When I was 11, I spent the majority of my time watching High School Musical, playing volleyball, and chasing dogs around my neighborhood. In contrast, Marley Dias, the 11-year-old creator of the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign, is revolutionizing the conversation on representation in literature by putting Black girls at the center. Over the past year, Marley has collected more than 7,000 Black girl books, created a zine at Elle Magazine, and interviewed dozens of brilliant women, ranging from Ava DuVernay to Melissa Harris-Perry. Marley began this project because, in her words, she was “tired of reading about white boys and their dogs.” Amen, Marley. Amen.
I really needed the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign when I was growing up. Just like Marley, I was rarely assigned books with Black girl protagonists in school. My mother did her best to provide Black girl books at home. I spent the most time with the story of Addy Walker, the first African-American American girl doll. It’s worth noting that I didn’t really choose to read Addy’s story. My mother had staunchly refused to buy any doll that didn’t have my skin tone. As a child, I bristled at having limited options. But I quickly learned that Black girls were often misrepresented or absent from our media landscape. My mother was fighting a larger battle, and I’m grateful.
I first read Addy’s story when I was seven. Addy Walker was born into slavery in 1855. She introduced me to a world wildly different from my own and from other American girl dolls. While the other girls were selling newspapers or playing hopscotch, Addy was clawing her way out of bondage, her family torn apart and sold to the highest bidder. She had moments of happiness and triumph, but Addy’s life was marked by grief, struggle, and trauma, and it frustrated me. I wanted to see the lives of Black girls like me. I wanted to read about free Black girls, smart Black girls, funny Black girls, and creative Black girls. Eventually, I stopped playing with my Addy doll. I stopped reading her stories. I felt guilty, but Addy’s story angered me for reasons I couldn’t explain at the time.
I can now recognize that the problem wasn’t Addy’s story. Despite a life of hardship, Addy was a funny, smart, creative, and eventually, free Black girl. Her story was, and continues to be, important. The problem was that Addy was my only literary window into the life of another Black girl. Because of my limited options, I failed to understand just how diverse and expansive Black girl stories are. That is why the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign is so powerful — it challenges us to learn about the breadth and depth of Black girlhood. It recognizes that students deserve to read about Black girlhood throughout the centuries. Because it’s just as important to learn about Black girls in 1855 as it is to learn about Black girls in 1955 and 2015. There are a million ways to be a Black girl on this earth, and we should celebrate that through literature.
Thanks to Marley’s efforts, we’re moving in the right direction. Thousands of students, from New Jersey to Jamaica, are one step closer to reading Black girl books. Marley’s campaign also serves as a reminder that Black girls are forces of creativity and innovation in their communities. Black girls are more likely than any other group of girls to identify as leaders. They deserve the opportunity to shape their education, because when they do, they expand opportunities for all students.
Make sure to watch our interview with Marley, where we talk about Black girl books, representation, and the importance of centering Black girls in stories and in schools.
Want to donate a book to Marley’s project? Check out her suggested book list!