Jamaica Kincaid Says People Only Say She’s Angry Because She’s Black

Award winning author and professor, Jamaica Kincaid, is perhaps best known for her books At the Bottom of the River and The Autobiography of My Mother. Her new book, See Now Then, tackles some difficult subjects.  The beginning of the novel describes what seems like an ideal family life, in a small town in New England. But what readers soon discover is that the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Sweet, isn’t all that sweet. Critics have drawn parallels to Kincaid’s own life. Mrs. Sweet, like Kincaid, is an avid gardener; her marriage to a composer ends in divorce.

Kincaid recently made an appearance at PEN’s World Voices Festival of International Literature. Most people assumed she would read from See Now Then, but in true Kincaid fashion, she went against the grain and read from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Following her appearance, Kincaid had a candid sit-down interview with The American Reader about her career. She spoke candidly about being perceived as an “angry black woman”.

 

AR:In the past, much has been made out of anger in your writing. But also, in person, in readings and interviews, you’re very funny, and I was wondering what do you think the link is between anger and humor, and how do they both serve you?

JK: People only say I’m angry because I’m black and I’m a woman.  But all sorts of people write with strong feeling, the way I do. But if they’re white, they won’t say it. I used to just pretend I didn’t notice it, and now I just think I don’t care.

There are all sorts of reasons not to like my writing. But that’s not one of them. Saying something is angry is not a criticism. It’s not valid. It’s not a valid observation in terms of criticism. You can list it as something that’s true. But it’s not critical.

You may not like it because it makes you uneasy—and you can say that. But to damn it because it’s angry…. They always say that about black people: “those angry black people.” And why? You’re afraid that there might be some truth to their anger. It might be justified.

I promise you, if I had blonde hair and blue eyes this wouldn’t be an issue. No one ever says, “That angry Judith Krantz…” or whatever.

AR:You’ve actually said something similar about your new book. There’s all this discussion about it being autobiographical, and I’ve heard you say, it’s because you are black and a woman.

JK: Yes. I am somehow not supposed to use my life in any way. Let’s say it’s true. What’s wrong with that?

People draw on their life all the time.

AR:Right, it’s not a critical stance.

JK: I couldn’t—I can’t for the life of me understand why people would go looking to see if there were parallels. There are always parallels. Charlotte Brontë was a nanny, was a governess. What’s the big deal?

It’s not a valid criticism.

I think—especially with this last book, I thought, “Is there something about methat just makes people annoyed?” I’ve always thought people were sort of annoyed at me. My life does seem improbable. Here I am, this young black woman, just from nowhere and I’m writing for the New Yorker. Then I’m doing this, and I’m doing that—yes, it’s annoying.

I have no credentials. I have no money. I literally come from a poor place. I was a servant. I dropped out of college. The next thing you know I’m writing for the New Yorker, I have this sort of life, and it must seem annoying to people.

I remember my friend, George—people used to say to me, other women, when I was young and at the New Yorker: “How did you get your job?” And I would say, “Well, I met George Trow, and he introduced me to the editor.”

And they’d say, “No, no, no. How did you get your job?”

And I said to George, “I don’t know why they ask me this.” And he said, “Oh, just tell them your father owned the magazine.”

And so the next time people said, “How did you get your job?” I said, “Oh, my father owned the magazine.” And it stopped.

Because that made sense. But that I actually worked and was talented— “How did you get your job?” And I think sometimes there is a bit of that leftover, like, “How did you get here?”

And I don’t seem to care what people think. I write—from the time I started writing I’ve been writing the same way. And people have been saying the same shit about it: “She’s angry. The sentences are too long.”

My first short story is one sentence, 300 words long.  My writing has always been criticized for this, this, this. I think that people just think, “Why the hell won’t she stop it? We’ve told her we don’t like it. She keeps doing it.”

That’s the way I write.  It’s never going to stop. And the more it makes people annoyed the more I will do it.  And it’s actually really good writing. I’m a good writer. They should just say that: “She’s a great writer.”  I am.

I’m sorry.

AR: No, that’s fantastic.

JK: Actually, you make me realize that I am pissed. Not at you, but at this perception that I am pissed—I’m really pissed at it.

No. They should just say it, “This is really a good writer.” And, “A lot of the other shit that you like isn’t good writing.”

[laughter]

Jamaica Kincaid has proven once again that she doesn’t believe in biting her tongue.

  • Sasha

    She hit the nail right on the head. If Chelsea Handler or Meghan McCain wrote this kind of material, they’d be praised as avant garde or revolutionary but a Black woman writes a reflection of life and is called angry. Such is life, I need to read this woman’s work though, sounds interesting.

