So many white privileged people have been telling me that I too am privileged. While I am willing to acknowledge this truth, my question for them is Now what? Surely acknowledgment can’t be enough.
After George Floyd died under a police officer’s knee, I wanted to do something other than to feel guilty and cry when I imagined him calling for his mother with his final choked breath. I asked myself, Now what?
The answer was academic. Due to physical limitations, I cannot march. What other skills did I have to offer?
I was so overwhelmed, I could not write about George Floyd and the treatment of black people in this country. What did I have to say that hadn’t been said better, not just by other writers but by those who have taken action? Then I realized: I am a teacher. What better way to educate ourselves than to listen to other people, to read their work, to hear their ideas.
I took the revolutionary action of going onto Facebook and asking if anyone wanted to read a book by a black writer and discuss it with me.
Most people responded to the suggestion well, offering the names of writers and titles. Many of the authors’ names were familiar, older ones: Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou. A few more current writers, Colson Whitehead and Ta-Nehisi Coates, came up. A couple of people offered two female science fiction writers: Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin. Some went a bit further afield: Marlon James, James McBride.
Then there were the people, thankfully few in number, who questioned: why a black writer? One asked me privately who we were going to read next: a tall writer? A blonde one? Another quipped, “I can’t tell by the facial features in some photos whether the writers are black or not.” One sent me an email with a single word, “Naw.” When I pressed, he responded with a joke using racial stereotypes. I thought of Ibram X Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist in which he advised addressing these issues head on. You might not be the one with your foot on someone’s throat or making racist comments, but you have to call out the people who are.
I told off the tall/blonde book guy and went on to have a conversation with him – by the end, he conceded. I deleted the can’t-tell-by-their-photo guy’s racist comments because I didn’t want them on my page. I explained why I felt it necessary to hear voices other than the ones we keep hearing. He apologized and sent suggestions of books by black writers and a list of important black films. But his initial remarks had already hurt and offended others. I sent the joking guy an angry response even though I know he has a good heart. I advised him against the use of insensitive humor, especially in such sensitive times. I haven’t heard back from him.
I wondered if I said I wanted to read a female author, would people ask why not a male one? If I said I wanted to experience the work of an LBGTQ writer, would people say why not a straight one?
I directed my Facebook friends to watch Michael Che’s wise and funny stand-up on Black Lives Matter. Only one person did. Some people still insist that All Lives Matter. Maybe in an ideal world. Why did I ask people specifically to read a black writer? Because in an ideal world, all voices would matter but in this one, sadly, they don’t. Sometimes they are choked.
Black Women’s Voices
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, That Thing Around Your Neck, short stories
- Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, sociology
- Roxane Gay, Hunger, memoir
- Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing, novel
- Warsan Shire, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, poetry
- Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing, novel