Black Girl Reads: How My Favorite Books Saved Me

by Melissa Mackey I was the only little black girl on my street. I wore pink foam rollers to bed...

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by Melissa Mackey

I was the only little black girl on my street. I wore pink foam rollers to bed and slathered my knees, elbows and ankles with Vaseline in the morning. Each day I squared my shoulders and stepped outside, bracing myself for the onslaught. In their infinite wisdom, Quaker had created a new ad campaign around their “iconic” Aunt Jemima figure and the catchy jingle provided the perfect sing-song ammunition for the stupid white boys on the block.

Once at the bus stop, I would bury my pain in Mrs. Munhall’s second grade gift book as the boys belted out the jingle louder and louder until I finally convinced myself I wasn’t even there anymore. I was with Laura and Pa waiting for winter in the big woods.

As a lonely only child, I could collect friends and siblings and playmates from my coveted library books in a way I never could in real life. I learned that little brothers were insufferable and teenage sisters didn’t appreciate silly brats who pilfered their lip gloss. But I wished I had some anyway.

By middle school, the boys had grown tired of taunting me and turned their attentions to the newly perky breasts of the other girls on the block. Though my breasts were considerably bigger and far more interesting these were the days before it was PC for a white boy to “like-like” a black girl. So I read a lot of Judy Blume and hoped against hope that one day someone would snap my bra. Never happened.

I remember very little of my leisurely reading in college, where I finally blossomed into a social animal or in those challenging years of grad school when I started a family and a master’s degree within a few semesters. I know I began my bachelor’s degree with Danielle Steele and picked up my diploma with Robin Cook. Or was it Michael Crichton?

The pursuit of a Masters in Criminal Justice fostered a newfound interest in murder mysteries. But most of my nights were filled with the ump-hundredth reading of “Good Night, Moon” and “One fish, Two fish”. Is it really “bad parenting” during the bowels of finals week to allow the hideously chipper voice of an anonymous woman on cassette tape to persuade your children to love reading? I think not.

Interestingly, it was John Grisham who helped me realize that my first real grown-up love wasn’t meant to be. We had survived late night study sessions, ear infections and teething, but when he asked me why I was always carrying around some book instead of cheering his video game prowess, I knew it was over. Not because a grown man chose video games over books. But because he didn’t know or understand that I wouldn’t.

In these crazy intervening childrearing years, I have been the mom on the sidelines, in the bleachers or the auditorium stealing a couple of pages during free throws, half-times and intermissions. Try as I might, I have not mastered the art of Starbucks conversation. I don’t like coffee and I don’t particularly care whose mother-in-law is visiting and hates everything the newlywed wife cooks. But they no longer take affront; I’m just that mom who likes to read… a lot.

A year ago, I finally packed up all those children’s books and crime mysteries. They had followed us from apartment to house, nightstand to bookshelf but it was time to let them go. But then, the little stick turned blue and the doctor said the baby would be here before Christmas. I reveled in the “experienced pregnant mom” book section and selected a couple of tomes to tell me what to expect when pre-menopause meets conception. I vowed to re-ignite my love affair with Seuss.

At 26 weeks, the doctor told me that our lovely little baby girl was not going to survive. I was given a list of books on grief and told to prepare myself for the worst. And on an overcast winter day, two weeks after her funeral, I climbed into bed to read one of them. It helped, as did the old-lady post-partum refresher chapter.

When spring came, her sisters and I unpacked all the books, attached labels to the inside covers and boxed them back up again. The Ronald McDonald House sent a letter shortly thereafter thanking us for our generous donation in memory of Inez Louise.

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