Illustration by Victoria Silveyra.
When I was young I wanted to be everything at once. A knight, an astronaut, a writer. I realized I could use the stories I loved to become all these things and more. I soaked up stories in all their forms-in music, movies, TV shows, books-and let them become part of me. I spent my time trying to live my life vicariously through stories.
I wanted to bargain with a sea witch and go to foreboding castles with talking furniture. I wanted to train to be a hero with a satyr and ring the bells of Notre Dame. I wanted to cast spells at Hogwarts, find Narnia, and brave Middle Earth all the way to Mordor. As a kid most of the stories I saw were about people older than me and I wanted to grow up to be every single one of them.
People are willing to deny the power that stories have, but they are so important. Stories plant ideas, thoughts, and emotions. They teach. Stories help foster empathy. Fiction or not, stories help people understand themselves and make sense of the world. People are constantly trying to separate fiction from reality in terms of why representation and the messages in our stories are unimportant as if these things aren’t true. But, the storytellers whose stories are known are the ones who get to preserve their culture and ideals with the popularity of their stories. This said, it’s not hard to understand why certain ideals and aesthetics perforate Western stories and are seen as the norm.
The influence of stories often goes unrecognized by those who are already physically or ideologically reflected in them. I remember thinking the stories that I loved, the lives I wanted to live, couldn’t be a reality for me; not because magic isn’t real or because I was never in the circumstances of heroes. It was because heroines (when they were heroines) don’t look like me. They don’t have dark skin, short hair, and a broad nose. Not only are people like me not the hero, but we usually are not going on the adventures in the first place.
It may seem like such an insignificant thing, but not being reflected within the ideals that were fed to me was devastating. For so much of my life I thought being black was awful. I kept wishing my skin was lighter. I relished in the fact that despite what I looked like, I was still only half black. I spent so long trying to figure out who I was because the world kept telling me I didn’t have many options, real or imaginary. It always seemed like people were telling me who I was and who I was allowed to be. I believed them because I wasn’t being shown anything different.
When I was younger I couldn’t seem to figure out how to be black in a world where that is seen as ugly, unintelligent, and unheroic. When I was young I used to see the women in my stories who went on those adventures or got the guy at the end or were just considered beautiful. Those women were usually not black. What I understood from this was that I was less of a woman (or a girl, at the time) because I was a person of color. It felt like being black made me less of a woman because black women weren’t dainty and soft or known for having long, flowing hair. Because most of the stories I had access to were about white people I couldn’t shake this idea that my growing womanhood was automatically compromised by being black if I couldn’t be a ‘makeup and dresses’ kind of woman, which I’ve never been.
As a kid I associated women with kindness, softness, and long hair. None of these were traits that I saw black women have in stories. Eventually I learned that women are not born but created. There are very few things, if any, inherent about being a woman. Everything is learned and performed and no amount of preconceived notions about what it means to be a woman can change that. It wasn’t even until I stopped believing that “woman” was a very solidified identity that meant one thing that I could start figuring out what being a woman meant to me. Black women were always some sort of other existing outside of even in that strange binary women are expected to exist in; bookish and plain or pretty and shallow. Growing up, because I am black and a woman and regardless of the stigma attached to both, no one prepared me for being a black woman. Because as a young black girl you are taught that you are not smart, not beautiful, barely a woman, and barely visible.
Recently, I got into a comic called ‘Saga’. One of the main characters is called Alana. She is a beautiful dark skinned woman. She is a new mom, a wife, witty, snarky, romantic, kicks ass, and has major flaws. Knowing that a dark skinned woman can be all those things in personality, be beautiful, and exist in a sci-fi is still amazing to me. Even with all the bits and pieces of representation of black women over the years, Alana is one of the few characters that has stirred something in me and probably will continue to for a long time. I wonder how differently I would have seen myself if something like this was available to me as a child. I know people have experiences like this all the time, where they feel their personhood validated when they see themselves in the stories and media they consume. One of the most famous examples is Mae Jemison following her dream to become an astronaut after seeing Nichelle Nichols as Uhura in Star Trek. A black woman was inspired to study a science because she saw herself reflected in a science fiction show; if that doesn’t illustrate the importance of good representation, I don’t know what else does.
I think it’s funny when people protest the discussions around representation because they don’t understand how they would be able to relate to a person of color, member of the LGBT+ community, or someone else who is othered. People of marginalized groups have been consuming and relating to white, cis, heteronormative stories for years. The quest for better representation goes beyond relatability or entertainment value. It’s about being reflected as acceptable in your culture. The lack of representation is one of the most monumental facets of my childhood that still influences me today as I pursue my own story-telling endeavors. In my effort to create, I don’t want people to continue feeling that their experiences aren’t valid because they can’t find themselves in the stories they love. I hope I can help make other people feel less lost, more beautiful, bring them along on the adventure.