Remember that moment when you first encountered a character who seemed to be written just for you? That feeling of belonging remains with readers the rest of their lives—but not everyone regularly sees themselves in the pages of a book. In Well-Read Black Girl, a timely anthology, Glory Edim brings together original essays by some of our best black women writers to shine a light on how important it is that we all—regardless of gender, race, religion, or ability—have the opportunity to find ourselves in literature.
Whether it’s learning about the complexities of femalehood from Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison, finding a new type of love in The Color Purple, or using mythology to craft an alternative black future, the subjects of each essay remind us why we turn to books in times of both struggle and serenity.
Recently, Glory spoke with Read It Forward’s Abbe Wright, delving into the fortifying power of seeing yourself in characters, the magic of Reading Rainbow, and why we should revitalize literature with fresh and vibrant new voices.
Read It Forward: I’m so excited to talk to you. So, tell us about this phenomenon of Well-Read Black Girl. It started from a cheeky T-shirt that your partner made for you and grew into a huge Instagram account, a nationwide book club, a literary festival, and now this anthology. How has this grown from a T-shirt to this huge idea?
Glory Edim: It’s been quite a journey from starting the Instagram account to having the T-shirt to having the literary festival. If all of it really connects, it’s because black women love each other, and we want to be in sisterhood and solidarity together. Creating the anthology was such a thrilling experience for me because I ended up working with so many of the people who I admire and love so much, from Jacqueline Woodson to Jesmyn Ward to Barbara Smith. Everyone came to the book with their own contributions on what it means to be a well-read black girl.
And I think that’s open to such interpretation. It’s about really connecting to the story, seeing yourself and being able to find a positive reflection of who you are and the things that fortify you, whether it’s the words of the characters or the authors, everyone from Toni Morrison to Gloria Naylor, Maya Angelou. Continuously, the writers bring up these literary foremothers, and I started this organization to build a community where people could be friends. It’s grown beyond my imagination; it’s now truly a movement and a sisterhood and an honor that people have entrusted me to usher this into the world and create this connection through books.
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RIF: So what was your reaction to building followers? Was that surprising, or overwhelming at all, when it was happening?
GE: Completely surprising and overwhelming, only because I didn’t understand how powerful those words were and how they would be perceived. I’ve always considered myself to be well-read and to be cultural and worldly in a sense, but I was surprised at how people reacted to it—how strongly they saw themselves in it—and it became more than just a book club. It really is a declaration of who we are. You don’t know what’s in my mind, you can’t judge me simply by looking at me in the world, and there are so many things that black women have to contend with, whether it’s stereotypes or misconceptions, and simply, this is the statement that I am a well-read black girl. It means so much because it’s pushing against the stereotypes.
RIF: You write this beautiful introduction that’s very moving in the anthology, but I want to hear a little bit from you about when you first saw yourself in literature, reading as a young woman and finding these authors and characters that felt like you.
GE: I mean, there have been so many moments in my life where I feel like I’ve seen myself in a book, and for me, it started off very young. I was about eight years old when I read the book Honey I Love, and I saw it on Reading Rainbow with LeVar Burton. He’s so wonderful, and he’s just the man when it comes to having the first, original reading recommendations. My mom got that book for me from the library and would read it to me continuously, and in the illustrations and the words, I literally could see myself. The photos are in black and white, and they have this beautiful black girl who’s playful, and she has curly hair and big eyes and full lips, and I literally thought that was me. And the poems she wrote were really about everyday, simple things—about going to the grocery store or playing on the playground and being with her little brother—things that I did. In reading that, I began to see the everyday needs of my life could be poetry, and they could be appreciated. And I could write those similar things, too, so I started a journal to write my own stories, but I didn’t understand how profound that was until I was older. I didn’t realize that not everyone had that opportunity to see themselves reflected in the pages of a story.
RIF: How vital is it for representation in books, and the ability for every little girl to see themselves in a book? Or to grow up and to see characters of color who are flawed, multifaceted, strong and badass? Why do we need more books like that?
GE: It’s important to have clear reflections. I say that word often because, without it, you’re not able to feel fortified. So much of the anthology is not only essays and stories, it’s really the memories of the contributors and when they first saw themselves, and how those reflections allowed them to become writers. And if you don’t have that, I think what starts to develop is a yearning, like you don’t even know you’re missing out on this really pivotal thing that can launch you into a whole new career. Imagine if Jacqueline Woodson hadn’t read the books she read. She would not have been able to create Another Brooklyn or Brown Girl Dreaming.
It shouldn’t be something we ask for, it should just be readily available—it should be on our school reading lists, and we shouldn’t always have to read stories by old white men. We should have the ability to re-imagine what the literary canon is and put new, fresh voices, and not erase the stories of black women and people of color. And I’m really proud to have, in my opinion, a quite small role in that. I just want to have the chance to amplify and give visibility to the stories I loved as a child, and show the world that there is a whole new world of stories and writers and books we need to celebrate and give just as much love to.
RIF: Let’s talk about the anthology for a second. You have these incredible contributors, like Morgan Jerkins, Nicole Dennis Benn, Zinzi Clemmons, Tayari Jones, and Jesmyn Ward, and then you have conversations with Lynn Nottage and Jacqueline Woodson. What was it like to edit this collection? What was the coolest or most surprising part?
GE: I can go through so many moments. The first part is, it’s Jesmyn Ward and Lynn Nottage. These women are prolific in their writing, so to be in communion with them and talk about their craft and how they became writers themselves, that was such an honor to hear their stories and to be in communion with them and read their work. I was able to learn so much in the process about how to curate a story, and how to find the best pieces to make it feel accessible and genuine.
That was a powerful thing for me to witness: how the stories can be tailored and edited down so you can carry them, whether you’re 16 or 65, and you can pull something away from it. There’s a feeling of nostalgia; there’s an intergenerational conversation happening. That’s what I’m trying to replicate on the Instagram account, or within the book club, and in the anthology. I want you to feel like you’re having a conversation with your favorite author, and they’re sharing a bit of wisdom about their life, and you can take that in and apply it to your own life.
I hope the takeaway for readers is: tell your story! Black women have the ability to tell their own stories, and they can be clear and concise and unapologetic with that to you. There’s so much in the book about defining oneself and doing it boldly and broadly and without reservation. I’m learning to be more assertive and growing into my role as the leader of this organization and being able to help amplify the voices of other people, because I started this with the goal of simply talking to people about books I love. It’s really about the voices of so many black women whose manuscripts may not be read, or may not be given as much opportunity as they should. If I can help people see that and gain more visibility, I feel like I’m on the right path and staying on mission.
RIF: In reading this collection, you have these incredible additions from each of these women. To me, it felt like a chorus of voices, sopranos, and altos mixing in this gorgeous harmony.
GE: That’s so good to hear, because there are so many multitudes.
RIF: Everyone’s hitting a different note, but they come together in this symphony of amazing sound.
GE: Oh my gosh, I’m so glad to hear that. I really feel like I’m part of a lineage of so many incredible writers. I feel like this is an opportunity, a responsibility, for me to continue to advocate and help people rise to the surface. Especially right now, when it feels like the political landscape is so dire, and we need to be inspired and to know what it means to not give up. We can read these stories and feel a sense of possibility, to re-imagine what the world could look like.
It’s beyond just publishing—it’s about black women in the world. I truly believe in reading as a form of activism; we’re reading these things to fight the misconceptions and the stereotypes of black women, but we’re also reading these things so we continue to be informed and educated and politically aware. The books that I choose, and the stories in this anthology, are very intentional. They’re giving a message that’s about the importance of telling your own story.
Author Photo: © Jai Lennard