Author’s Note: This is an incredibly small part of a much longer dialogue I’ve been having with myself about a serious subject. I use a lot of generalizations, but this is by no means meant to be a blanket statement about all black writers. It’s speculative, and a way for me to process my feelings about who I am and what I do. Nothing more, nothing less. Now…let the shit-storm begin.
If there’s one thing that’s been on my mind lately, it’s the subject of race. As a black woman in America, it’s impossible to not think about race at least some of the time—it effects so much, even if self-described “colorblind” people would try to convince you otherwise—and with the disheartening-but-not-unexpected acquittal of Philando Castile‘s killer (and the copious amount of racist bullshit appearing on the news almost nightly), the way our society trivializes the importance of black lives weighs heavily on my mind. Other people have said it already but it bears repeating: to be black in America is to walk with a target on your back, daily, and when you get taken out…well, it’s expected. That’s what happens to targets, after all. They take hits until they fall, and no one sheds a tear for them. They simply put a new target in its place and repeat the cycle anew.
There’s a lot of talk–some serious, some bitterly humorous–among black people online about the dangers of “X while Black,” where “x” can be anything from walking home at night to sleeping in your car, breaking no laws and committing no offense but somehow being labeled as a threat all the same. At this point, it feels like you can’t avoid being made a target because everything makes you a target. And one thing I’ve been thinking about on a personal level, as a writer whose greatest desire is to present my work as an open and authentic expression of my black female selfhood is this: how do I approach literature and the creative process when I’m automatically engaged in the contentious act of Writing while Black? How do I write with a target on my back?
As a writer, racial representation in literature is hugely important to me. I’m sure most of you have seen the rallying cry of “Representation Matters,” and it’s absolutely, 100% true. But too often, I think the conversation fails to fully take into account the importance of representation behind the scenes, in the publishing industry, from writers and artists to agents and editors. The literary field, like so many other things in this country, is still predominately white. Organizations like We Need Diverse Books have done so much in just a few years to give an outlet to marginalized voices and draw attention to the whitewashed field of mainstream lit, but there’s still so much to do before stories written by (and starring!) people of color are normalized and treated as something other than niche fiction for a very select demographic. Stories starring black people still aren’t seen as universal, even if they resemble the million stories with white main characters in every aspect except for the color of the characters’ skin. The fact that many bookstores still have a “Black Fiction” section separated from the “Fiction/Literature” section is pretty damn telling.
Even in fiction, we’re perpetually othered.
When our stories are universalized, when they’re treated as the norm and not a novelty, then we’ll have made true strides toward diversifying literature. Until then, every story written and every author who steps forward with their work is fighting an uphill battle. The brave, bold few “diverse” folks who have made strides in an industry that would treat them—and all those who look like them—as little more than precious tokens, icons of their “progressive” attitudes—are fighting a war against ignorance on behalf of those who will someday become the inheritors of their literary legacies.
And sometimes, honestly, it’s hard to feel as though it’s a battle that can actually be won. For every step forward, there’s an army of people armed to the teeth and more than ready to knock us back ten paces or more. It’s tiresome, and it’s tiring, and personally it’s hard not to approach every page I write with my jaw set and shoulders squared, ready for the inevitable fight for recognition and appreciation that comes after the hard work of writing is done. It’s Writing while Black—writing despite, writing in spite of, writing to give a voice to the overlooked and overshadowed, writing to give myself a reflection in print, writing and writing and writing in hopes that I can give a sound and shape to the silent screams of frustration and anger and excitement and joy that always seem to be lodged within my chest. Black writers have all of the normal stress that all writers deal with, compounded with the anxieties that come with being hyper-visible figures in a world that would largely prefer we remain unseen…or worse, to not exist at all. It’s difficult not to bend or break beneath that weight.
Writing while Black means that every story I write, every blog entry I post, every forum I contribute to, every word on the page is an expression of defiance. It’s a way of throwing my voice, my self into the world and demanding to be heard and scene and appreciated. And…it’s scary. It’s scary enough to know what you’re fighting against, but it’s just as scary to know what you’re fighting for. Frankly, as a black woman writing fiction, I don’t have the luxury of fucking up. If I get something wrong, if I don’t perform at my absolute best, there’ll be tons of people saying “See? This is why we don’t give black stories a shot. The quality isn’t there” along with a hoard of black readers expressing their disappointment in seeing one of their own let them down. It’s impossible to be all things to all people. It’s impossible to represent “blackness” as one concrete, cohesive thing because BLACK PEOPLE ARE NOT A MONOLITH…no matter how much mainstream white media would have us believe otherwise. It feels like a losing battle from the start, but it’s one that needs to be fought all the same.
I think every black author—and really, every author from a marginalized background (disabled, LGBTQIA+, POC, etc)–struggles, to some extent, with the weight placed upon us by tokenization. If you’re one of only a few black writers in your field, you’re expected to be “The Voice of Your People,” even if that’s not your intent (and really, if that is your intent, isn’t it a bit arrogant to think you can speak for us all?). It’s a mantle you’re forced to accept solely due to scarcity. And the only way to lessen that weight?
We have to double down on the fight to reshape the industry.
As readers, we have to continue to demand more from publishers and writers alike, to call out crappy representation and uplift the stories that get things right. As authors, we have to write more, push harder, fight for acceptance as we are (none of that whitewashing shit just to make a quick buck, okay? No selling out on your vision). Shrug off the targets placed on our backs and stand arm-in-arm until we become a structure so strong we’re damn near bulletproof. When one of us falls, we pick them up. We write more and keep our voices loud and firm and unapologetic. We keep speaking up until we’re heard. We tell our stories, and make ourselves immortal and unforgettable in the process.
This is what I want to do. This is the community and the world I want to immerse myself in. I want my stories to be told. I will make myself seen. I will make my voice heard. The rest is out of my hands, but I’ll do what I can and hope for the best.
It’s hard work. Scary, too. But the only thing we—I–can do is keep writing, and hope that adding more voices to a growing multitude gives strength to a deafening roar for change that can no longer be ignored.