Black Girl Power | Sojourners

Black Girl Power

Exploring love and rage in Ava DuVernay's 'A Wrinkle in Time.'
Photo: Disney

OPRAH WINFREY BEGAN HER acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 2018 Golden Globes by traveling through time. “In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee. ... It is not lost on me that at this moment, there are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given this same award.” Hours later, her speech dedicated to those enheartened children—particularly little black girls—was eclipsed by pleas for the entrepreneur to run for president.

Since the 2016 presidential election and, more recently, the Alabama Senate election, demand has been high for black women to save America from itself. The proposition’s allure appears only to increase when black women rebuff these requests to perform political labor as trouble intensifies. Jordan McDonald writes in Bitch magazine about this reprehensible exaltation—“Black women will save us”—and how it renders black women, from Oprah to Michelle Obama, indispensable saviors. “Stripped of our humanity and agency, the refrain does not ask that Black women save, but expects it of us, as if we each were God herself. It is a disturbing testament to the world’s continued failure to love us properly.” While this latest historical failure sought to conscript another black woman into a toolbox for the country’s deliverance, Oprah’s final message—“I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon”—was impossible to rob.

As providence would have it, a film releasing this March has the potential to summon that new day, with none other than Oprah portraying the leader of a trio of immortal guides showing black girls universally what proper love looks like: the latest adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1963 Newbery Medal-winning classic novel, A Wrinkle in Time.

AVA DUVERNAY, director of the Academy Award-nominated Selma, is the first black woman to solo-direct a film like Wrinkle, with a budget of more than $100 million. Undeniably, it is no easy feat to tell this story. The film’s protagonist, Meg Murry, played by actress Storm Reid, is a young teenage girl “tessering,” or wrinkling, through time—traveling across planets with her friend Calvin O’Keefe and her 5-year-old virtuoso brother, Charles Wallace, in search of their missing scientist father.

Their allies include the billion-year-old ethereal beings Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. Together they teach Meg how to survive and defeat a foul, mind-controlling brain known as “IT” and a wild darkness consuming stars and planets throughout the universe called “the Black Thing.”

In this rendition of L’Engle’s story, however, the sage Murry children are black—offering us a hero of the universe who, in our current political space and time, is afforded the least agency: Meg is an angry black girl.

It can be said that DuVernay is the first black woman with the tools capable of creating a universe sizable enough to contain the multitudes of a furious black heroine. The weight of this is not lost on her. DuVernay has openly talked about her apprehension around the film’s reception. Speaking at the New Yorker Festival last October, she said, “I feel something very deep in my gut when Oprah’s voice says, ‘There’s a darkness in the world, and the only one who can stop it is ...’ smash cut to a black girl.”

But should a black female director be concerned if her vision of a black girl who saves the universe works only in service of the thousands of little black girls sitting in their mother’s homes, expectant and watching? I don’t believe she should.

In her review of the novel for its 50th anniversary, Pamela Paul of The New York Times wrote, “The book has especially won over young girls. And it usually reaches them at a particularly pivotal moment of pre-adolescence when they are actively seeking to define themselves, their ambitions and place in the world.”

I did not read Wrinkle as a child; the novel “missed my neighborhood.” L’Engle’s Meg is—quite explicitly—not written as black. Her nature, though, reminds me of my black girlhood—years brimming with exhaustion, pain, and difference, as well as tenderness, wonder, and loud love. It is love that roots the novel and grounds for our hero themes of faith, courage, and hope.

When the “Mrs. W’s” take Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin to planet Uriel, they reveal to the children the evil darkness and its arresting agony they’re called to fight. But Mrs. Who, quoting scripture, reminds Meg of fighters before her—the best among them being Jesus—reminding her that “the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” As scripture taught me at a young age, an aspect of Christ’s light and love was informed by righteous indignation. Reading the novel now as an adult queer black woman of faith, I’m affirmed that the interiority of black women’s lives is worthy of a grand exhibition, especially the breadth of our love.

By presenting Meg as an angry black girl, the film version of Wrinkle places its central themes of moral responsibility and the power of love into a historical narrative wherein black women have been required to be saviors for a world that abandons and rebukes them. The warrior brand of love Meg uses to save the universe comes from anger at being made an outcast.

This latest incarnation of Meg Murry exists in the same universe as real-world black heroines such as Katherine Johnson, whose work as a mathematician and “computer” for NASA inspired the film Hidden Figures, and Claudette Colvin, who was arrested at age 15 for refusing to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Ala., nine months before Rosa Parks did the same. DuVernay’s Meg exists in the same plane as every documented black heroine, but also expressly those who were so unbought and unbossed that their lionhearted acts were erased.

“BE A WARRIOR.” This is Mrs. Which’s call to action for Meg. On screen, this message is communicated by a black woman to a young black girl, giving her full permission to fight like the solider she is destined to be. Poet and feminist Audre Lorde, who self-described as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” wrote often and directly about black womanhood and anger. In her essay “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger,” Lorde writes, “Every black woman in America lives her life somewhere along a wide curve of ancient and unexpressed angers.”

“Stay angry, little Meg,” Mrs. Whatsit whispers in the novel. “You will need all your anger now.”

Meg Murry is a reservoir of anger. Not only does she believe that she’s odd, ugly, and unintelligent, she also thinks she must pretend to be like everyone else—as her 10-year-old twin brothers do—to survive. However, the heretical gifts Meg receives from the three Mrs. W’s to save the universe are just those things from which she has been running: her faults—“anger, impatience, stubbornness.”

Meg’s anger—bred from her father’s disappearance and, later, her realization that her father is imperfect—is an extension of her love. Her anger is antidote for saving the world, for the rescue of her father and her brother and, most important, herself. Meg’s anger is information and energy. Throughout the novel, Meg realizes this: “Of course! It really helped ever so much because it made me mad, and when I’m mad I don’t have room to be scared.”

As Audre Lorde instructs, “When I live through pain without recognizing it, self-consciously, I rob myself of the power that can come from using that pain, the power to fuel some movement beyond it. ... And that is suffering, a seemingly inescapable cycle.”

Little black girls deserve a hero all their own. Someone who looks like them, worries like them, fights like them, and, in the end, saves them. While this world may demand its specific service of black heroines, black girls deserve themselves. And as Oprah said of her own life’s work, black girls deserve “to say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere, and how we overcome.”

Black girls are ready, watching. And perhaps the world is afraid. It should be.

This appears in the April 2018 issue of Sojourners
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