Don’t tell me what my story as a black woman is
When my New York City editors at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and I were in the process of reworking my first novel, Baby of the Family, in the late 1980s, they asked me these questions over and over: So, this little black girl growing up in a Middle Georgia town in the 1950s wasn’t traumatized in some way? She wasn’t afraid of white people? She wore pretty little dresses lovingly made by her mother, a mother who smelled like Joy perfume. And she was spoiled?
These white Northern Jewish women, working in the high-powered world of publishing at the center of Western civilization just could not fathom the idea of a black child not ruined in some way by their idea of Southern racism. In their minds, it was the only brand that existed.
I was, of course, offended—for my characters, for my family, for my sense of place, for my Middle Georgia home. But I was also saddened that, in the 20th century, we knew each other so little that white folks, even those in the imagining business of publishing, still could not imagine a little black girl from the South, the baby of her family, being spoiled with the corners of hot cornbread and small frozen bottles of Coca-Cola.
For I saw myself—my family, my surroundings, my entire life and being—not through the prism of some race or group or stereotype. I saw it through my own surroundings growing up; my own small, particular world of Pleasant Hill in Macon, Georgia; my childhood neighborhood where black people lived and had lived for decades. It existed, as in most Southern African American communities in the ’50s and ’60s, unto itself in the midst of the larger town. Domestic workers lived next to high school principals, deliverymen next to business owners. Our own beauty shops and butchers and cobblers and schools. An almost majestic red brick black Catholic church up the street from a small cinderblock Holiness church. A neighborhood contained, segregated yet safe for little boys and girls to walk and play and ride their bikes to school and Girl Scout meetings.
This was the universe I aimed to capture and represent for the world in my writing.
“My assignment continues unabated. I carry on the message: This is not who you think I am. This is who I am.”
When I first wrote fiction for the journal Callaloo and nonfiction for Atlanta publications—the Atlanta Constitution and this very magazine—it was through the truth of this specific African American Southern prism that I spoke. The values, the desires, the dreams, the questions, the history that encapsulate an emerging writer’s world were my tools.
I still see this as my assignment: representation. But it is a natural, organic assignment. It is not forced, nor is it pristine.
The Southern writer Rosemary Daniell once looked at me as we sat on a panel at an early Atlanta Book Festival and murmured with wonder, “Hmm, a writer with a happy childhood.” Well, of course, it was not all happy. We all have our own bag of rocks, and a writer of color in this country has more than her share. But it was my childhood.
Even before I was old enough to articulate it, I knew my assignment as a writer was to exhibit the humanity of African American people, in all its various and protean ways, splayed open and vulnerable. Our intimate, private moments seldom seemed to make it into the pages of what was considered the canon of great literature. And all I had was my perspective.
And so, like many writers of my era, who came of age as the first to do this on the page and first of our generation to do that on the stage or the screen, I continue to see race through the lens of our formative world.
Toni Morrison has said that writers write what they want to read. Just as often, I find writers are told what they are writing. People tell me, you only write about women. Or, oh, you only write about family. You write about black folks. Oh, you only write about mothers and daughters. Oh, you only write about the supernatural. Oh, you’re only interested in spirits or Spirit. And with each declaration of “Oh, you just write about,” I smile with subversive satisfaction and pack these views away in the box on my desk marked: “All this is your assignment as a writer.”
It may seem unnecessary and regressive to have to point this out today, in 2018. Yet it is even more disheartening to hear tales from other writers of color here in the early years of the 21st century, whose experiences ring similar to my first book editing experience nearly 30 years ago. One colleague told me recently that he actually was informed by a producer that his characters didn’t seem “black enough.” The producer even used the word “ghetto.”
In these days of tiki torch marches of white supremacists in the streets of American cities, of #BlackLivesMatter, of immigration debates about who belongs and deserves a shot at the American Dream, of questioning humanity and citizenship of the first African American president, the issue of representation—long, wide, and deep—remains vital. That is why my assignment continues unabated. I carry on the message: This is not who you think I am. This is who I am.