Category Archives: Personal Essays

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.

Why The World (Still) Needs Lois Lane, 2020

I was depressed the summer I decided I was going to watch Smallville all the way through, from beginning to end. Spring semester 2014 had been the culmination of my descent into the darkest parts of my mind. I stopped eating and leaving my room; the one time I did, I ended up sobbing on the floor in the Outreach Office of Admission. I cried for so long that by the time I could be persuaded to accept a ride back to my dorm and got back, I was greeted by a squad of cop cars and police officers who were preparing to take me to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.

My therapist and psychiatrist had both firmly suggested I take a medical leave for the rest of the semester after that. I cried and laid in bed with the lights out, exhausted, for the rest of the semester, but I didn’t leave. At least, not until my courses were officially over and my exams were done. Not having been in the presence of mind to apply for summer internships or programs, I returned to my parents’. I received a letter later that summer which stated that I had made the Dean’s List. It came around the time I had wandered out of the house, with the vague idea that I might lay down on the train tracks less than a mile away. This was all before I had a panic attack so bad I was hospitalized.

After months of the endless panic and emptiness that plagued me during the day and the sleep paralysis which haunted me at night, I felt I needed to do something, anything to occupy my mind. My irregular visits to the library for comics had led me to Smallville. Browsing the small graphic novel collection in my library reminded me of someone– someone I had loved for a very long time and who had, incidentally, told me for years that I would love Smallville.

Fine, I thought, half to myself and half to him, that afternoon when I returned home and pulled up the pilot episode on my laptop, you win.

For the rest of that summer, I binge-watched Smallville. It didn’t take me long to fall in love. Between Clark Kent’s puppy dog eyes, the angsty 2000s rock soundtrack, and my adoration for seeing characters I had met in the pages of my beloved comic books on screen, I was hooked. I knew Smallville’s characters as if they were my own friends and I loved them all.

But I especially loved Lois Lane.

Lois, I felt, was far superior to Lana and her relationship to Chloe was a perfectly executed character introduction. Lana Lang was the dictionary definition of a damsel in distress. She was weak, defenseless– a liability. And yet with a flip of her hair, she could make Clark Kent’s eyes glaze over.

I had always imagined the root of my distaste for Lana could be boiled down to my fierce love of Lois, and by extension Lois and Clark. I had a similar feeling when I watched The Vampire Diaries’ Elena fall into a seemingly endless number of dangerous situations, only to have Stefan, Damon or both save her. Fans doted over Elena, who in my mind couldn’t hold her own, and passed over much better characters (read: Bonnie Bennett). Perhaps it was simply my inclination as a fan; but that explanation never satisfied me.

The next fall when I returned to school, I found myself drawn back in a theater for the first time since my sophomore year of high school and when I emerged, I had a new set of friends. We were bonded together as if by an indestructible golden thread, and some among us were closer than others, including me and K. I had never imagined we would be friends, K and I, because for a long time, I had disliked her.

She was about my height and we were both plus sized girls. We were both smart and outspoken and involved in many of the same organizations as first years. We were matched in every way and yet she somehow still managed to be better at everything. She sang like an angel and I had not gotten a call back for a single a cappella group. She stood at Harambee when we honored those with impeccable GPAs from first semester; a former straight-A student, I barely hid my sulk. I heard the whispers of boys who wanted to date her but knew they didn’t stand a chance.

No, I didn’t dislike her; I was jealous of her.

When I went back to watch Smallville a few years into our friendship, I didn’t see Lana. I saw K. I saw a girl who everyone liked, who was good at everything, who got the guy. She was everything I wasn’t. Comparison, the saying goes, is the thief of joy; and yet I watched Smallville and realized I was sizing myself up next to Lana.

This rewatch, I discovered different gems. This time, I realized that though Clark’s Lana chapter and his Lois chapter overlapped, that didn’t bother the girls. Lois, and Lana, seemed to know that they could both be important to him, for different reasons and in different ways. They were never catty; they peacefully coexisted. Lois was never jealous of Lana to the point of disliking her. In fact, Lois always seemed to respect Lana. It was almost if Lois could see Lana through Clark’s eyes; if Clark saw something in Lana, then she must be something special. Lois was always self-confident enough to not be insecure about Lana, because she knew there could only ever be one Lois Lane.

K and I never competed for anyone’s affections. The only person who was keeping score was me. Lois taught me how to let go of my insecurities.

And I listened.

Chloe Sullivan, on the other hand, was the version of myself I had left behind.

I remember my disappointment in summer 2014 when I realized I would have to watch three entire seasons before I got even a glimpse of Lois Lane on Smallville. I was even more disappointed when I was confronted with Chloe Sullivan, one of Clark’s best friends, who appeared, at first glance, to be a half-baked version of Lois, meant to tide over viewers until showrunners were ready to introduce the infamous LL.

But there was something familiar in the way Chloe looked at Clark. Her feelings for him stirred up the ghosts of my own from long ago. I cried when she wrote a letter to him in Season 2: “I’m the girl of your dreams masquerading as your best friend.” I knew that feeling intimately. I, too, had harbored feelings for more than one best friend long past their expiration date. I held onto them for so long they started to define me.

It was why I felt for Chloe. It would be six seasons before there was even a glimmer of hope that she would move on and realize that Clark simply would never look at her the way she wanted him to. In spite of everything that she had going for her– she was cute, smart, resourceful, loyal, empathetic and loving– her torch for Clark Kent would be what defined her.

Like Chloe, I had a tendency to put everyone and everything before myself. In many ways, it wasn’t even our unrequited loves that broke our hearts. Our expectations made us responsible for the mess.

I didn’t want to be defined by the school girl crush on the captain of the JV football team that I continued to nurse for no reason other than it was familiar.

And so I imagined who I wanted to be.

It was easy. I wanted to be like Lois. She was the person I was before the break, who I was at my core– the person I wanted to make my way back to. She was who I wanted to be. Lois was brash and honest and had an eye that knew how to cut through a lie. You could tell she had a spine of iron and grip of steel. She was a natural disaster, a hurricane who defied labels, and orderly Clark Kent both hated and loved the way she blew through his life.

I loved people who saw me as a hurricane– intense, immovable, and inevitable. Beautiful and dangerous, powerful and hand-crafted by God.

In the same way which a storm like that cannot disguise itself as anything else, Lois is unapologetic and insistent about who she is. She cannot change, and why would she?

There’s a core to the character of Lois Lane that has been stable over time, amid her various iterations: she has been ambitious, driven, and justice-oriented. Those are no small personality traits. They are character defining. And it’s this strength of character that brings Clark Kent and Superman back to Lois time and time again.

It is possible to love a hurricane.

Lois is how I made my way back to myself. That summer, and for a long time before, the parts of myself that I had loved– my conviction, my unconditional love, my creativity– were suffocated by the jagged edges of the broken person I was at that moment. But there were moments when bits of my beloved character shined through the mess, glowing weakly, but strong enough to remind me that it was still there. It was those parts of myself that Lois spoke to. She seemed to help those pieces glow a little stronger. I was able to hang onto their shine a little longer. She was how I started to make my way back to myself over the course of ten seasons.

Truthfully, Lois led me to something better. She and Smallville showed me mirrors, representations of my life. Some truths were easier to see than others. Some took more time to digest.

I clung to Lois because she reminded me of who I was and taught me how to be brave again. Lois was a fighter; I almost walked away from my fight.

I’m not sure that I knew it then, when I first sat down to watch Smallville that hot summer in 2014 or when I wrote “Why the World Needs Lois Lane” in 2016, but I know it now: Lois Lane saved my life.

And that’s why I still need her, after all this time.