  • http://www.urbanexpressive.com J. Nicole

    Yep, pretty much. Chelsea Handler is complimented for being “edgy” and holding her own with the boys. That woman ( I can’t remember her name) who mocked Chris Brown on Twitter was praised while both women are basically bullies. When a Black woman is edgy, she’s abrasive or angry. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with being angry since we still have lots to be angry about. But the term is always going to be used in a negative way.

  • sassychloe

    She is an amazing writer! There is no one else that does what she does with words. I absolutely love her!

  • Sasha

    Exactly! Nothing wrong with being angry so long as you take that energy and channel it into something positive or useful. Chelsea comes off as so contrived to me, her material isn’t even funny but one of my girlfriends, who happens to be White, thinks Chelsea is hilarious and “sassy”, ugh….

  • http://twitter.com/Cognorati001 Colette Marcheline (@Cognorati001)

    Maybe she is too angry.

    There’s an anger problem in Black, English-speaking communities. IMO, it comes from Black women being stigmatized as masculine/unfeminine, so we begin to believe that aggressive, belligerent conduct is normative. Black, English-speaking women are some of the only people that have been denied femininity and stigmatized to this degree…

    Yes, we have A LOT to be angry about but the problem is anger costs us the most. Also, people just stop listening to people who are ALWAYS angry. It’s a one trick pony thing.

  • Treece

    “…They always say that about black people: “those angry black people.” And why? You’re afraid that there might be some truth to their anger. It might be justified.”

    This is it right here. The whole “angry Black man/woman” thing comes from White people being confronted with truth. The truth behind the anger (which is really just telliing it like it is and mild annoyance in some situations, not this exaggerated “anger” they speak of) is what White people don’t like. It’s part of White guilt and them wanting us to just shut up about the ugly truths….smile, dance, and shuffle. When we don’t just “let it go” and start bringing up the feelings and experiences that come about in our lives because of our race, we get painted with the “angry Black woman/man” brush. And in Ms. Kincaid’s case (who is a beautiful writer) her contributions to literature aren’t even fairly critiqued because all certain White critics can see is the anger in her words. The truth behind it makes them uneasy so they critique the emotion, not the work. And this is true for all aspects of American life for Blacks and Whites, not just literature. It’s pathetic IMO.

  • Amma

    I love Ms. Kincaid. She is a brilliant writer!

  • YeahISaidIt

    My 9th grade English teacher told me to read Girl, her short story. I did and loved it (everything else at the time was written by dead white men) it spoke to me. So much so I choose middle name for my daughter to be Kincaid. If you have island in you and are of a particular age you may just love it. (I tend to think it is phenominal minus the prerequisites).

    http://www.my-island-jamaica.com/girl_by_jamaica_kincaid.html

  • YeahISaidIt

    I should have mentioned. The same teacher later took me to a college nearby to hear her speak and she was rocked my imagination. It was one of those moments when you look at someone and wonder. If they can do that and they look like me sound like me could be me. What am I capable of.

  • http://www.clutchmagonline.com jenn dunn

    I completely agree with u. Sometime we act like being angry and walking around with a frown on our face is how we should look. It is ok to be a happy black women and have a smile on our face.

  • http://www.clutchmagonline.com jenn dunn

    thank u i completely agree with u

  • Anthony

    Calling black people angry is just one more way of saying that what we express is not really worth taking seriously. If you are a neck rolling sister or a loud “aggressive” black man, you are just maladjusted, and a taser is in order instead of someone actually listening to you.

  • http://gravatar.com/nolakiss16 binks

    Bingo! She hit the nail on the head. The “you are angry” or another famous switch “you are being sensitive” is just a code switch for “you’re feeling doesn’t matter and though it should I don’t want to explore it because I don’t want to be uncomfortable….” Furthermore, if I or any black person was angry…so in the hell what! Is being angry or feeling anything other than the status quo off limits to us now? Hence, why I was taught to respond to the “you are angry/being sensitive” line by saying “yep, I surely am…” and most people are taken aback by that…lol.

  • Mademoiselle

    I love when teachers go beyond the schoolyard to teach kids. I’m glad your 9th grade teacher was awesome.

  • Pingback: See Now Then: A Novel | Peter J Verdil

Latest Stories

10 Questions No One Will Ask Ex-Boxing Champ Kassim Ouma After Assaulting a Man Who Came On To Him

by

10 Things We Can Learn From Olivia Pope On “Scandal”

by

Struggling To Tell Black People Apart? Watch David Alan Grier Hilariously Break It Down

by

Carol’s Daughter Files For Bankruptcy

by