Monday, December 26, 2016

4 Ways I Can Totally Relate to "Awkward Black Girl" by Issa Rae: Book Review

I borrowed Issa Rae's book "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl" from my friend's 13-year-old daughter, and couldn't help but feel a sense of joy that at such a young age she would walk away with the gift of knowing that an "Issa Rae" existed.  I knew that at her age--during her first year of high school--or at my age (25 years older), that we could both receive valuable lessons from the writer and creator of the new HBO series "Insecure."

The book is great. I knew it would be great from the moment I heard about it last year. Let me backtrack, from the moment I heard about Issa Rae herself from a few friends who insisted that I "HAD TO" check out her work, I knew that I would like this woman. I knew that whatever she had to say was something that I would most likely relate to because I, even at the age of 38, definitely knew that for the majority of my life (and still, currently?) I was her and she was me: an awkward black girl.

So easy to say now...but at the age of 13, or throughout high school, and even in the early "college years," issues of race and identity were anything but simple. Particularly growing up in Canada. Particularly growing up in Ajax, Ontario. Particularly when you come from an upbringing that is not visible in the mainstream media, or when you look at a reflection in the mirror that is not one that is popularly circulated.

Yes, there were televisions shows, some movies, and a few characters that were around back in the day for young black girls to relate to...but they were few and far between. And they definitely weren't media mavens, building empires, collaborating on television projects for huge networks, and writing NY Times Bestsellers. So while the "image" of Issa as a black woman isn't new...what she represents is totally something groundbreaking.

She's only 31, a native of Los Angeles with a Senegalese heritage. She's Stanford educated, and through a series of trials and errors, moves cross country and back, and a variety of entertaining and humourous life experiences...she has become THE Issa Rae. The Queen of Awkward Black Girls.

In fact, Issa Rae is so incredibly appealing that she makes you want to embrace your inner Black Nerd, and wholeheartedly celebrate your awkwardness. Once you read about her life...even pushing forty...you realize that maybe you weren't so alone all along. Great for me to read this at 38...even greater for my friend's daughter to read it at 13.

Here are 4 ways that I can totally relate to this author, and why her book resonated so strongly with me:

1) Issa listed Gina Prince-Bythewood's "Love & Basketball" as one of the movies that shaped her mind and changed her life as a young woman. "It was the very first time I had seen a woman who was just normal black on-screen..." she says, which completely echoes my thoughts about this movie (one of my all time favourites) as well as "Brown Sugar." While it was great to watch the 'hood flicks like "Juice" (another fave) and "Boyz in Da Hood" (everyone's fave), there was something so sweet and casual about the average black romantic comedy that didn't put blackness on blast, and showed our people as just regular folk, without the dramatics of ill stereotypes taking over the plot. These are the types of movies that drove my personal writing of Canadian Urban Fiction, and the movies that continue to resonate with me: everyday tales of people that look like me.

2) Issa attended a predominantly white elementary school, before moving to Los Angeles where she was shell shocked by what she refers to as the "hair hierarchy." Um, where to begin with this one? Sometimes you don't realize what you're going through, until someone else clearly outlines it almost word for word, and you can't help but nod your head in recognition. Yes, I too attended a school that was mainly white, with sprinkles of ethnicity. At the time, I loved it. I was comfortable. I didn't know any better, after all, and I didn't even feel out of place among my peers. In fact, it wasn't until moving outside of that environment (much like Issa's move to LA) that I became acutely aware of the "hair hierarchy" and the judgement that went along with it. I love this quote: "Despite whatever was trending, I couldn't understand why people were so concerned with how my hair looked when it grew out of my scalp." As a child, I went along with the "perm" and other hair practices forced on me...but when I was old enough to get "woke"...I quickly stopped the relaxers (during my twenties, during university) and eventually transitioned into locs (after graduation). Did I fully understand what Issa refers to as "the history and social implication of my natural hair"...maybe not. But I did somehow end up on the right side of my personal righteousness, despite the fact that the vast majority of my peers were experimenting with bi-weekly hairdresser visits, weaves, and wigs...while turning their noses up at my transitional nappy head and basic styles.

3) Her obsession with the internet. These particular examples made me laugh. Out loud. Because in the secret spaces of early-age social media (MySpace and Hi5), and the chat room renaissance era...I was quite the pro. Again, these are circumstances and practices that I maybe wouldn't have thought twice about, but reading Issa's adventures online and the creative freedom it provided her with as a writer...I totally found a parallel with the comfort and ease I felt in meeting new people, through words and writing. Not to the catfishing level...but just the comfort zone of communication. And lots of it.

4) Her obligation to write about race is hard to ignore. Ditto. Issa mentions that "It's as though it's expected of me to acknowledge what we all already know. The truth is, I slip in and out of my black consciousness, as if I'm in a racial coma.. Sometimes I'm so deep in my anger, my irritation, my need to stir change, that I can't see anything outside of the lens of race." Nuff said.

That is what makes me admire her so much, and feel like we are somewhat on the same creative journey. There's the acknowledgement of growing up feeling like an "unconventional" black girl, just based on environment and circumstance alone. Then there are elements of overcompensating in an attempt to "fit in"...which I would have NEVER EVER admitted in the past, but can clearly see now. And then, there's the adulthood/maturity lens and the racial lens that continues to guide decisions and the overall life journey: there is no way you can avoid talking about all of these things.

There's no way to be an honest artist, and ignore the impact of race in your life and your experiences. There is no way to acknowledge "being black" without HONESTLY acknowledging that even within that blackness, there are stages and levels, degrees of racial performance, and rituals, and lessons every step of the way. These are lessons that most of us had to learn on our own, growing up, and dealing with life day by day. Again, thanks to Issa's book (and her web series, and her TV series), there is a generation of young black woman (awkward, or not) that have references to look at. They have examples, and success stories, and a variation of types to draw from.

My black female role models in the media growing up were primarily American (via A Different World, The Cosby Show, Martin, Living Single, etc.) or were hardcore Jamaicans (via music and video). Issa, and many other "millennials" growing up in this era are lucky because they have NUMEROUS examples to choose from without feeling like they are failing miserably at one, or constantly seeking an alternate viewpoint.

It's all a part of life. Of maturing. The changing face of pop culture. Trends, and opportunities. It's brilliant to watch, and refreshing to see implemented.

Other elements of the book that are worth mentioning, although not particularly "my experience"...

The chapter on Black Women & Chinese Men is hilarious, yet so on point. She notes that they're both on the "bottom of the dating totem pole" in the U.S., and the reasoning is jokes. In conclusion: she recommends that they get together...and make Blasian babies.

Her references to ordering CDs from Columbia House, downloading music from Napster, and logging on to the internet through AOL were just great to read. These references are so generational, and the window of hypeness so small for each of the individual phenomena, that either you get it...or you don't. In this case, I totally did.

God bless Issa Rae. She's dope. I look forward to now backtracking and checking out her web series that started in 2011, and eventually getting up-to-the-times by watching "Insecure" her new show, that just started in fall of 2016.

Most importantly, I look forward to the awesome opportunities that will be there for my friend's daughter, and for my nieces, and other young black girls dealing with varying degrees of identity issues, as they navigate the world as black girls with different talents, tones, family constructions, and experiences...and already start out with solid reflections of themselves all around. There's Shonda (Rhimes), there's Ava, (DuVernay) there's Mara (Brock Akil)...and now, the brilliant Issa. Thank God for them all!



Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

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