Vanessa Willoughby

A few years after British actor Tom Felton hung up his Slytherin robes for good, he hit rock bottom. It was the first step toward reclaiming his identity, as it prompted him to ask how and when he left the wisecracking kid from Surrey behind and instead became dependent on the numbing effect of alcohol. In Beyond the Wand: The Magic and Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard, Felton looks back in order to uncover the path forward as he candidly details the surreal experience of being a prominent part of a pop culture juggernaut.

Felton’s first major on-screen role was in 1997’s The Borrowers, an adaptation of the classic children’s book. This opened the door to other promising opportunities, notably playing The Boy Who Lived’s archenemy: sneering, peroxide-blond Draco Malfoy. At the time of his audition, 12-year-old Felton had never read a Harry Potter novel and couldn’t quite understand the breathless excitement that the books inspired.

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Felton spent nearly a decade immersed in the world of witches and wizards, where he became accustomed to a singular life on set. The final stretch of filming was bittersweet, and when it was through, he hoped to transition into a career brimming with star-studded blockbusters and high-end craft services. Instead, Felton’s move to Los Angeles made him feel like a rudderless ship. “I missed having an ordinary conversation with an authentic human, who didn’t know who I was, and didn’t care,” he writes.

Felton’s memoir isn’t a shameless tell-all or a cautionary tale about the ills of fame. He frequently expresses gratitude and praises the skills and professionalism of older actors who were in the Harry Potter films, such as Jason Isaacs and Alan Rickman. He has no problem poking fun at himself, but his moments of self-reflection are compassionate. Beyond the Wand may focus on Felton’s Harry Potter days, but it’s so much more than fan service. With introspection and charm, Felton’s narrative captures the growing pains of adolescence.

In his memoir, Draco Malfoy actor Tom Felton captures the growing pains of adolescence with introspection and charm.

Nothing could have prepared Melanie Jayne Chisholm—aka Sporty Spice—for the loneliness, isolation and debilitating episodes of imposter syndrome that accompanied the extreme highs (and lows) of fame. In The Sporty One: My Life as a Spice Girl, the singer, songwriter and tracksuit-wearing Brit carefully unpacks her nonlinear journey toward self-acceptance while pinned under the glare of the spotlight.

The Spice Girls were a pop culture supernova at the turn of the new millennium. Contrary to the narrative wrought by the misogynistic media, the group was not the brainchild of industry executives. After answering a magazine advertisement, Victoria Adams (Posh), Geri Halliwell (Ginger), Melanie Brown (Scary), Michelle Stephenson and Chisholm came together to form the band Touch. When Stephenson proved to be a weak link, Emma Bunton (Baby) was recruited. It would take a pivotal name change and the reclamation of creative autonomy from their early male managers, but the Spice Girls would go on to smash records and, even more importantly, disrupt the cultural and musical landscape.

6 more celebrity memoirs that capture the grisly details of glitz, glamour and fame

This type of rise at a young age leaves a few scars, and Chisholm isn’t afraid to recount her personal battles. The pressures of being a ubiquitous pop star coupled with her innate perfectionism brought on depression and severe anxiety. At one point after the Spice Girls had gone on hiatus and Chisholm had embarked on a successful solo career, she was nearly agoraphobic and plagued by incessant panic attacks. And despite her public image of health and fitness, the singer was secretly contending with disordered eating, which eventually led to anorexia and binge eating disorders. In 2009, Chisholm gave birth to her daughter, Scarlet. Motherhood wasn’t a cure-all for her mental health issues, but this new caregiver role allowed her to appreciate the extraordinary power of her body and all she has put it through.

Chisholm’s narrative voice is warm, funny and unabashedly real. Fans will feel as though they’ve been invited to an enlightening soul session with a close friend. Hard truths about patriarchal oppression and the fickle nature of celebrity are examined with sympathy and understanding. The Sporty One is more than the memoir of a pop star; it’s an emotional revelation.

Melanie Chisholm, aka Sporty Spice, unpacks her nonlinear journey toward self-acceptance while pinned under the glare of the spotlight.

