Wednesday, July 27, 2016

On Race and Relevancy in Writing

Between my last deadline and the one that preceded it, it's become an especially and increasingly turbulent time to be black in America, and as an African-American writer, current events can dictate the shape of my work in ways that don't seem fair. Yet I can't tune out for the purpose of somehow preserving my artistic envisioning. Each day, I have to turn on the misery machine and read and watch all of what's happening so that I am aware of the dangers to me and mine. After that, it's pretty hard to go back to my imagination and fashion worlds that are free of the residue of this one. Each time I enter into that creative inner space, I'm followed by spectres of conscience that wail about responsibility. Would I have this voice and platform in this particular climate if it wasn't for me to respond to what we all see as grave problems? To be an African-American who possesses skill with words but refuses to write about race is considered by some a crime of selfishness.

Yet of deep concern for me is how, when a black writer contributes intelligently and poignantly to the mass conversation on race, they become, indelibly, a Race Writer, which may seem like a rare opportunity that is unique to the African-American, and one at which I should not scoff. Except I become a Race Writer, and my lot in life will be to wake up each day and attempt to be first to the pithy maxim. In every format and medium available, I'll have to offer wry observations that my pre-installed relevancy uniquely affords me. I'll be writing less for the benefit of mutual understanding than I will be to serve the choir that wants the perfect daily sermon, or give the well-intentioned but lazy-natured a regular boost of empathetic consciousness. Sure, when you're black, and you write well about race, you get noticed, but then that's all anyone notices, and then that's what you're writing about if you want to be well read, or read at all. Ice skating uphill is what the race writer does, and I don't want that gig, man. I dread it because I've seen what it does to authors whose work was once important until an exhausted and exasperated public put it down.

My latest work involves a protagonist who is a young African-American woman who reaches for a bright future in academia while contending with a history shaped by a family of outlaws. She wishes to hew to her own path but finds herself frequently returning to aid the souls of those who made her, regardless of her disagreement with them. By word 1000, I realized I wasn't just creating a new character and a world in which she could exist, but I was expressing my daily challenge to be true to myself and yet remain connected to the souls that made me. The words wouldn't fall on the page the way they do, and I wouldn't be published and invited to contribute to projects that want a poignant black voice, were I to remain in a bubble where I solely serve my own needs. So I write, sometimes for myself, and sometimes because that's what I gotta do. Or all I can do.

As I was writing this new piece, I came to know both my character and my own inner creative tension. I eventually allowed her encounters and experiences to mirror mine. A Black Lives Matter protest here. A brush with inner city violence there. Difficult choices with no clear winners and losers, over and over again. Then I realized what we all do, at some point, which is we only ever write ourselves. My words come from my black self, and my black self is a part of a world that is made up of so many elements, black and otherwise. It's an exciting world, and a frightening world, and pieces and parts from it make my work exciting, and frightening. And real, which is all any of us want of our writing. And while I cannot, and will not, allow myself to be a Race Writer, I will write lovingly and unguardedly about race, and I will ensure that it comes from the truest part of myself, damn the outcome.

That is my true responsibility.

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