Across genres and mediums, an alternative vision of Black millennial womanhood is emerging. Works like Issa Rae’s television show Insecure and Raven Leilani’s novel Luster revel in depression and precarity—making the young, professional Black woman’s life tragicomic. These works reject the demand for Black resiliency and present an antidote to the strong Black woman: the messy Black girl.
I am at once exhilarated by the existence of these works and bored by their similarities, a collective fact that flattens them despite the talents of their creators. Invoking timeworn romantic-comedy and sitcom tropes, the messy Black girl almost always sleeps with men, lives in a major metropolitan area, and hates her upwardly mobile job. These characters exist in a cosmopolitan landscape whose opportunities feel both boundless and trite.
Into this genre strides Chantal V. Johnson’s debut novel, Post-Traumatic. Johnson’s spiky antiheroine, Vivian, embodies the archetype of the genre: She is a Black lawyer living in Brooklyn and trying to cope through sex, weed, and (on the rare occasion she allows herself carbs) pancakes. However, Post-Traumatic is the deepest literary dive yet into the psychology of the messy Black girl, and perhaps the most complex due to its granular representation of the somatic effects of trauma. The reader gets a gory view of the psychic consequences of Vivian’s childhood sexual abuse and harrowing job as a lawyer for psychiatric patients: the calorie counting and evil eye of her disordered eating, her fear of men on the subway, and her desperate desire for a boyfriend to save her from herself.
All of this, while yearning to be a novelist. To me, the defining trait of messy Black girls is their aspiration toward artistic endeavors—vocations that might allow them to drop off the professional ladder. In a metafictional admission, Vivian vows to
do in a novel what Kathleen Collins did on film. A strong Black female lead with a highly developed interior. The cover would be spare, just text. No image of a thin woman. No bones, salt, or water in the title, either. She opened up her phone and wrote. Can Vivian live ecstatically, after what has been done to her?
Like Collins with her landmark film Losing Ground, Johnson depicts the mind of one Black woman as an ecosystem in itself, important beyond its ability to testify for all others. Johnson’s gentle jab at the grandiosity of other books about Black women—the bones, salt, and water elevating their struggle to an elemental drama her protagonist clearly doesn’t feel—does not diminish her desire to write a book about Black women. Art seems like the key to that elusive thing: living ecstatically.
One antecedent stands out to me as the literary urtext for all of today’s Black girls striving to be artists—Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula. Morrison also describes art as a necessity, without which her titular heroine is transformed into something feral and strange: “Like any artist without an artform, she became dangerous.” Morrison’s formulation speaks to the constraints of race, class, and gender that bottle and curtail Sula’s emotional outlets as a Black girl growing up in rural Ohio.
The protagonists of Johnson and Issa Rae may seem far from Sula’s constraints, but their inability to be working artists cracks the mirror of their self-perception. Grasping at art forms, messy Black girls seek to make the messiness mean something, do something, or at least pay the rent. Unable to tolerate the ambiguity of their experiences—which fail to cohere into neat narratives of racial justice or women’s empowerment—they seek to aestheticize them. As Johnson observes in Post-Traumatic, “Ambiguity, though central to aesthetic greatness, was horrifying in real life.” And although there is no deliverance for the messy Black girl, no ecstasy, there is at least the possibility of aesthetic greatness.
Comparisons between messy Black girls and messy white girls are constant and inevitable. In a review of Raven Leilani’s debut novel Luster, John Powers of Fresh Air described it as part of a genre of “bright young women who can’t figure out what to do with their brightness.” (As though brightness were a light bulb that women could just plug in to become functioning members of society.) But unlike those other exemplars of bright young womanhood—be it Lena Dunham’s Girls or Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag—the messy Black girl is, in Leilani’s words, drowning “in her allotted levels of racism-induced cortisol as the earth’s sun slowly dies.” A young Black woman’s brightness is a black hole, one whose contours we must trace with care, like a bruise.
The messy Black girl cannot simply be a melanated Carrie Bradshaw. To varying degrees, the novels and television shows of the genre all recognize that the shape of her malaise is different from that of white women who sleep around. Luster’s heroine, Edie, describes a white woman’s vagina as “an abstract violence, like a Rorschach or a xenomorph,” while hers would always be “a cunt.” In the cumulative unease of racialized sex, Post-Traumatic’s Vivian waits for the time when her “attitude toward her own face, premised as it was upon ugliness, might one day be redescribed as internalized racism à la The Bluest Eye and then dispensed with or, better yet, replaced with pro-Black confidence.”
