Black Queens

Photo by Sarah Whiting

I was in college when I stumbled on an enormous tome in a Barnes and Noble called “In Praise of Black Women, Volume 1: Ancient African Queens.” It struck me as a book I should have seen before. I mean, I lived in libraries. In high school, feeling unaccepted and dejected, I ate my lunch in the school library, and my part-time job was shelving books at a local library after school. My first student job at college was in the library. Yet I had never heard about a single Black queen referenced in this book.

Of course, there was the fierce African queen Cleopatra, who strategized better than most monarchs of her time only to succumb to the powers that be — read: men — losing everything in the end.

To be honest, as a Black girl, I never connected with Cleopatra. It never felt right to claim her as “Black.” Maybe it was Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of her in the 1963 movie or other not-too-subtle Westernized tropes. She was Greek, and Egypt is not a Black country. Yet Cleopatra embodied what I knew about African queens — there were not many, and the most infamous was not ours to claim.

So stumbling across an encyclopedia of Black queens was next level for me. I devoured it cover to cover. When an aunt discovered I had the book, her disbelief and glee led me to give her a copy the following Christmas.

Growing up in the 1980s, I watched “Shaka Zulu’’ and “The Color Purple” with our large family. Prideful declarations from my aunties and grandmother — like “this is where we really came from” and “our lands” — were strange to my eight-year-old ears. I had not known or learned about Black history, heroes, or culture that stretched beyond American shores. The figures on the screen reflected their sentiments of “we were more” and breathed curiosity into the crevices of my imagination.

More what? I could not put a finger on it. It was not until “In Praise of Black Women” that it became clear to me that — as magical and essential as the stories about Queens Elizabeth, Catherine the Great, and Victoria were to me as a young woman — there were queens who looked like me as well.

Queen Amina of Zaria in West Africa, Queen Anna of Nzinga in Central Africa, and Queen Nanny of the Jamaican Maroons were all stories I wrote in recent years as my newborn daughter slept between feedings. I wanted her to know that Black royalty extends beyond Disney’s Princess Tiana. The popular 1990s show “Xena: Warrior Princess” was loosely based on Queen Amina of Zaria. I hope that one day Queen Amina will get her own show or a major motion picture. For now, we will be reading her story before bedtime.

To produce Li’l Queens — a series of books created for Black and brown girls — I raised more than $22,000 on Kickstarter to illustrate that Black history is vast and we have only begun to scratch its surface. I hope Black women and “Queendoms” become second nature in how we think about ourselves.

From the moment I birthed my daughter Genesis, I have immersed myself in a journey steeped in Afrofuturism and expanded my library to include books that have unearthed my identity as a queen: a writer, publisher, mother, and Black world-shifter.

Below is a list of graphic novels and picture books that have been companions for me as I create children’s books about real-life Black queens for our future ones.

Dara Beevas (she/her) is an award-winning author, publisher, and speaker with a passion for storytelling. As the co-founder and CEO of Wise Ink Creative Publishing, she leads a team of editors, designers, and artists committed to changing the world through offering platforms to marginalized voices and purpose-oriented authors.