Mariama J. Lockington is an educator and the author of the middle grade novels For Black Girls Like Me and In the Key of Us. She holds a master’s degree in education from Lesley University and a master’s of Fine Arts in Poetry from San Francisco State University. Here, Lockington reflects on the joy and pain of growing up as a Black transracial adoptee, and the experiences that inspired her debut YA novel, Forever Is Now, which she describes as her “ode to sad, anxious Black girls.”
When I was in sixth grade, I had an assignment to memorize and recite a poem that meant something to me. This was at an arts camp, where I was excited to study the craft of creative writing for four whole weeks, even if I was one of very few Black kids in the program. I was geeked about this assignment. I went to the library, scoured the poetry section, and found a poem by longtime Detroit poet laureate Naomi Long Madgett. I stayed up late, learning the lines and stanzas, performing for myself in the mirror until I was satisfied.
The next day, I got up in front of my mostly white peers and my white teacher, and I performed my poem selection with a strong voice and sense of pride. The poem, “Herstory,” is about a Black woman who at every turn is told that her dreams are too big and unrealistic. In the poem, the woman wants to act in Shakespeare plays—be like Juliet—but she is told she’s too Black and has the wrong body type for the role. The poem goes on and on, the woman being told “no” at every turn. So the woman ends up dejected, waiting tables and giving up on her dreams. The poem concludes with her failed suicide attempt—and the line: “Next time, I’ll try a gun.” I finished reciting the poem, and this final line, and was met with a loud, uncomfortable silence. My teacher shuffled, cleared her throat, barely looked me in the eyes, said, “Well, that was depressing,” and promptly moved on. I didn’t receive any feedback on my reading, nor questions about why I selected the poem, what it meant to me, nothing. I sat down, hurt and confused, as the next student got up to read her poem, and wondered if I was invisible.—if anyone heard me.
I’d picked this poem, “Herstory,” because even at the age of 11, I had recognized myself in it. No, I was not a suicidal preteen, but I was a deeply anxious, brooding girl, a girl often filled with an anger and grief so loud, it stunned me. As a Black transracial adoptee, raised by white parents, I was often surrounded by white peers and people. I didn’t get many reflections of myself or my experience from the world around me, so I turned to books and stories looking for validation, a sense of belonging. Why did I feel so unheard and invisible sometimes? Why couldn’t I be the standard of beauty I saw in movies and commercials and magazines? What about my Black skin caused people to stare, to call me names, to underestimate or overlook me? For a moment as I was reading the poem aloud, I felt like I wasn’t alone, like I was seen. I felt unstoppable. But then, upon finishing, I was met with the exact same kind of silence that the woman in the poem was.
This moment of dismissal taught me that my experiences as a Black girl would often make white people uncomfortable and would not be considered in the same way as my white peers. It taught me that I was going to have to be the one to give value and meaning to my story, myself, and though it stung, it ultimately lit a fire in me to write stories for girls and kids like me—stories that wouldn’t shy away from holding multiple truths at the same time. And I don’t just have personal stories of being othered as a Black girl to back up my quest for more representation of Black girls in children’s literature; I have facts, too. A report from the National Black Women’s Justice Institute outlines how Black youth experience an average of five racially charged interactions a day, how the suicide rates for Black girls increased by 182% from 2001–2007, and how Black girls are three times as likely to be criminalized and incarcerated than their peers. The mental health, well-being, and childhoods of Black girls are not protected in the same ways as others, and that is why we need young adult books that center Black girlhood, in all its nuance and complexity, and that hold space for both joy and resilience, as well as sadness, rage, and grief.
Forever Is Now is my debut YA novel, and my ode to sad, anxious Black girls and youth who are struggling with their mental health. It’s about Sadie, a 16-year-old bisexual Black girl who is an activist, a poet, an environmentalist, and who also lives with chronic anxiety. When Sadie is diagnosed with agoraphobia, she spends a summer mostly housebound trying to navigate a path back to her community, her voice, and her dreams. I started writing this book at a time when I was struggling with my mental health. It was early in the pandemic, and Breonna Taylor had just been killed by police in my current home state of Kentucky. I was having daily panic attacks, suffering insomnia, and my intrusive thoughts were running rampant. So, as I have often done in times of turmoil, I turned to the page to work out my own anxiety and fear, and out came Sadie’s story.
Not only did I want to write a story that destigmatizes anxiety and depression in the Black community, but I also was interested in the ways we, Black people, reclaim joy amid so much violence and pain. How do we show our love? How do we find our voices even when the world seems determined not to hear us? Being a Black girl in America often means living many truths at the same; it means that sometimes you’ll go unheard, unseen—that you’ll have to make room for your own voice in a classroom full of silence. We need stories that attempt to capture the nuance of this experience, stories that demonstrate that the dreams and lives of Black girls are sacred. These are the kinds of stories I will continue to write, speak, and advocate for as long as I can.
Forever Is Now by Mariama J. Lockington. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $19.99 May 23 ISBN 978-0-3743-8888-1