Books

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Carefree Black Girls: A Celebration of Black Women in Popular Culture’ by Zeba Blay

c.2021, St. Martin’s Press
$16.99
260 pages

You used to like to skip.

Filled with delight, you danced down the sidewalk, not minding at all who was watching. Back then, your body moved with exuberance, your legs took you everywhere fast, you jumped and rolled and reached and it was joyful. So what happened between then and now that keeps you from that happiness? As in the new book “Carefree Black Girls” by Zeba Blay, you became a Black woman.

Over the course of the past few years, Zeba Blay says she’s felt as though she was “spiraling,” emotionally. Outside forces, politics, racial issues, violence, misogyny affected her so strongly that she became reclusive and, she says, “attempted to take my own life, twice.”

As a writer, she “constantly, maybe even obsessively” thinks “about what it means to be a Black woman” today. What she came to realize about the subject is something that many people don’t understand: “Black women are everything.” They are celebrated, emulated in fashion and song; they are teachers, influencers, designers, trendsetters, activists, and sometimes, their stories aren’t told or are told in ways that are wrong.

Despite, for instance, that Lizzo is obviously comfortable in her own body, too many people still openly fat-shame her and other Black women for their size. The old trope about Black women being “freaks” goes back to slavery and today, it’s harming relationships. Black girls’ experience is stereotyped, and Black women have such a reputation of being “strong” that some are afraid of showing vulnerability. Black women aren’t just judged on the color of their skin, they’re judged by the darkness and lightness of it, and if this sounds angry, well, that’s another subject: why are “angry Black women” so stereotyped?

Either way, for many Black women, it’s like walking on eggshells, always “acutely aware of the confinements of [an] existence … that others do not have …”

Take a good look at the subtitle of “Carefree Black Girls.”

See the indication of a “celebration”?

If that’s what you’re looking for — a confetti-and-cake gala about the achievements of Black women — you’re going to be disappointed. Nope, there’s some fêting of African American women in this book but mostly, author Zeba Blay (who is credited for first using the hashtag #carefreeblackgirls) writes about the many ways that a Black woman can be perceived negatively or even in ways that are harmful.

There’s no celebration in that, as Blay shows. Using her own experiences as guide rails, she points out many of the ways society fails to give Black women the respect they deserve, instead heaping on criticism or worse, often when they’re just living their lives. Alas, Blay doesn’t offer much that can be done to counter this, although her list of “moments when I felt truly free” may give some hints.

But will readers just be frustrated by then? It’s possible; although achievements are mentioned and portraits of influential Black women are included, the “celebration” is smaller than you might expect. You may love “Carefree Black Girls” or it may be something you’ll decide to skip.

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