How the Critically Acclaimed Author of "Monster," Walter Dean Myers, Impacted Me as a Black Writer

The characters in the books I loved — and still do — were overwhelmingly white and I never questioned it.
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Kelechi Urama
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The characters in the books I loved — and still do — were overwhelmingly white and I never questioned it.
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When I was about 10 years old, my cousins moved away and stored a box of books in our basement. I viewed the box as a treasure chest and spent the summer draping myself in The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and dipping tepidly into the sci-fi of Animorphs before retreating to the safety of Anne of Green Gables. I broke curfew nightly by feigning sleep when my parents peeked into my bedroom, and reading with a flashlight once they left.

As I sifted through the box, I saw a cover with a black boy holding a basketball and saved it for last. I had no interest in sports, and stories about girls were my area of interest, so I knew I was guaranteed to hate it. I went through the dozens of other books, rereading most of them once or twice, until the need for new material was greater than my unwillingness to read about about a basketball-playing boy. My eyes needed some form of written stimulation and I was out of options, so I picked up Slam!, by Walter Dean Myers, and began to read.

I know what you’re thinking: Walter Dean Myers, born Walter Milton Myers on August 12, 1937, is one of the most prolific and respected authors of children’s literature in the last century. He is a three-time National Book Award finalist, five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Author award, and two of his books have received Newbery Honors. Monster, a story about a young black boy on trial for murder, is taught in schools all over the country; and Fallen Angels, a gritty look at the Vietnam War through the eyes of a black soldier, is on the American Library Association’s all-time list of “Best Books for Young Adults.” How could I have not immediately recognized his brilliance?

The short answer: I was young. And, although I was well-read for my age, this was my first time coming across anything from Myers. Even worse, it was the first time I was reading a work of fiction that featured a person of color as the main character. 

The characters in the books I loved — and still do — were overwhelmingly white and I never questioned it. Honestly, I had come to expect it. I feel ashamed I ever thought this, but back then, when the cover told me that Slam! was going to center around a young black boy, I found that so outside of my comfort zone that I prepared for it to be terrible.

Slam! opens like this: “Basketball is my thing. I can hoop. Case closed. I’m six four and I got the moves, the eye, and the heart. You can take my game to the bank and wait around for the interest.” 

 It took just a few hours to read . . . reread . . . and read once more before bed.

I was shocked to discover I adored it. It was the first time I was ever exposed to a text so explicitly and unapologetically black. As a young kid growing up in mostly white spaces, I was prone to doing everything I could to minimize my blackness and blend in. The books I read had never challenged that, and I marveled at Slam! for breaking the “rules.”

I saw romance in the main character, Gregory "Slam" Harris, the descriptions of Harlem (“When it rains the tires hiss on the street and when there’s a real rain with the wind blowing sometimes you can hear it against the tin sign over Billy’s bicycle shop”), and the way Myers confidently defied the laws of grammar I had been taught to hold as inalienable truths (“I got it all right, I just couldn’t do nothing with it”). 

I loved the rhythm of Slam’s thoughts and felt a closeness with him even though, on the surface, we had little in common. He was a poor black boy from Harlem with failing grades and I was a middle class girl in suburbia who did well in school and never truly struggled for anything. 

However, I found kinship in his desire do what he loved and make his family happy. He felt distinctly human and familiar in a way no other character I’d met before had.

Myers devoted his life to writing what he knew and was dedicated to creating images for children of color in a field that often ignored them. In a 2014 op-ed published in the New York Times, he wrote, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”

When I finished Slam!, I looked at my own writing in the years of notebooks I had saved, at my characters described as having “strawberry blond hair,” “blue eyes,” or smooth “pale” skin, and felt deeply uncomfortable. 

On my next library visit, I borrowed every book of Myers’s they had available. He was my gateway to other amazing black writers who specialized in YA, such as Sharon M. Draper, Angela Johnson, Nikki Grimes, Dana Davidson, Christopher Paul Curtis, and Virginia Hamilton. As result of this exposure, my own writing changed completely.

Slam!, and other titles from these authors, told me that I could write about characters that looked like me — that a young black girl with barrettes at the end of her braids could be the hero of her own story. I was awakened to both the lack of representation of faces like mine in the literature I loved, and the endless possibilities.

When Walter Dean Myers passed on July 1st of last year, I was 22 and in the process of producing a short film that had recently been awarded a $5,000 grant. 

I’d written the film a year before, with no prior planning or concept of what I wanted it to be. The only thing I did know, when I sat in front of the blank Final Draft document on my computer screen, was that the main character would be black and a girl, because years ago, a remarkable author taught me that was possible.

Talented actresses Amina Alzouma and Amy Elliott on the set of my short film.

Talented actresses Amina Alzouma and Amy Elliott on the set of my short film.