The first storyteller I fell in love with was my grandmother, Sallie Mae Thompson. Coming in behind her at a close second was my dad (still is). And then my mom, who’s much more of a reluctant storyteller. And my aunts JoAnn and Ardine. They are among some of the first storytellers I fell in love with. I could (and sometimes did) sit and listen to them spin one yarn after another for hours. I fell in love with the way they used words to relay their experiences to each other and to me. Listening to them, I always felt what they were saying. That’s when I first realized someone could use their words to transport me to another place. Their words never just brushed up against my ears and whispered in my ear, they curled up in my soul and found a new home. Maybe it was through listening to them that I first fell in love with words and knew I would be a writer.
In a culture where videos of black people fighting are circulated like food dishes around a dinner table, I worry about the storytellers. In an age, where it’s acceptable to duct tape our children’s mouth and hands as a practical joke. In an age where relationships with children are sacrificed and discarded in order to hold on to relationships with broken adults. Who will tell our children stories? Who will let them know that it wasn’t always like this? Who will remind them of what it felt like playing double dutch in the middle of the street in the afternoon or about the rush of adrenaline we felt as we tried to race home before the street lights came on? Who will remind them that being bad in school used to mean failing to do your homework or, for my daddy, just not talking much in class. (The teacher called my grandmama to make sure he was okay because he never talked in class.) Who will tell them about real courage, daring to dream the American dream when it was never intended for you? Who will remind the children that courage is standing up against the establishment, not accepting its dire predictions for you and turning into a predator in your own community? Who will remind them what real love looks like? Who will tell them about Uncle Clarence who wore only tailored suits and would never be caught in jeans sagging off his behind? Who will remind them of their legacy? I worry the storytellers will become extinct one day soon. And then who will remind us who we are?
Well, of course, there’s Bernice McFadden, whose most recent book I reviewed here on my blog. You can find it here. Then there’s Tayari Jones and her novel, Leaving Atlanta, which took us all back to the days of Now n’ Laters and Lemonheads and being home before it got dark. Her novel, set during the time of the Atlanta child murders, still somehow manages to remind us of our innocence during that time. And Toni Cade Bambara. Toni Morrison. Maya Angelou. Chester Himes. Walter Mosley. James Baldwin. But…With all of the #Oscarssowhite controversy which highlighted the lack of opportunities available to black writers, it becomes painfully obvious that the racism that still runs through the veins of the American publishing industry plays as much of a role in silencing the storytellers as does the changing times.
The purpose of my post today is not to point fingers at the publishing industry that continually sidelines and marginalizes black writers. Nor is it to point the finger at the black writers who promote black ghetto-ness that somehow is used to characterize all black fiction. (Don’t believe me? Walk in any book store and head for the black fiction section.) Nor is it to wag my finger at those who contribute to the belief that all black people are caricatures of real people instead of showing that we are complex human beings with passion and courage. Nah. That’s not what I wanna do here. I don’t want to assure you that all black fiction isn’t filled with loud black women, or angry black women, or gold-digging black women. I don’t want to try and convince you that black women can be loving, supportive, and sensitive. Sorry, you’ll have to find that out on your own.
Many writers have already done an excellent job of highlighting the racism and other obstacles that black writers face. Bernice McFadden does it here. Writer Arthur Browne does it well here. And Daniel Jose Older does an excellent job of it here.
The purpose of today’s post is to applaud those of us who continue to write in the face of all the obstacles that are stacked against us. In thinking about this post, I was reminded of the words Atticus Finch uttered to his children in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird: “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you being anyway and you see it through no matter what.” For many reasons, that quote resonates with me.
Make no mistake about it, it takes great courage to follow your passion when writing is your passion and you are black and your characters are black. Girded with the knowledge that even after you spend years writing and revising your novels or stories, you face hundreds of rejection letters because most publishers and literary agents will “not feel passionate enough about your project.” But you see it through to the end anyway because you can’t not write. And so you write. And sometimes you are published. Even though your publishing company’s marketing strategy focuses only on the “black market,” as if though the only successful black stories can be those filled with black stereotypes and caricatures; you continue to write. Because you can’t not write. When sometimes at night you think about giving up as you cry yourself to sleep; you tell yourself maybe this isn’t for me, it’s for those others. And yet you still write. This post is for those courageous writers. May you continue to heed the call so we’ll always have our stories.
Peace & Love,