Marley Dias was only in fifth grade when she realized most of her reading options, instead of featuring black girls like her, centered “white boys and their dogs.” She had enough and knew other girls must feel the same, so she started the 1,000 Black Girl Books campaign. Dias digitally cataloged and collected more than seven thousand books that amplify black girl voices. She started by sending the books to her mother’s former primary school in Jamaica, and now has distributed books all over the world.
The brilliant middle-schooler has been a much sought-after speaker these days; in June she delivered remarks at the White House United State of Women conference, and she has appeared on the podcast Another Round, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, and Ellen. On July 7, 2016, she sat with Anna Julia Cooper Center founding director Melissa Harris-Perry at ELLE Magazine to talk black girl dreams, healing through literature, the school system, and more.
Throughout the conversation, Dias presented sharp, critical thinking around issues of representation, literature, and possibilities. Contesting the notion that representation is most important because “you can’t be what you can’t see,” Dias cited the ability of a community to circulate or pass down ideas about career possibilities, even if no member of the community had experienced them.
“[Someone] could have read any book about being a forensic detective, and [they] could tell me about it,” Dias told Harris-Perry. In that case, Dias explains, she could still dream of becoming a forensic detective, even if she had never known or seen a detective that looks like her. “You can be a black girl and not be reflected [in books] but you just have a stronger sense of identity and are more likely to be more confident if you’re able to see yourself reflected in books,” she explained.
“I had always wanted to be a forensic detective,” the #1000BlackGirlBooks founder explained, “because I was curious about things. Even If I thought I knew the answer, I’d keep double checking and double checking.”
Dias now dreams of being a magazine editor. Harris-Perry told her that “journalism of all kinds is a lot like being a detective” – both necessitate asking questions, conducting deep research, and expressing those findings. Those skills are especially critical for advancing equity and opportunities for girls and women of color, work Dias already has not taken lightly.
When Harris-Perry explained that the works of Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston were the most influential in her own life, Dias didn’t take the opportunity to delve into what is thought to be ‘grown-up’ territory in the conversation. “I’m still a kid,” Dias often emphasizes in interviews.
The conversation later took a turn into the serious territory of gender and racialized violence. Dias articulated her concerns about true representation in media and organized political resistance by referencing Claudette Colvin. She was quick to note that respectability in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s shut out a young, nontraditional, pregnant activist. When asked to think about the kind of books she would create, Dias said, “I think [Claudette Colvin’s] story would be an interesting story to write.”
Harris-Perry asked Dias about her emotions around the recent officer-involved shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Before she could elaborate on why she found the shootings difficult to deal with and unpack with friends, Dias took a silent moment to cry and reflect. When the tears subsided, Dias offered a simple justification for her frustration: “Hard things come and go, but it seems like racism always stays.”
Their Facebook Live conversation was not a unique instance of the young activist’s thorough understanding of race in America. Watch her break down structural racism’s influence on the experiences of American schoolchildren in a public service announcement developed in partnership with the National Education Association‘s (NEA) EdJustice initiative.