On Being a Present Black Writer

by Janelle Williams, In-School and Outreach Lead Instructor

In the first year, first semester of my MFA in creative writing program, we discussed a short story by African American writer Dana Johnson, “Melvin in the Sixth Grade.” One of my favorite professors, a white man who lives on the Upper West Side, largely praised the story with one small aside- Johnson’s lyrical reference to Peabo Bryson, a Rhythm and Blues artist now in his late sixties.

“Raise your hand if you know who Peabo Bryson is,” my professor said in an effort to prove his point. I scanned the third floor room of the college’s epicenter, and decidedly raised my hand. I looked for *Matthew, who was older than me but younger than my dad, shades lighter than both of us, a high yellow that resembled chewy caramels, sitting at the far end of the long rectangular table. Matthew managed to reference Smokey Robinson and Snoop Dogg in his work, and we found each other quickly, smiling. Along with one other black writer, we were three hands raised, three out of twelve, the minority in our majority white common space.

I’m so into you. I don’t know what I’m gonna do, lyrics familiar to me as I remember waking up every Saturday morning to my dad blasting “oldies but goodies” from the twenty inch speaker in our small living room in East Atlanta. I’m So Into You is a song I carried through my awkward stint in High School, my undergraduate tenure at Howard University and now at the cusp of thirty, it remains the perfect love song. An evocation of 1970/80’s bare black love, an embodiment of everything I missed in the age of Black Power.

“You see what I mean,” My professor went on. “It doesn’t quite work anymore. That’s the problem with pop culture references. Say, Stevie Wonder. Had she used Stevie Wonder, then maybe. We’ll always know Stevie Wonder. But Peabo Bryson, eh.” He shrugged his shoulders.

I cleared my throat, knowing what I knew then, knowing what I know now but was too afraid to say then; that Stevie Wonder and Peabo Bryson don’t provide the same context, that you can’t interchange black artists at your convenience. That the harmonic talent of a pleading Wonder does not equate the smooth brown sugar vocals of a jheri curled Bryson. This is all to say, the most obvious fact of the matter, Wonder is not Bryson, and Bryson is not Wonder.

To my professor’s credit, I don’t think he was implying the bodily mobility of black artists, but I also don’t think he was considering that not everything is written for everyone, that for a work to feel specific to me, it certainly can not also feel specific to him. He did not ask the relevant questions: Who was “Melvin in the Sixth Grade” written for? And don’t African American writers need work that embodies them (us), too? And do you need to “get” the reference in order to enjoy the story?

This was one small moment of many, across numerous classrooms, via a myriad of instructors, through an overstock of peer feedback. This accumulation of moments (some bigger than others) is what it means to be a black writer in a white space. To be asked to tweak your work until it’s centered, no longer within African American margins but betwixt the divide, crossing over. To be questioned and questioned and still unheard. To be fetishized but unpublished. To have a reader tell you they don’t “get” it, cannot relate to it with a mere shrug of the shoulders.

These facts manifested again when I attended the 2015 Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. It was my first time in Portland, and I was unaccustomed to the city’s politeness, the homelessness resembling bohemia, barefoot youth bearing cardboard signs with neat print. Portland was never a vacation destination; Portland was for white people. And indeed, Tin House was a very white space, where I workshopped the beginning pages of my novel about real love and black identity.

It struck me as concerning when one of my white peers said she could totally relate to my work, that we needed more black characters, which was why she herself was writing a futuristic novel where the main character was black. After all, everyone will be black in the future. And oh, I wouldn’t believe how unfairly the police treated her white father. Yes, she could totally relate to my work. Or couldn’t she? Had she read my writing at all?

The following summer, the summer of 2016, I attended my first year of WriCampia as an instructor. I was naive to the way in which young writers of color might also feel misunderstood, out of place, bearing an accumulation of small and big moments. And because of my naivete, I cannot say I was there for them in any extraordinary way, in the way in which I should have been there. And so, I was determined to make 2017’s WriCampia experience different.

With Rebecca and coworkers’ help, I brainstormed an elective for marginalized writers needing a safe space, to have their work deeply heard and felt, to showcase the way lingual specificity emphatically builds writing. Like a professor (white, female) once told me, it was my goal to aid their work in becoming “more like itself.” To help their writing dive deeper into what it already was. I wanted to hear their most authentic voices. Needless to say, I was anxious about leading this elective. I was under self-induced pressure to make it work, to unite and not (unnecessarily) incite.  

It must have been some fate of the universe that I implemented this new elective titled  Voice, Culture, and Race, not even a full month after attending another writer’s workshop of my own. Kimbilio, a black fiction writers retreat in Taos, New Mexico, was the deep sigh of my summer, a pressing down on my shoulders, a magical place to say the least. It was a place where everyone seemed to “get” me, where I didn’t have to explain the words I’d bled on the page, where I didn’t have to anticipate uncomfortable after-class encounters. Kimbilio rejuvenated me as a writer and a thinker and a present being.

I hope I was able to give our WriCampia writers this same feeling of peace. Every night, Voice, Culture, and Race (VCR) met from 8:30 to 10:30 to discuss being a writer of color. We discussed pushing through racially charged conversations, writing in native languages, writing about ancestors, and finding voices that reflect community, family, and history. Just as importantly, we discussed being a listener, how to listen when someone’s work is different than your own, how to listen without judgment but understanding, how to listen without feeling some ethnocentric need to see yourself inside of the story. Within this effort, VCR quickly became a family, no longer a space I was implementing but something the teens grounded, as concrete as a country’s land. African American, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, Ethiopian, Korean, and bi-racial writers claimed it promptly. It was beautiful to see this coming together. It was equally beautiful to be a part of it, and I extended an invitation to everyone near me.

In a different workshop one morning, a white writer said, “I don’t think I can attend VCR. I’m just too white for it.” She didn’t look at me as she said it because it wasn’t directed at me. I suppose she was thinking out loud.

I hesitated, knowing I would kick myself later if I didn’t address her now. In one way or another, her words were in fact, for me. “Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s a good idea for you to be in a space where you’re not the majority. Maybe it’s important for you to know what it feels like to be in the minority.”

She took this well, as I knew she would, and we resumed our workshop.

The next night three white writers from my morning workshop came to VCR, and we played a game where everyone mapped their worlds with physical and emotional landmarks. At the end of our two hours, a few writers shared their maps, vulnerably pointing to their homes and neighborhoods and memories. One of the white writers from my morning workshop was the last to share, the only white writer to share. Her map of her neighborhood in Brooklyn hyped the whole room, the whole colorful room of writers that spilled from small couches and oversized plush rockers, onto chairs borrowed from the next room over, onto any random surface sturdy enough to sustain a body’s weight. This accumulation of bodies found a connection within her world, and it was a bonding, insightful moment with lots of laughing and dapping.

The beauty of this moment was greater than the other writers’ relation to her map. With humanity, relation is to be expected. The beauty of this moment lay in seeing her push through the discomfort of sharing a map in a space that may not have felt like her own. The beauty lay in watching her peers gift her the blessing of listening. They heard her specificity for what it was and not what they wanted it to be. I can only dream that VCR’s accumulation of moments similar to this one rejuvenated its attendees as writers and thinkers and present beings.

Janelle Williams is Writopia Lab’s In-School and Outreach Lead Instructor. She is a graduate from Manhattanville College and Howard University.

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