Once upon a time, in a galaxy not so far away, the hallowed institution of nerdom became mainstream. No longer are the niche predilections of geeks sequestered to the outskirts of pop culture; these die-hard fans have cultivated a recognized movement that can shift the cultural discourse. But for fans like New York Times critic-at-large and poet Maya Phillips (Erou), fandom is more than cosplay, heated debates on social media or narrow-minded stereotypes centered on social awkwardness. In her debut essay collection, Nerd: Adventures in Fandom From This Universe to the Multiverse, fandom is an expansive, transformative source of self-enlightenment.

Like many pop culture aficionados, Phillips’ first brush with fandom involved the original Star Wars trilogy. This early appreciation of George Lucas’ classic space opera opened the door to a lifelong love of other nerdy interests, such as comic books, anime, sci-fi and fantasy. However, the stories she cherished in childhood took on different forms as she grew older. In the chapter “Espers and Anxiety, Mutants, Magic, and Mind Games,” Phillips shows how the anime series Paranoia Agent reveals the nature of power and society’s treatment of mental illness, and how it has led Phillips to better understand herself and her mental health. Similarly, “Do You Know Shinigami Love Apples?” explores Phillips’ relationship to Catholicism and fandom’s hierarchy of belief systems.

As a Black woman, Phillips recognizes that some of her most beloved shows, films and books lack well-rounded representation in terms of race, gender, ability and sexual orientation. In recent years, creators like J.K. Rowling have faced backlash for betraying the seemingly progressive values of their art. Is it possible to divorce an artist from their work? For many people, the answer is emphatically no, but Phillips rejects binary thinking. This isn’t to say that she endorses the more problematic aspects of these creators and their fictional narratives. But as a fan and a professional critic, Phillips sees the value in pop culture’s ability to speak deeper truths, however uncomfortable, about society. Navigating pop culture as a Black fan can be a frustrating exercise in otherness, she writes, but fandom can also be a conscious act of reclamation.

Nerd spans decades of pop culture, smoothly weaving multiple interconnected webs. Phillips indulges in her obsessions, but she’s never afraid to critique and deconstruct. In this engaging compendium of cultural criticism, Phillips successfully proves that the complex discipline of fandom is a valuable piece of humanity’s flawed but hopeful history.

According to cultural critic Maya Phillips, fandom is more than cosplay and internet discourse. It’s an expansive, transformative source of self-enlightenment.

Fashion can tell powerful stories. Anyone who’s seen The Devil Wears Prada and memorized Miranda Priestly’s iconic cerulean blue monologue knows that clothes aren’t just strips of fabric; they’re tools of alchemy, malleable pieces of living history. For Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of British Vogue and the magazine’s European editorial director, fashion is a sacred language learned through equal parts struggle and dazzling triumph.

In Enninful’s debut memoir, A Visible Man, the creative juggernaut peels back the onion-skin layers of his meteoric rise to international success. Born in the port city of Takoradi in Ghana, Enninful immigrated to the United Kingdom with his family in the 1980s. They settled in Ladbroke Grove, London, where 13-year-old Enninful began to cultivate his innate sense of personal style and a budding fluency in the visual arts.

Enninful’s ascension into the upper echelons of fashion is practically a modern fairy tale. The men’s fashion director at the British magazine i-D recruited 16-year-old Enninful for modeling after a chance meeting on the Tube. At 18, Enninful became the youngest person at any international fashion publication to hold the role of fashion director. It was a monumental opportunity that was promptly followed by parental disapproval. Enninful’s father, who had assumed his son was an obedient follower of African cultural traditions, kicked his son out of the house. In response, Enninful dove headfirst into the hustle and grind of i-D, propelled by his unquenchable thirst for all things beauty and glamor.

In many ways, Enninful’s crash course in style education at i-D paved the way like a yellow brick road. In 2014, he was awarded the British Fashion Council’s Fashion Creator award. In 2016, he was made a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his services to diversity in fashion. By 2017, Enninful had earned the crown jewel of his impressive resume: He was appointed the first Black editor-in-chief of British Vogue.

