I leave on Saturday morning for New Jersey, where I will be attending the Rutgers English Diversity Institute. It’s a week-long English seminar for minority students who want to study English in graduate school. It’s not that I go around thinking about writing and ethnicity every second that I breathe, but I’m realizing that it is something I am incredibly concerned with. This is partly, I hope, just because I am well-educated and liberal and American, and anyone who considers themselves interested in literature (or in history, sociology, anthropology, or a variety of other fields) should be similarly concerned with this. However, I know that this is also because I am a person of color (a phrase I never felt comfortable with until I started reading blogs like Racialicious and more magazines, from Essence to Lilith to the Atlantic, and I think I prefer it to calling myself African American, which seems disingenuous, somehow, when coming from me) who loves to read and write and feels pigeonholed by the ethnic designation she chooses to give herself. I struggle with this more than some people, perhaps, because I am half black and half white but grew up in a white and Chicano family with an affinity for Brazil, so I don’t have the clearest of ties to any one group, and in many ways I grew up with white privilege.
I just read this post at Racialicious, in which a reader asked about literature written by people of color and how white readers should respond to it. There is a lot going on in the post, way too much for me to respond to coherently now. I did have quite a few thoughts about it, though, and it also illuminated many of my own ideas in much better language than I could.
There are lots of allusions in literature that we don’t understand, be they religious, ethnic, racial, cultural, regional, generational, or what have you. Make a joke about Lyndon B. Johnson and I will probably not understand it, because I was born in 1988 and can only remember Clinton, Bush, and Obama. I can talk about fry bread and you probably will not understand what that is unless you’ve been to the Southwest. But if I write one sentence in a story about a character eating fry bread and then I move on with the story, it will probably not deter you from reading. So why are white readers so deterred from reading the writing of people of color, when people of color will read tons of books by white authors in their lifetime, whether it’s for academic or personal reasons, and they will be expected to understand them? And why is white literature just literature, but literature by any other person is defined by their ethnicity?
the fact of the matter is that all writers write, consciously or not, for a particular ethnic audience. When you go to read a book, don’t assume who the audience is either way. It should become clear soon enough who the book is for. In any case I would try to avoid pigeonholing writers of colour in general; read our books on their own terms, just as you would any other book.
The post author also acknowledged that there is nothing particularly wrong with that. I think a lot of writing is about investigating yourself and your surroundings, so of course a book would reflect one’s upbringing, culture, religion, community, etc. Great! The problem is that anything not from the dominant culture is considered inaccessible to people from outside that non-dominant group. Maybe you won’t understand every single thing, but that doesn’t make it less valuable or give you less of a reason to read. Did I enjoy reading Joy Harjo as much as I enjoyed reading Lucille Clifton last semester? No, because Clifton felt a little more understandable to me. But I still found much in Harjo that I did find accessible, and I found other things that I could identify as cultural markers that I would understand more if I had either grown up in a community similar to Harjo’s, or if I would just read more literature by Native American writers.
What is wrong, I think, is that works of literature by people of color are assumed to be about people of color (not all that strange of an assumption to make, I think) and works of literature by white people are assumed to be about white people. This is not a huge problem; what I think is worse is that works of literature about people of color are assumed to be primarily about being that minority and the main conflict in the novel/story/whatever is perceived to be either about dealing with being a minority or about dealing with a problem considered strictly a problem for that minority (i.e. stories about black people dealing with welfare, absent fathers, and teen pregnancy). Here’s where the assumption becomes a problem. I am currently working on two novels: in one, the main female character is a high school senior who likes indie music and goes to private school and likes to paint. She dates the white protagonist. The second book is about a young woman who sings in a bar and falls in love with the piano player. Out of the four characters I mentioned, two are mixed race and one is black. Would you have guessed that? I doubt it.
Talking about this gets me nowhere, though. While the post on Racialicious was well written, it was preaching to the choir. And, like most issues dealing with race, especially these days, it often serves no purpose except to preach to the choir, make a couple of good points, and make racists think that people of color are just angry. The problem with intelligent arguments is that they’re often made to impress upon people who are in fact not intelligent, and therefore they won’t understand the argument or change their ideas. Telling people who are racist about institutional racism doesn’t usually have the effect of making them less racist. So I’m not sure that talking about this will have the effect of making the publishing industry or the countless people in MFA programs across the country more aware of racism in literature or make them more sensitive.
Maybe, though, current and upcoming writers could make more of a point to be sensitive to these issues, and editors, too. This could never change overnight, and with white supremacists gaining power it may not even be the time to start a slow battle, but this is the kind of thing that could be changed rather simply with people making more of a point to read people of color, to write people of color, and to understand people of color.
edit: Someone in the comments on that Racialicious post linked to this Toi Derricotte poem, so I am reposting:
For Black Women Who Are Afraid
A black woman comes up to me at break in the writing
workshop and reads me her poem, but she says she
can’t read it out loud because
there’s a woman in a car on her way
to work and her hair is blowing in the breeze
and, since her hair is blowing, the woman must be
white, and she shouldn’t write about a white woman
whose hair is blowing, because
maybe the black poets will think she wants to be
that woman and be mad at her and say she hates herself,
and maybe they won’t let her explain
that she grew up in a white neighborhood
and it’s not her fault, it’s just what she sees.
But she has to be so careful. I tell her to write
the poem about being afraid to write,
and we stand for a long time like that,
respecting each other’s silence.