black computer

I’m not a black artist, I’m an artist — Jean Michel Basquiat

After coming to terms with the “African-American Interest” section of Barnes and Noble, different variations of this quote haunted me. I found its remnants in Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination and Skip Gates’ Signifying Monkey. I heard it echo whilst guidance counselors and English teachers lent me books, by authors they thought I’d one day aspire to be. I strolled the fiction section of the bookstore witnessing no partitioning of the genre, but “our” section. My biggest fear leaped from our isolated table, a lineage of contradictions aligned with one another, Toni next to Zane and “True to The Game” on top of T.D. Jakes:

What if they put me here?

What if I’m thrown into confinement, a crossover hand to never touch my pages? What if I’m Caribbean-American? What if I write about the war in Iraq? What if I become lost under an abundance of typo-ridden, half edited, urban novellas?

I was excited at first, when I realized that the section was gone, one day. My feet quickly made their way to the M’s of the fiction, eyes beckoning “Sula.” It wasn’t there, so I walked to the counter to inquire.

Inquiry: Hi! Can you tell me where I can find … ?

Response: Oh. We had to put all of your books behind the counter. You guys keep stealing them.

After I laid a NYC tongue lashing on her ass, I strolled downtown Brooklyn in a stupor. Something shameful cast over me, temporarily. (Let’s put the racism on hold, that’s for an entirely different post.) I was angry; because the cashier couldn’t tell the difference between the trashy urban lit, that the teenagers were slipping into their bags, when no one was looking, and one of the most revered authors of our time. I was hurt, because there was this division waiting for me to be hurled into. I would be punished, because I’d chosen to write about the brown skin I loved and the moments that petrified me. As an African-American writer, it would only be seen through that lens. There would be no correlation to the hurt we all feel when we’ve lost a loved one or a connection to the fragment we all sometimes become. Through their lens it would read as a black loved one or black fragment.  Well, when it came to publishers.

I fell into a coma of sorts, writing only for me. I cast the inklings of the book, I was working on, into a drawer and filled my personal journal instead.

One day, while taking the shelves in, I spied one of us …

Intermingled with the “feature” books was Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. (Well he’s Hispanic, but that’s close enough.) I devoured the manuscript morsel by morsel, only stalling for bathroom breaks and consumption of real sustenance. I was enthralled; Diaz was equipped with an infrequent equilibrium. He was a street smart intellectual, placing profanity parallel to footnotes on the history of the Dominican Republic; there was no box for him, he could not be pigeonholed.

I discovered other authors like this, a sub-culture of Afro-Nerd literature. (My mentor dubs the lineage.)

Colson Whitehead, Victor LaValle, Tayari Jones, etc …

Here were authors who ignored confinement. Through their words it seemed as if they were fearless and unheeding to the destiny usually slated for us. They spoke of the post-apocalypse, science fiction, and the dysfunction of the modern family through beguiling prose.

Well, hello there …

I was inspired. My inkling of a novel jumped out from its hiding place and I begun to write, like crazy. I spent hours pining over background and meticulous description …

The theme must be prevalent.

Gentrification, Afro-Caribbean, our demise and rise…  

All your characters must have meaning.

Melinda was lost without him; she trembled with a fear insurmountable to the earthquake that shook their home two summers ago.

Oh! Oh! Don’t forget metaphor.

I drove myself crazy. I didn’t realize how harmful this was until I looked up and realized that I didn’t enjoy writing anymore. I let the fear of the “black box” consume me. It was the final thing I had to conquer …

After worrying about my parents’ raised eyebrows …

After simmering love stories, so lovers wouldn’t think I’d experienced the instance …

After keeping characters neutral, so that they wouldn’t be recognized in reality …

After a fit of panic and an email to my mentor, I was put at ease. He was the only writer, I knew, unafraid of the masses’ opinion of his work.

His words w/ a few disturbances, in parentheses, from me:

“As far as what constitutes literature, that part is subjective… 

We all want to be… (Insert the names of the authors you idolize here). I feel you on that, and I respect you so much for aiming there. But I’ll let you in on a secret: they probably harbor strong insecurities about their own works and are elated beyond relief that critics tend to like what they do…

This is a new year and a new opportunity, and I have no doubts you will finish your book and be happy for your literary, yes literary, contribution.”

He’s right.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” –Marianne Williamson

I can’t let the secluded arena that big name publishers have built for us, define me. I can’t allow it to diminish something I’ve worked almost a decade to create.

Inadequacy is a myth and I’m all about debunking.

What’s your greatest fear?

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  • au napptural

    Ok, wow! That was my biggest fear too. I used to comfort myself with the notion that Toni Morrison and Alice Walker found recognition in times far more literature-ly segregated. But I think that’s because even though those books are genius they work on a stereotypical level. The people do have lots of gratituous sex, violence is a way of life, and whole, normal families are an anathema. But whaetever the reason those books are so lauded, they have been read.

    Then I think about Octavia Butler. There’s someone who wrote her truth and was recognized in a field black people hadn’t been really acknowledged in. And I think about Maya Angelou and her perennial bestsellers. And Langston Hughes and Richard Wright and August Wilson and Alice Childress and Terry McMillan and Tayari Jones (I just finished Silver Sparrow, wooooo). These people have all written inconvenient truths that could be considered niche work. Yet they’ve received critical acclaim. I think the secret is not looking for the acclaim or attention. Write your truth. Think about it- would you rather write “A Hood Wife’s Tale” and make millions or write the next “Sula”?

    On a seperate note, I think there should be a letter writing campaign to Books-A-Million. When I was young the black section was actually good, filled with classics I couldn’t wait to read. No it’s a bunch of garbage, which might make sense if it were popular garbage but I’ve never heard of half these books! I almosty never see a Pearl Cleage, Danielle Evans, a Valdez, etc. I had to search online to find any decent new black fiction. Ok, the new Zane book has a right to be there, but all these made up names (Kandi, etc.)need to be in the back or a special interest table. I don’t see “Twilight ” in their classics section. Right now, it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. They give us these crap books (the publishers and the bookstores) then go “serious black fiction doesn’t sell” so they can white wash our stuff. Grrr. Don’t give up though.

    • Kema

      “Think about it- would you rather write “A Hood Wife’s Tale” and make millions or write the next “Sula”?”

      I’m not a writer but I’ll take hood tale for a million. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker understood that substance isn’t enough. A book should also be interesting. I read ‘hood’ books for the same reason I read romance novels with pirates, Ladies and Lords. They are fast paced and satisfying. However I have wished that someone that could actually write would do similar stories. Maybe someone should write “Sula: A Hood Wife’s tale”. Lol!

  • Dee

    Black books and black movies are both usually shunned by white people. It’s like they see no way to relate to us, like we don’t have emotions as well, but flip it around and we can’t escape it. White people on every channel being forced to read their books for school.

  • Blackgirlmd

    Interesting. I would say to play up your Carribbean background, that might help you.

    I think it’s good to be aware of obstacles that you might face, and just keep going. Do your best, keep writing, pray about it. It’ll work out.

  • Cocochanel31

    I will say that THE HELP surprisingly enough was written by a white woman whose family had hired help for years. I guess it’s no shocker since the blacks were saved from themselves by the white hero in the book.
    Just fyi

  • me

    Junot Diaz’ books will never be relegated to a section for ethnic authors because the dude is an MIT professor. In no world will a professor at a top 10 university be put into the category of trashy urban literature simply due to misconceptions about the book’s content because of the author’s race. Maybe being known for something else helps if you are a new author?