The Teachability of Legendborn

I’d already rearranged the syllabus for my spring 2021 Magical Black Girls class once– back in June when Bethany C. Morrow released A Song Below Water. It was too good not to teach, especially when it specifically spoke to themes of the violence and silencing Black girls too often endure, the matrilineal nature of our power, and the strength of sisterfriends.

I told myself that I would not be readjusting again, no matter what new thing I discovered.

And then I was able to get my hands on an ARC of Legendborn.

Tracy Deonn pens a modern take on Arthurian legend reimagined as a secret society at a Southern Predominately White Institution (PWI). The protagonist, Bree Matthews, falls head first into this world, and it’s made abundantly clear to her by the others in the reimagined “Order” that Bree does not fit.

Any Black person at a PWI, particularly a Southern one, knows the experiences Bree endures intimately. We know the malevolent administrator who sneers at our presence. We have met the parents who are quick to label us as “Affirmative Action” and believe that us occupying a space on those campuses has somehow stolen something from their children. We have befriended the seemingly innocuous white person, who says something racist and when you call them on it they’re quick to dismiss your retort, saying, “You know what I mean.”

All of that would be enough to make anyone’s blood boil just below the surface, but add to it the depths of Bree’s grief and being thrown into an unknown magical world, where the same essence may have a different name to different people. Where the intersections of experience and history collide in unexpected ways. Deonn seamlessly weaves a tale based in uncomfortable truths about the relationship between Black and white people in the South that span centuries. Though born from those uncomfortable truths, it takes up the strength and power generated by Black individuals and families and shows how we have risen and continue to rise.

For all of that, Legendborn is the rare kind of book that satisfies the appetite of all the various portions of my personality and interests. Most times, it’s a pick and choose type of situation: perhaps you get high fantasy but lack depictions of Black girlhood, or you get Black girlhood but not as the heroine of the story.

With Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn, I didn’t have to choose. I got to bring all the sides of my magic-loving, history-seeking, smart-mouthed Black girl self to the table when I settled down to read a chapter or two. As a Black girl who has spent a significant amount of time at two Southern Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) with big reputations for both my bachelors and masters/Ph.D. programs, the difficult, conflictual feelings Bree has about Carolina didn’t need to be explained. I understood the instinctual pull Bree felt to a campus that was not built with her in mind, and yet needing to know it intimately because it would bring her closer to a parent.

Reading Legendborn pulled to the surface all the things I didn’t know about my undergraduate institution, but that I learned in great detail at my graduate institution. I spent two years as a graduate assistant for The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, my campus’ attempt at making the history of Black people readily available, to bring forth that which the institution would rather hide. In that time, I learned not only about the enslaved people who built my university, but met the Black folks who would much later integrate our Southern PWI, and build with the Black students who still work to make it a better place.

I know the high fantasy is the draw of Legendborn, but it is the richness with which Deonn weaves so much of what is important to me as the backdrop of this narrative. It’s the vibrancy with which Deonn allows Bree to be a Black girl and revel in all the complexity of what that means. Yes, I love the way she has reimagined Arthuriana, I love the strong characters, the elements of the magic that underlies this whole world, but it is the way Bree is simply in this world, whether she fits or not, that makes it near and dear to my heart and what makes it perfectly teachable.

Bree is the result of centuries of racial conflict and the deep love Black women have for each other. She is both softness and hard edges; strength and fragility. She is deliciously human and wondrously exceptional.

That she is all of these things and stunningly magical is a revolution.

It’s legendary.

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