However, these soaring highs often competed with disheartening lows, such as the death of his beloved mother, a series of major surgeries to correct exacerbated eyesight problems and his field’s persistent racism. The fashion industry is founded on aspirational whiteness and shaped by arbitrary exclusivity; marginalized identities are nonexistent at worst and tokenized at best. Enninful, as a gay, working-class, Ghanaian British immigrant, doesn’t depict himself as a victim of these realities in A Visible Man, but he doesn’t deny or sanitize the industry’s institutional racism or the challenges of fighting for inclusivity.

Fashionistas and Vogue disciples will revel in this inside look at the fashion world and appreciate the author’s frank anecdotes about familiar members of the glitterati, but anyone who reads Enninful’s memoir will understand the importance of his professional and personal trajectory. A Visible Man is the culmination of blood, sweat, tears and limitless imagination.

Fashionistas and Vogue disciples will revel in Edward Enninful's memoir: a culmination of blood, sweat, tears and limitless imagination.

America may have abolished Jim Crow laws, but prejudice is a clever shape-shifter. Certainly, the black experience is not solely defined by injustices inflicted by white America. Regardless, the black experience in this country cannot be discussed without the ever-looming menace of racism and the complementary institution of white supremacy. These four recent releases offer a nuanced spectrum of views on what it means to be black in America.

For many Americans who believed in the concept of “colorblindness,” the election of Donald Trump abruptly shattered the myth of a post-racial America. Yet for many minorities, the unapologetic racism and bigotry that helped elect Trump served as a reminder that the institution of white supremacy is alive and thriving. At a young age, Patrisse Khan-Cullors learned that blackness functioned as a target and watched as racism chipped away at the humanity of her loved ones. Yet Khan-Cullors, who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, found strength within the unconditional love she held for her family, which provided a refuge from the dehumanization tactics of white supremacy. The title of her memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist, co-authored with asha bandele, references the labeling of Black Lives Matter as a terrorist movement by conservative media outlets, politicians and government officials. According to a report leaked by Foreign Policy, the FBI’s counterterrorism division determined that “black identity extremists” were a violent group of domestic terrorists. Activists such as Khan-Cullors cite this assessment as an example of dog-whistle politics. For those under the banner of white supremacy, it’s deemed radical to say that black lives matter—because black people are rarely seen as human.

HARD TO SAY
Talking about race in America can feel like chatting with a mouth full of thorns. Even for the white Americans who vow to be allies, talking about race is taboo: If you’re not racist, then why are you noticing skin color in the first place? Equal parts an excavation of personal history and a piece of sharp political commentary, author Ijeoma Oluo inhabits a narrative tone that is neither condescending nor coddling in So You Want to Talk About Race. Racism in America can take the form of so much more than the “N” word, and here Oluo astutely dismantles issues such as police brutality, cultural appropriation and microaggressions, and the pervasive, poisonous power of racism and white supremacy. Balancing the intimacy of a memoirist with the dedication of an investigative journalist, Oluo recognizes that her offerings are a starting point. The work required to effectively battle racism can begin with conversation, but if these principles are not put into consistent practice, then lasting change has little chance. Systemic racism benefits from silence just as much as it thrives under white liberals who refuse to check their privilege—those who assume that proximity to their black friend, love interest or neighbor proves that they are not complicit. So You Want to Talk About Race argues that with the right tools, discussions about race in America can serve as bridges rather than battlefields.

FINAL WORDS
In 2014, the killing of 43-year-old Eric Garner, a black Staten Island resident and neighborhood fixture, was caught on video. The footage shows white New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo wrestling Garner to the ground and using what appears to be an illegal chokehold. Garner struggles, uttering those infamous last words, “I can’t breathe.” The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide. Regardless, a grand jury chose not to indict Pantaleo on a charge of murder. In I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street, a carefully constructed and researched portrait of Garner, Rolling Stone staff writer and author Matt Taibbi utilizes the tragedy to hold a mirror to the degrading, demoralizing and crippling manifestations of American racism. I Can’t Breathe not only examines the wide-reaching effects of racism but also specifically breaks down how the ideas of “law and order” contribute to a system of racist, predatory policing. Although Taibbi recognizes that Garner had his flaws, he pushes beyond them to compile a rich, nuanced depiction of a devoted family man who became yet another victim of bad luck, unforgiving environmental circumstances and the racially fueled injustices of the country’s police forces. I Can’t Breathe demands readers ask: Who are the police really intended to protect?

