Happy Black History Month! I wrote this post late last year for my publisher’s, Wise Ink, blog. It’s very dear to me and I hope you enjoy it!
Somewhere over the summer, I was glued to my television, eagerly awaiting the next episode of the popular Lovecraft Country series on HBO. The show—set much in the 1950’s—expertly blended fantasy, science fiction, and horror while inserting the real-life atrocities of history and American racism. As one Twitter user pointed out, the show contained ancient talismans, universe-bending spells, and hundred-eyed monsters, and still its scariest moments came from portrayals of vitriolic hate against African Americans. Every week I watched the cast maneuver the structures upholding that hate as best they could, with whatever tools were available, as the central plot unfurled. Each episode was creative and unique, fulfilling the audience in ways it hadn’t imagined.
And then there was episode 7.
Titled “I Am,” episode 7 focused on a side character, a middle-aged Black woman named Hippolyta. Hippolyta, played by the astounding Aunjanue Ellis, was the aunt of Lovecraft’s hero Atticus and mourned her husband, who was killed early in the series. Hippolyta’s husband’s death was a casualty of magic, a detail Atticus didn’t find necessary to share with Hippolyta. Instead, when Atticus returned to Chicago with his uncle’s body, he concocted a story to better fit the world they lived in: Uncle George had been killed by a sheriff in a sundown town.
My husband and I share a phrase in our household when it comes to stories. It’s simple and to the point: you know the truth when you hear it. Conversely, you recognize bullshit the same way, and Hippolyta was no different. Hippolyta knew the story surrounding her husband’s death was a lie, thus she sought her own answers. This endeavor forced her to recreate her husband’s fatal trip. Did Hippolyta get her answers? Yes, she did, and returned with so much more.
Lovecraft’s first six episodes were mystifying in their own ways, but “I Am” sucked the breath from many of the Black women watching, myself included. In it, we witnessed Hippolyta’s journey morph from a dogged search to uncover the truth to a trip of actualization, one where she named herself as she saw fit, and in many ways, unshrunk herself. Shrink usually isn’t a word that comes to mind when we think of Black women. Other words like strength arrive more easily. We see women who put others before themselves—perhaps to a fault—take no mess, and are the backbone of their homes and community. We do not see Black women, Black mothers, and grandmothers, as people who have made themselves smaller, who’ve squeezed into boxes that may not be easily seen.
Lovecraft’s Hippolyta was a genius in her own right, with a knack for mathematics, physics, and astronomy. But like every other Black American woman of her time and after, she had learned to maneuver racism, patriarchy, and their intersection—misogynoir. Even her natural gifts couldn’t singlehandedly dismantle those structures, and their weight had taken a toll. By the time she was asked to name herself, she’d become a shell of her original potential, and was unable to complete the task.
Her journey assisted the process of rediscovery. Hippolyta blasted back in time to dance with Josephine Baker in 1920’s France. Some Lovecraft reviewers said this claimed her pleasure, joy, and allowed comfort in her physical body. From there, she vaulted to the training ground of Black Amazon-like warriors—fittingly, as Hippolyta in Greek mythology was the queen of the Amazons. Sidenote, in DC Comics, Amazonian queen Hippolyta is also mother to Diana, later to be known as Wonder Woman. In Lovecraft, our Hippolyta is also the mother of a young girl named Diana, or Dee for short. Dee has her own gripping and unsettling episode about Black girlhood, one that results in her receiving a robotic arm. If Lovecraft dares to reimagine lasso-bearing Wonder Woman as a badass, Black cyborg, I’m here for it.
Back to Hippolyta’s journey. She trains with the warrior women in preparation for a fight against Confederate soldiers and leads them to a bloody victory by embracing the anger and vindication she, like many women, was taught to shun. And finally, Hippolyta travels just far enough into the future to communicate with her husband, recreating the scene in episode 1 that introduced us to the pair. The couple’s original introduction showed tender moments before lovemaking, but in the new scene, Hippolyta communicated to George how she’d shrunken herself in this world, and how he wittingly and unwittingly contributed to it. George heard his wife’s words, and the couple reconciled, ending the poignant journey by exploring worlds together. By the episode’s end, Hippolyta could finally name herself.
I am Hippolyta, discoverer.
