To Be Young, Messy, and Black“Luster” Depicts Millennial Black Girl Angst

Photo credit: Johnathan Kaufman/Unsplash

Raven Leilani’s best-selling debut novel, Luster, is not a case study in the idea that Black girls are magic, a phrase CaShawn Thompson coined in 2013. Thompson’s slogan was meant to be a salve, an uplifting mantra for all Black girls and women. However, capitalism’s corporate-speak and mass consumption have turned it into a means of external validation. “To say ‘Black Girls Are Magic’ is to say Black girls occupy, represent, exist; it is a magic only they can summon,” Shayla Lawson writes in her essay collection This Is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope, published in June 2020. “But #BlackGirlMagic makes Black girlhood a commodity, a list of attributes you don’t have to be us to reproduce.” The concept of #BlackGirlMagic flattens Black girlhood into an easily duplicated experience, a performance of public expectations, and the commodification of Thompson’s words repackages the Black Superwoman trope, where a Black woman’s vulnerability is viewed as either nonexistent or a minor challenge that she must rise above to achieve success.

Fortunately, Luster rebukes this commercialized identity for something more tangible, flawed, and real. Leilani does this through her young antihero, Edie, a 23-year-old rudderless Black female painter stuck in the throes of stagnation. She’s not the poster child for girlboss invincibility; she’s messy, has rough edges, and is fascinated by self-destruction and contradictions. Like many millennials, her adulthood is defined by a sense of arrested development caused by external aggressors. Edie, who some might call a dysfunctional slacker, not only rejects the idea of Black womanhood as a life of servitude, but ultimately refuses to practice tokenism to secure financial, personal, creative, and romantic stability. Her loneliness is an existential response to the cards that millennials were dealt: dwindling job prospects, low wages that don’t support an ever-soaring cost of living, evasive intimacy, systemic racism, and abusive systems of power. Though some may say Edie is an unlikeable character, condemning her messiness only ignores her humanity.

Black girls in pop culture have been historically absent or depicted as predictable stereotypes, but recent shows such as Insecure, Twenties, and I May Destroy You feature characters that challenge and disrupt this white narrative default. The characters in these shows are Black millennials dealing with the pressures of adulthood in ways that are distinct to their fictional narratives but familiar to their audiences. The shows, like Leilani’s novel, reject the myopic focus of the white gaze. Edie works at a major New York City publishing company but doesn’t seem too interested in the work or the industry itself. She lives in a mouse-friendly apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, with a nameless roommate. Their interactions are limited to sporadic displays of acknowledgment, two ambivalent ghosts circling each other but never meeting face-to-face. Her dating life is on life support; her digestive issues are a constant companion.

She’s the opposite of the notion of a “carefree Black girl.” Edie’s angst embodies the inner turmoil that seems so specific to the millennial generation, but her sadness is wrapped in the blue-toned melancholy echoed by Esther Greenwood, the protagonist in Sylvia Plath’s 1963 novel, The Bell Jar. Leilani employs a stream of consciousness writing style where Edie breathlessly reveals conflicting emotions. “I wanted to write a story about a Black woman who fails a lot and is sort of grasping for human connection and making mistakes…I didn’t want her to be a pristine, neatly moral character,” Leilani said in a New York Times interview. She emphasizes this in an Esquire interview, saying her goal was not to write an “unlikeable woman,” but a character who is humanly imperfect. Edie, like Insecure’s Issa Dee (Issa Rae), isn’t satisfied with the current state of her life, but she isn’t exactly sure how to change her situation.

At the beginning of the novel, Edie doesn’t seem to be drowning, but she’s certainly flailing, and the exhaustion of shapeshifting, of code switching, has already begun to set in. When navigating white-dominated spaces, Black people often have to code switch, a concept that can be traced back to W.E.B. Du Bois, who coined the term “double consciousness” in an 1897 essay in the Atlantic. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity,” he wrote. In the context of 21st-century America and Black women millennials, this is an exercise in becoming smaller, in taking up less space in order to chase the idea of upward mobility. It means reserving one’s authentic self for the refuge of family and friends. While Edie knows what she’s “supposed” to do in order to advance her career and succeed in romantic relationships, she follows her impulses—pursuing the pleasure principle rather than material happiness or stability.

In the opening chapter, Edie is at work and sexting an older, married white man. In this exchange, readers also learn that Edie isn’t a star employee. She confesses: “Of course I worry about IT remoting into my computer, or my internet history warranting yet another disciplinary meeting with HR. But the risk. The thrill of a third pair of unseen eyes.” Edie’s decision to disobey the unspoken social and racial codes of conduct directly pushes back against the demands of patriarchal white supremacy and respectability politics. Black millennials who work in the corporate world know that who you are on the job is an exercise in strategic code switching. The racism of white corporate America implements ever-changing goalposts, turning Blackness into a liability. Black women must deal with both racism and sexism, which renders them simultaneously invisible and hypervisible. According to a June 2020 survey conducted and released by Essence magazine, 45 percent of Black women said “the place where they experience racism most frequently is in the workplace.”

Luster by Raven Leilani (Photo credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The survey also reported, “45 percent of Black women also say they have faced racism while applying to a job, and 44 percent while being considered for a promotion or for equal pay.” Black women working in mostly white-dominated spaces are never allowed to forget their racial and gender identity. Natural hair is deemed “unprofessional” in both professional settings and schools; microaggressions are a normal occurrence. Too many companies base a Black person’s worth as an employee on how their presence and emotional labor can help achieve good optics. But we’re living in a time of revolutionary upheaval. George Floyd’s murder has only illuminated the false promises of American equality and proved that freedom is a conditional privilege. The recent reckoning within the media and publishing industries has spotlighted long-standing systems of abuse. In women’s media, legacy publications (Vogue) and their newer competition (Refinery29) have been caught adopting antiracist rhetoric in order to appear “woke,” which means they’re inadvertently profiting from social activism while mistreating and abusing their Black employees.

