Self-Portrait Of The Artist As Ungrateful Black Writer
No, I'm not happy to "just be here." Racism doesn't vanish the moment we set foot into the ivory towers and glittering soirees of the literati.
The November weekend after author Daniel Handler made a watermelon joke onstage at the National Book Awards, I got lost in the literal dark in Miami. "The party is just that way," a handsome valet had assured me just moments before. He pointed to a path along the side of the Standard Hotel that promised to take me to the kind of exclusive literary party I once dreamed of attending, but never thought I would actually be invited to.
I didn't realize how tightly I was clutching the invitation until my sweat started to warp its cardstock. There were so many large, waxy plants in the way while I stumbled along the path that I didn't sense the tall black man walking just footsteps behind me until we nearly bumped into one another. Questlove walked with his head down, slightly stooped, the posture one adopts after years of being greeted with wide eyes and nervous smiles.
Unsure of what exactly I could or should say to him in such a moment, I offered a smile I'm not even sure he could see and then I stuttered something about the image of two black men stumbling through the dark in Florida, of all places. He smiled, or I think he smiled. A grand jury was expected to issue a decision regarding Darren Wilson at any moment. My body felt like it was in two different Americas at once. And then we were at the waterside party. My awkward comment fizzled in the shadowed flora we left behind.
Questlove drifted off into the crowd of writers, editors, and agents. I shoved the mangled invitation in my pocket and grabbed a flute of champagne from a passing waiter. Small lights were strung overhead like borrowed stars, music drifted out over the water then sashayed back toward the partygoers. I was overcome just then by the sense that perhaps I had finally made it — not just to a party but The Party itself. Then, for a moment that threatened to stretch beyond the boundaries of reasonable time, I couldn't spot a single familiar face.
I'm black, gay, and 29 years old. I had just published my first book of poetry. In retrospect, standing there with champagne in hand, I wish I'd felt proud rather than grateful — intensely, almost exhaustingly grateful to just be there. It's the kind of gratitude that, I suspect, is very familiar to those whom our culture has a habit of reminding they should be happy "to just be here." Finally, after making eye contact with a colleague, we waded through the crowd toward one another. I passed a National Book Award winner talking to an author who'd recently gotten a six-figure book deal.
By the time my colleague and I managed to meet in the middle of the crowd, a poet from New York whom I hadn't seen in months made his way toward me as well. His smile calmed me down. I'm not alone anymore, I thought. And if I'm not alone, I'm not invisible.
"You've grown out your hair," the poet said, the ice in his cocktail catching light. "Now I'm going to do that racist thing where I touch your hair," he said as he reached for my afro. His fingers tested the texture of my hair, the way you might squeeze a bath sponge. My colleague and I locked eyes; she seemed horrified but I never stopped smiling, not once. I smiled like it was an affliction because somewhere along the way I picked up the idea that when you're a young black writer among the literary elite you can't be both grateful and angry, or proud and humiliated — though, of course, I was.
"People talk to me absolutely bathed in a bubble bath of self-congratulation," James Baldwin wrote in his 1964 Playboy essay "The Uses of The Blues." "I mean, I walk into a room and everyone there is terribly proud of himself because I managed to get to the room. It proves to him that he is getting better. It's funny, but it's terribly sad."
In his essay "Wallace Stevens After Lunch," poet Major Jackson notes that while having lunch with the other 1952 National Book Award judges, Stevens looked at the photograph of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks — the first black person to win the Pulitzer Prize, in 1950 — and said, "Who's the coon?" Noticing the other judges — all white men — shifting in their seats with discomfort, he added, "I know you don't like to hear people call a lady a coon but who is it?" Brooks had been on the NBA judging committee that had given the hallowed award to Stevens for poetry the previous year.
These moments in literary history are usually segregated to the footnotes section. Throughout my education, I never heard "Like Decorations In A Nigger Cemetery" discussed in a classroom, never talked about Wallace Stevens looking at a picture of Gwendolyn Brooks and asking, "Who's the lady coon?" — as if racism vanishes the moment we set foot into the ivory towers and glittering soirees of the literati.
I used to think that I was terrible at accepting compliments, but lately I've started to wonder if maybe I'm just terrible at accepting compliments from white people. I admire writers who can say the words "thank you" without sounding as desperately grateful as I often feel, or rather: I feel like I'm supposed to feel desperately grateful because there is, in fact, a very long line of other young black writers waiting outside the velvet rope waiting to be let in, one person at a time.
The same evening as that party in Miami, a poet who is also black and gay told me that he'd been so nervous about our books coming out within a month of each other. I couldn't pretend not to understand his anxiety. When literary gatekeepers and publishers continue to overlook the vast diversity of writers, the special few who make it into elite spaces are constantly compared to one another in both flattering and troubling ways. It's an anxiety that straight white men will never know. Could you imagine telling Jonathan Franzen that he can't release his novel because Michael Chabon has one coming out next month? When, in 2015, a new literary magazine manages to emerge with a masthead including almost 40 contributing editors with only two women and no people of color among them, the oxygen starts to get a bit thin. Combing through mastheads and tables of contents for the names of writers who are not straight white men can make you feel crazy. And it is crazy that doing so is still necessary.
This is the culture our work (and our bodies) exist in as writers of color. This is a culture in which I can tell you about an anecdote that happened twice, months apart and with different people at different literary events. "They think I'm you," a younger black poet said to me once at a literary conference. Seeing the confusion on my face, he added, "A woman walked up to me and asked about your book and I realized she thought I was you. She said she loves your work. I said, 'Thank you.'" A version of this happened once at a writers conference in Boston and then again at a reading in the East Village.
You can make yourself crazy simply by paying attention. The publishing industry on which my work depends is 89% white. And so, when one of those white people puts their hands in my hair, it's difficult for me to speak up in the moment, or even months later, because I want to have a career, not just one book. I suspect there are limits to the literary elite's willingness to tolerate an insistently "angry black writer" in their presence. Writers who speak out too loudly, too often will never be told explicitly "you've bitten the hand that feeds you" but there are so many ways to starve.
I have no desire to burn bridges, but there are so many of us stumbling and bumping into each other along unlit paths. Silence in the face of literary microaggressions — those sparks in which writers, editors, and agents casually collide with America's pervasive racism — is cruel. It is cruel to ourselves because carrying racial trauma in silence is liable to take years off a life. It's cruel to other writers and readers because it sets them up to think they're being unnecessarily "angry" or ungrateful when they have similar encounters. And frankly, it's cruel to white people who risk continuing to make hurtful errors — inadvertent or otherwise — without the possibility for growth and transformation.
We're not crazy. We're just not in the dark anymore. And my goodness, we can see you so clearly now.
The wonderful essay "Wallace Stevens After Lunch" was written by poet Major Jackson. A previous version of this article misattributed the author.