| Arts & Culture
Rekindle How I Became a Scholar of Black Girl Fantasy
These stories had deep histories, centered Black women, and belonged to us. We only had to be brave enough to claim them.
It was my love of comics and Lois Lane that led me to my undergraduate thesis research topic, my decision to apply to graduate school, and my eagerness to try my hand teaching a self-designed course called Superheroes in Society while still in college. I was thrilled as I gave impromptu lectures on the various storylines, histories, and authors behind the mythic character I loved—a nosy but talented writer with a big heart, an eye for justice, and a soft spot for a superhero. But with her traditionally violet eyes, dark hair, and white skin, Lois and I couldn’t be further apart in looks. The particular traits I saw and admired in her—abrasive, nosy, sharp as a tack—were traits that had been often perceived differently in me, a Black girl. In the comics, Lois’s antics are met with mild exasperation, but mostly admiration; my own decisions and backbone often garnered calls home from my irritated high school teachers. Lois is often characterized as “spunky” or “feisty”; I register as a disruption, even a threat.
This was on my mind my entire fourth year of college, because that was the year I felt most like myself. I was emerging from a long depressive episode, and my sharp tongue and keen eye were back. Once again, I got used to hearing that I was difficult, bossy, and argumentative. I began to reconsider all the narratives I had consumed as a child and teen: Harry Potter, Twilight, Pendragon, Percy Jackson, Maximum Ride . In the superhero and fantasy narratives I loved so much, when had I ever encountered characters that behaved and looked like me? When had I ever seen an audacious Black girl exploring new worlds or literally taking flight?
Arriving at these questions was not an epiphany, a moment when everything fell into place. It was a process that included equal parts reading, reacting, reconsidering, and then starting all over again when I picked up a new book. Despite its many ( many ) faults, my time in academia has been the perfect incubator for this process of self-discovery. Teaching “Superheroes in Society” as an undergraduate student showed me the absences: In a class about comics taught by a Black girl, almost my entire class was white. There were only two Black students that I recall—three, if you counted my best friend who, though not enrolled, regularly showed up anyway. It made me hypercritical of the content I was teaching: Was I challenging my white students’ perspectives, or was I affirming their assumption that superheroes were primarily cishet white men—sometimes aided, sometimes distracted by white women with tiny waists—and that these were the only valuable heroes?
As the weather grew warmer and I considered graduate school, I found myself frequently outdoors, reading and rereading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s first Black Panther issue. I read his prose books and his Atlantic articles, immersed myself in news of Roxane Gay’s World of Wakanda , and listened as my filmmaker friend schooled me on Ryan Coogler and what that might mean for the upcoming film. Though my time was up as a student, I realized that this particular obsession of mine was a thread I had to follow. My Black Panther obsession fueled my first two or three years of research in graduate school, focusing on comics within my American Studies program. I was able to do archival research at Virginia Commonwealth University, which has a robust collection of comics. I tried creating a digital project around World of Wakanda .
But when a number of synchronicities and one woman’s generosity led me to 1970s-era Marvel illustrator Billy Graham ’s personal archive of art, comics, and scripts housed at his granddaughter Shawnna Graham’s home—just a fifteen-minute drive from me—new questions bloomed. Shawnna Graham’s curation of her grandfather’s materials made her a comics archivist, at least to my mind. By entering into the comics world, she was claiming her legacy and her right to take up space. These stories had deep histories, centered Black women, and belonged to us . We only had to be brave enough to claim them.
Despite working with exciting primary sources and the comics I loved so much, by my third year of my PhD program, the molten heat of needing to know something—a feeling that I usually carried in my chest, fueling my research—had disappeared. With my dissertation looming, I found that the scope of the project did not encompass all the types of narratives I was interested in, and that my questions no longer excited me. In the process of trying to fold myself into what I thought a scholar should be, I had lost my fire.
In the superhero and fantasy narratives I loved so much, when had I seen an audacious Black girl exploring new worlds or literally taking flight?
It became my mission to find my way back to myself. I read more comics for pleasure, not for research, and more YA fantasy. This time, though, I was wading back in with intention: I was going to consume fantasy narratives and media by, about, and for Black girls and women. It was like a web that slowly came into full view—invisible if you weren’t looking for it, captivating in its complexity if you were, and enough to make you pause if you accidentally ran into it. Following the thread that Roxane Gay began when she wrote World of Wakanda , I investigated the various points and intersections, reading the narratives, scholarship, and journalistic criticism of Black women until I found the work of Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas .
The rapture with which I engaged her book, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games (NYU Press 2019), was instantaneous and intense. The title alone gripped me: Someone had found a way to investigate race in some of my favorite childhood fantasy narratives in a way that was considered “scholarly.” A quick Google search showed me something I hadn’t even realized I found impossible: A Black woman had written this book. A Black woman was loudly proclaiming her love (and valid critique) for stories that shaped me. A Black woman wrote about how Black children respond to having their imaginations formed by rarely seeing Black characters in fantasy media. A Black woman showed me how to make my values, my passions, my positions as Black woman, storyteller, fan, and scholar work in concert.
