Writing and Reading While Black. Lessons learned.

I spotted this article on tumblr a week or so ago and have been ruminating about it. No seriously go read it.

I also highly recommend watching the attached video but you can do that when you’re done here.

Now let me tell you a story about being an early and immediately voracious reader.

As a very young kid I went from reading Dick and Jane to reading novels. Almost as soon as I grasped the how of reading I was off to the races. The first novel I read was Charlotte’s Web. I read it first at home in the summer before Kindergarten and then once the school found out I could really read I spent my lunches that year reading the book out loud to my principal. Who as I remember was the first Black woman I ever saw in what I thought was a big deal position but that’s another story.

That book started something that nagged at me for years. Every book I read until I was about 9 years old was all White people or occasionally there were stereotypical Black cooning characters.

People think children are color blind. The correct notion is that often White children are colorblind because they see and have their reflections asserted in positive ways everywhere. They are the norm and I as a Black child was the aberration.

Understand that as young as 6 years old I may not have had the language but I knew that I as a little Black child had no business in books, in fantasy, in movies, in cartoons etc. I was just like one of these children in the doll test. I strongly suggest anyone who even thinks that color blindedness is good or that children don’t see color, also parents especially white parents watch this in full. Don’t flinch it will hurt.

I wrote my first story when I was 7. I remember it because it was Spring and I was sick from school. I laid in bed with a crayon and my giant penmanship tablet and wrote a story about a Mouse who was in love with a goose.

One of the features of writing for me up until I was about 20 was that I told no one. Because so much of the literature that meant something to me was exclusionary of people of color and some of those authors I knew were racist, I felt that I should not be writing. Being that I was not Maya Angelou or one of her peers or foremothers writing and the literary world was not for me.

I didn’t write stories about Black people. I knew that if I ever wanted to be the best selling lady version of Stephen King (my ambition at the time was to become an absolute horror goddess) I could not include a vision of myself, my family or anyone not the Average American, read as White people.

I was always very careful that I did not use any type of AAVE, I did not reference Black culture save in a very oblique manner through trying to emulate The Beats. When I wrote my first erotic stories at 17 years old, everyone in them was White and thin and beautiful. They went to nice schools, they were not like me except they were queer and kinky but even that I tried very hard to make heterosexual male friendly.

It is taking me forever to write this because thinking of it is painful. Remembering the deep desire to create art that reflected my world and the world as I might like to see it but having the clear understanding from years of being a reader that, in the literary world there was no place for me.

The thing I loved and wanted most in the world did not want me as I was. I spent a lot of time writing and as much time destroying what I wrote not because I hated it but because I did not believe that there was any room for my expression.

That was the reality of my situation and frankly it drove me to some really destructive thought patterns and a belief somewhere inside that I was just inferior because of my Blackness and my want to explore and talk about Blackness.

I bought into White supremacy because there was no one to tell me differently. In the world I grew up in there were no real reason to believe otherwise. It extended from inside out. I hate my skin (see here and here where I talk about bleaching my skin as a kid), I hated myself. I was ashamed because I did not want to believe in the White supremecist position and yet every time I spoke up or tried to shed that, whiteness smacked me down.

Now let’s fast forward to the last five years or so.

After having lost writing jobs because I had the audacity to outside of Whiteness and refse to have it put into some Box o Blackness, because I have objected to changing a Goddess to one White people would know. because I have objected to using artwork depicting white people when the story was not about white people I feel like I am coming full circle.

That isn’t to say that sometimes I write things that I honestly think White editors do not understad. One rejection I got last year “gently” suggested I remove the AAVE so “people” (White) would understand it put things back into sharp and painful focus for me.

The Literary World at large still doesn’t want me.

Unlike weeping traumatized me at 6, 16 and 26 I am defiant at 37.

I realized that I don’t care.

I don’t care about traditional big box publishing. I don’t care that most likely I will never be an internet darling author because I am not a nice white lady and that’s fine with me.

I won’t say it still doesn’t hurt sometimes. It does.

Sometimes as I am writing something I know that 90% of publishers won’t take it.

And that hurts.

It’s not okay but I gotta do what I gotta do.

So let me end with this.

  • I don’t always trust White publishers.
  • I try to get published anyway.
  • I try not to let the bullshit hurt too bad.
  • I write the stories I write because only I can tell them and they are the stories I want to read.

And a special message to my fellow marginalized authors.

Don’t run away from your roots. You don’t have to write to please Whiteness. Write to please yourself.

About Shannon Barber

I am a strange little woman who likes pie. View all posts by Shannon Barber

2 responses to “Writing and Reading While Black. Lessons learned.

  • voodoochild9

    I know what you mean. In school my stories involved either talking animals or for all intents and purposes white people. I’m biracial and for a long time I wrestled with (still do, to some degree) an unspoken impulse that I had to “pick” which part of me to be: white or black. Whenever we had to read a book in school involving ‘blackness’ (“Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”) or poems with a black dialect (ones with phrases like “ain’t no” or “chile”) I would get visibly uncomfortable because my Mom didn’t talk like that. I didn’t talk like that. It seemed backward to me that we had to learn good grammar and good spelling and we had to read books with characters called Mama or Big Mama so in a weird way I associated literary ‘blackness’ with this slangy speech that I didn’t really speak myself. My early writing is basically me trying in vain to sound like a British children’s author where any human characters were ethnically ambiguous. I even hated writing personal essays because I felt like compared to the white kids in my class who went on vacations, my life felt uneventful and not worth writing about.

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