Review: The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae

With a title like The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl one does expect a lot of social fumbling, but here’s the thing: I don’t think Issa Rae is as awkward as she thinks she is. Though maybe it is hard for me, a fellow awkward, to be an unbiased judge in this situation. I can however say with certainty that Issa Rae is very funny. I’ve been a fan of her web series, also titled The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, for quite some time and was looking forward to this memoir to quell my epic sadness over the long term hiatus of the show. Rae talks about the awkwardness of adolescence (the most awkward of life’s stages) as well as navigating relationships socially, sexually, and racially – each with its own pitfalls. Rae can’t dance, she went through a cheating phase, and white people always want to touch her hair. It’s unfortunate; it’s awkward; it’s hilarious.
While the book is billed as a series of essays on being awkward and black, this book is really a memoir of a young woman navigating her early life in various and differing social climates. Issa Rae and I are the same age, and a big part of my enjoyment of her book came from exploring the similar elements of our cultural awareness as 90s kids. From A Different World to Aaliyah, I was on a wave of reminiscence. However, ABG is also about Issa Rae’s racial awareness, which is something that never occurred to me as a white kid growing up in the suburbs. Reflecting on the representation of race in pop culture in the 90s was surprising and saddening. How is it possible that in the age of technological expansion we have regressed so far in representation of minorities? Prime time television when I was a kid was full of racially diverse characters – where are they now? Why does it seem that everyone is forced to play to a stereotype? Or worse yet, to not be present at all.
Issa Rae moved from a majority white school in Maryland to a majority black school in Compton as a young teen. It was there that she learned to feel her difference. She didn’t listen to the same music as many of her peers, couldn’t dance, and generally fell outside of the cultural perception of blackness. Rae mines these years of teenage awkwardness to humorous effect, but much of the book seems to lead up to her revelation that she is just fine being awkward and black. Issa Rae doesn't have to be an Angry Black Woman; she doesn't need swagger; who cares if she is not a good dancer? It's great to be awkward. This cultural and stereotypical version of “blackness” that invalidates those who feel outside of society's definition is slipping as, in Rae's words, “our collective grasp of ‘blackness’ is becoming more and more elusive.”

Memoirs serve us best by creating awareness of a life lived by another, fostering empathy, and forcing us to realize the ties that bind us through collective experience. Rae’s memoir absolutely serves that purpose often with a self-deprecating joke or a tongue placed firmly in cheek. I laughed at Rae’s juvenile mishaps all the while mulling over a few of my own. Ultimately though, it is her success that makes this story. Issa Rae is not defined by her awkwardness or her race, she’s defined by her work. And that work, including this memoir, is pointed, hilarious, and a thrill to enjoy.