Writing While Black

“If you do manage to get it on the shelf, you’ve gotta get past the reader’s barriers. The reader is going to look at a book that’s got a black character on the cover and they’re gonna think, oh, it’s one of those thug life books.”-N.K. Jemisin

The documentary “Brave New Souls: Black sci-fi and fantasy writers of the 21st Century,” set me back $2.00. Some of it was expected– thinly veiled self-loathing by black men in their answers to questions which the women were seemingly not permitted to respond to–mostly important stuff about the involvement of black art with politics and writing black characters. The two most common names I’d known as black sci-fi writers, Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler (also probably the two most famous, though N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor did both just win Hugos this year) both spoke on race in science fiction. Delaney, in “Racism and Science Fiction” spoke at length about the difficulties of publishing writing with black lead characters. He was turned down for book deals several times on the basis of that alone, agents even going so far as to claim how great the rest of the book was. I remember Octavia Butler saying that without fail, someone always asks, “what does science fiction have to do with black people?”

To that I’m also considering female friends of mine who are having trouble with their books based solely on being women; who send queries out with a male sounding pen name and suddenly their book is worth reading. Claire Vaye Watkins wrote the essay “On Pandering,” in Tin House, discussing how, in light of recent success, her work was essentially written for white men. Same as much of what we read and write, what gets reviewed in the New York Times and shit. Marlon James had written before that about how writers of color should stop pandering to white women.

I remember voicing a pretty strong opinion about how Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom didn’t go far enough depicting the physical and mental torment of chattel slavery. It was about a year ago in an African American Lit class and as a biology major, I’d never actually read any slave narratives. My then teacher, now advisor, Dr. Lockridge said “maybe you should consider who they were writing to. Who was going to read it and for what purpose.” Of course I shifted my opinion after doing so. Liberal whites, mostly women, would have to actually read those narratives through in order for them to have an impact. Many of whom wouldn’t read through “Underground Railroad” or watch “Twelve Years A Slave” now. Made sense.

All that is to speak on how I need to be more introspective in my own writing and consider more strongly the audience I want to write to. Though maybe not right now, eventually I’ll have to come up against the very real modern oppression in the publishing industry (if I’m lucky?). There’s a hint of this in my creative writing workshops already. If ever there’s another black student (rarely, and if so there’s 2 max) I can maybe count on one thorough critique outside of the instructor’s if I’m writing anything that has to do with race. There’s this apprehensiveness surrounding the writing, like a fog that re-condenses in the throat and chokes down half the room.

Similarly, science fiction writing in general, though it’s becoming more mainstream, still hovers on the margins in the minds of many young lit students I’ve met. Being black and primarily concerned with writing speculative fiction, while also wanting to write to a community that I care about (that is, one that doesn’t consist of only whites) complicates the idea of audience, even though I’ve rarely considered it in the first place. I remember the first time I read Diaz and then later on Laymon and thinking, damn, these niggas are keepin it real as shit and they got published… Which, while true, immediately made me think that there could only be a limited amount of voices from the POC community. I mean shit, traditionally there has been. Publishers have regularly touted tradition within the publishing industry as reason for not publishing authors of color because the perceived audience is smaller for characters that no one cares about. By translation, people that no one cares about, clearly.

When Laymon said something about white folks will have you thinking there can only be one in reference to writers of color, I felt silly that I’d been going along with that. I loathed myself for cooperating even subconsciously with the anti-black ideals of white civil society. Still don’t have answers though. I think more now about audience and I say that I want to write to people whom writing isn’t typically directed, but I don’t feel that in practice I have. Sometimes I see the reflections of my workshop peers in the computer screen as I write; they look as they do when I say the word nigga in class (even though I know damn well some of them go home and listen to Lil Uzi or some shit), flat, silent, stifled.

Then of course, I contemplate my own ethics for a second (am I respectable in what I’m saying, am I supposed to represent the race, “nigga bad?”). Then I think fuck that, nigga, nigga, nigga. Now I’m code switching in class, bonding with the only other black student on a killing spree to squash out any expectation of respectability and exhaust myself trying to prove that I’m just as smart, if not smarter than every single white student because why? My own lack of identity, the insecurity, the dread of being perceived as insufficient, angry, dumb, violent or lazy and even fucking worse, having any of those traits linked to the fact that I’m one of few black students, or writers in the first place. And that’s when I remember, when I know that my behavior has not a god damn thing to do with anyone’s overall perception of colored people, most of whom will continue to see that black character on the cover as a thug under every conceivable condition through a white racial frame in a civil society that continues to deny its reliance on black suffering.

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