CONTENT WARNING: sexual violence, drug abuse
There is an unease that always strikes me when I read coming-of-age stories adjacent to my own. While reading Black Girl Unlimited, there were words and phrases that catapulted me straight back into my high school hallways. A few times, I braced myself to turn a page, holding onto the present for dear life while this mirror of my past gaped before me. In some blissful passages I could almost taste Kool-Aid on my breath and feel the sunshine on my skin in the schoolyard. Echo Brown’s magical realist mostly-autobiographical debut novel details her childhood in an impoverished inner city community where she uses magic to defend herself against the drugs and suffering on every street.
Echo discovers that she is a wizard: she can see light and dark around people, and eventually learns to stop time and perform small miracles. Her mother, too, is a wizard, which she learned when her uncle came into her room and she left her body, sitting on the ceiling until he left her alone. Upon discovering her daughter’s affinity for magic, Echo’s mother is distraught: how could her daughter be a wizard? And indeed, Echo one day finds herself sitting on the ceiling. But wizardry and magic are more than a defense against trauma. Echo finds a friend in a fellow wizard whose parents refuse to accept her dreams; years later, the two perform miracles in an attempt to show Echo’s brothers the futures they could have if they stayed off the streets. But she comes to understand that magic can only plant, and not cultivate, the seeds for change.
From a young age, Echo is surrounded by the plights of many marginalized communities today: at home, her parents are addicted to crack cocaine; on every corner there lurks a family member or a stranger seeking to abuse little girls. Other children of the neighborhood are bright sparks who gradually take on the patina of the world: drugs, misogyny, sexual abuse, permanent disability, and more touch the lives of these youths as they grow up. Watching Echo and her peers mimic and internalize the behaviors of adults around them was sometimes like watching a car crash in slow motion. At other times, my heart was lifted by a scene of childhood innocence, even as I waited with bated breath for the other shoe to drop.
Black Girl Unlimited contains multitudes. It explores queerness, addiction, abuse, generational trauma, and sexism. It depicts the ways we can grow apart — from others, from ourselves — and how we can grow together. It proclaims that there is no perfect ending: we may lose something essential but learn to live without it, or we may be born whole into a world that does not want us to be. Echo Brown takes us on a journey through a community that, like the sidewalks that line it, are full of cracks (and crack) where life yet thrives.