I used to pretend I was a white girl. Not on purpose! And definitely not in public. Just in my imagination, when I channeled the most relatable, bad-ass and inspirational characters from my favorite books.
I’d walk through the halls of school as Hermione Granger (from Harry Potter, duh). I’d solve problems and create solutions like Violet Baudelaire from A Series of Unfortunate Events. I’d love and care for my family and even twist my hair like Laura Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie.
These characters are awesome, complex and important but damnit, I’m Black! I can never be like exactly like these girls. There have to be some equally awesome, complex and important characters of color out there, right?
After combing through my memory and my bookshelf, I rediscovered eight heroines of color that Little Jolie should’ve known more about but who Grown ass Jolie can still channel as I navigate the world as a bookish Black Girl.
Who is she? Addy was one of the original characters in the American Girl series and the only Black one for a long time. Born in Slavery, she, her mother and baby sister escape North. Over the course of six books, Addy learns to navigate life as a free person, faces against her bullies and even teachers her mom how to read all while remaining plucky and positive.
Why is she a hero? I remember holding my breath as my mom read to me about Addy creeping through the forest and wading through rivers as she escaped on the Underground Railroad. She reminds me that bravery knows no age limits and that family and freedom are the most important parts of life.
Mariam and Laila.
Who is she? Khaled Hosseini’s novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, focuses around two very different women who find themselves married to a foul-tempered man in Afghanistan. They form an unlikely friendship under the Taliban regime and under their shared roof.
Why is she a hero? This book had me on the edge of my seat reading about these women trying to assert themselves in a deadly home and country. It was definitely my introduction into the life changing power of feminism. I learned nothing should stop me in the fight for what’s right.
Who is she? The historical fiction, The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill follows the life of Aminata after she is stolen from Africa and sold into slavery at the start of Revolutionary War, only to escape and return to Africa.
Why is she a hero? If only I could be half as smart and savvy as Aminata. No matter how bleak her circumstances seemed, Aminata always had a Plan B (and C and D and E) to secure her freedom and lead her back home. She reminds me to always be prepared.
Marguerite (or Maya).
Who is she: In her autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, famed poet Maya Angelou explores her childhood growing up in the Deep South and surviving racism, rape and poverty to become the truest version of herself.
Why is she a hero? Even at age seven young Maya taught me that my circumstances can’t control me. Remaining unapologetically myself is the only way to survive.
Who is she? In Alice Walker’s iconic novel, The color Purple, Celie is a young girl struggling to make it through each day trapped in an abusive marriage, all while praying to God and yearning for her long-lost sister.
Why is she a hero? Celie teaches me patience. (Spoiler) Her life eventually becomes more fabulous and full of hope than she could’ve ever imagined. But she had to wait on God and suffer for a long time. Celie showed me the power of hope.
Who is she? I Am Malala is the memoir of the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner whose passion for education earned the ire of the Taliban and the love and support of the entire world.
Why is she a hero? Malala’s “claim to fame” is surviving a bullet to the head just for speaking her mind. She reminds me to find my passion and follow it to the ends of the Earth, to the end of my life.
Who is she? In Zora Neale Hurston’s classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie is the self-assured narrator taking the reader on a journey through her life, loves and moral lessons.
Why is she a hero? Above all, Janie is a survivor. She survives shitty marriages, a hurricane, the loss of love and the gossip of townsfolk. When I think of, I can hold my head up high and know I can face any challenge.
I realize that my favorite POC characters seem to only emerge from real and fictional stories of tragedy. But I think that’s what makes them better heroes for both little Jolie and grown ass Jolie. While the white characters from my favorite novels get magical schools and happy-go-lucky prairie lives, my Black and Brown heroines faced racism, abuse, violence, spirituality and overcame obstacles that Violet, Hermione and Laura rarely faced. Their literary problems are my real life problems. And their solutions can be my solutions.
Black people and people of color are required to constantly suspend disbelief and use our imaginations to relate to characters that have nothing to do with our actual lives and this could seriously warp how we value our realities. The more I love the way Violet Baudelaire ties her hair back with a ribbon, the more I hate my our kinks and curls that a ribbon can’t hold. The more I read about Harry and Lily’s magnetic green eyes, the more I’m bored with my plain old brown ones. The more I read about Katnis and Tris and Bella saving mankind, the less I think someone who looks like me will ever have any impact on the planet, let alone any serious role in a story.
I still love all of my literary heroes (Go go, Gryffindor!) and I’ll always remember the lessons learned in the halls of Hogwarts and in the pages of my other favorite white centric novels. But there are amazing, heroic Black and Brown women hidden in pages on my bookshelf. Why pretend to be white when I can be…myself? In all the bad-assery that was intended for me.