“And nothing is more important than the ability to tell yourself a different story. A new story that goes against what the world has told you.”
Echo Brown is a wizard from the East Side, where apartments are small and parents suffer addictions to the white rocks. Yet there is magic…everywhere. New portals begin to open when Echo transfers to the rich school on the West Side, and an insightful teacher becomes a pivotal mentor. Each day, Echo travels between two worlds, leaving her brothers, her friends, and a piece of herself behind on the East Side. There are dangers to leaving behind the place that made you. Echo soon realizes there is pain flowing through everyone around her, and a black veil of depression threatens to undo everything she’s worked for.
Heavy content warning for violence, sexual assault, rape, racism, and drug use.
By the time I turned the final page of this book, I was fully convinced that Echo Brown is truly magical. It has been a long time since a book has spoken to my soul with so much purpose and conviction. Much of my life as a black girl becoming a black woman in this country has mirrored the thoughts and relationship dynamics represented in this book. It felt like I had a birds-eye view of what I must have looked like growing up and learning how to move through this world.
Black Girl Unlimited is a young adult book that is infused with magical realism and is highly autobiographical of Echo Brown’s life. It begins when she is six years old and ends on her very first day of college, and all that happens in between is magic in the making.
The content of this book is heavy. It depicts adolescent life navigating poverty, violence (both physical and sexual), parents with drug addictions, and an extreme amount of neglect. It also happens to be the truest coming-of-age story I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. It traverses Echo’s initial observations of the differences between boys and girls, to her first crush, to even the first experience of female masturbation. This book does not hold back and I am so grateful for such an honest depiction of adolescence.
But this novel is not just the depiction of female adolescence; it is the depiction of a black female’s adolescence. I resonate so deeply with the way Brown expressed the beginning realizations that there are different expectations for black girls in society. That we are perceived differently both implicitly and explicitly from both the white and black gaze. Her ability to retroactively articulate the disappearing innocence that comes with growing awareness of what it means to be black in America is both beautiful and tragic:
Another topic that is heavily explored in this book is internalized racism. Unfortunately, internalized racism and colorism are a ubiquitous part of black adolescence, especially in dark-skinned black girls. We are taught growing up that we are inferior to white girls through various means. Sometimes, we are teased for our “nappy” hair and dark skin and our vivacious personalities. Other times, we are devalued in name of “preferences” (i.e. “I don’t date black girls” or even “black girls are too ghetto which is why I prefer white girls” from the black male perspective). Even our mothers inadvertently passed these beliefs onto us when they permed our hair for special occasions to be straight “like white girls.” And what isn’t talked about enough is how isolating and exhausting dealing with internalized racism is. How absolutely detrimental it is to a black girl’s self-esteem and image, and just how long it takes to dismantle these narratives and replace them with uplifting ones. (Can you tell I’ve lived this reality?)
Lastly, I want to highlight what I believe is the biggest lesson of Black Girl Unlimited, and that is the lesson about the ability to rewrite a story. On my Instagram story, I shared some thoughts about a particular scene in the book that moved me to tears:
To close out this review and bring it full circle, I want to talk about the quote that I began this review with. It appears during the above scene in the book where Echo performs a miracle that allows her brothers (who one of which was incarcerated for a time), to see a possible future in which they live up to their fullest potential and realize their dreams of being a pilot and a poet.
The concept of being able to tell yourself a “different story” than the one the world has taught you about you has many levels of depth for black people in this country. At almost every turn, we are undervalued and expected to underperform. I’ve mentioned this particular Ted Talk in a review before, but there is extreme danger in society telling a Single Story. The single-story that has been told through American history about black people is that we are, in some way, shape, or form, inferior. And when you are told that story your entire life, you begin to believe it. What Echo Brown has done in this book is challenge black people everywhere to rewrite the story that society has taught us about us. And instead, to write our own story that highlights our true potential.
And that right there friends? That is magical.
Echo Brown’s 19 lessons of becoming a wizard:
- Lesson #1 (page 11): how to build a shell
- Lesson #2 (page 15): making something out of nothing
- Lesson #3 (page 39): the in-between
- Lesson #4 (page 59): unlocking the ability to perform miracles
- Lesson #5 (page 71): everything that gets buried will re-emerge eventually
- Lesson #6 (page 83): the black veil
- Lesson #7 (page 104): kill the imposter and embrace the original
- Lesson #8 (page 122): the light at the center of a soul
- Lesson #9 (page 148): learning to tell yourself a different story
- Lesson #10 (page 159): pay attention to warning signs
- Lesson #11 (page 166): dropping the illusion
- Lesson #12 (page 180): choose your purpose
- Lesson #13 (page 195): choose to uncover your true potential
- Lesson #14 (page 212): the miracle of unity
- Lesson #15 (page 225): you must leave the place that made you
- Lesson #16 (page 240): all magic depends on you
- Lesson #17 (page 255): forgiveness is inescapable
- Lesson #18 (page 271): nothing is worse than being trapped in a pattern
- Lesson #19 (page 291): you are unlimited