas most depictions of fat black women in the media are either sassy, back-talking mamas or strung out drug addicts, here is this girl, smiling shyly, kicking butt, and living her life as a normal girl (well, normal for a magical girl living in a dystopian world anyway). Meanwhile, Briana Lawrence, cosplayer and an up and rising writer, has finished a successful Indiegogo campaign to create an illustrated book featuring a whole team of dark-skinned, curvy, queer magical girls.
Kai Ashante Wilson’s novella Sorcerer of the Wildeeps gives us a black sorcerer traveling with a band of soldiers. What made this story stand out was the use of AAVE. Wilson weaved it so deftly into the fantasy norms that it became part of the rich landscape of his world, and thus gave it a whole new spin. And that on top of swashbuckling sword fights and romantic tension between the sorcerer and the captain he serves. His follow up novella, A Taste of Honey, showcases another romance between men, but also spins in a tale of how choices can create surprising and regretful futures.
One of the many reasons I love Nisi Shawl’s Congolese steampunk Everfair is her characterization of Martha Livia Hunter, an anti-slavery Christian missionary (and even here Shawl flips expectations in that Martha is a black, female missionary to the Congo as opposed to white male). She is rooted in her faith and sees everyone around her as heathens needing to be converted, and even sees her marriage to a younger white man more out of Christian duty than passionate love (though in time it grows into that). Shawl could have easily made her a one-note villain, but instead she portrays Martha as a woman with complex feelings, desires, and fears.
I haven’t even touched upon the works of Nnedi Okorafor, N. K. Jemisin, Alaya Dawn Johnson, K. Tempest Bradford, Jenn Brissett, Maurice Broaddus, Chelsya Burke, Kay F. Vega, and so many others. Black authors are learning how to turn their lips sideways. We are coming out of the woodwork and getting black blackity black all up in our stories and our fairy tales and our science fiction and our fantasy. We’re writing works that tell stories that have always been told, to show that Black Lives truly do Matter, that we are more than one-notes with just a single story. That we are deep and complex and diverse.
With all the works that are out by black authors now, I’ve been challenged to read works I used to shun because I considered it too “ghetto” or too “serious.” I’m rediscovering my Gloria Naylor books, which yes, was magic realism, but just as much fantasy in their own right. I picked up Octavia Butler’s Dawn again… and still didn’t like it. But then I read Parable of the Talents and OHMYGODTHATWASTHEBESTBOOKEVER.
And I too am learning how to turn my own lips sideways. I’m learning how to write about shy black girls, queer black folk, black goths, black pirates, black warriors… but also the thug, the single mother, the homeless, the jobless, the hopeless. Because a good writer can take these stories and make them work, but a great writer can spin a tale out of anyone and make you want to read more and more, enmeshing yourself into that person’s life.
I’m thinking about how to do that writing about Chicago. I’ve been listening to blues artists from Chicago. I’m reading up on Chicago’s history of the Great Migration through The Warmth of Other Suns. And I’ve discovered Chance the Rapper, whose lyrics of growing up on the south side is unearthing my own memories and daydreams of Chicago from when I was a child. I am learning how to dream again of the magic, the possibilities, the adventure, the joy of my hometown. And as I tell my stories sideways, I’m hoping they will catch someone’s ear unexpectedly and they will see the beauty that keeps people living and working for the right to live there.
Now, if you excuse, I need to catch up on my movie watching. Moonlight, anyone?