February 9, 2024
For A’ja Wilson, the release of ‘Dear Black Girls’ has been a dream come true
Inside Wilson’s book talk at Barnes and Noble Union Square
NEW YORK — Once A’ja Wilson ascended the three flights of escalators necessary to reach the event space level of the Union Square Barnes and Noble in New York City, it was hard for her to hold in her tears. Before she even said a word that evening, over 100 people welcomed her with a standing ovation that included applause, shouting and cheering.
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She noted early to the audience that she was trying so hard not to get emotional. She hadn’t even begun discussing the reason she was in the bookstore in the first place. Her new memoir “Dear Black Girls: How to Be True to You” had officially arrived on shelves the day before.
But in that moment, looking out into a sea of people with her book in hand and some wearing her jersey and WNBA orange hoodies, Wilson felt so much all at once. What was happening here hit her harder than the high of winning two WNBA championships back-to-back. It was surreal to her that a giant group of people would congregate in a bookstore to hear about her book. Something about this just felt much more special, and was a moment that will stick with her for the rest of her life.
“It’s like I play in front of tons of people every single season, but this,” she told The Next following the book talk and photo session that came after. “This audience, this applause, it just, it felt different. And it’s something that I’m going to always remember. I guess it just finally hit me that I’m an author.”
This is a long time coming for Wilson, who grew up writing and drawing all the time. As a kid she’d just sit in her room and journal about what she did and what she saw. If she saw a fly that day, she’d write it. If she played a game like tic-tac-toe that day, she’d also write it. She had an imagination that ran wild.
“I literally have journals at my house of just different things that I would write,” she said. “My imagination will just never stop. And I’ve always told myself I want to be an author and an illustrator. Something that I always wanted to grow up to be. So to see it, come into it, live it, is crazy.”
Once Wilson settled on the podium and internalized what was actually happening, it was time to discuss her book in a moderated Q&A followed by some live audience questions. The moderator began asking Wilson quite simply why she wrote this memoir to begin with. Without hesitation, the two-time WNBA champion mentioned her two parents Roscoe and Eva, who were sitting and listening intently, and oftentimes laughing in the first row. And while Wilson explained how her parents are a huge part of what got her to where she is today — providing her with the opportunities she needed to find her true potential— she uttered that she wrote this book for the next generation too. She wants young people to grow up and not only aspire to be like Wilson, but to be better than she is and look to achieve more.
But at the same time, Wilson wants young people to know the truth about living a life that you’re proud of. One of the mantras she uttered while facing the crowd was “run your race at your own pace.” It’s a concept that has stuck with her throughout the peaks and valleys of her life. Wilson wasn’t shy to detail some of her most trying moments that helped her flesh out her memoir.
During the book talk, Wilson was asked to reflect upon how she learned about grief when her late grandmother Hattie Rakes passed away in October 2016. As a junior in college and on the cusp of winning the national championship alongside Dawn Staley and the South Carolina Gamecocks months later, Wilson considered not playing basketball anymore. “I wanted to quit basketball,” she said. “I was done with it. I was like, my why is gone. Let me go work at Target. I love that store. Let me stay there.”
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But Wilson didn’t stop there. She recalled the most challenging moment in her basketball career, getting swept in the 2020 WNBA finals following her first MVP award. And she took the audience through her first panic attack which also happened around the time of the 2020 bubble season. She had become burnt out by people-pleasing and felt like she let everyone down following her WNBA finals loss.
“I felt like I was a loser,” she said. “I felt like I couldn’t do nothing right. I felt like I let everybody down. And it consumed me and I lost myself — like I literally blacked out to where all I could hear was the voices of my parents.”
Wilson, a loser? Inconceivable. She’s the exact opposite, but yet she too has struggled with self destructive thoughts. She too has felt inadequate. She too has felt like giving up. It seems ironic based on the laundry list of accomplishments that are uttered when Wilson is introduced anywhere she goes. But for Wilson that paradox highlights the power of storytelling and why she feels so strongly about the book she poured her heart and soul into.
“The power of storytelling is letting people into a world that they may never even see,” she said. “But you’re writing it for them. You’re writing a vision for them to get a hold of, to connect to without even really knowing you…And that’s what I love the most about storytelling is like, I may not be there physically with you, but you read a story that resonated with you and now you feel that I’m with you.”
Later during the book talk, fans in the audience were able to ask Wilson live questions. The questions ranged from silly to personal to just asking Wilson how she plans on achieving a three-peat this WNBA season. One fan raised a hand solely to present Wilson with a song that had been written for her called “Catch 22” named after not only the classic novel but after her jersey number. Another asked Wilson how she navigated being Black at a predominantly-white private school in South Carolina.
Following the book talk, fans in the audience could line up and get their pictures taken with Wilson. In that moment, it became clearer that her new book really is for everyone. In the picture line there were fans of all ages, all races and ethnicities and even full blown families and groups of friends who wanted to have a moment with Wilson. While her book is titled “Dear Black Girls,” it’s a personal narrative that can be enjoyed by all.
It was apparent that Wilson and her parents wanted to make this event feel more intimate than typical book tour events. Her father Roscoe was greeting people while they were in line to get their pictures taken with his daughter. He introduced himself, asked fans how they were doing and then, moments later, his daughter did the same thing up on stage. In denim bellbottoms, Wilson posed with fans and even got really giddy when a toddler came up to the stage with his parents.
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Wilson was in her zone and living a lifelong dream. But while she looked like she was having the time of her life meeting people and being on all sorts of network television including The View, Good Morning America and The Late Show, at first she didn’t know how she would do it all. From USA basketball camp the weekend before, to running around promoting her new book, her schedule has been jam-packed.
“I looked at my calendar before and I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna do it’,” she said.
But not knowing how she was going to do something hasn’t stopped Wilson before. She has always found a way. She was swept in the WNBA finals over three years ago, and she then went on to win two in a row. She grew up dyslexic, and now she’s an author. With the release of ‘Dear Black Girls,’ Wilson is sharing with the world a deeply personal view of the path to who she is today.
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.