Under a south-side el station, in a space small enough to blink and miss, there’s a door to a world where Black girls can live the fullness of an impossible, earthly bliss.
Suppose you listen close enough, past the sound of the ghost train speeding by. You might hear Black girls laughing, crunching down on chips dripping in hot sauce between sips of bubbly Moscato and drags of Black & Mild cigars, as they reminisce about a past that was never just and the possibilities of a future.
Literary greats like Lorraine Hansberry and Margaret Walker are there, cutting up in Washington Park. You might see Gwendolyn Brooks, too, shooting pool with The Seven.
It’s a purgatory beyond heaven and hell. Unlike author Diamond Sharp, you’d have to believe in one or the other to deny it. And it’s one of the critical settings of Super Sad Black Girl, Sharp’s debut text that cuts as deeply as it heals.
In verse spanning 52 pages, Sharp explores the limitations and heartache of being born with mental health conditions and what it means to accept a sadness that permeates every part of your being.
Super Sad Black Girl by Diamond Sharp Haymarket Books, paperback, 72 pp., $11.90, haymarketbooks.org
Death is a prominent theme—Sharp was dealing with suicidal ideations when she began writing the poems in 2013—but so is acceptance of self, freedom, and the exploration of a world where you can have both.
Sharp beautifully captures an ache of sorrow that often feels isolating and makes it relatable, palatable. The poems flow like diary entries.
“In the early writings of these poems, I was thinking a lot about death, particularly about what it means to die young and what it was like to talk to the people who are no longer on this plane,” Sharp said. “Where else in the universe can you go when talking to people who aren’t on this plane? I imagined purgatory as a liminal space. I chose to imagine it as a joyful place.”
Storytelling is deeply rooted in Sharp’s heritage. Sharp’s grandmother, a retired nurse, was a born storyteller. Tales about life in Mississippi in the early 20th century and Chicago’s west side in the 1930s were frequent as Sharp grew up in Oak Park.
Sharp had a speech impediment and was quiet. It was “difficult to enunciate and speak articulately,” she said. Instead, she filled her days with film, television, and books—she was an early, voracious reader.
“I feel like every writer said when they were a kid, they wrote their own little books and stuff,” Sharp said. “But I learned how to speak after I learned how to read. That’s how my brain works.”
The cliche is true for Sharp, too. In the fifth grade, she wrote a poetry book. At Oak Park and River Forest High School, she joined the spoken word club, led then by the celebrated poet Peter Kahn. As a junior, she took Saturday classes at Young Chicago Authors.
Sharp’s later texts are more mature, exploring what it means to live with several mental health diagnoses as a Black woman. Now, fully equipped with the language to describe how she’s feeling as someone living with bipolar II disorder, she can see the impact of her mental health on her earlier writing.
“If mental health has been undiagnosed in your family—which is not unusual—getting information later on allows you to reflect and say, ‘OK, what I was seeing was depression and anxiety,’” Sharp said. “So now, as an adult, I can look back and be like, ‘Oh, I’ve been anxious my entire life.’ These depressive moments have been part of me for as long as I can remember. I just didn’t understand it as such.”
An air of loneliness weaves through the book, even as Sharp is locked in conversation with Hansberry, Brooks, and Walker. The book opens with a quote from Hansberry, declaring that “the thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.”
“People have very romantic ideas of mental illness or mentally ill artists, but living with a mental illness isn’t romantic,” Sharp said. “It often gets in the way of creative output, which I think is important for people to recognize.”
Writing and publishing Super Sad Black Girl over the past ten years was lonely, scary, and freeing, Sharp said.
She’s been hospitalized three times, a “health insurance sponsored vacation,” she said. She’s dealt with suicidal ideations, evident in poems like “Poppies,” “Runaway,” and “Room,” where Sharp explains that leaving an unkempt room behind in the wake of her death would be an inconvenience to those living.
It wasn’t until she turned 25, nine years ago, that everything “clicked.” Beyond the suicidal ideations, there was an urge to “fight back” and explore what life would be like when you’re interested in living.
You can be sad, and you can be Black, and you can be lost, lonely, or frightened. But you can want to live, too. And there’s power in all of those qualities.
It’s a blessing
to lay oneself bare
and celebrate the mess.
— “I Can Be Sad In Public”
“I started to realize that people are going to think I’m crazy anyways,” Sharp said. “People talk about me behind my back. I might as well just say, ‘Yeah, you’re correct. That is true.’ I’m not going to let these aimless notions about mental illness control my life and how I see myself.”
Now that Super Sad Black Girl is out for the world to consume, the poems are no longer hers, Sharp said.
She places a barrier between herself and her work, allowing readers to respond how they choose. Sharp does have two hopes, though. “I’m hoping that people enter the world, and I hope that it sparks more interest in Lorraine, Gwendolyn, and Margaret’s work,” Sharp said. “If you are a young Black child in the Chicago area and you’re interested in writing, I feel like it’s impossible not to be introduced to Lorraine and Gwendolyn Brooks. In some ways, they’re just kind of in the water.”
Sharp spent years running away from her mental health issues. A conversation with a friend’s mother encouraged her to nip it in the bud and “do what I need to move forward in the best way for my health,” Sharp said.
Sharp hopes that for people dealing with mental illness, trying to understand it, or still running from it, her book adds context and color to what can be a desolate world.
“It’s been good to revisit these poems,” Sharp said. “It’s like a time capsule for me. It’s good to see them out in the world. One person wrote to me and said they felt like it was a book that would allow people to heal. It’s an honor to me that people feel that way. All I can do is write it and hope that it impacts people positively.”
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