Shay Youngblood is a distinguished Georgia writer who follows Black roots and routes. Her novels, short stories, and plays explore themes of family and community, as well as topics such as history, ancestry, and sexual identity. Though she has relocated often because of her career, Youngblood’s spiritual connections are deeply rooted in the South.
Youngblood was born in Columbus in 1959 and raised by a community of Black women elders following her mother’s death. These “big mamas,” to whom Youngblood dedicates much of her writing, equipped her with an emotional intelligence and bravery that she has carried to places far from Georgia. Their influence is present in her work, too, reflected in characters that rely on the wisdom and assistance of elders in order to navigate life’s challenges.
As an undergraduate at Clark College (later Clark Atlanta University), Youngblood studied mass communications and participated in a service project in Haiti that led her to join the Peace Corps after graduating in 1981. These experiences proved formative, providing her with a keen understanding of injustice, which she engages in her work. In 1993 she earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Brown University.
Though her plays have been staged in theaters across the country, Atlanta has undoubtedly been the site of the greatest number of Youngblood productions. Between the 1988 and 2010 seasons, Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre was the venue for two different productions of Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery, as well as performances of Amazing Grace, Square Blues, and Talking Bones.
Youngblood’s first collection of short fiction, The Big Mama Stories (1989), is an intimate reflection on the community of African American women that shaped her. Set in a small Georgia town on the Alabama border, the text’s guiding voice is that of a young African American girl named Rita, who undergoes a baptism-like initiation ceremony called “going to the river,” which marks her transition from girlhood to womanhood. Youngblood also adapted The Big Mama Stories to create her first play, Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery, which was presented in a workshop production at Spelman College in 1988.
Youngblood’s debut novel, Soul Kiss (1997), follows seven-year-old Mariah as she leaves her Kansas home to stay with family in Georgia and California while her mother undergoes treatment for drug abuse. A bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, Soul Kiss explores Mariah’s growing awareness of race and respectability, and, like The Big Mama Stories, recalls the maternal influences that shaped Youngblood’s own upbringing.
Eden, the main character of Youngblood’s second novel, Black Girl in Paris (2000), is another young woman in the process of self-discovery. As she roams the boulevards of France’s capital city, Eden yearns for French fluency, dependable friends, and lucrative employment. Following in the footsteps of African American expatriates Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, and James Baldwin, Eden ultimately finds her voice as a writer and artist. A meditation on the richness of African Americans’ cultural inheritance, Black Girl in Paris is nevertheless expansive in scope, suggesting comparisons between the South’s tortured history and more contemporary racial clashes in the city of lights.
Youngblood examines lineage of a different kind in the play Talking Bones (1994), which explores the ties that bind the living and the dead. An intergenerational saga, the characters of Talking Bones exemplify how individuals may transcend physical limitations to attain heightened awareness of their spirituality and of the spirit world.
In Flying Blind (2013), Youngblood again depicts travel as a means to self-understanding and personal fulfillment. Floral and Cherry, the two lesbian protagonists of the play, do not enjoy conventional social positions because of their sexual preferences and ages. Yet, they defy these circumstances to live happy and rewarding lives. As the play’s title connotes, Floral and Cherry are on a journey—both literal and figurative—crossing the country without a map, guide, or clear destination. Still, they have faith the outcome will be fulfilling.
Though they face circumstances that oppress them, Youngblood’s characters grow into confident adults who embody fearlessness, confidence, and self-assertion. They become women at home in the world and at home with themselves. Youngblood’s fictive community cannot be distilled to one place or time: not the Columbus of her youth or the Paris of her literary imagination. Instead, she has constructed an expansive and limitless world for Black women to enter and thrive.