“Pop Pop gave me my very first “Darlene” eight years ago and a brand-new one every year after — custom-made of pressed, dried wildflowers spanning every color of the rainbow.”
Like Vanessa explores the dense and complicated life of a teenage girl growing up in a low-income community in Newark, New Jersey at the beginning of the rise of hip-hop and before embracing natural hair became a revolutionary movement for black women in America. “A girl child ain’t safe in a family of mens” says Color Purple‘s Sophia and this couldn’t be more true for Vanessa. She is the only girl in a family of men where the secrets suffocate her emotional, social and physical well-being. Her father is distant, her cousin is living a secret life and her grandfather suffers from PTSD which he medicates with alcohol. Her only solace is her journal, “Darlene”, and her fascination with the newly crowned, and first African American, Miss America, Vanessa Williams.
Like Vanessa delves into themes that are emotionally heavy for the black community, themes such as colorism, homophobia, social acceptance and incarceration. Not only is Vanessa having a difficult time due to her weight and skin tone, but she lacks a relationship with a significant mother figure in her life. However, when a white teacher becomes an unlikely mentor she begins to blossom in ways she had never imagined.
This novel is an important coming of age novel for modern times. I think of my own daughter who had a difficult time being a black girl in majority white spaces and not quite knowing how or where she fit in when she was the age of the heroine and despite my most valiant efforts she still struggled with self-esteem issues and questioned her own beauty. The truth is there are dozens of little black girls who are waiting to step into their beauty and they need books like this. Books that give them permission to embrace their beauty despite living in a world that consistently tells them otherwise.