Category Archives: Book Review

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.

Sirens and Superwomen: Finding My Way Back to the Power in My Words

I finished reading A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow last night. I put off reading it for a little while because I knew whatever was inside, was going to change my life– or at least the layout of my syllabus.

In the midst of a pandemic and a national uprising sparked by the recent murders of Black folks (in particular, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and Nina Pop), I learned I was finally going to be teaching my own self-designed course. It was hard to be joyful; how, I wondered, was I supposed to teach a class on Black girls, new media and magic, when it feels like our worlds are nothing but fear and rage right now. How can I ask them to suspend disbelief– to meet me in imagined worlds– when our world exists the way it does?

Perhaps A Song Below Water didn’t give me answers, but it certainly cleared my head.

Morrow’s debut YA novel takes place in Portland, Oregon. Contemporary Portland, Oregon– not some faraway land you have to dream up the details of. The only difference is that the myths and folktales are true: Sirens walk among us (Seriously. They walk. They aren’t mermaids here.) Except one itty, bitty detail: only Black women are Sirens.

A Song Below Water follows the intertwined stories of two sister-friends, Effie and Tavia, as Tavia learns to embrace the power of her voice as a Siren and Effie comes into herself. (Vague, I know, but any more than that would be major spoilers.)

What readers think is a delightful tale of mermaids and underwater adventures and escapades is actually an insightful social commentary and poignant look at what it’s like to be a Black girl in America. Morrow’s book argues that the threat folks ascertain in Black girls and women can be found in our voices; it argues that our magic is real and it is matrilineal; and it argues that your Black girlfriends? They can always see you, and love you, for who you are. Readers are dropped into the lives of Black girls– microaggressions, love, protests, joy, and all. Morrow smartly weaves this narrative of our realities: being stopped by cops, snide remarks about our hair, the discomfort of being the Only Black Girl in Class with the joy of falling in love for the first time, falling asleep next to your best friend, reveling in the fact that you love yourself. Family love and difficulties hold space with fear of the unknown and connections with the ancestors.

Effie and Tavia’s world is absolutely lush and you want to dive headlong into it.

I picked it up to read a few days after it arrived. I had just woken up from a dream about my late grandmother. Not two pages in, and Tavia’s talking about the connection she has with her late grandmother. Weird, I thought, but not totally bizarre. A few more pages in and Tavia is describing the murder of a Black woman by the police that is sparking a lot of conversation around the nation. It was definitely bordering on prescient. But what truly sealed the deal for me was Tavia’s continued internal battle against her own nature based on external pressures– which is to say, the desire and need to use her voice.

For the first time since starting Black Girl Does Grad School in August 2016, I went an entire month without posting. It wasn’t intentional. Things just went from bad to worse with every passing day, and I felt paralyzed. There was not a thing I could say that would make it any better. So I took comfort in making art– where words failed me, I had images. I read the words of those who have come before me, thinking about the racist institutions they have named and rejected and which we still continue to use despite knowing they are built to work against us.

I thought about how I felt I had nothing to add to the conversation that hasn’t already been said.

I thought about how this was not the right time to write.

I thought about how my body physically resisted any attempt to write.

Even if I wanted to, my body was saying “No.”

And probably for the first time in my 26 year old life (the same age, I remember, Breonna Taylor was when she was murdered in her sleep), I listened to my body and I took time to grieve. Mourn. Reflect.

The expectation is that you come out of these moments of deep introspection with answers. I have none. I only know I am indebted to those who have given me the strength to go on. Those folks range from my parents to Bethany C. Morrow.

A Song Below Water gave me hope not only for a future of freedom; but a present informed by our ability to embrace our own power. Morrow showed me the way back to my voice– my words. My power. My freedom.

It was a lesson I was glad to learn; and one I can’t wait to share.

Book Review: THE DARK FANTASTIC by Ebony Thomas

“Are the cartographies of dreams truly universal?”

Ebony Thomas, The Dark Fantastic, 2

The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games drew me in from the very first time I saw its stunning cover. As a literature scholar, a Black studies enthusiast and Black fangirl supreme, I wanted– no, needed– this book. Someone had found a way to weave together several pieces of my own scholarly interests including race, literature, digitality and the fantastic. Despite being in the midst of reading for comprehensive exams, I couldn’t contain myself when I got an Advance Reader Copy of the book. One glance at the table of contents– which included chapters on my favorite witches, Hermione Granger and Bonnie Bennett– and I was hooked. I had found my scholarly Harry Potter.

The path through The Dark Fantastic is fairly straightforward, though Thomas takes the reader on an adventure to dystopian futures, far away realms and a magical present before leaving us at the gates of Hogwarts. In doing so, she encourages us to question our relationship to the fantastic, and more generally our relationship to reading and imagining. Is it as universal as we think? Why is there an imagination gap in literature for young people? Why is it that some young people of color “don’t like to read much?” (7)

In order to unravel some of these questions, Thomas first defines “the dark fantastic:” “the role that racial difference plays in our fantastically stored imagination.” (7) Thomas explains that she prefers the Fantastic to speculative fiction, noting that fantastic has a multiplicity of meanings. This distinction was important for me, as I am a scholar whose work will no doubt involve questions of the fantastic (or speculative) and I will have to decide which term more accurately describes my work. One thing that I particularly like about fantastic is that it’s not limited by “literature”– Thomas works on transmedia narratives that include books, television and film, not to mention fan culture, thus incorporating the digital.

