Don't Write So Close To Me

A while back, this old man came up to me in the post office and started a conversation with me, but after a few seconds, I realized it was a continuation of a previous conversation from the day before. Only, I wasn’t there for that conversation.

“Have we met?” I asked.

“Sure we have. You were in here just yesterday,” he said.

“No, it was too cold. I was at home,” I said. I looked at him over the top of my glasses.

“You sure?” he persisted, and pursed his lips. It was clear he thought I was trying to fool him.

“Pretty sure,” I said. I was being so patient because he wasn’t trying to flirt at all. He was nice old dude, a gentleman.

We went back and forth like that. This was a White man, but I’m used to nice old men of all colors—Black, White, you name it. I did a lot of growing up around old people in the South, so he didn’t bother me at all.

After a while, when I saw that he realized I wasn’t the lady he thought I was, I gave him my most radiant smile; I didn’t want him to feel embarrassed. And no, I did not think he was pulling that “all y’all Negroes look alike” routine. I thought he was old. The memory ain’t got the same snapback at his age.

Then he told me, I had a twin in town. She was a real nice lady, too,he said,  just like me. I asked was she cute; he laughed real loud and he went to the counter to get his stamps.  That was that.

I bet that “you’ve got a twin scenario” has happened to everybody, or at least three quarters of the world’s population. And if you’re a writer, while you hope and imagine that your work is completely original, sooner or later, you realize there really is no new subject. Not only are there no new subjects, there aren’t any new situations, or new feelings. There aren’t even any new people, as my encounter in the post office proved.

There are only new words to describe what has been described before. You have to be very careful to pick those new words and you have to arrange them in a new way. It’s my worst nightmare to think that one day, someone will pick up a book of mine and say, “Hey, that sentence [or stanza or whatever] is identical to something I read in a book by [insert writer’s name here].” Only, that collection of words had been published before mine. I think if that would ever happen while I am still alive I would stab myself. Or like, have people hold me down so I couldn’t stab myself.

But lately, I’ve been reading poems and stories and novels that resemble each other, sometimes in small, incidental ways and sometimes in large, disturbing and shocking ways, and although I wish I were confused, the answer is pretty obvious to me: there might be too many people out there who want to be professional writers, and originality is drying up.

Yes, I said it. It had to be said.

I’m not the first person to say this in private. I know this is supposed to be blasphemy for someone like me, a practicing, publishing writer who teaches creative writing and who writes letters of recommendation for students to go study creative writing. I also do readings of my work—or did, who knows what will happen in this bad economy now.

But the truth is, I worry that the profession of writing isn’t equipped to handle all those professional writers out there now. It’s not only the money, either. It’s a matter of logistics. Can there really be all those wildly talented people out there touched personally by the Hand of God?

As I heard a Black preacher say once about entering the ministry, “Some are called. Some are sent. And some are sent by they mamas.”

Right now, there might be a whole bunch of writers sitting up in graduate school or even teaching young writers who have been sent by their mamas.  I’m just saying.

That doesn’t mean that I think I’m the Grand Poobah who decides who’s really a writer and who isn’t. Or that I’m the only real writer out there, and everyone else is a faker. Nor do I think we should go around crushing the dreams of the young people that we teach, because you never know.

I read an excerpt from Robert Hayden’s Collected Prose, where he talked about a teacher telling him he would never be a poet. Because of how that teacher hurt his feelings, he vowed never to tell a student of his that he had no talent or that he would never be a poet. But what Hayden did tell his students is that poets are not made but born. I would assume that principal applies to novelists and memoirists as well.

Right now, though, because there is the possibility of making real money as a novelist through advances, or making a decent living teaching writing at a university as a poet (and collecting enough reading fees to buy you a couple of household appliances each year in readings), there are huge numbers of students entering creative writing programs so someone–other than God–can make them into writers, and they are borrowing serious amounts of dough to pay for it.

Because there are so many students in so many MFA programs, it’s time to question how many can access something truly special and unique in their talents, let alone hit the proverbial big time.  Add to that the tendency of some creative writing teachers to impose their own personal aesthetic tastes on students’ writing and you end up with a bunch of people who write about the same thing in much the same way, repeatedly.

Which brings me back to my original point. It’s not just the White folks who sound alike, ok? We Black folks can lie to ourselves about our dogged originality, but it’s just that: a lie.

I’m a Black poet and fiction writer, representing a generation of Black writers coming of age artistically in the early- to mid-nineties. My generation is the first large group of Black writers who were formally trained–not self-trained— to write about “Blackness” in ways that enabled us to publish in mainstream (read: White) journals and get our hustles on.

We Special Negroes learned how to write about aspects of Black culture—basketball, jazz, hair-pressing day, Holiness Pentecostal churches, Hip Hop, and the list goes on—in ways that were easily identifiable and non-threatening to White academic readers. The problem is that it’s really hard to be on your hustle and be original, too. It’s very possible, yes, but it’s stressful as hell. It requires more and more artistic innovation, and thus, finding a voice and sticking to it is called “laziness” in your craft.

