I have a disclaimer here: I backed Robyn Smith‘s The Saddest Angriest Black Girl in Town when Black Josei Press ran its Kickstarter for the second printing, and also, I’m pretty out of it today because I’ve been having an asthma attack ever since the power went out at work a couple days ago. So I am possibly biased, and definitely flaked out. Take that into consideration, or whatever.
The Saddest Angriest Black Girl in Town is based on a true story: Smith’s own story, one forged in the whiteness of a small Vermont town. It is a very short graphic novel, maybe even closer to a zine. I don’t think it needs to be longer, though I think it could be a strong segment of a longer autobiographical work, should Smith ever so choose. I also think that it should be in every university library’s collection, but that’s neither here nor there.
Smith divides the book into section: sad, angry, and black. (At the very end we get process, with preliminary sketches and storyboarding, and I think it’s a goddamn treasure trove for anyone interested in being a cartoonist. So, fyi.) But, though our sections are sadness and anger and Black, I felt like loneliness (and grief, too) pervade its pages. Our narrative I is painfully alone, from the very first pages to the back cover, where we see her first through a filmy overlay of a small town: the faint, haunting figure of a woman, walking away from us into this hard-edged townscape, utterly alone. It’s a profoundly isolating image, one which doesn’t get any better when we nudge aside the overlay and see her with her curly hair and her jeans and what looks like a Captain American shield on her backpack, walking away from us into the emptiness of the unseen distance. She’s utterly alone, and as much as we might want to reach out to her, to let her know she’s seen, we can’t. She’s a drawing, walking into paper. (Those images are the last two in the slide show at the top of this post.)
Early in “sad,” Smith writes that she was once “unapologetic”: “My curls shined and I thought of myself as a level above.” It’s a beautiful page, bouncing curls, confident young woman. But as we move through the section, the weight of white hegemony and of white supremacy bears down more and more on our speaker, crushing her beneath its unforgiving load. She apologizes for taking up space, apologizes for her Blackness. We can see the progression unfold in Smith’s illustrations, as our confident heroine of the first page curls into herself, her face increasingly tense.
Both “Anger” and “Black” explore the weight of structural racism, from casual use of the n-word in the unnamed all-white town where our protagonist lives to self-care (and not being a prop for the centering of whiteness). Smith’s illustrations drive home the damage to her mental health, and the crushing weight of white supremacy, in a way that words alone often can’t. We are reminded, every time we look at our protagonist’s tense face, of the toll the world she must navigate is taking on her. It’s a powerful combination, and an important one.
The Saddest Angriest Black Girl in Town is not necessarily an easy read, though of course I did read it in less than an hour. It’s a beautiful piece of craft, a tight marriage of text and art. Black Josei Press did a fantastic job of the printing: the paper is heavy and solid, of good enough quality to maintain the images printed on it. (Not every publisher makes sure of that!) It deserves to be read, and read again, and shared often. And if I could get it into high school and college libraries everywhere—well, I damn well would.