Too often black females have featured as the side characters in books. Thankfully, in recent years, there has been a wave of fiction books released with black females at their forefront from Marie Arnold’s I Rise to The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.
Books of this kind contain complex Black female protagonists with layered stories and motivations of their own.
And this is a welcome change because it shouldn’t be difficult to find books that represent every aspect of female identity and black females deserve more than to be sidelined.
Whilst there is still a need for greater representation, change is happening.
BLOT spoke to authors Marie Arnold and Tess Sharpe, along with sensitivity reader Helen Gould, about why we need more representation for Black female protagonists.
Marie Arnold – author of I Rise
“I think girls of colour are often pushed aside and relegated to side characters. I wanted to write projects where girls of colour are fully formed, multilayered people.
“Girls have a lot to say and stories they need to tell. Its up to us to give them a chance to do just that.”
Helen Gould – sensitivity reader
32, from London
Sensitivity readers are hired to read and provide editorial feedback on a manuscript. They review the content to check for insensitive, offensive, or stereotypical portrayals of people.
Helen explained having a sensitivity read work alongside an author is useful for harm reduction and ensuring authors provide a better representation of communities.
“When I help with books, I look at them from a race perspective. When it comes to romance, the main characters are usually a white couple and it’s the side characters that are black or mixed race,” she said.
“And if it’s an interracial relationship, there are a lot of complexities that a white author may not pick up on. For example, the non-white partner may be the one taking on the burden of the care burden and propping up the main character, rather than having a fully rounded out motivation for themselves.”
Above: Tess Sharpe
Tess Sharpe – author of Six Times We Almost Kissed (And One Time We Did)
As we discussed with Tess, one of the reasons why there are still fewer black female leads is because the publishing industry remains predominantly white.
According to The New York Times, only five percent of the books published since 1950 were written by black authors.
Tess said: “Publishing is a very white industry and with that carries an enormous amount of privilege and a specific idea of what is universally relatable and what is niche. The idea that white queer people are more universally marketable than queer people of colour absolutely exists.
“It’s not actually true but we can see it play out in advance numbers, in marketing efforts and in prioritization of projects.
“This is not fair. It’s not okay. It’s not right. It’s a manufactured situation created by neglect and white privilege.
“Publishing has a white privilege problem and it’s hurting the very people that they claim to want to represent.”
These are BLOT’s top five books with strong and diverse black female protagonists that you should add to your ‘to be read’ list.
1. I Rise by Marie Arnold
The book offers a daring insight into the reality of everyday racism that black people face in America, as well as police brutality.
14-year-old Ayo’s mother founded the biggest civil rights movement to hit New York City in decades. It’s called ‘See Us’ and it tackles police brutality and racial profiling in Harlem. Ayo has spent her entire life being an activist and now, she wants out. She wants to get her first real kiss, have a boyfriend, and just be a normal teen.
When her mum is put into a coma after a riot breaks out between protesters and police, protestors want Ayo to become the face of See Us and fight for justice for her mother who can no longer fight for herself.
2. The Blood Trials by N.E.Davenport
Blending fantasy and science fiction, N. E. Davenport’s fast-paced, action-packed debut kicks off a duology of loyalty and rebellion, in which a young Black woman must survive deadly trials in a racist and misogynistic society to become an elite warrior.
3. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give centres on 16-year-old Starr who’s world is shattered when her childhood best friend Khalil is shot at the hands of a police officer. He was unarmed.
Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.
Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, the book is a powerful and gripping YA novel about one girl’s struggle for justice.
4. Chlorine Sky by Mahogony L Brown
Written in poetic verse, the novel follows Skyy, a girl struggling to move on from the end of her friendship with Lay Li.
The book follows Skyy as she learns to rediscover her identity outside Lay Li’s looming presence, while also trying to navigate a new romantic relationship and building her own self-esteem.
5. The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed
Ashley Bennet’s life completely changes one night in April when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating a black man named Rodney King half to death. Suddenly, Ashley’s not just one of the girls. She’s one of the black kids.
As violent protests engulf LA and the city burns, Ashley tries to continue on as if life were normal. Even as her self-destructive sister gets dangerously involved in the riots.
With her world splintering around her, Ashley, along with the rest of LA, is left to question who is the us? And who is the them?
Do you have a favourite book with a black female lead? Let us know in the comments.
And if you liked this post then read Think piece: Is discrimination necessary for works of fiction? or Why crime fiction is fixated on women as victims of violent crime next.
Marie was born in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti and came to America at the age of seven. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York alongside her extended family. Marie enjoys creating stories full of adventure, and wonder, which center on girls of color. When she’s not writing, she’s adding to her insanely long Netflix queue and trying not to order pizza. She lives in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of The Year I Flew Away and I Rise.
Tess grew up in rural northern California. She lives deep in the backwoods with a pack of dogs and a growing colony of formerly feral cats. She is the author of Barbed Wire Heart, the critically acclaimed YA novel Far From You and the upcoming Jurassic World prequel, The Evolution of Claire.
She is also the co-editor of Toil & Trouble, a feminist anthology about witches. Her short fiction has been featured in All Out, an anthology edited by Saundra Mitchell.
Helen is a sensitivity reader who has worked on nearly 200 projects since 2017. She specialises in issues of race, anti-blackness, and mixed heritage experiences. She has read books in many genres (including SFF, historical fiction, children’s books and YA, detective novels, and so on) as well as working on several tabletop roleplaying games, video games, some scripts, and even a podcast or two.
Yasmin is a third year journalism student at The University of Sheffield, specialising in feature writing. She has previously written for the Sheffield Tribune and women’s magazine Pick Me Up! She is particularly interested in how mental health issues are portrayed in fiction.
Favourite genres: Romance, Crime and Thrillers.