Born c. 1959, in Newark, NJ; married Cliff Virgin; children: Baldwin, Ford. Education: Howard University, B.A.; attended graduate school at Northwestern University.
Addresses: Publisher —Simon … Schuster, Inc., 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Web-site —http://www.benildelittle.com.
Reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Newark Star-Ledger , and People ; senior editor for Essence; author of novels, including Good Hair , 1996, The Itch , 1998, Acting Out , 2003, and Who Does She Think She Is? , 2005.
Awards: Ten best books of 1996, Los Angeles Times , for Good Hair ; best new author, Go On Girl Book Club.
Benilde Little, a former journalist, achieved success as a novelist with her sharp observations of class distinctions among African Americans. When her first novel, Good Hair , was published in 1996, critics described her as part of a literary wave of black female novelists forsaking tales of slavery and poverty to write about the black middle class and upper class. When that same wave of writers began to be pigeonholed as "black chick lit" in the 2000s, Little, in her mid-40s, expanded her range, combining the usual "chick lit" preoccupation with men and dating with a portrayal of generational differences in African-American families.
Little was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey. Her parents were an auto worker and a nurse's aide, placing the family on the cusp between the working class and the middle class, but her parents tried hard to elevate their children into middle-class life through education and a stable home. In one interview, Little described watching her Newark neighborhood change as white families left and poorer black families moved in. The new kids at her school, less well-off than her, disdained her middle-class wardrobe and home.
That made Little conscious from an early age of how class differences can divide African Americans, an idea that was cemented in her mind when she attended the historically black Howard University, which has long educated much of America's black elite. Fellow students would ask her what her father and grandfather did for a living or what car her father drove. "I don't come from a really rich background or anything, " she told Etelka Lehoczky of the Chicago Tribune. "I went to college and saw people who had a lot of stuff, and was kind of like, 'Oh, my God.' I thought we were privileged, and then I got to college and it was like, 'No, we're not.'"
Little attended graduate school at Northwestern University and worked as a newspaper reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Newark Star-Ledger.
She also reported for People , then became an editor for the black women's magazine Essence. Meanwhile, she wanted to write a novel. But, in the late 1980s, she was told that she had to write about slavery or the ghetto to succeed as a black female writer. Fortunately for her, she ignored that advice. But she kept her work on her first novel secret from her colleagues at Essence.
At the magazine, she had the job of editing book reviews, and advance copies of books without the slick covers constantly came across her desk. "That was really the key, " she told Lehoczky in the Chicago Tribune. "At People , I did a lot of author interviews, but I'd see the finished book, and I'd [think] 'Wow, this person's a genius. I can't do this, '" she says. "But when I was looking at manuscripts, it was like, 'Hey, I can do this. I can do this.' It was like the little engine that could."
Good Hair , Little's first novel, published in 1996, told the story of a newspaper reporter from a working-class background (not too different from Little herself) and her romance with a Harvard-educated doctor, exploring the class differences between African Americans along the way. Reviews were good to fair, and the subject matter generated a lot of buzz. Andrea M. Wren, writing for the Washington Post , gave the book a mixed review, complaining that the main character was not as self-aware as she claimed to be and that some parts of the plot were predictable, but called it a "respectable novel about male-female relationships and the black bourgeoisie." A Los Angeles Times writer celebrated the seeming novelty that Good Hair was a black comedy of manners, that is, a study of upper-class habits and preoccupations. That aspect of the book seemed to come directly from Little's own experiences. Dwight Garner, a writer for Salon.com, was struck by a scene near the beginning of the novel: a party in Manhattan full of black professionals who are not actually having a good time because they are engaged in a sort of game Little calls "Negro Geography." She defines it as a series of tests of social status through questions such as where someone went to school, who they knew, and what they did for a living. Many black professionals, Little explains, try to distance themselves from white people's stereotypes of lower-class blacks.
One of the male characters in Good Hair even classified black women into three categories, Garner explained, quoting the book: the "commoner, " or "women with names like LaQwanda, who wore lycra regardless of dress size"; the BAP, or black princesses, well-off and well-educated; and Afrotiques, or "righteous womanist sisters with natural hair and clothes made from natural fabric." Also, some of the Negro Geography tests are about looks, Little explains in the book, including shades of skin color and hair styles. Even the title of the book is a reference to such distinctions: "good hair, " to snobs in black professional circles, is straight or wavy, not too kinky.
Critics heralded Little as part of a new generation of African-American female writers, flourishing after the success of Terry McMillan and her 1992 novel Waiting to Exhale. These writers, critics such as Salon.com's Garner said, create simple, snappy stories about middle-class black women, in contrast with older, more political writers of weighty literary novels, such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Garner declared that fans of the two camps were playing their own version of Negro Geography, feuding over status.
The Itch , Little's second novel, followed two women as they try to start a movie production company and suffer through bad luck with the opposite sex. Again, the new novel examined, as Washington Post profiler Pamela Newkirk put it, the ways "successful blacks straddle two worlds and the price they pay to achieve the American Dream." Newkirk's profile took great interest in Little's ideas about class divides and the author's own status markers, noting that Little owned mink coats and expensive jewelry, yet her home in a suburb of New York City was full of simple, unpretentious decor.