AMERICAN GLORY
When we think of the black renaissance, we typically conjure images of bustling Harlem streets and flashy zoot suits alongside the black excellence of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. We may even think of Chicago and its cultural icons such as author Richard Wright and playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Memoirist and reporter Mark Whitaker’s Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance is a thoroughly researched celebration of the black community and culture in Pittsburgh from the 1920s through the 1950s. Pittsburgh’s black residents, Whitaker argues, offered cultural contributions that significantly shaped black history—and the nation. With the diligence of a seasoned anthropologist, Whitaker spotlights the city’s stunning feats of black achievement and resilience through the lens of his extensive cast of influencers and icons. While some of the names may be unfamiliar, each subject’s narrative is a nuanced portrayal meant to challenge our country’s often narrow, dismissive version of black history. Cultural heavyweights such as boxer Joe Louis are treated as historical catalysts rather than extraordinary oddities. Black history, as evident in the cultural renaissance of Pittsburgh, is not defined by oppression. Despite the setbacks of systemic racism and discrimination, black excellence flourishes regardless of the white gaze.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

America may have abolished Jim Crow laws, but prejudice is a clever shape-shifter. Certainly, the black experience is not solely defined by injustices inflicted by white America. Regardless, the black experience in this country cannot be discussed without the ever-looming menace of racism and the complementary institution of white supremacy. These four recent releases offer a nuanced spectrum of views on what it means to be black in America.

Black history is so much more than the collective memory of trauma. It would be fundamentally wrong, if not outright degrading, to conclude that that the identities of black men and women are simply limited to their resilience. These four books showcase the rich spectrum of black identity.

The sacrifices that black women make in order to practice resistance and seek social and political freedom are too often diminished by the expectation of selfless service. However, in DaMaris B. Hill’s poetry collection A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland, she utilizes the powerful narratives of black women from history such as Harriet Tubman and Fannie Lou Hamer, alongside rarely celebrated figures relegated to the shadows, to give these women a chance to exist beyond the roles of activist or martyr.  By utilizing biographical research and black-and-white archival photos, in conjunction with her verse, Hill creates an intimate atmosphere that allows for a rich exploration of fully formed heroines. Hill recognizes that these women don’t have to be perfect representations of freedom fighters in order to garner respect, sympathy and admiration. While racism and bigotry may have bound these women physically, mentally and/or emotionally, their narratives are not bound by struggle. For Hill, these women are not anyone’s mules: They are soothsayers, truth-tellers, mavericks and revolutionaries.

For author, professor and acclaimed academic Emily Bernard, facing adversities as a black woman in America has spawned the invaluable and hard-won ability to take control of her own narrative. Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine consists of 12 personal essays brimming with equal parts hope and fury, joy and pain. Whether exploring the delicate dynamics of her interracial marriage, the haunting memory of being stabbed by a white man while she was a graduate student at Yale or the process of adopting her twin daughters from Ethiopia, Bernard’s writing is intimate, honest and unafraid of diving into gray areas. Although society at large may deem the black body—and by extension, blackness—as synonymous with suffering, Bernard’s collection doesn’t shy away from the fact that sometimes scars are proof of life beyond the state of survival.

The official start of the civil rights movement is often linked to the day that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Yet in Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel highlights a horrifying case of racial violence and brutality that propelled President Truman to directly address civil rights issues, namely the violence facing black veterans returning from World War II. On February 12, 1946, decorated black veteran Sgt. Isaac Woodard was on his way home to South Carolina via a Greyhound bus. Following a disagreement with the bus driver, Woodard was removed from the bus in Batesburg, South Carolina, by the town’s two-man police unit. Without allowing Woodward to finish explaining his side of the events, Chief Lynwood Shull struck Woodard in the head with his police baton, placed the veteran under arrest, repeatedly beat him to the point of unconsciousness and left him in a county jail cell overnight. Woodard was beaten so severely that the violence resulted in permanent blindness. Gergel’s reconstruction of this moment in history is both enraging and heartbreaking. With a clear-eyed view of the ripple effect of shocking acts of violence, Gergel traces how the blinding of Woodard ignited black communities, the NAACP and sympathetic allies to seek justice and demand that Truman take action. Combining research and a deep knowledge of the country’s legal system, Gergel exposes America’s longstanding legacy of brutalizing black bodies to preserve a vision of America fueled by the destructive force of white supremacy.

