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16 Empowering Books for Teenage Black Girls7/21/2014
I still remember what it was like to be a teenager. I was a fury of emotions, dreams, ideas. I wa...
I still remember what it was like to be a teenager. I was a fury of emotions, dreams, ideas. I was awkward, self-assured, and painfully uncomfortable in my skin all at the same time. I worried about boys and relationships. I worried about by body. I worried about fitting in. I worried about my future. And on top of this all, I was often reminded that because I was Black, I was “different.” It was hard to find characters and images of people who looked like me in movies, books, magazines, TV shows. And when I did find those images that resembled my hair, my body type, my skin color… They often didn’t reflect my interests, personality, or background.
In 2014, I am sure most teenaged Black Girls are going through the same thing. Even though I have not been a teenager for quite some time, the youth I work with remind me how exhilarating, frightening, confusing, and meaningful adolescence is. I feel for the young Black women especially, as I see myself in them often.
But what helped me find my way through my overwhelming adolescence was my love of books. I found wisdom. I found characters whose resilience, independence, and strength inspired me. I found characters who overcame hardship and suffering to define and claim themselves. Thus, I discovered that Black Girls and Women’s stories were necessary.
Below are 16 books that I believe every (Black) young woman should read. The topics range from poetry, autobiography, fiction, and non-fiction. Many of the books feature stories about sexuality, relationships, and sexual violence. I think this is important, because we often avoid discussing these issues with our girls until it is too late.
More than anything, this list is meant to provide teenaged Black Girls with stories that affirm and uphold this undeniable truth: They are beautiful. They are resilient. They are intelligent. And their stories, bodies, lives, and dreams matter.
(This list is only represents a small portion of literature and writing out there that serves to empower young Black Women. I welcome readers to add onto this list in the comments by listing the books written by, for, and about Black Women that had a positive impact on their lives as they made the difficult transition from childhood to womanhood.)
Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deavere Smith
When a young person decides they want to be an artist, we often discourage them. However, in this book, Anna Deavere Smith writes letters of advice to the fictional young BZ. She does not shy away from the realities of what it’s like to live and work as an artist. This is a great read for any young person hoping to pursue a career in the arts and creative fields, but who may be unsure of what they will need to be successful.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
This classic by the late Dr. Maya Angelou is a must-read for every young person, but especially the young Black girl. In her autobiography, Angelou recounts her life through age 17 and the various struggles she faces living in the South. Her indomitable writing focuses on important themes that we all cope with as we grow up—identity, racism, gender, and family.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
This novel is another classic by one of the most important African-American writers to ever live. The book follows the protagonist Janie Crawford’s life from late teens through adulthood. It specifically focuses on her three marriages and her journey to define herself as an independent, self-determined woman.
by Janet Mock
Janet Mock is a beautiful woman, inside and out. As an activist, she has brought the issues that transgender people face in America to light. Her memoir explores her childhood in Honolulu, her transition during adolescence, and how she became the fearless, inspiring woman she is today.
Purple Hibiscus: A Novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In Adichie’s first novel, we meet fifteen year-old Kambili and her family, who live a sheltered life in Nigeria. Everything appears perfect from the outside. But within the home, Kambili and her brother Jaja, face abuse at the hands of their fanatically religious father. When they are sent to live with an aunt, Kambili is exposed to a new world. And she must find the strength and independence to fix what her father has done to her family.
Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood by bell hooks
bell hooks is one of the most significant Black feminist writers living today. Her work has inspired and changed many a young Black girl’s life. In this memoir, she explores her upbringing in the South and how it ultimately led to her becoming a writer. hooks understands that Black Girl’s stories must be told, and she tells her own beautifully.
Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
In 1977, Assata Shakur was charged and imprisoned for the murder of a white state trooper. In her own words, she explains what really happened on the New Jersey Turnpike… and how growing up Black during Jim Crow led to her joining the Black Panther Party. She is a masterful storyteller and a true freedom fighter.
The Summer We Got Free by Mia McKenzie
This novel, written by Black Girl Dangerous’ founder Mia McKenzie, follows Ava Delaney and her family through the mid to late 20th Century. At one time a wild young girl and brilliant artist, Ava is changed after a violent event that still impacts her family’s place in the community nearly two decades later. After a mysterious woman comes to visit, something is reignited within Ava. But not without consequences…
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
This classic follows the life of Celie, who is 14 years old when the novel begins. Abused and raped by her father, Celie has already given birth to two children… whom her father steals. He then marries her off to a wealthy man named Mister, who also neglects and abuses Celie. Eventually, Celie befriends a woman named Celie, and the two begin an intimate relationship. This famous story follows Celie life and her ultimate journey to independence, love, and happiness.
by Constance Gipson and Hazel Mahone, Ed.D.
This book is necessary for any young Black woman—blending history, biography, poetry, and essays to discuss the rich history and heritage of Africa and Black women. Its themes include everything from race and culture to relationships, sexual health, and self-sufficiency. The book also includes interactive tools and activities to help young women plan for their future, giving special focus to the STEM fields, as we need more Black Women involved in STEM leadership.
Health First!: The Black Woman's Wellness Guide by Eleanor Hinton Holt and Hilary Beard
This health, wellness, and self-care resource is good for Black Women of any age. But it’s important that we start our Black Girls off with as much knowledge about their bodies and taking care of themselves as we can. This book focuses on the issues that Black women of every life stage face, as well as in-depth information on reproductive health, STDs and HIV/AIDS, cancer, and obesity.
by Iyanla Vanzant
Iyanla Vanzant is everyone’s godmother. And in this book, she focuses on spiritually and emotionally uplifting teen girls through affirmations and writing activities. No matter what background we come from, we all need a little bit of faith in our lives. Especially during adolescence, when it can be hard to feel confident, loved, and secure in the world.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
This classic was Toni Morrison’s first novel and follows the tale of Pecola Breedlove, a poor Black girl who yearns to have blue eyes, so she will be seen as beautiful. Morrison wrote the novel to specifically focus on Black Girls, who are often not protagonists in novels, as well as explore the themes of racism and beauty.
Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid
This classic coming-of-age novel begins when Annie is just ten years old. She is fiercely bonded to her mother, entranced by her mother’s beauty and wisdom. As she gets older, she begins to grow apart from her mother and seek out her own friendships. The novel ends when Annie is seventeen years old, ready to leave home and embark on the world as an independent, young woman.
BlackGirl Mansion by Angel Nafis
This is the first collection of poetry published by writer and performer Angel Nafis. Her writing is contemporary, lyrical, passionate, and laced with irreverence. Her poems explore a range of themes including family, identity, love, and womanhood. Angel Nafis understands what it means to be a Black Girl today and celebrates the Black Girl beautifully.
by Ntozake Shange
This chorepoem was written by Shange in 1974. Although it is often performed as a play and has since been adapted into a major film, the words are still vibrant and alive on page. It follows seven different women “of the rainbow”, as they share stories and poems about their experiences with men, love, identity, and overcoming oppression. The language is beautiful and the topics are heavy, but it’s a necessary read for any and all “Colored Girls.”
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