Seeing Myself in Historical Fiction

In 2013 I resolved to read more historical fiction. I wanted to broaden my horizons, and historical fiction was one of those genres I decided I wanted to become more familiar with. While I didn’t consciously continue the book gap challenge, the hashtag on Twitter that sparked this add to my reading diet, this year, I did still read quite a bit of historical fiction, particularly in the last few months.

Maybe it’s all the racial stuff in the news lately, but I’ve read more about the Civil Rights Movement in the last month or so than I have in my entire life.

And I see myself in these stories in a way that I haven’t really seen myself in stories before. Or in a way I haven’t felt like I needed to see myself before.

One of the reasons I’ve felt the need to see myself and the experience of being Black in stories so recently stems not only from the news, but also from the cultural insensitivity coming from many of my students that I’ve experienced this semester. More of them than ever, none of whom are Black themselves, drop the n-word like it’s nothing or refer to each other as pinche negro. While that phrase doesn’t have the same connotation in Spanish as it does in English, I find that I react to it the same way.

The other reason I’ve identified that the historical fiction about the Black experience speaks to me is recent conversation about procreation. We currently live in an area of the country where there isn’t a large Black population, and given the cultural insensitivity of some of my students, (a) I’m feeling rather alone, and (2) we’d rather not subject our progeny to the same feelings I’m experiencing right now.

But you know, YA saves…

So in the last month or so I’ve read One Crazy Summer, P. S. Be Eleven, Revolution, and Brown Girl Dreaming (which is not fiction). I started Antebellum: A Novel. Even though the times in which these novels are set is different from the time in which I grew up, some of the experiences are very similar.

As I was reading One Crazy Summer and thinking about Delphine’s experience as the oldest sibling, I couldn’t help but thinking about my own oldest-ness, and feeling like I had to be more mature and always set the examples. When, in P. S. Be Eleven, Delphine’s mother kept telling her to be eleven, I thought about being 17 and running the front end of a grocery store, and wanting to be the kind of teenager my friends were – bravely doing things that could get them in trouble. I think Delphine was more aware of her maturity than I was at the time. Going off to meet their mother reminded me of being taken to visit my aunt in North Carolina, an aunt who didn’t really cook, so my sister and I were in charge of making sure we ate the things to which we were accustomed. It felt very grown up and responsible.

In Woodson’s memoir, there are lines that resonate. Lines about hair burning reminded me of flat irons and hot combs in the kitchen and being terrified of having my ears burned. Immense love for her baby brother made me think of my relationship with and my love for my siblings, who I don’t see or talk to as often as I’d like…

And I find comfort in these words. Sometimes I feel like I’m just complaining, like I’m blowing my experiences out of proportion. I’m not. But I also need to find a better way to effect change in my environment.

Oh, and you should read these books because they’re awesome.  Thoughts on reading your own experiences? Or historical fiction? Leave them in the comments and I’ll see you there soon.

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