Despite their scars, not all historical heroines should be considered tragic figures. For black women at the turn of the 20th century, their struggles involved indignities faced not only because of the color of their skin but also because of their gender. Yet the double-edged sword of being both black and female couldn’t keep some women from pursuing self-autonomy and self-governance, as chronicled in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. Guggenheim fellow, author and Columbia University professor Saidiya Hartman sheds light on women who refused to conform to societal bonds and malicious institutions that were determined to keep them downtrodden, enslaved and hopeless. For Hartman, the purpose of this meticulously researched collection is not to wallow in despair, but to celebrate and lift up the plethora of black women who are largely absent from history books. Hartman argues that by rejecting the expectations of their gender and race, these women are unrecognized revolutionaries who were committed to self-discovery in spite of the obstacles obstructing their paths.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Emily Bernard for Black Is the Body.

This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Black history is so much more than the collective memory of trauma. It would be fundamentally wrong, if not outright degrading, to conclude that that the identities of black men and women are simply limited to their resilience. These four books showcase the rich spectrum of black identity. The sacrifices that black women make in order […]

The opioid epidemic has ravaged the nation and claimed the lives of thousands. How did we, as a nation, get to this point? How did the medical practice of “pain management” become a for-profit scheme conducted by pharmaceutical companies seeking to keep addicts as repeat customers?

Charlotte Bismuth’s Bad Medicine: Catching New York’s Deadliest Pill Pusher provides detailed insight into how America’s opioid problem can be pinned not to a single moment or person but to the negligence of systems intended to improve vulnerable people's lives, and to the indifference of people in positions of power within that system. Rather than placing the blame on a definitive cause, this knowledgeable account emphasizes overarching systemic failures, rooted in the greed of those who are meant to “do no harm.”

Bismuth, a graduate of Columbia Law School and a former prosecutor, describes the case of Dr. Stan Xuhui Li, the first doctor in New York state charged for and convicted of homicide based on the overdose deaths of his patients. Bismuth joined the New York County District Attorney’s Office in 2008 as an appellate attorney, and in 2010 she transferred to the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor. In December of that year, the office received a tip from an NYPD detective about a physician who was “prescribing medication to young kids who don’t need it.” Bismuth was asked to dig into the complaint, which kicked off her yearslong journey of bringing Li to justice.

The doctor, who was based in New Jersey and employed as an anesthesiologist at a teaching hospital, had opened a basement clinic in Flushing, Queens, that soon became a popular pill mill. Li was found to have written prescriptions for patients even after concerned family members begged him to stop. And though he didn't physically force patients to abuse their medications, Li’s actions, or rather lack of actions, contributed to the overdose deaths of 16 patients, “some within a few days, some within a month or a few months; others within a year” of their last meeting with Li at his office.

Bismuth writes in the author’s note that her book “does not purport to be a journalistic overview” but “a memoir from the trenches.” Told in nonchronological order, Bad Medicine isn't a stuffy, detached reenactment of the trial. Bismuth provides the necessary background to contextualize the opioid crisis, the evolution of related laws and the requirements of legal procedures, but she also shares the personal chaos that influenced her courtroom battle, including the breakdown of her marriage and contentious divorce, the demands of parenting and the crushing dread of depression and anxiety.

Some readers may wonder why the narrative switches focus from chapter to chapter, hopping from the nitty-gritty aspects of building a case to reflections on the author's inability to live up to her own expectations in her personal life, but the overall result shows Bismuth’s commitment to a higher calling. Bismuth came to know the victims’ surviving relatives as well as the deceased themselves. She portrays Li not as a doctor who cared too much or trusted his patients to a fault but as someone who had all the right educational training and chose to keep endangering his patients anyway—whose apathy and need for financial gain overruled his sacred duty as a doctor.

