As a Black non-binary queer person, my life and my identity are made up of a variety of experiences and influences.
While I’m more aware of who I am now, there was a time when I just wasn’t sure about it. In Renée Watson’s beautifully written book Piecing Me Together, the main character Jade creates a collage out of her experiences to figure out who she wants to be.
In order for Jade to figure out who she is, she has to wade through experiences and perceptions that allow others to define her. The main focus of the book is Jade’s experiences with the mentor program Woman to Woman and her Black upper-class mentor Maxine. Jade feels that Maxine is treating her like someone who needs to be fixed. Since Jade is a thick-bodied, dark-skinned, Black girl from a working-class family, she is considered to be an “at-risk” teen in danger of becoming a statistic.
While Jade spends time with Maxine and Woman to Woman, she also encounters other significant experiences in her personal and student life. At her elite high school St. Francis, she befriends a white female student named Sam and learns how their racial backgrounds cause them to be seen differently. Walking alone on the street, men harass her because of her body and their sense of entitlement. When an incident of police brutality occurs in a nearby neighborhood, Jade feels compelled to take action even though she feels helpless.
These experiences make Jade feel that she is constantly coming apart because of how other people see her. She sums it up best with the following lines:
Listening to these mentors, I feel like I can prove the negative stereotypes about girls like me wrong. But when I leave? It happens again. The shattering. And this makes me wonder if a Black girl’s life is being stitched together & coming undone.
These lines made me really connect to Jade as a character because of similar feelings I had as a teenager. Like Jade, I felt like my identity was constantly under attack by expectations and preconceived notions of what a Black person is like. The world told me that Black people couldn’t be geeky, sensitive, and emotionally vulnerable so I learned to hate myself. Unlike Jade, I didn’t have the self-worth and knowledge to define myself on my own terms until my twenties.
Another thought about Jade defining herself on her own terms is expressed when she says,
Sometimes I just want to be comfortable in this skin, this body. Want to cock my head back and laugh loud and free, all my teeth showing, and not be told I’m too rowdy, too ghetto…. Sometimes I just want to let my tongue speak the way it pleases, let it be untamed and not bound by rules.
While I have never been called too rowdy or ghetto by others, these lines made me think of the ideals of respectability that I unconsciously learned from various media and my own parents. I was expected to go to college, get the right degree, and not be too influenced by “bad” Black kids who got pregnant in high school or dropped out. At one point, I was also told not to watch too much BET and not speak too much slang when I wasn’t around my peers.
Out of all the ideals of respectability and success, the idea that a Black person needs to escape their “bad” living areas in order to be successful is one of the most pervasive. It is this idea that Jade combats in the book, even as she yearns to travel the world and speak Spanish. Since Jade sees the beauty in her friends, family, and her neighborhood of North Portland, she uses those influences to define herself in a positive way and make her collage art.
Not only does Jade undergo self-discovery with her present day life, but she also uses historical influences from the past. One day, she learns about York, a Black slave who went on the Lewis and Clark expedition. She is drawn to his story because he was having his identity and personal story defined for him. Jade also learns about Black collagists like Romare Bearden and Mickalene Thomas later in the book. Once Jade finally starts speaking up with her actual voice and honing her artistic voice, she combines the past and present for her art and for herself.
Through lived experience, art, and learned history, Jade literally puts together the pieces of who she feels she wants to be. As an artist, daughter, student, and more, Jade refuses to let others define who she is as a Black girl. Jade is a collage worth seeing in all its pieces and glory, and that makes her story powerful.