Whenever I revisit Toni Morrison’s novels, I’m reminded that Black literary heroines are portals to revolution. Black women deserve full bodies of work like Morrison’s and more. We deserve a plurality of our own stories and main characters.
These characters serve as North Stars, guiding Black women to a new tomorrow rich with imagination, mobility, and empowerment. They resist our erasure and heighten our imaginations through complex, nuanced stories often written by real life heroines. And though they navigate different eras and explore new perspectives and cultures, today’s Black women novelists are continuing the legacy of their predecessors by crafting complex protagonists that expand our visions for Black womanhood and identity.
Debut authors Kiley Reid, Raven Leilani, and Candice Carty-Williams contribute to this legacy with their novels’ lead characters, all complicated Black women adrift in their early- to mid-twenties.
In 2019, Reid released “Such a Fun Age,” in which protagonist Emira is wrongly accused of kidnapping the white child she babysits and must brave the twisted series of events that follow. That same year, Carty-Williams charmed readers with “Queenie,” a tale that follows the British-Jamaican titular character through a troubled year of personal reckonings. And then 2020 brought Leilani’s yearning, intimate narrative “Luster,” which tells the story of Edie, a young woman who gets involved with an older white man in an open marriage.
The literary heroine has played an important historical role in the imagining of possibilities for womanhood, for women of all races and ethnicities. But as a result of existing in the margins, under the weight of stereotypes and finite societal notions of who we can be, Black women have more ground to traverse in terms of discovering who we are.
Building upon the foundation laid by Morrison, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and other literary giants who came before them, the new guard of Black women novelists are molding connective tissue for younger generations with their heroines. As Black women navigate a world that often amplifies the societal expectations placed on us through modern technology and social media, newer Black fiction like the aforementioned debuts reflects this cultural shift.
Yet, the current direction of these novels and their central figures has less to do with their contemporary details or settings and more with their continued and limitless portrayal of the different types of Black women we can be. To that extent, “Such A Fun Age,” “Queenie,” and “Luster” parallel antecedent novels like Morrison’s “Sula,” Walker’s “The Color Purple,” or Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” From Sula to Edie, from Celie to Queenie, from Janie to Emira, the common thread connecting these fictional women is their purpose of expanding the articulation of Black womanhood.
Hurston’s Janie taught me that self-realization is the foundation of true love; Walker’s Celie illuminated my own empowerment through kinship; Morrison’s Sula motivated me to question what it means to be a “bad woman” and that a person can be greater than the sum of their actions, while both Sula and Leilani’s Edie helped me confront isolation and the state of being alone; Carty-Williams’ Queenie revealed that mental health recovery journeys are non-linear, and Reid’s Emira demonstrated the ways in which we as Black women must pivot between different versions of ourselves to survive. Each of these fictional women taught me more about the potential of who I could become.
Through the vessels of these Black protagonists, we are able to ground ourselves in the interconnection: the characteristics, the experiences, the emotions, the things that make us Black women across periods of time. They offer more than a surface level concept of representation. Black literary heroines walk us deeper into who we could be. Without them, our possibilities lie dormant in the shadows of heroines who don’t share our experiences.
Like their foremothers, our modern-day Black fictional heroines serve as a constellation of North Stars, each pointing to a new, promising universe.
Kaitlyn McNab is a freelance writer and multimedia storyteller based in the New York area. She holds a BA from New York University with a self-designed major titled ‘How to Tell Stories While Black.’ Her work has previously appeared in Teen Vogue, Allure, Bustle, and NYLON.