CARVELL IS BLACK IN AMERICA
The 18th of 28 interviews with a variety of artists, writers and friends to learn more about individual perspectives on being black + original illustrations by George McCalman
CARVELL WALLACE (writer)
I love black people. I want us to be happy and free. I want all beings to be happy and free.
What identity — racial or otherwise — do you feel closest to?
I tend to see similarities more easily than differences, so I find things in all people that I can connect to and relate with. But whenever I’ve been with Jewish friends and families, I’ve felt an odd kind of familiarity. No idea where that comes from, but it’s nice.
Do you think people see you as black before they see you?
Who’s to say? I don’t know what’s in another person’s head. But I know that I see people as black right away (which for me is not different from seeing their actual humanity), so I would conjecture that there are others who also see blackness first. And then, because blackness is often separated from humanity, don’t see the person until much later, if at all.
When did you first understand what it was to be black?
The earliest moment I can think of, where I really felt conscious that a) I was black and b) that black was a thing, was in fifth grade. It was Mrs Douglas’s Social Studies class. Reading through a survey of American History, we came to the part of the book wherein a few harried paragraphs on slavery were buried alongside an old-timey line drawing of a strapping but subservient negro on his knees, shackled and praying to the heavens for release. That picture burned itself into my consciousness.
I remember knowing that a white person had drawn that. I remember knowing that this white person thought this drawing had something to do with me. I remember knowing that my face was flushing, my body heating with shame. I remember seeing how that man was barely dressed. Half naked. Half human. As we read the paragraphs aloud, the white kids in the room one by one cast furtive glances at me, at the very back of the last row, where my last name—which began with a “W”—meant I had to sit.
What’s something most people don’t realize about being black?
It seems like most people don’t realize that we don’t wake up in the morning hoping some black shit will happen so that we can rage-tweet about it. We’re literally just trying to do the same thing everyone else is trying to do — have love, have family, be at peace — but there is this persistent trauma, and re-trauma, and re-trauma that you have to clear out of the way first. You have to clear it publicly. You have to clear it privately. Collectively and individually. You must spend so much of your time dealing with it. It’s like, if you were drowning: You might prefer to be lounging somewhere reading a book, but first you have to deal with this water situation right quick. We don’t want that to be the case. I love black people. I want us to be happy and free. I want all beings to be happy and free.
Some say blacks gave birth to cool, agree?
No. Coolness is a human trait that can be found anywhere among any people. I do, however, think that much of the American definition of coolness has been siphoned from black folks, from the art, language, music, style, dance, and ways of being we developed over these years in order to bring us joy, meaning, connection, and survival.
And what do you think about Beyonce?
I think that God is a black woman.
How has being black made your life better?
I’m consistently amazed at our beauty. I just cannot believe the genuine human beauty of so many people I know, so many people I see. Our music and art and writing makes me swell to the point of bursting with pride. To see what we have faced, what we have survived, what we have overcome. In some ways we have been so deeply damaged. In other ways, we’re so deeply irrepressible. Unstoppable. Being black has given me a self — both a personal one and a collective one — to love wholly, freely, and unabashedly.
What’s on your mind when you’re not thinking about race?
I love this question. I’m often amazed at how little it’s understood that we, as black people, really just want to live a life without all this black shit being thrown up all the time in our faces. But when every day sees some crazy events that deny your humanity, then it’s impossible to move on. A friend once told me, “We are not black people, we are people having a black experience,” and I think about that at least once a day.
When I’m not thinking about race, I’m thinking about movies and television shows. What makes certain scenes so good or bad? I think about moments from my past where this or that person behaved in this or that way, and why they did or didn’t do this or that thing. I think about people and what makes them work. I think about art and theatre and music. I think about the history of thinking. I think about god. I think about Prince throwing his guitar in the air after his solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the 2004 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, and how it never came down as he strutted off stage.