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Friday Feature: Brittany Rogers



Brittany Rogers is a poet, educator, and lifelong Detroiter. She has work published or forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Apogee, Indiana Review, Four Way Review, Underbelly, Mississippi Review, The Metro Times, “The BreakBeat Poets: Black Girl Magic”, Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora, Lambda Literary, and Oprah Daily. Brittany is a fellow of  VONA, The Watering Hole, Poetry Incubator, and Pink Door Writing Retreat, as well as a 2023 Gilda Snowden Awardee. She is Editor-in-Chief of Muzzle Magazine and co-host of VS Podcast. Her debut collection Good Dress is forthcoming from Tin House Press (October 2024). Learn more about Brittany on her website.




Before Uses of The Erotic


At a recent keynote speech, I was asked about the first book I read that had an impact on me. I told the audience of teachers and librarians a delightful story about my first introduction to the Junie B. Jones series, declaring my love for her sassy mouth and energy. They laughed and nodded their heads in approval, and internally, I sighed.The answer I gave must have been appropriate enough.


Of course, this was not my real answer. Though I do remember enjoying the Junie B. Jones series, what I remember more was my love for romance novels. Not just any romance; the historical novels with white women adorned in fancy gowns on the front cover. Tempt Me at Twilight. Romancing the Duke. Carry Me Away. I learned this love for cheesy, steamy romance from my grandmother. As a child, I spent a significant amount of time at her house, and she had a book collection that rivaled my school library.  What initially started off as me sneaking off with a book or two then returning it when I thought she wasn’t looking became us laying across her bed, feet up, reading individual copies of the same book together.


I know, I know. Most people, and especially most older Black women would not approve of an adolescent Black girl indulging in such texts. My mother always described our preferred literature as smut- nothing more than debauchery, sure to put bad ideas in my head. But my grandmother was the sort to feed me steak, ice cream, and Pepsi for breakfast. She made sure I could change a diaper by the time I was six, taught me how to pee on the side of the road, and was the person who took a look under the hood of my first raggedy hooptie- a red, rusted minivan. I saw her in a skirt twice: once at a wedding and once at a funeral. In high school, she gave me a necklace with a small gold pendant, shaped like a pistol, then scoffed loudly, when weeks later, I told her a boy at school said it made me look un-lady like.


It is not that my grandmother did not care about what was ‘appropriate’; she was simply more concerned with what she felt I could handle. As far as she was concerned, I was a miniature version of her- so of course, that meant I could handle anything.


***


If I was reading romance novels by eight or nine, I’m sure it is no surprise that in ninth grade I was fully entrenched in the work of Omar Tyree, Sister Soulja, and Eric Jerome Dickey. By this time, I was stealing books from Target and hiding them in boxes beneath the collection of Babysitters Club that my mother had purchased over the years.


I was aware by then, of the looks that I received from my teachers when I pulled one of my books out of my bag and began to read once my work was finished. It is the same look they had when I wore a skirt above my knees, or walked with a guy friend in the hallway. A Black girl reading books about romance, sex, or love equated to a Black girl who was having sex. A Black girl who was having sex was promiscuous, a disappointment, ruined. A ruined Black girl is a bad influence on all the other Black girls who actually want to become ladies, mothers, wives. 


Occasionally, they would try to set me on a new path by pointing to my intelligence.

 “But Brittany, you read so well… did you know your last test scores indicate that you’re reading at a college level? You don’t want to read something more rigorous?  The Coldest Winter Ever won’t be on the AP Exam. A bright young lady like yourself should be reading more ‘appropriate’ texts. The Color Purple, for example. A Lesson Before Dying. Maybe even I Know Why The Caged Birds Sing.”


I stopped informing my teachers that I adored those texts as well when I realized that their fear wasn’t really about my perceived lack of exposure to the classics. I continued to read my books quietly at my desk, pretending not to know what they thought of me. Still, I found it ironic that they were comfortable with me reading about rape and divorce and lynching and poverty , but were horrified about me being subjected to pleasure. 


***

This is where I admit that by 9th grade, I certainly knew what sex was. That I knew the mechanics of intercourse before that first romance novel was in my hand. At 9, my mother found a raunchy note, offering love and oral sex to my crush Byron, in the pockets of my uniform pants. At thirteen, I was banned from my father’s house for kissing the boy down the street in his garage, while my little sister failed at playing lookout. In 11th grade, gossip ran a majorette out of school for doing far less than what I had enjoyed doing countless times already. Only some of this is because of that family friend, too old and aggressive to say no to. 


I don’t talk about those years often. There is no point outside of therapy, and even then —have you ever tried explaining that everything is not a response to trauma? Not acting out, or a cry for help, or a lack of, or too much off. Sometimes the girl, the woman, decides what she wants and pursues it. Believe it or not, she gets to choose.


***

I graduated high school and went to a college so close that I caught a bus home, and went to the mall on the weekends. In those first two years, I was given British literature. American literature. Shakespearean literature. A contemporary poetry class with a professor who didn't quite understand what contemporary meant. I earned an A in each course, but still managed to disappoint my professors, who somehow expected my eyes to light up in class discussions after reading  A Tale of Two Cities, Othello, and Scarlet Letter.


I got married. Got pregnant. Got divorced. Moved back to my city, and spent a year sleeping on my grandmother's couch. Now, when I snuck in her room and laid across her bed, I had my own book selection- mostly borrowed from the library up the way. Now, we talked about our spicy characters and their wild, forbidden loves as if we were gossiping about our noisy neighbors. Can you believe she left him for? You think those two will end up together? How long before they realize? 


Once, I lost my library card and was forced to use a friends’ instead. My least favorite librarian worked at the branch I preferred visiting the most. They received a new supply of urban fiction once a week, and was the only library on any of my bus routes with a separate section for erotic novels and romance. When my least favorite librarian realized I was checking out books each week under a false identity, she made me return the stack that nearly touched my shoulders, as she muttered that I seemed too young to have that type of literature anyway.


Small as it was, I remember venting to my granny afterwards, crying about how I couldn't keep anything. In that season of much hardship and little joy, nothing felt more true than my belief that I would never again have my own anything, not even the tiny bliss of reading a raunchy story, just because I wanted to.When I came home from class the next day, my grandmother surprised me at the door, her shoes and denim jacket already on. Asked me to run her up to my favorite library. When we got there, she told me to point out the books I wanted, using the same tone as when she would pick me up from school, in the 5th grade,  and make me point out the kids who talked shit about my too dark skin, too small breasts, my too much mouth, and not enough shame. Once her hands were full, she took the stack of the latest Zane and Ashley Antoinette novels to the counter. When that gatekeeping librarian asked my grandmother if those books were hers, she proudly exclaimed that she couldn’t wait to read them, then passed them to me as soon as we got out the door. 


***


I was wrong then, but like most 20 year olds, of course I didn’t know it yet. I wasn’t able to keep the things that were no good for me. That first husband. A raggedy apartment. The job that made me work too many hours, then scammed me out of my pay. 


What I did have, I had in abundance. My autonomy. The audacity to know what I desired, and the confidence to make my requests loudly and detailed. The peace of having no one to answer to. Moreover, I had a grandmother who spent my whole life teaching me to define myself on my terms, who loved me so much, she would lie to make sure I had a small spark of pleasure. 



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Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.

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