ON ZADIE SMITH’S ESSAY… WHO OWNS BLACK PAIN?

We do Zadie. Black ass people do. And white people most assuredly do not.

Zadie Smith illustration by belle BRUT

I read an online comment that the audience for Zadie Smith does not generally include Black people, but I am an African American woman who generally loves Smith’s writing. I love the way she paints a picture with words and I’m particularly enchanted by hearing her speak about her take on the state of things. Her take on Get Out was spot on, but her foray into race and appropriation requires a bit more reflection. And at the very least, should have been titled, “Will My Mixed Children Be Black Enough for America?”

Zadie gave an excellent analysis of the movie Get Out, coupled with what she gleaned about its director, Jordan Peele, from a previous interview she did with him. She then contrasted that with the much-protested Whitney Biennial painting by artist Dana Schutz, of Emmett Till, entitled, Open Casket.

“Nor did I need to convince myself of my own authenticity by drawing a line between somebody else’s supposed fraudulence and the fears I have concerning my own (thus evincing an unfortunate tendency toward overcompensation that, it must be admitted, is not unknown among us biracial folks). No. The viewer is not a fraud. Neither is the painter. The truth is that this painting and I are simply not in profound communication.” — Zadie Smith

Having visited the Whitney several times in an attempt to see the Biennial, I wondered if I had managed to miss the painting, or did I just put it out of my mind? If it was on the 5th floor, then I most assuredly did see it and am now recalling that I moved swiftly from that painting as I realized what it was. The painting did not particularly move me except when I tried to make out what I was looking at, arriving at the painted depiction of Till’s seemingly contorted face, which from my recollection seemed to scream at me.

I had no desire to see a depiction of his death. Personally, I’ve grown tired of white media showing violence upon Black people so cavalierly when they don’t show violence against white people in the same way. It’s desensitizing for both Black and white audiences, whether it be entertainment or news. For so long white media in America has either ignored or deemed how to best tell our stories, and in that way, I understand the questioning of why this female artist decided to depict this gruesome depiction of Till, and moreover took issue with a white woman’s depiction of Black pain.


On the subject of cultural appropriation, I also disagree with Smith’s analysis and critiques.

“But when arguments of appropriation are linked to a racial essentialism no more sophisticated than antebellum miscegenation laws, well, then we head quickly into absurdity. Is Hannah Black black enough to write this letter? Are my children too white to engage with black suffering? How black is black enough? Does an “octoroon” still count?” — Zadie Smith

Although it is her writing style, to be pointedly descriptive and even sarcastic, I bristle at Smith’s use of the words quadroon and octoroon in referring to her own children. And I suspect that writing this essay was more a look into how she worries about how Black her own children really are based on their racial makeup and how they look. If Smith wanted to write an essay about who owns Black pain she could have done that, but tying it to her racially mixed kids makes me think that how they may potentially be racially identified, both visually and culturally, is her true concern.

Smith’s analysis reeks of someone who might be struggling with her own Blackness, or maybe her British Blackness in contrast to African American Blackness. Or perhaps takes it as a personal affront that the white people she loves and cares for could be called out for appropriating a culture, when in her experience and eyes they have the right, due to their proximity to Blackness. Or could it be that her concern is “If my children look white and choose to identify as Black, will they be questioned about their proximity to and/or adoption of blackness, by black people?” My answer to that is — That all depends on just “how Black” you are raising your children to be Zadie. Being Black in America is not just about how Black someone appears to be, it’s about shared culture in the same way that similarities in Black culture connect us across countries and continents.

“Get Out — as evidenced by its huge box office — is the right movie for this moment. It is the opposite of post-black or post-racial. It reveals race as the fundamental American lens through which everything is seen. That part, to my mind, is right on the money. But the “us” and “them”? That’s a cheaper gag. Whether they like it or not, Americans are one people.” — Zadie Smith

What Zadie fails to realize is that although bi-racial she may be, she is still an outsider to the Black American experience. Do not tell Black Americans that they are forever tied to and cannot uncouple themselves from white America. White people did it for years, while Black Americans tried to prove their humanity and right to be seen as human beings in the eyes of white America. White Americans sold a bill of goods to non-whites about how to be and behave in order to receive acceptance. Yet it was a lie, because Black people have learned over and over again that there is one directive on how to behave and belong for white acceptance, and another set of rules on who gets to receive justice, fairness and humane treatment when white America is meting out judgement.

So yes, we will consciously uncouple ourselves from white oppressors, faux allies and flat out racists as needed. And there’s nothing cheap about it. It’s rich with self-preservation. Sorry Zadie, but as the evidence has shown in Charlottesville, America is not one people.