The greatest strength of the book is the author’s ability to break down the legal jargon of the court system and the prosecution’s evidentiary path to conviction. The text links each piece of evidence in a clear path to confirm Li’s self-serving motivations, despite the jumps in the timeline. Bismuth humanizes Li’s patients and does not pass judgment on their substance abuse problems.

For readers who prefer more of a straightforward nonfiction account that centers on the scientific data rather than the messiness of the human condition, Bismuth’s work may be too close to the bone. However, Bismuth does not claim to offer the final authoritative take on the opioid epidemic but instead provides one important piece of the puzzle.

Charlotte Bismuth provides detailed insight into how America’s opioid problem can be pinned not to a single moment or person but to the negligence of systems intended to improve vulnerable people's lives, and to the indifference of people in positions of power within that system.

In 2013, the phrase “Black girls are magic” was introduced to subvert the dehumanizing narrative attached to Black girls and women. The phrase, originally credited to feminist writer Cashawn Thompson, became the viral hashtag #BlackGirlMagic. Embraced by celebrities and public figures, such as Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg, singer-songwriter Solange Knowles and singer-songwriter and actress Janelle Monáe, the mantra is intended to uplift Black femmes in a society that maintains systemic racism and violence to oppress marginalized people.

Yet Shayla Lawson, the director of creative writing at Amherst College and author of three poetry collections, seeks to look beyond the notion that Black girls are magic. This Is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope not only spotlights the nuances of Black womanhood but also rejects the claim that their power is rooted in an inherently superhuman or supernatural disposition.

Navigating the world as a Black girl means being simultaneously seen and not seen. Lawson examines how the private inner lives of Black girls are routinely misconstrued, misunderstood and vilified by the institution of whiteness. The work’s dedication page shares this Toni Morrison quote: “Racists always try to make you think they are the majority, but they never are.” Morrison was not afraid of speaking her truth, even if it meant losing the favor of white literary critics and readers. As witnessed in her famous interview with Charlie Rose, Morrison had no interest in writing for a white audience. Lawson, like Morrison, is not attempting to explain Blackness or Black girlhood to white people. Consequently, her self-reflection is not a means to make Blackness more palpable for the white gaze.

In the collection’s opening essay, “You Are Here,” Lawson invokes a wide range of creative ingenuity: Grace Jones, Diana Ross, Josephine Baker, SZA, Simone Biles, Janet Jackson and more. Lawson calls upon these influential women to highlight their brilliance, resilience and ability to thrive in a world determined to cut them down. These women are very different, but they all prove one monumental truth: There is no one “right” way to be a Black girl. We are able to take on many forms; we can resurrect ourselves.

Yet, despite a Black girl’s ability to transform, this does not mean we are otherworldly. In “Black Girl Magic,” Lawson notes, “Black Girl Magic relies upon a white conception of supernatural blackness in order to make girls special.” Thompson’s movement “focused on Black Girl Magic as a state of being” and is significant, but its social media-friendly version “makes black girlhood a commodiity, a list of attributes you don’t have to be us to reproduce.” Black girls are magic, but Black Girl Magic “doesn’t set us free.”

Notably, freedom is a topic that is explored repeatedly throughout Lawson’s essays: What does it mean to be free? What does freedom cost? How do Black girls get free? And once you get free, how do you stay free? Whether she’s discussing the politics of Twitter popularity, the pitfalls of interracial dating, the ever-shifting cultural definition of “black” or the reality of gentrification, Lawson is a master of her craft. Her keen poetic sensibilities sharpen topics that may seem amorphous or expansive. She doesn’t present herself as the representative of all Black girls, but she seamlessly blends deeply personal memories with overarching moments in history and pop culture. The result is a sense of familiarity between the writer and the Black women who pick up this book.