This was also not one epiphany, but rather a process—yet if I had to identify a singular moment, Thomas’s book is what lit up my dark outlook on my potential career as an academic like a fireworks display. Her work exemplified how to do scholarship that reflected the whole of me, how to bring all the different and valuable parts of myself that inform how I see the world and know . Thomas showed me that I no longer needed to fold myself to be a scholar, but expand. When I held an early copy of her book in my hands, gently running my fingers over cover artist Paul Lewin ’s beautiful, intricate image of a Black woman reaching out to a hummingbird, I thought, Maybe there’s hope for me yet .
Dr. Thomas’s multimedia approach to scholarship, one that centered and valued her identity as a Black woman storyteller, as well as her kindness in exchanges on Twitter, encouraged me to investigate other scholars who were genre-defying and boundary-shattering. I went back to the web, following threads that led me to Dr. Nnedi Okorafor, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, and Dr. Sheena Howard. Each person led me deeper into the constellation of Black women thinkers, writers, and creatives, until I happened upon . Her work frequently appeared on my timeline, often retweeted by scholars and offering incisive commentary. The jump between her poetry ( Dr. Eve L. Ewing Electric Arches and 1919 ) and her scholarship ( Ghosts in the Schoolyard ) seemed logical enough to me—but it was the announcement that she would be writing Marvel supergenius Riri Williams, a.k.a. Ironheart, for a solo run in 2018 that struck me: You could write scholarship, poetry, and comics?
I began to collect with fervor. I found more comics with Black women writers. I searched for Black girls in fantasy films, television, and web series. As before, finding one led me to five more titles, five more authors.
I am the child of very settled people, folks who made their homes a short drive from their families. I am the daughter of folks who worked as an engineer and an elementary school teacher for thirty years and who came home after work to the same house they have lived in since three days before I was born. I assumed that I would be a settled person who followed that same pattern—that I would find a steady, predictable job that would provide stability and allow me to provide for my family. I expected that I would eventually find a house as lovely as my childhood home to return to every weekday at five. I thought my anxious mind would find comfort in this familiar groundedness.
When I saw the creative energy Ewing poured into all of her writing and projects, I felt the glow in my chest return. The realization that I wanted to do the sort of work Drs. Ewing and Thomas were doing made me wonder if I might have to walk away from my meticulous ten-year plan, the one I had expected to follow to land in a place like my parents did, whether I would need to let go of all that kept my feet planted on the ground to fly with no safety net in sight. Academia by nature is unstable, uncertain—you often are forced to go where the (few) jobs are—and now that I also saw myself trying to publish novels, I felt caught between two industries with no guarantees.
Before, I hadn’t known this was a life I could dream for myself. If I wanted it, I might have to let go of the notion that my “normal” would mirror my parents’, and prepare for a radically different life than I’d once planned. I always thought that my parents had prepared me to follow in their footsteps. In reality, they had prepared me to be whoever I wanted to be.
Last year brought a new contingent of Black women authors rolling out fantasy books featuring Black girls. I watched these authors support each other, be in community with each other, as their books started to drop. I embraced my inner siren with Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water , became legendary with Tracy Deonn’s Bree in Legendborn , and allowed myself to rethink what it meant to believe in fairy tales with Sophia from Kalynn Bayron’s Cinderella Is Dead .
The more I read and consumed, the more there was to read. My plate was constantly refilling before my eyes. It felt urgent to reflect on and share what this moment, these books, mean for Black girl readers who need to see themselves on their covers and in their pages. The heat that I felt softened into a consistent, sustaining glow. My dissertation began to form around these works.
But writing alone in my childhood bedroom, where I was living due to the pandemic, soon became frustrating. These authors had become a network, a community, for each other—they hadn’t operated in isolation. Perhaps I didn’t need to either.
It felt urgent to reflect on what this moment, these books, mean for Black girl readers who need to see themselves on their covers and in their pages.
Through my investigation, writing, and thinking, I also became a point in the constellation of writers, editors, fans, and scholars of Black girl fantasy. Twitter facilitated my connection with Black girl fantasy scholar and bookstagrammer Bezi Yohannes , with whom I would eventually cohost the podcast Dreaming in the Dark . A conversation with authors online led to fantasy author Tracy Deonn visiting with students in my Black Girls in Fantasy New Media Narratives course.
I teach at a Predominately White Institution in the South, with a long relationship to slavery, Jim Crow, and its legacies. It is a difficult place for Black students, faculty, and staff to study, live, and work. Some Black students, particularly the Black girls who’ve enrolled in my course, find solace in the little digital space I have carved out for us. My class is a place where they can bring their full selves, their passion for fantasy and magic, and engage with stories and texts that center them and their experiences—all while knowing that the fantasy-loving parts of themselves they might have tucked away for so long, lacking mirrors in the stories they loved as children, are finally, fully welcome here.
So I sit in my makeshift office, a tiny corner of that bedroom, settled in the rocking chair where my mother had once held me, surrounded by Geneva Bowers ’s art and my own. I tell my students everything I’ve learned, hoping that they, too, will discover their place in this stunning constellation.