Anime Is for Black Girls Too
The ‘Adorned by Chi’ manga celebrates the magic in all of us
When manga genius Jacque Aye was growing up in a small Kansas town, she hid her love of anime and other “nerdy” interests because she worried they wouldn’t be accepted by her friends. But after years of suppressing who she was while also navigating microaggressions, she realized the truths that fueled her fascination with shows like Sailor Moon and Pokémon.
She liked anime even if, as she says of her time back then, “Black people who like weird stuff aren’t usually accepted.” Aye eventually grew to accept herself. The isolation of being raised in a White town and loving Japanese-style animated cartoons eventually led to an $18,000 Kickstarter campaign and the creation of Adorned by Chi, Aye’s Japanese-style comic book series featuring melanin-rich characters. Aye created a universe where five brown-skinned university students in Nigeria discover they have goddess-like powers.
“I wanted them to be Nigerian and Igbo because Yoruba culture is always shown,” says Aye, who is of Nigerian heritage. “African beliefs aren’t given respect and celebration. Why don’t our gods and goddesses get the same treatment as Greek mythology? I include Igbo goddesses as part of the storyline.”
And that was just in 2018. Aye’s manga — comic books that mimic a specific Japanese artistic style — have since attracted the attention of Sanrio of Hello Kitty fame with whom Aye has produced a capsule collection of size-inclusive tees and sweatshirts. Aye has also inked a development deal with Madison Wells for comics, merchandise, film, and TV. Adorned by Chi is now a six-figure lifestyle business that includes five different manga series, tees with sayings like “Pretty Girls Like Anime” and “Anime Baddie,” hoodies, totes, water bottles, and a horror-comedy book in development.
Adorned by Chi’s main character, Adaeze, is a cocoa-skinned cutie who wears a short ’fro, has extreme social anxiety, and doesn’t think anybody likes her.
“She cries all the time; she’s definitely me,” says Aye, laughing. “Her magical girl power is empathy. Adaeze can tap into others’ feelings and manipulate them by projecting her own.”
This sort of manga is popular among Black people because, Aye says, we can relate.
“I think it’s because most anime protagonists are underdogs, shunned by society and treated unfairly or just underestimated,” Aye explains. “But these characters wield a great power or great knowledge. I think Black people see ourselves in them.”
The Japanese art form was introduced to the U.S. in the 1950s, but its origins in Japan began in the 12th and 13th centuries. On the U.S. side of things, Astro Boy and Speed Racer were popular 1950s and 1960s cartoons that showcased this distinct style of illustration. Since then, every decade has welcomed a new generation of Americans who embrace manga, from the comics that include the original Transformers and Voltron on up to more modern embraces like Dragon Ball and Fullmetal Alchemist that are showcased in broader pop culture, including hip-hop verses by Wu-Tang Clan, Kanye West, and Joey Badass. Actors Michael B. Jordan and Samuel L. Jackson have openly discussed their admiration for anime, with Jackson voicing the lead character for the now-classic Afro Samurai anime TV series, which was released in 2007.
Despite some stereotypical racism within the overall genre, Adorned by Chi has earned loyal fans eager for characters that reflect Black faces and culture. Still, it’s been a long road to success. Aye remembers being young and awkward and knowing she was expected to embrace a pre-med college life.
“There wasn’t a lot to do; there wasn’t a lot of melanin or any kind of flavor,” Aye says of her hometown in Kansas. “There just wasn’t much diversity at all.”
“I wanted to make something where Black women could be beautiful, feminine, and magical.”
Aye was also shy and sensitive, and she didn’t tell her parents about the frequent microaggressions visited upon her by her schoolmates. By the time she arrived at her big state college, her social anxiety had intensified.
“One day I wore a shirt that said ‘I Love Back People.’ A White friend walked up and said it should say that I like all people. I got called the N-word and Black b*tch on campus. It was slap-you-in-the-face racism,” she says. As a pre-med student with a high grade-point average, Aye’s guidance counselor told her she would never be a doctor. Her confidence dropped, and she switched to nursing. She eventually graduated with a psychology major and business minor.
The tension grew to a point where Aye was terrified to go on campus. She finally went to a therapist but says she didn’t get anything from the session.
“I had a deep shame about it. I thought I was just depressed. Everybody at school was going through things,” she says. “You’re away from your parents for the first time and trying to figure out who you are. It’s a lot to handle.”
Aye started thrifting as an emotional outlet to deal with her growing isolation. She curated vintage outfits on Tumblr and quickly developed a following of enthusiastic buyers. By the time she graduated, the thrifting had evolved into a line of anime and Black affirmation T-shirts.
“I didn’t have much luck finding a job. So I drove to Dallas to stay with a friend. I was sad. I thought God hated me. I started Adorned by Chi for a creative outlet,” she explains. “Chi means God in Igbo. It was my way to give honor to God. I’ve always liked a feminine, magical aesthetic, but I never saw Black women represented. It was always fair-skinned images. I wanted to make something where Black women could be beautiful, feminine, and magical.”
So she started making flower crowns and tees that reflected this. Aye taught herself Adobe Illustrator and made a shirt that said “I’m Black and Proud” in pink Barbie print. She also made a shirt that said “Usagi Taught Me,” referencing the Sailor Moon anime character. The shirts immediately sold out.
Aye formed a now-defunct Facebook group of anime-loving Black nerds who loved girly looks and Black empowerment. She had been taking popular anime characters and making them look Black, but she grew tired of inserting Black images into anime. She wanted her own characters infused with African culture and informed by reality.
Now, Adorned by Chi is enriching and informing the anime world’s embrace of nonstereotypical and positive brown-skinned characters. Yet of all the accomplishments, Aye most relishes seeing Black girls cosplaying her creations.
“It makes me happy that little girls can see themselves,” she says. “I love seeing everyone, regardless of gender or size, in my stuff. I want worldwide domination.”