Vanessa Riley’s ‘Island Queen’ Reveals Black Women’s Pivotal Role in History

Photo courtesy of Vanessa Riley

By  –  | Imagine being born a slave and ascending to the point where you can buy your freedom and the freedom of your family. Now, imagine that you also become one of the most influential figures in colonial history and you’re a woman. Vanessa Riley reveals one of these hidden figures in Island Queen, her riveting historical fiction novel about Dorothy Kirwin Thomas, a free woman of color who rose from slavery to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful landowners in the colonial West Indies. As the author of over 20 books, Riley has a penchant for telling the stories that history would rather deny. Rolling out spoke with the esteemed writer about one of this summer’s best beach reads.

This story represents over six years of research. I understand why history wanted to erase Dorothy, but at the same time, I cannot believe that history would erase this woman who did so much under so much duress. If you’re a Black woman, and you are able to gain your freedom, your choices of how to make money are very limited. So for Dorothy to overcome this, and to become one of the wealthiest women in the West Indies, she brought her seat to the table. And unlike her peers, she’s always worried about losing that seat. Dorothy was so resilient, I’m honored to be able to tell her story.

At times, heart-wrenching, and at times, there is pride in how she overcame and persevered. A lot of people, when they think of Blacks in history, they only think of enslavement, they only think of horrors. They only think of something where you know the White savior has to come in and do right by the Black folks. … Because the way history is [written], you know [about] the rich man. His words are recorded, he’s got diaries, his friends have diaries, etc, etc. For women, and particularly women of color [and] Black women, not so much. Dorothy’s will is actually archived in the UK because that’s how prominent she became. She was very mobile and everywhere she went, she set up businesses, and she just kept moving.

They are going to leave with an impression of what it was like, for women during that time. You’re going to leave with a feeling of resilience and power that I think is often hidden from us. Enslavement is part of her story, but you’re going to see someone who powered through, who survived and thrived and tried to take control of her narrative as much as possible. … You need to just for your own ancestors, just grab this book. And look at it and know you come from great stock.

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