Near the end of the book, the essay “Diana Ross Is Major” dissects the musical and cultural legacy of the Supremes frontwoman. Lawson uses the black-and-white image of Diana Ross enjoying a rib in her hometown of Bessemer, Alabama, as a structural bookend. The photo, taken in 1997 by Ruven Afanador, captures the singer in a silky slip dress and fur-accented shawl, hair done in a voluminous Afro, the rib stripped to the bone. Lawson contemplates how Ross not only broke barriers but also offered an unprecedented and radical vision of Black femininity. Racial caricatures of Black women have always relied on the assumption that Black women cannot be soft. These tropes portray a Black woman’s strength as brute aggression: the Angry Black Woman, the Strong Black Woman, the Sapphire. Additionally, a Black woman’s sexuality is seen as deviant or immoral, as evidenced by the hypersexuality of the Jezebel stereotype. The Mammy, another trope that can be traced back to Hattie McDaniel’s character in Gone With the Wind, is subservient, a devalued matriarch whose selflessness is born out of fierce loyalty to everyone but herself. None of these roles cast Black girls as worthy of protection or tenderness. Lawson argues, “Ross made black women visible in a time when we weren’t seen at all, and definitely not in our entirety.” When we think of “major” Black women changemakers, you can’t include someone like Nina Simone without someone like Diana Ross.

In This Is Major, Lawson doesn’t aim to provide all the answers, but the journey is certainly commendable, real and undeniably striking. Lawson’s voice can be smooth like honey or cut to the quick. This essay collection is a necessary study of self-enlightenment and the unique power of Black girls: We contain multitudes. And while it’s forever imitated but never duplicated, our influence reaches beyond expectations, moving like water.

Shayla Lawson, the director of creative writing at Amherst College and author of three poetry collections, seeks to look beyond the notion that Black girls are magic. This Is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope not only spotlights the nuances of Black womanhood but also rejects the claim that their power is rooted in an inherently superhuman or supernatural disposition.

A wise rap group from Staten Island once delivered a succinct definition of post-Reaganomics economic theory: “Cash rules everything around me.” For many millennials, student loan debt is a source of shame, anger and disappointment—a false bill of goods created by a broken system using the manipulation tactics of a seasoned multilevel marketing company. According to Forbes, student loan debt in 2020 shows no signs of slowing down; there’s a reported “45 million borrowers who collectively owe nearly $1.6 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S.” Echoing the sentiments of many people in author Michael Arceneaux’s age group, I Don’t Want to Die Poor is a candid study of the hydra-like power of student loan debt and, as a result, the rising cost of freedom.

Arceneaux, a 2007 Howard University grad, is not looking for pity. Rather, this collection argues that what is truly pitiful is the state of our country’s education system, wherein higher learning, like health insurance and its associated medical expenses, can sentence already disadvantaged people to further hardship. In terms of Arceneaux’s own student loan debt, the book is a reminder that privilege always grants access to opportunity. Essays cover the pitfalls of the gig economy; the crushing impact of debt on mental, emotional and physical health; living up to cultural, societal, familial and personal expectations; the crutch of self-serving coping mechanisms; and capitalism’s ability to commodify the basic need for human connection.

Arceneaux is as entertaining as he is insightful. While pop culture references come fast and furious (the Real Housewives franchise, “Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta,” Carrie Bradshaw, various R&B starlets and 90s chanteuses, vernacular and slang familiar to habitual browsers of Black Twitter, etc.), they don’t distract or take away from the overall narrative themes. In less skilled hands, the humor could feel forced and repetitious. However, Arceneaux found his voice online, having carved out a space where both vulnerability and nuanced critical thinking work together to reflect on the contradictions of our world. His voice is as familiar as that ride or die friend who isn’t afraid of your mistakes and has stuck around without judgment.

In the essay “Shrinkage,” Arceneaux writes, “You have to be able to afford choice. Happiness is expensive.” What do we lose when we let fear rule our life—the fear inspired by money and the lack thereof, the nightmarish anxiety induced by failing to conquer capitalism’s twisted labyrinth? We dehumanize ourselves. We begin to believe that our worth is dependent upon our gross net, that our value is determined by how far our money can go. Arceneaux’s essays are a reminder that debt (particularly for the generation of young people who graduated on the heels of the 2008 recession) is not indicative of one’s character. As he advises in the title essay, “Learn to forgive yourself.” Student loan debt is not a death sentence but an indictment of broken systems and the unjust, corrupt institutions that keep them alive.

Echoing the sentiments of many people in author Michael Arceneaux’s age group, I Don’t Want to Die Poor is a candid study of the hydra-like power of student loan debt and, as a result, the rising cost of freedom.