This confidence never materializes, and these characters, like Vivian, hover between self-hatred and a momentary grace. Post-Traumatic’s contribution to the genre is its sensitive depiction of the loneliness of feeling both ugly and revered. For instance, Vivian begins one evening with “a sense of omniscience about her Blackness and her ugliness being the reason, her Black ugliness being the reason,” that she has recently been dumped by a white man. However, she finds catharsis at a karaoke bar: As she leads a round of scream-singing to Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” in a bar full of strangers, “she could feel everyone in the room loving her, except for the people who were jealous of her, but they also loved her, they just blocked that love from consciousness.” Vivian’s conviction that she is both loved and reviled is an exaggeration and a truth, and holding both possibilities at once is what leads to her cognitive disarray and her propensity for extremes. To see all the ways the world needs Black women while actually devaluing Black women’s lives is an unresolvable paradox—in short, a mess.
At times, I have found myself wondering if the messy Black girl’s malaise is doing anything innovative beyond making the somewhat facile point that Black girls can be depressed, too, but differently. It reminds me of Sula’s deathbed provocation to her straitlaced, respectable friend, Nel, who points out how lonely Sula’s life has been: “My lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.” Is our lonely our own, or is it just a secondhand version of the same old lonely that white girls feel?
Our lonely is not ours—that is precisely the point. There is a long tradition of Black women artists avowing their own solitary messiness, stretching all the way back to the blues songs of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith (in 1926, Smith sang, “I ain’t gonna marry, ain’t gonna settle down / Just gonna drink good moonshine and rub these browns down”). Our lonely is in Sula. Our lonely is in The Salt Eaters, when in the midst of a breakdown Velma is asked, “Are you sure you want to be well?” Our lonely is in Losing Ground, when Sara writes an essay and says, “This is how cold women experience joy.”
There are no graphic flashbacks to the childhood sexual assault that shapes Vivian’s present, so perhaps the most harrowing part of Post-Traumatic is what childhood abuse has done to her desires. The book is rife with fantasies about the white men she finds on dating apps: fantasies of vacations, artistic partnerships, and the-one-that-got-away triumphs if the date doesn’t work out. After one date with a schlubby white musician, for instance, Vivian wonders: “If he chose her, it could change her life.” The reader already knows that this isn’t the kind of novel where he chooses her.
At first, Vivian is the rom-com heroine, making the reader complicit in a worldview predicated on her rightness in the face of the antagonism of others. At work, Vivian imagines “she was on a soundstage starring in a comedic legal procedural. Each week adoring fans rooted for her to win the big case, armed with a little legal knowledge and a lot of moxie.”
But gradually, we begin to realize that Vivian’s heroism is largely created in the fun-house mirror of her perception. In the narcissism bred by mental illness, Vivian describes her own monologues as “masterful,” speaking to an “electrified” audience both real and imagined. When her best friend Jane tells her, “You can’t tolerate anyone’s flaws but your own,” we realize we might have been rooting for the villain all along.
Vivian’s narrative explicitly shifts toward villainy when she decides to sleep with a white woman’s husband at a wedding: “She was entering a new space, an aesthetic realm without consequences, like that moment in the superhero film when the villain turns to the dark side.” Her descent into mild wrongdoing (she throws a glass at the white woman’s head, but misses) is fueled by the gap between her fantasies of love and her loveless reality. Later on in the novel, a therapist identifies these fantasies as coping mechanisms that Vivian developed as a child to take herself away from an unbearable present. The power of Johnson’s novel is the way in which it makes the reader complicit in Vivian’s fantasies, even when they cause destruction within and around her.
For reasons that cannot be wholly attributed to the structural nor entirely dismissed as personal, the path of the rom-com seems foreclosed to Vivian, who has no aid in her heroine’s journey. If she will never be the heroine, who else can she be but the villain?
Again, Sula offers a template for a Black woman’s perceived villainy—Sula, after all, sleeps with her best friend’s husband and institutionalizes her grandmother against her will. But in response to the idea that her life and crimes have made her unlovable, Sula gives a speculative litany, speaking of a future time “after all the dogs have fucked all the cats and every weathervane on every barn flies off the roof to mount the hogs…then there’ll be a little love left over for me. And I know just what it will feel like.”
That is the point of the original messy Black girl: that our world is so built on the denial of Black women’s right to exist for ourselves that it must be destroyed for someone like Sula to be truly loved. Vivian’s moral ambiguity in such a world is refreshing. Post-Traumatic has opened up a space for error and ugliness that Black women are seldom afforded in real life, and the book beguiles the reader into loving her in spite of her mess.
However, I am still waiting for today’s messy Black girl literature to teach an audience to love queer black women, women with caretaker responsibilities, and women outside of the global centers of power—for, in Johnson’s words, “The best writing was like a good friend, in the way it gave you permission to be yourself.” I am still waiting for more good friends to enter the genre and give more Black women permission to be their messy selves.