I don’t know about the rest of y’all little negros. Better say your prayers, cause you can’t make it nowhere in this world without them honkeys,” he says, laughing wryly to himself.–Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown
When he notices the looks of disappointment on Duvonte’s, Tiffany’s, Dre’s, and Rhone’s faces, he quickly changes his tone and tries to smooth over the low expectations buried in his words. “Hey. Anything is possible, right? Just keep believing in yourself and it’ll all work out. Jimmy believe in you. Jimmy love the kids.”
But the damage has been done. The seed has been planted, and I watch as it takes root in their minds. I watch as it sinks in that somehow, we are not all on the same path. Somehow, though we started in the same place, we are heading in different directions. Rone and Dre are only 11 and 10 but they are already falling apart, and starting to spin the same webs of chaos as our parents.”
Black Girl Unlimited is an urban fantasy novel about a girl named Echo who discovers that she is the youngest in a line of wizards. The novel is a coming-of-age story in which she must learn to control her powers, but her daily life is filled with the very real forces of poverty, addiction, and systematic racism. Echo is intelligent and creative, and dreams of going to college, but her dreams are often pushed aside as she must deal with the conflicts of the world around her. Most of the adults that Echo knows have drug addictions, and the children her own age are expected to follow suit. Echo is particularly disturbed by her brothers’ dim outlooks, and in much of the novel she must make choices between her goals and the needs of her friends and family.
It took a little while to get into the meat of the story, partially because the novel starts when Echo is very young, and so the narrative is fairly distant until she ages to her early teens. However, once Echo does reach her teen years, the author put a lot of effort into developing her as a character. There were a number of moments in which Echo was forced into difficult choices to help her family – lying to a landlord about her parents’ health conditions, for example – and those moments did a lot to expose her loyalty and dedication to her family, as well as her own determination to do better for herself and, if possible, her brothers. Aside from Echo, the character that interested me the most was Echo’s mother. Although her mother’s actions often caused Echo’s personal struggles, her mother was shown to be complex woman with a tragic backstory who consistently strives for a better life for her children, even if she does not always know how to get there. Echo had a good deal of development throughout the novel, but her mother made profound personal progress from start to finish.
As a fantasy reader, I loved the use of magical realism in Black Girl Unlimited, especially how it is built slowly rather than hopping directly into a magical world like so much urban fantasy. At the beginning of the novel, the magic seems as though it may just be a young girl building a fantasy world to deal with the hardships in her life. However, as Echo gets older, the magic becomes more real at starts to genuinely affect the world around her. I loved this slow burn – I was willing to accept the magic as a coping mechanism, but I loved it even more when it became a real tool for her as she struggled through her external conflicts.
The thing I respect the most about Black Girl Unlimited is how it manages to address the black struggle with brutal honesty but still leaves the reader with hope at the end of the novel, instead of leaving the future bleak. So many books break down racial issues into white characters that oppress and characters of color that suffer, Black Girl Unlimited did a good job of covering how systematic racism can be internalized by individuals who then use that internalization to set limits on themselves and others. In the quote I chose for this review, one of the adults in Echo’s life makes clear which children he expects will succeed and fail as they become adults. Perhaps his predictions in that moment become a reality, but the novel shows that much of their future is built upon the expectations set when the characters are children. Another example of this is the violence that Echo and many of her female friends and family suffer from the men in their lives. Echo often observes and sometimes even comments on the efforts made to improve the lives of black men, while ignoring the injustices done to black women. Late in the book, Echo and her family attend a speech given by a preacher who addresses this: he says that black men need to come to terms with the way that they treat black women, and Echo notices which of her male relatives internalize this and which just seem offended and unwilling to acknowledge the truth of it.
In all, I’ll give Black Girl Unlimited a 9 out of 10. There is a lot in this book to draw every kind of reader: the magic will appeal to fantasy readers, the Echo’s personal struggles will attract readers who wish to educate themselves as well as readers of color who are seeking a character with whom they can relate, and any adult reader who wants a good coming-of-age story will appreciate Echo’s personal growth as she reaches adulthood.