The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I’m a Black woman who creates crossword puzzles. That’s rare, but it shouldn’t be.

(María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post)
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Margaret Farrar, who became the founding puzzle editor of the New York Times in 1942, is credited with popularizing daily crosswords. But despite the impressive distinction, she only published the work of a handful of women.

That’s perhaps unsurprising in a world dominated by White men; when I published my debut 15-by-15 crossword in the New York Times during Black History Month last year, I didn’t know of any crosswords constructed by Black women in America’s crossword gold standard.

Before last year, I’d made dozens of 9-by-9 grids, or “midis,” for the New York Times crossword app. I knew that my pop culture-themed puzzles were among the most popular on that platform, but I didn’t know what publishing my first crossword on a major newspaper site would be like — that it would open me up to a wave of subculture criticism.

For crossword constructors, an inclusivity debate: What’s ‘common knowledge’ and who decides?

When it was announced that the Times would feature a week of Black constructors for Black History Month, there were myriad opinions on popular crossword blogs: “I prefer puzzles to be fun, not dry activist treatises that promote political ideology,” wrote one commenter in response to the word “REPARATIONS” in a puzzle by Erik Agard. “The puzzle foregoes intelligence and skill for driving home its political point,” wrote another. Indeed, this community, like most online subculture communities, is ruthless.

Yet, finally, I found some relief. “Must admit to knowing very little about Marcus Garvey. … Thanks to crosswords … for leading me there,” one enthusiast said. When it came to learning the name of a horse racing champion or their jockey, I was more like this last commenter — excited that a puzzle introduced me to something new. This attitude, while seemingly compatible with a love for testing your trivial knowledge, is actually rare in the world of crossword critics.

The experience came with other revelations. My dad worked for his uncle’s newspaper in Guyana when he was a teen, reading submissions and judging the crossword competition. But he didn’t tell me about his experience with crosswords until after mine was published in the Times. He revealed he was “embarrassed” that he wasn’t as good at crosswords when he immigrated to America. Turns out, I was robbed of a chance to learn about crosswords at a young age in part because crossword culture does not encourage learning — rather, it rewards already knowing.

I ended up being introduced to crosswords in my early 20s while dating a constructor. Of course, I had attempted them before, but no one ever walked me through the rules. Firstly, I learned, a plural clue means a plural answer, and same for tenses. The next step was studying words that are used much more in crosswords than real life — words like “ESTOP” and “STE” and “ERE,” which are usually used for their vowel placements.

“This isn’t a real test of knowledge or intelligence,” I told the constructor I was dating, stubbornly.

“No,” he said. “It’s a game.”

I ultimately used practice, dictionary obsession and occasional cheating to get better. Constructing and cluing my own crosswords made me even better at recognizing the patterns — not to mention, it allowed me to assert my particular voice and trivial knowledge of 1990s cartoon characters.

But most crosswords, I’ve found, still reflect the majority of creators. Like so many other hallmarks of culture, crosswords as we know them were standardized by a profound woman, yet the authority on language still seems to be in the hands of a few White men. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as a view from nowhere, and I’m glad to play a small role in giving crossword enthusiasts a view from someone who isn’t White, and isn’t a man.

A month of puzzles created by women constructors means a month of language outside of the usual authority — and perhaps a few new phrases we can all add to our dictionary.

For Women’s History Month, The Post is publishing a special collection of themed crosswords, created entirely by women. Tap below to play.

Click to play today's puzzle.

Portia Lundie (she/they) is a freelance producer and screenwriter from New York City. In addition to constructing crosswords and tutoring in Brooklyn and Harlem, Portia has worked on productions with A24, Allure and SuperDville.