In Luster, Edie’s job exemplifies many of the real grievances Black people experience living in a world made in the image of whiteness. Edie’s coworker Aria, a Black senior editorial assistant and the only other Black person in their department, is depicted as both a rival and a co-conspirator. Aria willingly accepts the role of the “token” in order to climb the corporate ladder. “We have a lot of people and institutions that police Black women’s behavior and feelings; that speaks to what’s in the novel, where Edie is involved in a number of performances depending on the space she’s in,” Leilani said in her Esquire interview. “That’s the real world. You survive by studying, by calculating.” Likewise, the novel’s conflicts are rooted in Edie’s execution of survival methods. She hums with the nervous anxiety of someone constantly battling the tension of switching between different existences.

She studies people and adopts the persona they want or need her to be. When she meets Eric—a man 23 years her senior who’s in an open marriage, seeking a distraction from the mundane routines of suburban fatherhood and the commitments of monogamy—his ordinariness is both revolting and intoxicating. Their age difference, which creates a power imbalance, doesn’t bother Edie. “There is the potent drug of a keen power imbalance,” she says. “Of being caught in the excruciating limbo between their disinterest and expertise.” Navigating the tension of performing as who you are online and revealing who you are in real life holds a strange appeal. In her oft-quoted poem “For Women Who Are ‘Difficult’ to Love,” Somali British poet Warsan Shire writes, “he tells you that no man can live up to the one who/ lives in your head/ and you tried to change didn’t you?/ closed your mouth more/ tried to be softer/ prettier/ less volatile, less awake.”

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Edie refuses to be “less volatile” and “less awake.” Though she has fascinating missteps, her youth helps cast her mistakes into a sympathetic light; she’s not attempting to serve as a role model or an example of a Black woman who “transcended” her race and endured oppression in order to flourish. After Edie is fired from her job and kicked out of her apartment, she moves into Eric’s guest bedroom, at the insistence of his wife Rebecca. Rebecca knows that Edie is sleeping with her husband; the relationship between the two women is less about charitable hospitality and more about a silent, transactional agreement. After moving in, Edie quickly surpasses her status as a houseguest, becoming a conduit for the family’s frayed intimacy. Eric and Rebecca have an adopted tween daughter named Akila, who is Black. Edie realizes that Rebecca thinks she will be a good influence on Akila, that they will develop an instant kinship simply because they are both Black and female.

The pair don’t form a lifelong mentorship, but Edie feels empathy for Akila, who is socially isolated, introverted, and lives in a predominantly white neighborhood. There’s the shared experience of being Black in America, of being a young Black girl attempting to feel okay with what she sees in the mirror, of trying not to succumb to the exhaustion of proving your humanity every day you step outside. Edie sees in Akila what happens when you’re surrounded by whiteness; the limits of its imagination are dangerous. In one harrowing scene, Edie and Akila come home from a day spent playing hooky at the mall. It’s implied that a nosey old white woman, whose dog was recently killed by an unseen assailant, feels even more justified in her racist suspicions and calls the cops on them. Although Akila informs the police that this is her home, the cops swiftly pin both Akila and Edie to the ground. They’re only released when Rebecca returns home and runs out of the car.

The scene is painfully reminiscent of the police brutality that happens in real life. And if Rebecca hadn’t come home when she did, would Akila and Edie have walked away relatively unharmed? The tone of the text combined with our knowledge of the visible pattern of police brutality implies a terrible, even fatal outcome. It also speaks to the fact that for Black girls, adultification starts at an alarmingly young age. Racism not only maims with words, but it depends on the distortion of reality, deeds fueled by the inherited legacies of everyday horrors. Edie’s experiences are not the definitive depiction of millennial angst, but her mishaps are achingly familiar. Everybody’s trying to figure their shit out, which means you won’t come out the other side without a few war wounds. Generational trends and culture may change over time, but the state of being young upholds universal struggles. 

 

Though some may say Edie is an unlikeable character, condemning her messiness only ignores her humanity.

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Edie’s quest for self-actualization and connection not only exposes how our relationships are influenced by miscommunication, but examines the different selves we use to survive society’s hierarchies of privilege and power. Mainstream media and news outlets define millennials in terms of failure: We’re not following the blueprint set by heteronormative, white, patriarchal, capitalistic ideals. Millennials aren’t buying houses; they’re not getting married or they’re getting married later; they’re having kids at later ages—if they have them at all; they cry about their student loan debt but are entitled and don’t believe in the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. For Black millennials, the pressures of meeting these social and cultural norms are exacerbated by white supremacy.

In a 2019 article for the New Republic, titled “The Missing Black Millennial,” Reniqua Allen writes, “the Black millennial, then, is composed of contradictions and ambiguity; her journey of tentative steps forward and horrific setbacks.” Leilani’s novel showcases a new portrayal of Black women millennials. Edie realizes it can be lonely to be a Black woman surviving in a world rigged against you, but the loneliness doesn’t have to consume you. Dehumanization starts with the denial of the spectrum of human emotions, but resistance can look like embracing uncertainty. To be Black is to be boundless in our multitudes. Edie isn’t a role model and in her, I see past versions of myself, and the evolution of current heartaches.

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by Vanessa Willoughby
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Vanessa Willoughby is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared on but is not limited to: The Toast, The Hairpin, Vice, Hello Giggles, and The Establishment. She is also a Fiction Editor at Brain Mill Press.