Glory Edim, innovator and Well-Read Black Girl
When Glory Edim stepped up to the podium to receive her Los Angeles Times Book Prizes Innovator’s Award, on Friday, April 20, at the kickoff event for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books held at USC, a clip of Beyoncé’s “Formation” rang out, “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making.” Clad in a cropped black leather jacket and long red skirt with hair in full springy afro exuding #BlackGirlMagic, Edim bounced with the beat, then leaned into the mic: “I was expecting a Cardi B song, but I love Beyoncé.”
A Cardi B song, one filled with the braggadociousness of creating something out of nothing, makes perfect sense.
Edim, the Nigerian-American daughter of books, started Well-Read Black Girl three years ago in Brooklyn out of thin air. If not for the loving gesture of her partner, Opiyo Okeyo, who made Edim a T-shirt with the “Well-Read Black Girl” moniker, the book club might not have gotten off the ground. But everywhere Edim wore the tee — in bookstores, the airport, on the street — people took notice. When she started WRBG in 2015 as a online and physical book club, featuring established and budding black women authors as well as legends, the response was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. Last year it developed into an annual conference.
“There’s so many things I still want to do with this organization but my primary thing is, I want generations of readers to always recognize and love the work of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Gloria Naylor, Patricia Smith,” Edim said. “The names go on and on and on. Their words require us to reach for them and grow in the process.”
Following Well-Read Black Girl’s first quick growth spurts, Edim, a creative strategies specialist and currently the publishing outreach specialist at Kickstarter, decided to see how far the rabbit hole went. She formed a social media plan, creating a hashtag, website, newsletter and social media accounts to promote Well-Read Black Girl’s mission: to increase the visibility of black women writers and initiate meaningful conversation with readers. In other words, to support, devour and create awareness about authors who mean so much to the lives of literary black women.
Edim credits her mother, who taught her to read at age 3, with the success of the Well-Read Black Girl movement, and the reimagining of a vibrant reading community in a public space. “She always encouraged me to explore and express myself. Without her, there is no me. There is no Well-Read Black Girl.”
In a gracious speech, Edim thanked the Los Angeles Times, Okeyo, her family and friends and the online community for trusting “in my vision and my ability to share all the things I love about the work.” She will be able to share more in her upcoming collection of essays by black women writers, Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves.
“When young black women read and study their work, they're able to imagine new possibilities for themselves; they're able to become the storytellers in their right,” Edim said, pausing with emotion in her speech. “What we’re trying to do is really collectively create portraits of our black lives and to discard the word 'minority.' Our stories have never been minority.”
Celebrating and Challenging #BlackGirlMagic
From T-shirts to award shows, chances are you’ve seen or heard the phrase “Black Girl Magic” or #BlackGirlMagic used to celebrate the achievements of African-American women such as former first lady Michelle Obama and film director Ava DuVernay. The movement was popularized by CaShawn Thompson in 2013; she created the #BlackGirlMagic hashtag, launching a platform for women of color to add rightful glory to black women and fight stereotyping, colorism, misogynoir and racism.
On Saturday afternoon, April 21, at the 23rd annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books — the largest bookfest in the nation, affectionately called Bookchella by the literary community — about 250 people gathered at USC’s Town and Gown to hear a discussion about #BlackGirlMagic. Moderated by Guardian U.S. opinion writer Rebecca Carroll and featuring Innovator’s Award winner Glory Edim of Well-Read Black Girl and cultural critics Ijeoma Oluo and Morgan Jerkins, the panel examined #BlackGirlMagic, from the cool social media hashtag to the challenges that come with it: pressure and scrutiny. Moderator Carroll skillfully guided the panel through an honest, deeply personal, unflinching and sometimes humorous conversation about the movement's dualities set against the backdrop of race in America.
“What does ‘Black Girl Magic’ mean to your lives, either personal or professional?” Carroll asked to start the conversation.
Jerkins, a Princeton graduate, who at 25 is on her first book tour for This Will Be My Undoing, a collection of essays on race and other topics, said she first felt #BlackGirlMagic came into full force when she saw gold medal gymnasts Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas compete at the 2016 Summer Olympics. “That’s when it started to resonate with me,” Jerkins said.