It took five years for Little to publish her third novel, an absence she addressed on her website. Helping out at her daughter's cooperative school, finding a new house, and getting pregnant with her second child and being a full-time mother through his first year all distracted her from writing, she said. The book, 2003's Acting Out , begins with the breakup of protagonist Ina's marriage. Until her husband leaves her for another woman, Ina has lived as a housewife, giving up her youthful ambitions for upper-class comfort. On her website, Little shied away (as most authors do) from saying her fiction was autobiographical, but she said her new book drew from the experiences of other women living in the suburbs: "I watch, listen to stay-at-home moms who used to be investment bankers, lawyers, doctors, professors, you name it, and the frustrations they feel and the mothers who also work outside the home and the tension between the two groups of mothers, " she wrote. "I observed women who seem to have it all, married to men who can provide the kind of lifestyle where money really isn't a problem and how that can be its own problem."
Acting Out questioned bourgeois materialism. " House Beautiful homes, shopping as an Olympic sport and social busyness were all distractions to keep the ennui at bay, to keep conversations with that real self away, the one who you were before you got hurt, lost first prize, discovered you didn't have the energy to fight for who you really wanted to become, " Little wrote in Acting Out , as quoted in the Chicago Tribune. She told the Chicago Tribune 's Lehoczky that she thought materialism and consumerism hurt black people—which surprised the journalist since Little's novels often describe material trappings. "This rampant materialism is a real issue for oppressed people, " Little told Lehoczky. "It's an American problem, and then it's magnified by people who come out of oppression. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with [material] things; I'm just saying that you can't define yourself like that."
That idea struck reviewer Marta Salij of the Detroit Free Press as too obvious. Salij was not impressed with Acting Out , complaining that Little did not have much new to say about the suburban lifestyle. In the book, Ina claims she feels stifled and misses her free-spirited life from the past, but Salij saw little evidence of actual creative inspiration in Ina. "I think Ina just likes to whine, " Salij wrote. "I'm not sure Little knows how silly Ina is. She's written the book in Ina's voice, which suggests she thinks Ina's insights are profound or at least worth hearing." Monica Harris of Essence , more willing to believe Little was writing out of wisdom, asked Little why her novels end on bittersweet notes. "In order to have real insight, we have to be honest, " Little told her. "Relationships change. They go through cycles and phases; they get boring. It's a bit unsettling to realize this, but perfection doesn't exist."
By 2005, when her fourth novel, Who Does She Think She Is? , came out, reviewers were still lumping Little in with other black female writers, though now with a new angle: Little, 46 years old in 2005, was breaking new ground by describing middle-aged maturity among black professionals. "Often considered the midwives of black chick lit, these writers are all baby boomers who paved the way more than a decade ago for popular fiction featuring a world of black characters, " wrote Felicia R. Lee of the New York Times , referring to Little, McMillan, and novelist Connie Briscoe. "Now the writers (and many of those characters) have grown up—they got the man, had the kids, and moved to the suburbs—but they are still pioneers." Little agreed. "We're really the only place you're going to see black women of a certain age and a certain sort of history, " she told Lee.
Who Does She Think She Is? is told in three voices. The 26-year-old protagonist, Aisha, is caught between two men, her white fiancé and a dashing black gentleman she meets at her engagement party. Meanwhile, her mother and grandmother reexamine their life choices when confronted by Aisha's dilemma. "Little strikes a nice balance between heart-felt intergenerational saga and sexy love story, " Publishers Weekly wrote. Little explained she mixed the love story with the family story to explore more serious themes than some of her younger peers. "The black chick-lit books that I've read, it's all about 'gotta find a man' and that's it, " she told Lee of the New York Times. "These characters just spring up, they don't have a background, they don't have parents, they don't have brothers and sisters and concerns." The novel also touched on the effect that growing up with their fathers absent can have on women, an issue Little was exposed to while working on articles for Essence. "I found out how big the 'daddy hunger' issue is for black women, " she told Paula L. Woods of the Los Angeles Times. "I grew up with my dad in the house, so I took it for granted even though I knew people in my neighborhoodwho didn't have their dads. I'd meet or read about all these really together women, at least on the surface, and their [sense of incompleteness] was generally due to lack of a daddy presence."
Little told Essence writer Kyle Smith that her goal in writing is not to keep covering the same ground. "Recently a woman asked me, 'Why don't you write another Good Hair ?' As a writer, I'm bored with those characters now. I'd like to change the focus of what I'm doing. I'm working to that end and writing nonfiction. It may surprise some of my readers, but I'd like to write about topics like the impact of poverty on our community. And I hate to sound flip about that because it's not flip. I do have other stories I need to tell."
Good Hair , Simon and Schuster, 1996.
The Itch , Simon and Schuster, 1998.
Acting Out , Free Press, 2003.
Who Does She Think She Is? , Free Press, 2005.
Buffalo News , March 5, 1997, p. C1.
Chicago Tribune , February 26, 2003, p. 3 (Woman News section).
Detroit Free Press , January 29, 2003, p. 1D.
Essence , July 1998, p. 66; February 2003, p. 96; June 2005, p. 107.
Los Angeles Times , December 29, 1996, p. 6; July 9, 2005, p. E1.
New York Times , June 27, 2005, p. E1.
Publishers Weekly , April 11, 2005, p. 34.
Washington Post , November 14, 1996, p. B2; December 1, 1998, p. C1.
"Bio, " Essence , http://www.essence.com/essence/ summit/bio_b_little.html (November 20, 2005).
"Q … A, " Benilde Little, http://www.benildelittle. com/qa.html (November 25, 2005).
"Sistahood Is Lucrative, " Salon.com, http://www. salon.com/weekly/blacklit960923.html (November 20, 2005).
— Erick Trickey