The Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson is to basketball what Beyoncé is to music.
Both are masters at their craft. Both possess an unabiding passion and zest for what they do. Both convey a vibrancy and vitality that is infectious. And they both use their platforms to celebrate and empower Black women and girls in society that often overlooks and stigmatizes them.
For Beyoncé, it was her landmark album Lemonade in 2016, and for A’ja it is her new book Dear Black Girls: How to Be True to You published by Flatiron Books through Macmillan Publishers. The book not only chronicles her life, from growing up in Columbia, South Carolina to becoming one of women’s basketball’s most popular players, but also serves a guide for Black women and girls to be their unapologetic selves and to be looked at as full human beings.
The precursor for the book was her powerful 2020 essay of the same title, “Dear Black Girls,” that was published in The Players’ Tribune. Her essay came out as the COVID-19 pandemic intersected with the movement for racial justice spurred by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In that summer’s WNBA “wubble,” A’ja and the league shined a light on Taylor and other Black women and girls killed by police.
In her essay, A’ja shared stories of what it was like to be a Black girl and woman, being overlooked and isolated. For example, she shares a story of being a fourth grader at a predominately-white school in South Carolina and told she’d have to stay outside at a classmate’s birthday party because the girl’s father didn’t like Black people.
It is stories like that and others that she shares in her book, which has already earned prominent praise from the likes of actress/activist Gabrielle Union and Dawn Staley, who coached A’ja to the 2017 NCAA national championship at South Carolina.
In an interview with Swish Appeal, A’ja shares what inspired her to write the book, her upcoming book signing at Barnes and Noble in New York on Feb. 7, her relationship with Coach Staley, the visibility of Black women in sports and what she hopes readers will take away from her story.
I went back and read the essay that you had written in The Players’ Tribune back in 2020. What made you want to translate that essay into this book?
I just felt like it was needed. I think in the bubble, it was crazy. Once I wrote it, we were in the bubble, I had so many of my teammates and my colleagues within the league and coaches coming up to me and they were like, “I love your piece.” It felt real. It felt true. I felt seen and heard. That right there kind of always resonates with me. It always stuck with me, and as I got older in my career and a lot of good things started happening, but at the same time I really started to find myself. I was like, “No, there is more to this story.” There is more to not just me, but my life and my journey and how I get through things and that’s when I decided to partner with the awesome Flatiron Publishers and they allowed me to tell my story in my voice and in my way. That is what I love the most about it, and hopefully when people read it they hear it from me but can also resonate with it as well.
I saw that you got some great blurbs from Gabrielle Union and Coach Staley. Now that the book is coming out what’s been the response so far?
It’s been amazing. I see everyone tweet at me different things. Some people got it early, some people got it within their Kindles and different things like that. So they’ve read it. Just to see the reviews and how much they can just relate to it makes me happy because it kind of feels like I was talking about myself a lot, and I hate doing that because it’s annoying. But when people can understand your story and just be like, “No, I feel the same way,” it truly means a lot to me. So far so good. I’ve been getting great reviews and a couple good stars, so that’s always happy and it just fills my heart up because this is a piece that, obviously, I have been working on for a minute. So to finally see it, I feel like I’ve been counting down the days and weeks for it to come out and that’s why I’m so excited for the book tour, especially just going up to New York and just interacting with fans and giving them a chance to see me. So that piece with Barnes and Noble on the 7th is going to be huge. I’m super excited to have fans see me in a different light because I feel like they see me on the court all the time, but read my book and exchange words with me. Say what you like about the book or didn’t, I love that. So I’m so excited.
I know that Coach Staley has meant a great deal to you in your journey and I read in the essay that you referred to her as your second mother. Can you describe what Coach Staley has meant to you in terms of being able to be your authentic self? I know that was key to telling your story and also Coach Staley certainly epitomizes authenticity.
For sure. She is just the perfect role model for me, and that’s why I always say she is my second mom because it wasn’t always the good times. It wasn’t always talking about the championships and different things like that. It was the hard times—the “thunderstorms.” Those are the moments that I care about the most and her loyalty and teaching me to be a professional, not just on the court but off the court, is something that I carry to this day. When she surprised me at games in New York, I literally was like, “Oh my God!” It was so much excitement because this woman has literally watched from when I was 12 to now. Coming to a championship game at the pros is just incredible, and to share these stages with her and for her to be even keel and never change, that is something that I strive to be and that is someone that is always going to be in my corner. She tells me everything that I need to know, not necessarily things I want to know, but things I need to know and I can always appreciate her for doing that. She is a huge reason why I can be this open and write this book, and she has a big piece in it because without her giving me and instilling that power and doing it with grace, I probably wouldn’t be the player I am today.
When you look back at this past year, when you look back at 2023, it was a year that was certainly defined by you winning a second-straight championship with the Aces and then you also had Coco Gauff, Sha’Carri Richardson, Simone Biles, Angel Reese, just to name a few. What does that say about where we are in terms of not only highlighting but celebrating the accomplishments of Black women and girls in sports?
I feel like we are starting to have a breakthrough, but I am not satisfied because we still get swept underneath the rug in a lot of different spaces. I am not going to be the type to be like, “Oh thank you, I’m just grateful.” It’s like, “No, I worked my butt to get that point.” I deserve this. I deserve a seat at this table because I worked hard to get here. I’m not just gonna be happy that I got an invitation. So I think I’m just not satisfied. I want more and I always want more out of it because I’m just like, “This is just scratching the surface”. They always say, “This is the year of the woman,” and I love that, but Black women as well, because those are the ones that don’t get the attention. It’s like we have to work 10 times as hard to get our foot into the door. So yes, they should be celebrated big and small, but this is just the beginning. I’m not gonna get stuck in this la-la land of like, “Oh my god, yes! We are being celebrated,” and then move on. No, let’s continue to follow these women. Fall in love with them, compete, have fun. Show the world we are here to stay and we are not going anywhere, and that is what I am starting to see. We are being honored and I love that feeling for us.
What would you want people to take away from your story when they read this book?
I always say, “Just be a voice for the voiceless.” I feel like that is just so true, because for me to be on the platform that I am, everyone thinks I have it all figured out. They feel like I have everything figured out, but it’s like no that is not the case. I still battle the same battles of someone that is not a professional athlete. We are all fighting the ball somewhere and we are all healing from something. But let’s work together to be better at what we are doing and focus on that and give everybody their own space and let them live their truth. I think that is the biggest thing I want people to take away. We have those days, but feel those feelings. There are thunderstorms. They’re gonna go away and that sunshine is going to come out. That is when you put your best foot forward and you go and follow that journey, whatever it may look like.
If you could go back and talk to that young Black girl dealing with the situation with the birthday party, dealing with those feelings of rejection and confusion, what would you tell her?
I would say just continue to be you. Continue to be yourself. I would find myself almost flying my hair down because I always wanted straight hair because that is what the girls at my school had. I lost myself in doing that, and I just feel like if I had to look at a young Black girl right now I would be like, “Continue to be you,” whatever that maybe. The feelings you are feeling, the things that you are going through, feel them, go through them, but be true to you. If it doesn’t feel right, you do not have to do it....You can always be you and the real ones are going to accept you for that. I learned that as I got older, and obviously my parents allowed me to do it, but that is the biggest thing. It is just learning to be who you want to be and live that truth.