Illustration by Insiya Motiwala.

What’s wrong with Willow Smith’s “Black Shield Maiden” ?

Black Shield Maiden, in its aim to make visible the histories of medieval African people, ultimately is marred by severe Islamophobia in its depictions of the native Amazigh people.

May 9, 2022

Willow Smith wrote a book. Set to be released in Oct. 2022, Black Shield Maiden aims to be “an epic medieval fantasy series that will make visible the histories and mythologies of medieval African people and women of the Viking age, which have long been erased by dominant Western narratives”. When I first read this description, I became really excited and thought to myself : “That would be a nice read!” I didn’t understand why Willow was being canceled all over Twitter for the book. So, naturally curious, I read the preview excerpt, the one supposed to convince me and all who stumble across it that Black Shield Maiden is worth reading.
“The Amazigh are dangerous on their best day. They have little regard for anyone who doesn’t worship the Muslim god — and even their own tribes are always at war with one another.”
Wait, what?
“The man smirks at Mama, then at me. ‘No wonder he sends you to the market alone. He hopes your pretty faces will make up for his lack of skill.’ ”
Wait — why is the Amazigh man being rude and paternalistic to the heroine? You mean to tell me that the book highlighting African stories that “have long been erased by Western narratives” depicts half of my genealogy as barbarous and dangerous religious zealots? Now that I think about it, I would rather stay erased by western narratives. There is no point in talking about the Imazighen (plural for Amazigh) in hopes of highlighting Africa if the fish bait excerpt is one that drags its current civilizations in the mud and perpetuates harmful stereotypes against them.
Now in the historical context of the book, Imazighen (North African indigenous populations), just like other tribes in North Africa and around the world, were dangerous. They held weapons and defended their territories from foreign invasion and threats. However, the Imazighen are not mythological tribes, we are well and alive. And choosing an excerpt like this one to publish as fish bait feeds off the misconceptions western populations have of us and reinforces the colonialist and orientalist narrative that named my people “berbers.” When confronted with the accusations that the released excerpt is orientalist and full of prejudice, Willow’s co-author, Jess Hendel, declared that the book deconstructed prejudice against Imazighen and that they conducted “a TON of research on the early Islamic caliphates and their many overlooked complexities”. Well, I’m just concerned about how far “a TON of research” goes, seeing as the first published description of the Amazigh culture is a misrepresentation, and I’m not even referring to the “barbaric” narrative.
The second passage I have quoted from the excerpt mocks the looks of a little girl and her mother for trying to sell them fine weapons. Imazighen actually are a matriarchal society, the respect we have for women and mothers is very particular, and we would never resort to the kind of humor showcased in the passage. There is also the fact that we are very private and secluded cultural tribes — Imazighen keep to themselves, so you don’t know what it is like being Amazigh if you have not been raised Amazigh yourself. Therefore I wonder: how are two people who grew up in the United States, who have little to no correlation to any kind of culture across the African continent, going to offer a fair and accurate representation of tribes across the African continent, which dismantle stereotypes and resists western narratives? I deeply wonder, especially when the first marketing attempt for Black Shield Maiden is of very poor ethical standing.
I guess we’ll find out in October 2022 when the book gets out. In the meantime, I can assure you that my grandparents’ village is peaceful, we do not slaughter anyone who does not believe in Islam nor do grown men of our tribes belittle girls and mothers for their looks.
Rania Kettani is a contributing writer. Email her at
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