Thanks to This 16-Year-Old Author, Black Girls at Predominantly White Schools Are Telling Their Stories

Illustration for article titled Thanks to This 16-Year-Old Author, Black Girls at Predominantly White Schools Are Telling Their Stories
Image: LifeSlice Media, Photo: Courtesy of Olivia V.G. Clarke
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If you’ve never been Black surrounded by a constant overwhelm of White—at school, your place of work, in your neighborhood—just know there can never be enough memoirs, screenplays or comedies to exhaust the complex experience. You are ever a racial ambassador, an explainer of non-white culturisms, a human Google for thoughtless questions, a pioneering barrier-breaker of beliefs about what Black people do and don’t do. (Once when I was pseudo-swimming in a friend’s backyard pool, a white woman gasped as I adjusted my bathing suit straps and exclaimed, “I didn’t know Black people got tanned!”)

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Sixteen-year-old Olivia V.G. Clarke has lived the experience. A graduating senior at Columbus School for Girls, a predominantly white institution in Columbus, Ohio, she’s spent seven of her formative years navigating racial politics. The idea to write about it hit her when she was walking home with her mom.

“I said, ‘how cool would it be to have a book to help other [Black] girls in predominantly white institutions, who either go to one or graduated or are preparing to go? And just have stories, anecdotes and poems to help them feel supported?”

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Black Girl, White School: Thriving, Surviving and No, You Can’t Touch My Hair, a 123-page anthology of poems, essays and reflections from contributors ranging from middle-school age to college students, is the creative dividend of that conversation. To represent a range of experiences, Clarke posted a call for writers on social media, reached out to friends and her parents’ friends, and girls she’d met in school, camps and other activities.

“I wanted to do an anthology because so many Black girls who attend predominantly white institutions have important stories to tell. I haven’t experienced them all myself, so everyone has something different to bring to the conversation,” said Clarke, a member of the 2019–2020 class of Beverly Bond’s Black Girls Lead cohort. “I wanted to raise and amplify the voices of Black women and girls that might be different from my own as well. Just so that no matter where you are, what part of your journey you’re in, you can relate to something in the book.”

In the year-and-a-half writing and editing process, she stayed true to her original vision to also include different forms of storytelling and expression. Sixteen contributors dive into topics typically pertinent to teenage Black girls—self-esteem, race, friendships, dating, and, of course, hair—in a context that is both powerful and empowering. “I was born with two crowns/Each one as dark as I am/Each one with a heritage so robust/That it could part the Red Sea,” contributor Aminah Aliu writes in her poem, “Crowns Upon My Head.”

In a letter to her younger self called “You Belong,” writer Marissa Glonek reflects, “You belong. Some will stare at you in history class to gauge your reaction to slavery. Some will listen to your music and use your lingo, but not come over for dinner. You will use your power in your career and personal life, while still finding your way. You are a voice for the next Black girl at a PWI who thinks she doesn’t belong.”

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Clarke has also created a companion journal, Black Girl, White School: The Journal, to give readers space to articulate feelings and thoughts that come up from the book and life just in general. The enterprising author-slash-editor-slash-activist also designed one specifically for allies. It will be available on October 15, the same week as the International Day of the Girl, to encourage self-reflection for people who aren’t typically invited to sit with thoughts about their accountability and how to individually create change.

With support from her parents, Terreece and David Clarke, who both have experience publishing their own books, Clarke positioned Black Girl, White School into a #1 Amazon new release in several categories, including “Civil and Human Rights Books for Young Adults.” Like other seniors, the QuestBridge Scholar is now finalizing her decisions about college. PWIs are on her list of potential schools—Columbia, UCLA and The Ohio State University, where both her parents attended—along with Spelman and Howard. In addition to her pre-graduation excitement, the completion of this book project is a highlight of a flipped-and-remixed kind of year.

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“COVID and the Black Lives Matter protests were happening at the same time I was writing the book. The protests were one of the things that really convinced me that this book needed to come out,” said Clarke. “I wanted to make sure that during this time, when I feel like more people are willing to listen to the Black experience than before, I raise the voices of Black girls that often are overlooked and written off.”

Writer, editor and storyteller. I have a lot of shoes and opinions.

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DISCUSSION

“If you’ve never been Black surrounded by a constant overwhelm of White—at school, your place of work, in your neighborhood—just know there can never be enough memoirs, screenplays or comedies to exhaust the complex experience.”

To anybody who wonders why we need HBCUs, this is why. You deserve at least four years like all of my 60 have been, someplace where you won’t worry about not fitting in before you’ve opened your mouth, where the first impression many people make of you isn’t based on your color from yards away and perhaps days before you speak to them.