Edim said she has always felt she has the ability to put forth energy that is unlike anybody else, and she attributes that to her blackness. She remembers seeing the #BlackGirlMagic T-shirt and thinking, “That’s dope! Magic feels like an energy I want to put into the world.”
For Oluo, who grew up in a predominantly white area where she often felt invisible in school, in life and in pop culture, the idea of Black Girl Magic has always meant being around other black women, who can “do your hair right, gossip and cook food.” As she described, “The moment I was in community with other black women, that would change and it would be like this vacation where we were special and everything about me that had been made fun of about me or was less than desirable was wonderful.”
Carroll added her perspective. “I was prompted to write my first book about black women because I saw three black women writers on the New York Times best-seller list: Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Terry McMillan. I had a sense of joy and exhilaration. They were creating some kind of culture and it felt like magic.”
There is pride that comes with seeing black women at the top of their game. Yet there are also downsides that come with a movement that celebrates those women who have achieved in a public way. Jerkins believes #BlackGirlMagic isn’t inclusive enough to disabled and low-income black women, among others. She wrote a chapter in her book titled “BlackGirlMagic” to explore this dichotomy. “Not only superstars should claim Black Girl Magic,” she points out. “It applies to all.”
Oluo picked up on Jerkins’ point. “Black Girl Magic isn’t extended to poor black women,” she said, “We need to pay attention to who gets celebrated and who does not. We need to make space because it's publicly withheld from a lot of black women.”
When Carroll asked, “What are the challenges of Black Girl Magic?” the conversation grew more personal.
Edim said it helped elevate her but it also “puts pressure on me not to fail. I want to make folks proud.”
And Oluo shared that “so many white people come up to me to say, ‘I’m so glad you wrote your book for us.’ I specifically did not write my book for white people,” she said. The audience laughed in appreciation.
When Carroll pointed out that Oluo’s work has been lifted, Oluo responded, “People do lift and distort my work because they assume my role as a black woman is to do work to make their world, their life better. It’s frustrating to have to consistently reinforce your humanity and boundaries and let people know, 'I am a human being. I am not yours!'”
On activism, Oluo said, “[People] assume because I’m black and can speak on these subjects that I can be sent to a place where there is a problem with race and fix it. The number of people saying I should be at Starbucks now,” she said, referring to the recent uncalled for arrest of two black men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. “I was at Starbucks headquarters a few weeks ago. Two hours at any corporation won’t fix the problems.”
Jerkins said, “Sometimes — and I’ll use an incendiary term — we’re treated like a 'call dog’ who can be sent to rouse up people, but that’s not me. … I’m a human.”
On a lighter note toward the end of the conversation, Carroll congratulated Edim on her Innovator’s Award. Edim said, “LeVar Burton tweeted me and I was freaking out!”
Black Women Writers in Hollywood: “We’re Going to Need More Wine”
While some attendees at the festival enjoyed learning about #BlackGirlMagic during the panel discussion, others celebrated it by meeting and greeting black female celebrity authors, including actress Vivica A. Fox, author of Every Day I’m Hustling; former boxer Laila Ali, author of Food for Life; actress Jurnee Smollett-Bell, co-author of The Family Table; and actress Gabrielle Union, author of the New York Times best-seller We're Going to Need More Wine.
During a candid Q&A with Los Angeles Times entertainment reporter Tre'vell Anderson, Union boldly shared why she wrote the book and talked about healing from rape, racial profiling and how being the only black girl in the predominantly white city of Pleasanton affected her. She likened the experience to being “an invisible Rosa Parks.”
“The feeling of being constantly surveilled but at the same time invisible is a very bizarre space to be in,” Union said. “It creates a lot of rage and a lot of resentment and a lot of feelings of betrayal.”
When asked if there were experiences she shared in the book that she was initially unsure about divulging, Union revealed she was anxious about sharing with the world details of her father’s infidelity as well as her own infidelity.
“Everything I feared actually happened,” Union said. “But it also forced people to be accountable and to recognize that every action has a reaction and just because you say you’re sorry doesn’t mean the pain dissipates.”