Matthew Jordan Smith


Terry McMillan’s Dedication To Black Women

October 27, 2023

“How do you tell a man—in a nice way—that he makes you sick?”

When I first encountered Terry McMillan, I knew she would be etched in my memory for a long time. Through the pages of Waiting To Exhale, McMillan was instrumental in showing the lives of Black women and more specifically the honesty in her characters wants and needs. In A Day Late And A Dollar short, she brought the Price family to life in their goodness, their flaws and more specifically the complexities of family dynamics. McMillan has 11 writing credits to her name, including an anthology of contemporary African American fiction. Till date, four of her novels have received film adaptations including the aforementioned titles. In honor of McMillan’s recent birthday, I’m paying homage to an author firmly rooted in my mind as one of the greatest storytellers I’ve ever encountered.

Author Terry McMillan / Credit: Matthew Jordan Smith

In her 2003 article, ‘It’s Not Right But It’s Okay’, Daphne Brooks writes of McMillan’s influence on contemporary R & B and on intersecting art forms. The appeal of Waiting to Exhale she writes ‘evolved as a result of its multiple narratives of intimacy and McMillan’s lovely and comic prose, which renders the trials and tribulations of four thirty-something, single Black professional women’. A lot of the text’s appeal is in its writing. Terry McMillan was born a year before bell hooks, and 7 years after Alice Walker – these are her contemporaries and staples of American literary canon who stand out in their own right. And yet, McMillan’s writing is indicative of the characters she writes and the stories she tells. Over the course of her career, she has given space to the wide array of Black womanhood, giving voice to these identities in the stories she tells and portrays.

Waiting to Exhale found huge success as both movie and soundtrack. The film boasts a core leading cast of cultural greats and icons including the late Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine and Lela Rochon. The Babyface helmed soundtrack also features the talents of Houston, Aretha Franklin, TLC, Brandy, Patti Labelle – to name a few. In an era where female rage is praised, most recommendations are fairly white but Waiting To Exhale deserves its props. The novel shows Black women being angry and being justified and allowed to be so. In McMillan’s pages, Black women are allowed to be angry, tired, annoyed, loved and in all this nurtured, cared for and supported. These women are funny and real and the shroud of love and care is reminiscent of spaces I hold for my friends and vice versa. The intimacy across both visual and auditory mediums has influenced the current generation of female vocalists today according to Brooks.  Off one singular literary work, McMillan managed to create a legacy of vulnerable and complex storytelling of Black American womanhood. And then she did it again, and again and again.

Still: How Stella Got Her Groove Back / The Hollywood Reporter

How Stella Got Her Groove Back speaks to the vastness of life and experiences in ageing particularly and almost specifically for women. I love Stella – she’s fun, adventurous, honest about her wants, her needs and happy to tell people to fuck off.  The novel is part inspired by McMillan’s personal experience and speaks to part of her success; a willingness to put herself and therefore her characters out there. This is noteworthy as McMillan found success in her early 40’s. Waiting to Exhale and the works thereafter were key in navigating Black womanhood, similar to what she herself was doing. Ever as her characters are going through it, Terry McMillan wants you to know that and navigate these experiences with them. By the end, we’re in as much of a better place as they are.

A multi generational talent, I’ve adored McMillan for quite some time now. Here is a talent that encourages you to let loose. To love, and feel and breathe deeply and easily. To know that the love and care of romantic, familial and platonic partners is not separate or far from you. Like a prayer, her writing wills you the strength to go on and live.

Terry McMillan and cast of Waiting To Exhale / Credit: Matthew Jordan Smith