James Baldwin (Townsend/Getty Images)
“I don’t burden myself with the impossible task of writing the “Black Woman’s” experience; to be honest, I think categorically-Black writing loses a lot of nuance and is generally lazy. I just tell my own stories and hope somebody feels me.”
This was a small part of a longer exchange I had with a VSB reader last week following my post about street harassment. From what I can tell, we both walked away feeling heard, and perhaps even understood. Despite being sensitive about my shit, I like interacting with people about my writing. It’s important to have your point of view challenged, especially if you share your point of view for a living. Still, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve said. As a writer, I’ve received a lot of questions about my approach to blank pages. I’ve never tried to write the Black Woman’s Experience, and to do so would be a disservice to myself and my readers.
In mixed company, Black folks hate representing the race, but we relish an opportunity to do so in our art, which makes sense in its own way. But it has its price. From a writing perspective, it’s rendered a lot of stale copy. Many of us —self included— hold on so firm to the proud legacy of Black authorship that we follow an unwritten Blackprint about what our words are supposed to say and how they’re supposed to resonate with audiences. Proud. Strong. Valiant. Tenacious in the face of adversity and oppression. Resilient. A bit of respectability politicking up and down the galleys and the gutters, pages telling us what we most want to believe about a people who have come so far.
But in the same way that trying to be a “strong Black woman” exhausts me, there are some days that I sit down at my desk and I feel none of these things. I started taking note of how often I used the words “Black” or “Black woman” in the essays I’d write. I started wondering how much I needed those qualifiers and if they had become signifiers. An easy button of sorts. Did I need to write about my experience as a “Black Woman,” or could I just write about my womanhood and let my Blackness inform it as it does anything else? Yes, there is “Black girl pain,” but there is just regular folk pain, too. And most days I’m not pained at all. After all, we are the freest Blacks in the history of free Blackness, not everything has to be, or should be a story about overcoming some shit. Yes, I’m a Carefree Black Girl, but I’m also a girl who just ain’t got no worries. And that’s a story worth telling, too.
Has the adoration of the greats paralyzed our imaginations? Do we know how to go beyond the scope of “Black writing” to write about life in a fuller way? Have we reserved the right to have protagonists that are just fucked up or as gleeful as any others? Can Black writers and editors move farther beyond race-driven news, and deeper into topical arenas like technology, lifestyle, sports, money, or news? I hope so.
With all this in mind, I have a challenge I’d like to pose to my fellow so-called “Black writers” (and readership!) Instead of being “Black writers,” I want us to be writers who are Black. Though it seems like a case of semantics, the way we’ve come to understand what qualifies as “Black writing” is has dictated the way we exist on the page. I challenge us to explore all parts of our Blackness, not just the parts we’re “supposed to.”