Lovecraft’s expert use of history, narrative, and magic touched my core. I am a Black fantasy writer, one who has a little girl. She is just over a year old and knows nothing of shrinking herself. The world may be big, but she is enough to fill it. Though the world is also changing, I’m aware that she’ll still require tools to become a confident Black person in it. Tools my mother gave me, and I assume her mother gave her. The only true magic I possess. I wield that power through words. I wrote my first book, The Blazing Star, four years ago, in the beginnings of my own unshrinking process. Its sequel, The Falling Star, came out earlier this month. The series is about Black teen girls who travel back in time to ancient Egypt, discover their magic, and venture to save the world. I wrote what I wanted to see, what I wanted to read. What I needed.
I didn’t realize others needed the book back then, but now I know better. The necessity for Black stories remains for readers and the publishing industry at large. Publisher Lee and Low conducts an annual survey around diversity in children’s literature. They write, “According to the 2019 survey, 76% of publishing staff, review journal staff, and literary agents are White. There has been no discernible change to any of the other racial categories (since 2015). In other words, the field is just as White today as it was four years ago.” This has real consequences, as the types of children’s books selected for publication reflect those numbers. In 2016, only 22% of children’s books featured children of color. Or, as I mentioned to my husband the other day, in 2020, I’m still having a hard time finding books with Black characters for our Black daughter.
Last week, The New York Times published a piece called “Just How White Is the Book Industry?” by Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek. In it, the authors explained that they had gathered a list of English-language fiction books published between 1950 and 2018, to see how many people of color had been traditionally published by the major houses. They said that of the 7,124 books for which they identified the author’s race, 95% were written by White people. In nearly 70 years, major publishing had only published 5% POC authors.
Despite the numbers, many Black speculative fiction writers are doing their part to make positive change. Phenomenal authors like Nnedi Okorafor, Tomi Adeyemi, Danielle Paige, Dhonielle Clayton, Bethany C. Morrow, Justina Ireland, Jordan Ifueko, Namina Forna, L. L. McKinney, Roseanne A. Brown, Kalynn Bayron, Alechia Dow, Tracy Deonn, Amanda Joy, and so many others are writing the worlds and characters that Black girls need to see to rightfully use their tools.
Over the summer, I read Caste by American journalist Isabel Wilkerson. It was Oprah’s Book Club’s choice, though I would have read it without the recommendation. I have been a fan of Wilkerson since her last book, The Warmth of Other Suns. To use Wilkerson’s language, the American racial caste system places African Americans in the lowest caste. Being in this tier can be made more manageable with wealth or celebrity, but for those born in it, the caste is never truly escaped. Within that group, Black women (with their intersection with gender) have the least access to privileges. Of course, there are nuances to resource distribution in the lower caste, but that’s a blog for a different day.
According to the book, this caste system is also based on the nonsense of eugenics, the debunked science that remains the basis of the American racial hierarchy. In its most technical terms, eugenics studies reproduction within a human population and how that reproduction can increase the occurrence of desirable traits. Eugenics attributes these traits to its concept of race. The American caste system privileges those whose ancestry is predominantly European and disadvantages those with prevalent African ancestry (or at least, those who appear to have it).
What does this have to do with Black women, books, and magic? Everything. Even if not consciously admitted, we’re taught that Black people, Black women particularly, are not meant to have agency and power, let alone be supernaturally gifted. If more constraints are placed on those within the lower caste, then the fantasy is not just the magic but having the power to remove those bindings. To unshrink can be considered fantasy in itself. But we saw Lovecraft’s Hippolyta do just that, and when she was freed, something amazing happened. Her entire family didn’t cower in her new brilliance. They, too, unshrunk.
2020 was one of those years. Pandemic. Polarized election. Financial hardship. Unrest. Cities erupted over the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others. Fatigue nestled deep in our bones. But something else happened as millions of people of all colors and creeds took to the streets, something I saw in Hippolyta in that hourlong episode. Voices were heard (if waiting for answers), and people rallied together. November saw Kamala Harris voted as America’s first Black and South Asian female vice president, as we saw Barack Obama voted America’s first Black president in 2008. The beginnings of a collective unshrinking took place, imperative as no one in this technologically advanced world lives in a vacuum. We’re calling on each other to do the work as Hippolyta and her family realized in the show. If we’re to undo the effects of structural racism, we must grow. We must expand. And when one of us expands, we all expand. We all claim our magic, name ourselves, and unshrink.