A writer whose work gave voice and vision to the lives of generations of Black women has died. Author and playwright Shay Youngblood, perhaps best known for her semiautobiographical novel “Black Girl in Paris” and similarly reflective, nationally staged play, “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” (based on her book, “The Big Mama Stories”), died of ovarian cancer on June 11 in Peachtree City, Ga., according to the New York Times. She was 64.

Born Sharon Ellen Youngblood on Oct. 16, 1959, in Columbus, Ga., Youngblood was the only child born to Mary Lee Kemp and Lonnie Willis Crosby, reportedly given the surname of one of her mother’s husbands. She was only two years old when her mother died. With her biological father reportedly absent from her life, she was placed under the care of her maternal grandmother and great-grandmother and raised in the 1960s and ‘70s amid a close, candid, and colorful community of older Black women she would later immortalize in writing as the “Big Mamas.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in communications from Clark Atlanta University, Youngblood joined the Peace Corps, working on assignment in Dominica. Upon her return to Atlanta, the young-twentysomething worked at the longstanding feminist bookstore Charis Books & More. There, Youngblood began her writing career as the store’s founder, Linda Bryant, convinced the reluctant talent to participate in one of the store’s poetry readings. She would also travel to Paris during this decade of her life, working as an au pair and artist’s model, the Times reports.

Cover: Riverhead Books

Youngblood’s early experiences would become the foundation for her first two novels. “Soul Kiss” published in 1997, chronicled a girl’s search for her absent father following her mother’s death. Her second, “Black Girl in Paris,” followed a 26-year-old Black Southern woman’s adventures during a daring, delicious and sometimes dangerous summer in Paris. Published in 2000, the widely acclaimed novel is now considered part of the pantheon of Black female coming-of-age stories; fellow novelist Paula L. Woods characterized it as “an engaging, unpredictable portrait of an artist as a young Black girl” in a review for The Los Angeles Times

“Before I left home I cut my hair close to my scalp so I could be a free woman with free thoughts, open to all possibilities. I was making a map of the world. In ancient times maps were made to help people find food, water, and the way back home. I needed a map to help me find love and language, and since one didn’t exist, I’d have to invent one, following the trails and signs left by other travelers.

I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I knew I wanted to be the kind of woman who was bold, took chances, and had adventures.”

— Shay Youngblood, “Black Girl in Paris”

Combining intellectualism, magical realism, and sexual awakening and exploration, the narrative of “Black Girl in Paris” is peppered with French recipes and reflections on the storied history of Black expats such as James Baldwin, enhancing the novel’s depth and sensualism. Initially adapted into a film released in 2013, the novel is currently being developed into a new screen adaptation by “Queen Sugar” novelist Natalie Baszile and her daughter, Hyacinth Parker.

Youngblood’s reach also extended to the theater. Her 1989 short story collection, “The Big Mama Stories,” which garnered her a Pushcart Prize for fiction, was adapted into a stage play prior to publication; “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” debuted at Atlanta’s Horizon Theater Company in 1988. Lauded for its portrayal of Black women’s lives and perspectives, Youngblood’s first play has continued to be produced nationally and internationally in the decades since and was even optioned for the screen by Sidney Poitier, though the film was never produced.

“The simple act of centering on the stories of Black women, with barely any references to the men (white or Black) in their lives, is itself an act of resistance,” wrote Chicago theater critic Kerry Reid for the Chicago Tribune when a revival of “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” was produced in 2017. 

Recommended Stories

Shay Youngblood, Shay Youngblood books, Shay Youngblood plays, Shay Youngblood death, Shay Youngblood obituary, Black writers, Black novelists, Black queer novelists, Black books, Black plays, A Black Girl in Paris, A Black Girl in Paris book, Shakin the Mess Outta Misery, theGrio.com
Shay Youngblood attends BYkids 10th Anniversary Benefit Screening and Discussion of “Poet Against Prejudice” at Time Inc. Headquarters on Sept. 11, 2017, in New York City. (Photo by Jimi Celeste/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Earning a master’s degree in creative writing from Brown University in 1993, Youngblood won a Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award for her play “Talking Bones” that same year. Among her subsequent accolades, she would win several NAACP Theater awards. Youngblood also authored two children’s books, “Mama’s Home” (2022) and “A Family Prayer” (2023). 

In addition to her recognition as a singular talent, Youngblood was also revered for her unapologetic portrayals of Black queer sexuality and love.

“The Black girl writing world is especially small and the Black queer girl writing world is even smaller,” noted acclaimed writer Jacqueline Woodson, who told the Times “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” “was that mirror of myself in the world in a bigger way.”

Longtime friend and Brown schoolmate Daniel Alexander Jones, a performer, director and playwright, spoke similarly of Youngblood’s play “Black Power Barbie.” Written in the early ‘90s and later published as a 2013 graphic novel, its protagonists are a brother and sister who are the children of murdered Black Panthers and both identify as queer. 

“It was a dive into Black queerness … She really made us whole onstage,” said Jones in an interview, per the Times. “She presaged something about the fluidity and multiplicity of identity.”

Youngblood, who was married to Annette Lawrence from 2010 to 2020, was reportedly working on a book about her mother when she died at the home of her friend Kelley Alexander on June 11. According to the Times, she was not survived by any immediate family.