Pulling the curtain back

ON GIRLHOOD: 15 STORIES FROM THE WELL-READ BLACK GIRL LIBRARY edited by Glory Edim, Liveright, 224 pages, $23.95

Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Jamaica Kincaid are all known for vividly chronicling the lives of Black women. Glory Edim’s decision to compile their works in On Girlhood, a compelling anthology that also includes contemporary writers such as Amina Gautier and Alexia Arthurs, results in a literary master class.

Edim, the founder of the popular book club Well-Read Black Girl and editor of the 2018 collection Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves, says she seeks to enrich the lives of others by introducing them to the work of Black female authors whose work centers on Black female characters.

“I’m seeking to illuminate the narrow space between Black girlhood and Black womanhood,” Edim writes in the introduction. “I want to attest to the worthiness of Black girls as they come of age — their need for protection, love, and freedom.”

This carefully curated anthology attains what Edim sets out to accomplish, and more. An expansive collection of 15 short stories originally published between 1953 and 2018, the book is divided into four sections — Innocence, Belonging, Self-Discovery, and Love — with an epilogue by Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.”

Edim opens the anthology with Kincaid’s “Girl,” a story that thoroughly honors the topic of its title. Written in 1978, “Girl” gives insight into the relationship between a mother and daughter as the mother — in one long sentence punctuated only by semicolons — instructs the daughter on how to be a “good” woman.

“This is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming,” says the mother.

The older woman dominates the conversation. She believes she is guiding the young woman from innocence into adulthood, when, in reality, she is perpetuating patriarchal stereotypes and possibly setting the young woman on a path toward poor self-esteem. This story and the subsequent one, Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif,” home in on the intimate interactions between Black mothers and their daughters during a crucial developmental juncture. The girls in these stories display an air of innocence, while their mothers fail to realize how their words and actions harm their daughters, forever shadowing the intergenerational relationship.

“Recitatif,” Morrison’s only published short story, also considers how a young girl’s relationship with her mother shapes her relationship with the outside world. The protagonist, Twyla, befriends a White girl, Roberta, in a shelter when their mothers are unable to care for them. The sustainability of their relationship is called into question, though, when they leave the shelter, returning to their mothers — Twyla to her addict mom and Roberta to her Christian, racist mom.

The collection captures the wide spectrum of Black girlhood, reminding readers that Blackness is not monolith. These experiences may have similarities, but cultural differences play a role in how Black girls are raised and see the world, especially in the United States.

Alexia Arthurs’ “Bad Behavior” follows Stacy, a first-generation American who is caught in a sexual act with a boy at school. As punishment, her parents take her to Jamaica, unceremoniously leaving her there with her grandmother. This is not an uncommon occurrence for immigrant parents unable to discipline their American children. “In Jamaica, children knew to respect adults, while it wasn’t unusual to hear an American child call an adult by her first name,” Arthurs writes. “It wasn’t that Jamaican children were perfect — it was that when they made mistakes, they knew to be ashamed.” Still, Stacy struggles to understand her abandonment.

What her parents perceive as bad behavior, Stacy sees as actions taken to fit into the culture of her American peers. Arthurs forces us to look at how easily a breakdown in communication can harm a young girl. “Her parents had been furious, and they said all kinds of things, but they hadn’t asked her why,” Arthurs writes. “Why?” is such a simple, powerful question, one that can open dialogue between parents and Black girls.

On Girlhood is a strong collection that delves into the various ways that Black girls love, the way they hate, the way they respond to pressure, the way they respond to parents and, perhaps most important, the way they respond to society. The one common thread through these stories is that each of the protagonists struggles with her Blackness because of how she is perceived by the outside world and the people with whom she interacts. Some of the stories are told through the lens of childhood, while others are explored through motherhood and marriage. But they all pull back the curtain on what it is like to grow up as Black and female. 

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