This past summer I taught at a writing conference at a local college. As is the case with many of these sort of conferences, where people pay to be able to immerse themselves in the continuing education of their careers or passions, the majority of attendees were white people — white people with the time and money.
I love writing. I love teaching writing. I love sharing knowledge and ideas with others. But writing for me has never just been about love, it has always been first and foremost about necessity. Not necessity in the “this is my passion and I’d die without it” sense, but more in the “if I don’t talk about what this world is like for black people I might *actually* die” sense. I love my work, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have a voice where so few do, but I can say honestly that there is very little joy in it — especially in 2017. I write to be heard. I write for others who cannot be heard. The occasional joy I get in my work comes from hearing from others — especially black women — of how they are finally feeling heard in my work.
But in these classes, the black women that I write with and for are not there. It is always a sea of whiteness. A room full of eager white people who love the way I can dredge up my personal pain and want to learn more about that process. At this particular conference, I scanned the hundreds of attendees to only see one solitary attendee of color.
After a hectic schedule full of writing on painful issues of race in the hopes that maybe more white people would understand and join the fight against white supremacy, after countless interviews with white radio hosts explaining once again why the brutality against people of color in this country matters, after speaking engagement after speaking engagement to overwhelmingly white audiences, I was tired. I just wanted to teach, and then I wanted to go home.
It was announced after arrival that we would not only teach, but we would also get on stage to read some of our work in an exhibition of sorts, so the attendees could see the writing chops of their teachers first-hand. I tried to scan through my memory of all the pieces I’ve written over the years for one that I could read to the crowd. You see, recently, I’d had trouble getting through readings of my work without crying. I really do not like crying about race in front of a room of white strangers.
As I attended classes of other teachers throughout the day, I was constantly distracted by a sense of dread at the evening’s reading. I remembered one time a few years back when I had been avoiding a movie review because I just couldn’t bear the thought of reviewing yet another film that participated in the erasure of people of color from the national narrative. I hated the thought of acting like such films were still worthy of the legitimacy that a critique of plot or cinematography or soundtrack would give them. And when I told my editor, Charles Mudede — one of the few editors that I would have been comfortable being so open with about my frustrations on this subject — that I was going to forfeit my commission on the piece and why, he simply replied, “Well then write that. Write why. We’ll run that instead.”
So, in leiu of a reading of my published work, I quickly jotted down why I wouldn’t be reading my published work. When I got in front of the attendees, this is what I said:
“We’re supposed to read our work tonight. My first book is coming out in January. It is about race. Of course it is.
I didn’t want to write this book. When my agent proposed it to me, my immediate response was, “I don’t want to be the White People Whisperer.”
But I didn’t become a writer because I wanted to write. When I was a kid, I wrote wildly imaginative fantasy stories. Then I stopped writing, worked my way through a Political Science degree, and got a job in advertising.
I started writing because I had to. Because my world was on fire and nobody was saying anything.
Now my world is still on fire, but people keep applauding my ability to describe the flames.
I want to write fantasy novels, but my son and I can’t walk to the grocery store without being followed by cops.
I want to write murder mysteries, but even in fiction I can’t imagine a detective doggedly working to solve the murder of someone who looks like me.
I wonder if I could write humor, but this week I’ve been talking to the woman who raised Charleena Lyles — the pregnant mother of four who was shot to death in her home in front of her babies by Seattle police officers. I want to try to write humor but two days ago the SPD director of public affairs posted a YouTube video of himself playing a first person shooter video game while he talked about the shooting death of a young, black mother. “This has been very hard on us,” he said. “Pow. Pow. Pow. Pow. Pow. Pow. Pow,” went the guns in his video game as he talked. My teenage son plays that same video game. I want to try to write humor but I don’t know if I’ll ever find anything funny ever again.
My book is about race. Of course it is.
I cried every day writing it. I hoped it might be a release. But there is no release from things that keep happening. I cried every day writing it. And now I cry at every reading.
Did you know that it’s almost impossible to read while crying? The words blur and your throat closes and you are choking. You are choking on your own words. You are choking on your own reality.
I will go on a book tour soon. I will have to read my own pain over and over. I will have to learn how to not choke on it. I don’t know who I’ll be when I know how to do that.
But I don’t know how to do that yet, and I’m too tired to try. And I don’t have any fiction or mysteries or humor to read out loud with the easy breath of someone whose words are more possibility than plea — and I’d settle for the gasping breath of a black woman when the boot is finally lifted from her neck.
This is all I can manage right now. It will have to do.”
I still cried. My throat still closed. I looked out at an audience in tears, nodding for something they still didn’t understand.
I went back to my hotel room and went to bed.
Early the next morning, as I was walking to the stage to speak on a panel, a white woman stopped me. She wanted me to know how much my speech had meant to her. It had made her cry. She wanted me to know that because of my speech she had googled the shooting of Philando Castille and watched the video. Through tears she described in detail the cries and questions of Philando’s partner’s young daughter, who was in the car during the shooting. “It was devastating to watch.” she told me as she touched my arm. I hadn’t had my coffee yet. I wanted to push her off the stage. But I didn’t. I just nodded, mumbled thanks, and took my seat at the panel.
A few weeks ago I received a heartfelt invitation from the organizer of the conference to speak again this next year. The attendees loved me, he said. Of course they did.