Coming of Age How a Black Girl Learned To Fly
As the plane began to taxi, the first line of the comic Riri Williams: Ironheart #1 danced in my mind: “I was never meant to fly.”
I was in college when I boarded my first airplane. My father had once been on a plane to St. Louis for work; my mother had never been on one at all. She doesn’t like to travel, so my dad doesn’t, because he would never leave her behind. It’s sweet, but by the time I was almost twenty years old, I’d barely left Suffolk, Virginia.
My first flight was a trial run. I started small—a trip with my grandmother to visit my uncle in Key West during spring break my first year of college. During take off, I held onto the armrests for dear life. My stomach rose into my throat. This plane, I was convinced, would simply fall from the sky.
For the three hours from Norfolk to Miami, I sat in the aisle seat, grateful that I could not see out of the window. But I also had an inexplicable desire to look out, to look down. I never did; the idea of being so high implied a long way to fall.
On the way back, my grandmother and I were split up. She sat in another row and I ended up in a window seat next to a stranger. Before we left the ground, I slid the window shade down, leaving only a tiny crack of light. I was afraid of heights, flying, this machine—yet I still wanted the option to look out. I had an insatiable curiosity about what the world looked like from above, mixed with a desire to appear unaffected, as if flight were the most natural act in the world.
During the trip, I glanced at the window several times as I read my Superman comic, to consider just a peek. Finally, as we began our descent and my stomach began to rise again, I flung open the shade and looked out.
The sun was shining above Norfolk, illuminating rows of houses sprinkled around cul-de-sacs, long strips of highway, and cars the size of a child’s toy. My head immediately started to spin. I lowered the shade, trying not to alert my neighbor to my heavy breathing.
I had developed a fear of flying, which was a disappointment to me and my lifelong dreams of traveling the world—to France, in particular. I made the decision to study French out of a fit of preteen rebellion. At school, everyone—my teachers, my parents, my friends—expected me to take Latin, which was ‘for the smart kids.’ I took French instead and accidentally fell in love with the accents, the way words melted into each other, the turns of phrase that couldn’t be directly translated.
I was devoted to my study and let nothing deter me—not even the fact that I was the only student in my French classes. Not ‘the only Black student’ or ‘the only girl.’ The only student . This became an advantage: I was able to tailor my learning experience, which was how I came to Black Studies.
My French teacher was a small, kind woman with short gray hair. She had a penchant for tying colorful scarves around her neck as if she were strolling through Les Tuileries rather than a suburban high school. In my sophomore year, the first piece of work I presented to her was the bande-dessinée I made as my summer project: an ambitious comic in three parts about the adventures I’d had previously in the class, incorporating and practicing verb forms.
Madame realized I was much more engaged when assignments involved creative writing. With her, I translated a scene of Othello into French, planned imaginary vacations to Martinique, and discovered French rap. When I stepped into her classroom, she had my undivided attention.
In return, she introduced me to writers I would come to admire, such as Aimé Césaire, the poet and politician from Martinique, and the Senegalese poet (and president!) Léopold Seghor. I faithfully studied their poetry, despite only understanding half the words at first. Madame was one of the first people, outside of my family, to see how much I loved stories; she used that to reach and teach me.
Madame was one of the first people, outside of my family, to see how much I loved stories; she used that to reach and teach me.
I wrote—always have—as much as I could. My childhood summers were spent writing newspapers for my father, comics about a superpowered family and a novel about a pre-teen detective and her twin sister in Augusta, Maine. As a teenager, I was dedicated to fanfiction, journaling, and National Novel Writing Month. I wrote anything and everything.
At college, I pursued creative writing. My first and only class was stifling; I read Flannery O’Connor and Nathaniel Hawthorne—but I couldn’t relate. The words didn’t move me. It was confusing because I knew words were meant to be felt. My own stories that I offered for critique were misunderstood and discussed with whispered skepticism. My peers, for example, could not understand why a white fraternity denying my Black main character entrance to a party was a conflict worth investigating. The workshops made me second guess myself. I shelved my writing dreams, deciding to study writers and their lives instead.
I studied Black American writers, like James Baldwin and Richard Wright, some of whom sought refuge from American racism in France. This is not to say that they escaped it. In fact, Baldwin writes in his essay “Stranger in the Village,” published in 1953, about how Blackness followed him in curious ways in Europe, explaining the Black man was an abstract problem for Europeans, due to colonization. Racism simply manifested differently.
Deep down, I still fancied myself a writer , and so felt an insatiable curiosity about Black expatriates to France, past and present . I thought there must be something magical about Paris if everyone I’d ever read and loved, it seemed, had passed time there. I longed for a connection with them. And perhaps, through that journey, I might find my way back to words.
In my determination to travel, I never told anyone how anxious flying made me. When I got accepted to my first study abroad trip—two whole weeks to explore Paris— I bought myself a set of suitcases, a new journal, and a plane ticket, as if I’d always meant to fly.
On the flight there, I managed to peek out of the window once. The endless blue of the ocean spread wide below me, so uniform, made it seem as though we were suspended in midair. It was dizzying. After eight anxious hours, I took trembling steps off the plane and into Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Time in Paris was partially spent in class, discussing Baudelaire’s poetry or how the tree-lined boulevards came to be under Haussmann. As soon as we were dismissed, I went to the nearest café for a café au lait, with a copy of Le Monde and my journal at hand.
I wrote constantly. My journal was full by the end of the trip, with writing about sitting in the Louvre by myself, crying because I was overwhelmed by finally fulfilling a life dream; how I found a plaque dedicated to Léopold Seghor along the Seine; how I first saw the Eiffel Tower at twilight, as it was lighting up. I wrote about being a Black girl flâneuse , being mistaken for a Francophone African, and discovering a Black girl who graced the cover of a comic book, Aya, who would become a central figure in my honors thesis years later.