Returning to the text, in the “Dark Other,” Thomas highlights a cycle that appears in a myriad of texts: “(1) spectacle, (2) hesitation, (3) violence, (4) haunting, and (5) emancipation.” Thomas revisits this pattern throughout each chapter, noting how each of these Dark girls (Rue from The Hunger Games, Gwen from Merlin, Bonnie Bennett from The Vampire Diaries, and Hermione Granger from Harry Potter) does or does not fall victim to it. Equally important to these discussions of the girls are the fans, often Dark themselves, that have critiques of the treatment of these characters.

Much of Thomas’ chapter on Rue from The Hunger Games is rooted in the cognitive dissonance the Dark Other can cause for (white) readers. A preconceived notion of what innocence looks like left some viewers of the film perturbed, to say the least, by the casting of a Black girl for the role. Thomas shows how Katniss becomes the moral center of the book only after Rue’s death, yet it is difficult for some to imagine that this young Dark girl can become impetus for a revolution. Like Rue’s, the chapter on Gwen traces her place in the dark fantastic cycle (or how she breaks it) before investigating fans’ relationships to the character. The main difference between these two is that Rue is written in her original text as Dark, while Gwen (Guinevere of Arthurian legend) is a fair maiden. For me, this brings up the question of race bending: is it or is it not an appropriate form of reimagining? To this point, there was a discussion on Twitter regarding a Black Batman. Fans circulated their actor choices for the role to which acclaimed author Nnedi Okorafor encouraged fans and writers to simply create more original Black characters. Shortly afterwards, writer Jamelle Bouie posted a thread in which he completely reimagined Batman’s origin story so that a Black Batman would contextually make sense. What Bouie did was imaginative and quite frankly, convincing– convincing enough to make me believe that we can have both new original characters and critical reimaginings, which is precisely what I believe has happened with Gwen in Merlin. As Thomas aptly states: “Gwen matters because she represents the dreams of brown girls who never saw themselves represented in fairy tales growing up.” (104)

Despite being an avid Potterhead and devoted lover of Hermione Granger, the chapter on Bonnie Bennett immediately caught my attention. The quickest way to infuriate me is to bring up the treatment of Bonnie in The Vampire Diaries; in fact,there is a video of me somewhere on the internet passionately discussing (hand gestures and all) this exact subject with my Branch Out students. Thomas knows that Bonnie “is not an easy character for mainstream audiences…to love” (109) and it’s hard to make a case for her. She’s sidelined, chastened, and used as a deus ex machina for many of the main gang’s numerous problems. But her character arc, in my opinion, best illustrates Thomas’ dark fantastic cycle: the viewer is introduced to Bonnie’s magic in the breath-taking “Feather Scene” (spectacle); negotiating Damon and Bonnie’s potential relationship by making her hate him (hesitation); Bonnie is repeatedly pushed to her physical limits with her magic, all in the name of helping her friends (violence); when she finally dies from exertion, Bonnie still haunts the show, serving as the anchor for the “Other Side” (haunting); and once she has saved everyone…again… Bonnie departs Mystic Falls for Africa (emancipation…?). It is unclear whether Bonnie was truly emancipated, and I would actually argue that she wasn’t. The writers’ decision to have Bonnie depart for Africa, which, as Thomas points out, was never something she r expressed any interest in, signals the Dark witch’s life to be an afterthought by them. But Thomas reminds us that “[d]ark girls like Bonnie are the problem and the solution, always.” (139) It’s time for more.

And honestly, I hope I’m part of the generation that participates in creating these worlds for Dark girls to revel in.

Thomas concludes with an ode to Black Hermione. Though she never imagined Hermione as anything but white, fans across the globe have taken J. K. Rowling’s description of brown eyes and frizzy hair to heart. The “Hermione Is Black” Tumblr tag shows us just how much audiences were imagining this possibility– “creative digital media communities” (165) have been doing this work for years.


Ebony Thomas took on the Herculean task of breaking apart and dissecting how and why we imagine, giving us convincing theorization and contextualization using her four case studies. She took us on a tour of her own imagination, which greatly resembles mine, weaving in narratives about her own journey grappling with the Dark Fantastic. She provided imaginative scholarship on subject matter near and dear to my heart. Most importantly, to me, Thomas provided an example of how I can combine all my passions into a coherent project, and for that, I am forever grateful. It is possible to engage both Morrison and Jenkins, Todorov and Whitted.

Thomas proves without a doubt that scholarship can be fun, creative, and if you’re lucky, fantastic.