In her memoir, Motherhood So White, Nefertiti Austin provides valuable firsthand insight into what it means to be a black single mother and to reject the constraints of societal expectations.

When Austin decided to adopt her son, August, a black boy placed in the California foster care system, she was met with criticism and disbelief, especially from her own family. They couldn’t understand why she wanted to legally adopt a stranger, an outsider. For many black people, adoption is a cultural custom reserved for white people, unless you had “a connection with that child, even a tenuous one.”

As a child, Austin’s grandparents provided stability and guidance while her parents drifted in and out of her life. Her own adoptive experience had shown her that families, especially black families, didn’t need to be limited to the traditional expectations of one mother and one father, or to the demands of the white gaze.

When she decided to become a mother at 36, Austin had to first become a foster parent, as decreed by California state law. This journey, which eventually resulted in adoption, was not without trials and tribulations. Not only did she face the daily challenges of newfound motherhood, she also had to contend with America’s legacy of systemic racism and discrimination, which renders black mothers either as invisible or as tropes in a dehumanizing narrative.

Austin’s memoir is a natural response to both the erasure of black mothers and the dismissive and demeaning misrepresentation of black motherhood. She relays her experiences with equal parts candor and consideration, careful not to paint communities or motherhood with broad brushstrokes as she dismantles the notion that all “real” families must look and act alike. Motherhood So White is a testament to the power of love as a radical act and an urgent call to reclaim motherhood from institutionalized whiteness.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our interview with Nefertiti Austin, author of Motherhood So White.

In her memoir, Motherhood So White, Nefertiti Austin provides valuable firsthand insight into what it means to be a black single mother and to reject the constraints of societal expectations. When Austin decided to adopt her son, August, a black boy placed in the California foster care system, she was met with criticism and disbelief, […]

The invention of the internet is a double-edged sword: The ease and instantaneous nature of advanced technology have guided the evolution of modern communication as much as they’ve given power to the predators lurking in the unsavory corners of the web. Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls is a timely work that combines the vulnerability of personal experience and the researched, fact-based reporting of nonfiction.

Goldberg, a victims’ rights attorney based in Brooklyn, doesn’t just empathize with the pain and trauma of her clients; she has firsthand understanding of the hell that a perpetrator can inflict on someone’s life. She writes, “Some people call me ‘a passionate advocate’ or a ‘social justice warrior.’ I’d rather be called a ruthless motherfucker.” Before founding her own law firm in 2014, she was battling a deranged ex-boyfriend who had made it his mission to make her “pay” for ending their relationship. His love and adoration seemed to quickly dissolve into the obsessive need for control. The breakup pulled back the curtain and revealed a man who had declared psychological war: spamming Goldberg’s inbox and phone with threatening and violent messages, filing a false police report and harassing her friends and family. The ex-boyfriend’s campaign of terror lasted for a year. And while it had been a harrowing period of time, Goldberg realized a new purpose: becoming an advocate for victims, the advocate she wished she’d had in her corner while dealing with her ex.

Goldberg’s writing is especially compelling when she focuses on specific clients she has helped. There is no such thing as a “standard” victim; the individuals mentioned in the book hail from different socioeconomic backgrounds, ages, geographical locations and genders. While these clients are certainly victims of the vindictive acts of offenders, whom Goldberg classifies as “psychos, pervs, assholes, and trolls,” she doesn’t frame their misfortunes as signs of character weakness or indicators of personal fault. When Macie, a 17-year-old girl, and her mother wanted to hire Goldberg following a schoolwide leak of the daughter’s intimate photos to her then-boyfriend, Goldberg didn’t shame her. On the contrary, Goldberg was truly angry—angry at the boyfriend for violating Macie’s privacy and trust and angry at the gender-biased judgment of the school administration, who decided to punish Macie and not the boy.

While her tone is more conversational than rigidly academic, Goldberg provides solid research to supplement her anecdotes. An important, harrowing look into the dark underbelly of the internet, this book sheds light on the mistreatment of victims and on the society and justice system that often fail them.

Nobody’s Victim is a timely work about sexual harassment that combines the vulnerability of personal experience and the researched, fact-based reporting of nonfiction.

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