On my way back to the United States, I stuck to watching the in-flight entertainment system and our airplane in miniature moving across a digital Atlantic, counting down the minutes until my feet would touch the ground again. And I never looked out the window.
At least not until 2019.
I found myself in a window seat on a transcontinental flight: Washington, DC to Victoria, British Columbia, to attend the Digital Humanities Summer Institute . As with most cheap plane tickets, I couldn’t pick my seat.
As the plane began to taxi, the first line of the comic Riri Williams: Ironheart #1 danced in my mind: “I was never meant to fly.”
Riri Williams, a fifteen-year-old Black girl from Chicago, is a super-genius. She attends MIT while protecting the world as the heroine Ironheart. At first, I was uninterested in Riri; I didn’t need to see Tony Stark as Iron Man acting as a white savior to this Black girl.
I made assumptions about the character based on the fact that the writer who created her was a white man, whose understanding of a Black Chicagoan seemed rooted in stereotypes; in the Marvel universe, Riri’s best friend and stepfather were killed by stray bullets from shots not meant for them. But when native Chicagoan, sociologist, and poet extraordinaire Eve Ewing got to write Riri’s solo run, I eagerly awaited the first issue.
A Black woman writing Riri makes all the difference. Issue #1 begins with Riri’s narration, “I was never meant to fly,” juxtaposed with Luciano Vecchio’s illustration of this young Black girl in the sky, face tilted to the sun, going on to quote Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise.” In just two pages, Ewing introduces a character steeped in a legacy of Black feminist writers who defied everything that was meant to ground them, and soared.
As the plane sped down the runway and Riri’s words rang in my mind, anxiety loosed itself from my heart. The wheels rose into the air and so did I. I could all but see my fear, the baggage I didn’t need for this trip, stuck on the ground precisely where I had left it.
I think about all the ways I am not meant to fly.
I think about my pursuit of a PhD and how Black girls like me have historically been barred from pursuing education. I think about how the spaces I occupy in the Academy don’t mean for me to thrive because my presence was unimaginable to those who originally conceived of it. I think of how I have successfully run a blog that amplifies Black women’s voices and experiences in the Academy for three years, how I write my way in.
I could all but see my fear, the baggage I didn’t need for this trip, stuck on the ground precisely where I had left it.
I think about how Black girls like me weren’t meant to get this far and how I’m here anyway, how we do so by finding, lifting, and supporting each other as we climb. My blog has provided me with a community of Black women who I know will catch me if I stumble and walk next to me on this path, wherever we may travel.
Black girls like me weren’t meant to travel without being under surveillance. Historically, Black mobility was limited by Black Codes and Jim Crow, laws that placed restrictions on the jobs Black people could hold and the public places we could occupy, which resulted in further legally disenfranchising, limiting and surveilling Black people. Even now—in the 2000s, 2010s, today—the fact that my hair is patted down every time I try to board a plane shows how surveillance of Black women’s mobility has (and hasn’t) evolved.
Our bodies, our hair, our voices, our emotions take up space when the white society around us so wants us to be invisible. Our rage marks us as dangerous and unstable, when we know that, as Audre Lorde writes, “anger is loaded with information and energy.” So every time I am considered an “angry Black girl,” I smile. We know it is, Brittney Cooper says, our super power.
Every time I find myself in a place that was not designed with Black girls like me in mind—a classroom full of white peers who whisper about my “sensitivity” to reading narratives about how enslaved people were treated; a public lecture about race in which I am the only Black face in the room—I am determined to take up space and I hold space for others to do the same.
I have come into my own as a writer who is less concerned about following the rules and constraints of my profession and more about flying—not walking—in my purpose. I have found pockets of solace at my institution where I can construct spaces for Black girls trying out their wings through working with student groups, my institution’s slavery reconciliation project, and editing the digital, communal space of Black Girl Does Grad School .
This also means stepping into rooms where I can take care of myself: a therapist’s office, a meditation group, a yoga class. And I am not alone. My contemporaries, Autumn Griffin , Joy Woods Bennett , and Allante Whitmore build with me in digital spaces; my former boss, Jody Allen , held, and still holds, space for me to to test out my wings. My sister circle encourages each other to continue entering those environments that were meant to exclude us and be present anyway.
Indeed, the ways in which I do this are deeply informed by my privilege as a middle-class Black woman. My parents who would help me learn to make space for myself, with the comfort to pursue a career in the Academy, have always advocated for me in quiet ways. Rather than ground me, they worried about the ways I might fall, so that I wouldn’t have to.
When I decided I was going to France, my father only said, “When?” He wanted to clear his calendar to drive me to the airport. When I decided to do a PhD program, my mother bought herself a William & Mary t-shirt at my first campus visit. There was never any question or doubts about my decisions. They were just along for the ride so they could see me fly.
So in that moment, as the plane rose gently, its nose toward Victoria, I took a deep breath and opened my window shade. I watched the trees grow smaller as we flew higher and higher. For more than five hours, I watched as irrigation circles slid by, as the snow-capped Rocky Mountains came into view. I was entranced by the sky, which had never seemed so blue. I imagined I was Riri, free and joyous and resisting the laws of gravity which would rather have me fall.
If I was never meant to fly—by virtue of my grounded family history, the longer legacy of limited Black mobility, my own anxieties and fears—then that’s fine. But in that window seat, I learned to embrace my infiniteness. I was discovering my wings, ready to fly anyway.