On: The Autobiographies and Memoirs of Women of Color

blckwoxn writers .jpg

"What a time to be alive" is not something I thought I'd ever write to positively describe the time that we are currently in. Yet,  what other time in history has there been such a growth in the encouragement and dissemination of the voices of womxn of color? On the surface, there seems to have been few other times in American history where the job of narrating the story of our lives— particularly in print form— has landed in our own hands. Where movements of #blackgirlsread and #wellreadblackgirl  are thriving and it's a little bit easier every day to find at least a few examples of authoritative storytelling by people so often "othered" in history. I don't want to confuse the current cadence for a cacophony, because the fight for more representation is not over, but the tune is distinct and sweet. Future Black, Latinx, and Asian writers of autobiographies and memoirs will look back on this moment in history, and see that the giant strides they continue to make had orchestration in our present time. 

In synthesizing this type of literature I'm going to refrain from comparing it to the autobiographies and memoirs of other demographics because that will always appear to be a deficit-based approach, rather than strength-based approach.  The only comparisons worthy of note are to how this particular genre of literature has fared and been produced in years past.  

In most of the self-written narratives that I'll explore below, these womxn are nothing if not strong. Beginning in the 19th and 20th-century, and due to the nature of the time, chances to share histories of black womanhood were limited and sporadic, albeit often for altruistic and noble causes. In the mid-to-late 1800s through to the early 1900s, the genre was comprised of slave narratives and abolitionist campaigns.

harriet jacobs.jpg

Although momentous in the weight of their words, for contemporary readers these early narratives sometimes feel like the fomentation of stagnant views about who we were and all that we could possibly be; namely victims of circumstance trying to persuade others of our human worth [narratives such as: The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave (1831); Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs; The Story of Mattie J. Jackson (1866); The Memoir of Old Elizabeth, a Coloured Woman (1863); From the Darkness Cometh the Light, or, Struggles for Freedom (c. 1891) by Lucy A. Delaney; A Slave Girl's Story by Kate Drumgoold; Memories of Childhood's Slavery Days by Annie L. Burton;]

 Also in the later 19th century and early 20th century, we have literature, essays, articles and pamphlets about woman's suffrage [ works such as: Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman"; and the writings of Angelina Weld Grimke, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and  Gertrude Bustill Mossell a.k.a Mrs. N. F. Mossell]  were followed much later in the mid-20th Century by the writings of civil rights activists [Such as: Gwendyln Brooks, Daisy Lee Bates, Lorraine Hansbury].

gertrude mossell.jpg

Leading up to the American Bicentennial in the midst of second-wave feminism there appeared to be more platforms for womxn of color writers, owing to such publications as Jet, Ebony, Essence, and Ms. Magazine, and although they too often reflected the racial beauty biases of mainstream western media they maintain their history as seminal place-makers for minority representation.

ebony blck womn.png

During this time too, writers such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, Jamaica Kinkaid, Maya Angelou, and Audre Lorde in the U.S. and post-colonial writers such as Flora Nwapa, Mariama Bâ, Urvashi Butalia , Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Anita Desai all helped to usher in spaces for non-male writers of color, the rewards for which we are definitely still reaping.

After the 1980s the cult of celebrity gave rise to more musicians and actors having tell-all type memoirs written [Such As: Marian Anderson, Ethel Waters, Diana Ross, Tina Turner] but for this last genre of [auto]biography, we're really seeing a black bonanza— so to speak— within the last 5 to 10 years to include  comedians, rappers, politicians, journalists, writers, and lifestyle gurus as well.  

So over the last few years, somewhat unintentionally, I began reading more autobiographical works by womxn of color and was always especially delighted if audio-books read by the authors themselves were available (Michele Obama is speaking to me?!). Below is a snapshot of those works which I've enjoyed most and perhaps in the future, I'll get a chance to do Biblio-Bites for some of them; but for now, if you're looking for a good memoir/autobiography here are some to add to your list: 

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir by Daisy Hernández

The Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

American Cocktail: A ''Colored Girl'' in the World by Anita Reynolds [Side note: I read this along with Hilton Al’s White Girls and betwixt the two books the name-dropping was at legit copious levels :) 

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More by Janet Mock

The Crunk Feminist Collective- Essays edited by Brittney C. Cooper, Susana M. Morris and Robin M. Boylorn

All of Samantha Irby’s works

This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe

Hunger by Roxanne Gay

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

We're Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union

Everything is Trash but It's Okay Phoebe Robinson 

Tell Me Everything You Don't Remember by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

Becoming by Michele Obama


The list is ever growing, so please share your recommendations!