We Special Negroes went to MFA programs where we were “the only ones” in each workshop class.  Many of us came out emotionally scarred by racism, cultural indifference, or ignorance of our culture. For example, every Black writer I know who’s been through an MFA program has been told by their White classmates and teachers that “you need a glossary” at the back of a story or poem. If you look in the back of all three of my books, you will find a notes sections.

Please don’t judge me. I just got tired of fighting The Publishing Man on that one.

After those traumatic experiences in MFA programs, so many of us thought we were going to change the White creative writing establishment; we were going to change the game and discover a way to make money as a Black writer but yet, not compromise in our cultural truths. We were going to be the ones, like Barack was going to change the world simply by his mere brown presence.

I got four words for you: Gulf Coast Oil Slick.

Instead, some of us colored folks are running out of ways to be original and please White readers at the same time, and thus, some of us are starting to sound alike, too. After all, now that everybody and their brother is attending an MFA program to learn how to write, instead of learning on his or her own, how special can we Special Negroes be anymore? And what is the solution to this issue?

Don’t look at me. I don’t have any solutions to this problem. I’m just putting my career on the line naming the problem in public. Somebody else is going to have to put her career on the line to propose a solution–in public, and not on the phone with her girlfriend. I ain’t calling no names, though.

Now that the economy is in trouble, and the money has stopped flowing like wine, it will be interesting to see how many of us still want to be writers through entering MFA programs. Perhaps then, some of these mamas will start to send for their children to come on back home. I just hope my mama don’t send for me.

A Writer Who's Black AND Deep

Remember when I let you know about a tornado that blew through my area? Well, a week after that, we had ANOTHER tornado. Having so much time inside the house—because I’m scared to go outside most days, even if there ISN’T a tornado warning—means I can write on my novel, but it’s a slow-going thing, as I’ve said before.

Let me keep it real: lately, I’ve been worried about how to write about race in my novel and how to do that with emotional depth, too. I’m not bringing up a new subject; so many African American writers and writers of other “raced” cultural groups have this problem.

Sidebar: I’ve learned that White folks don’t think they have a race, and only colored people do. Have you ever said, “White” in a gathering of White folks? They jump like you have accused them of something, or started talking about their mamas.

I’m not just pulling this opinion out of the sky. Try opening any White person’s novel. Are any of the White characters identified by race, unless they come into contact with a non-White person? No, of course not. That’s because it’s ASSUMED that every person in a novel–or poem, or memoir–is White unless it is otherwise noted. White is the default race. Toni Morrison talks about this White default  in her brilliant book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

This White racial default means when you write a novel depicting your own cultural group’s vernacular, folkways, and political challenges, and that group is not White, then you are writing a “racial” text, not a “universal text.” Meaning, White readers might not want to read your book because they think they might not “get” your reality. That’s why whenever you see Jennifer Lopez in a mainstream movie, she plays a white woman and usually, her parents are conveniently dead.

So today, two things happened that brought this issue home. First,  I was on Facebook and two FB friends of mine were discussing Rand Paul, a Tea Partier who just won the Kentucky Senate Republican Nomination. In case you haven’t heard, Rand Paul is not in agreement with Civil Rights Act protections of Black people (among others) from discrimination.

Or, as I like to say—and I’m so glad it’s become a trend—Rand Paul, a Tea Bagger, is not in agreement with Civil Rights Act protections. I try not to be naughty on the blog, but in this case, I can’t help myself.

There was a comment thread on my Facebook page and one FB friend who was Whitewas defending Rand Paul from the charges of racism just because he did not want to reaffirm the Civil Rights Act.

But then, the Black FB friend came around and—quite movingly—explained that, if you are a Black person, and especially a Black southerner, there are underlying feelings of pain associated with an American South that did not have the protections of the Civil Rights Act.

I don’t want to lose my mojo, so I won’t go into detail about what my novel-in-progress is about, but I’m a Black southerner, so you do the math. And one reason it’s taken me so long to really hit a stride with this novel is that my Black FB friend was right. There is pain associated with being a Black southerner, even one who was born after the Civil Rights Act was signed. (Like I was.)

And even if I present Black southern characters who miraculously avoided the lynching of a member of their family, still, they’ve got ancestors who were slaves, they’ve got past legal and defacto segregation in the town—all the way down to the cemeteries and the funeral homes. So how I navigate all that?

The second thing that happened today is that I was reading the New York Times today, about the latest revival of August Wilson’s Fences (with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in that cute picture above) and there was a quote by a past director of the play, Lou Bellamy. He asks (about Wilson), “Where else is there a writer who allows black people to go deep and still stay black?”

This quote hit me to the core, because his words speak to another assumption:  you can’t be both Black and emotionally deep. As a Black writer, I’m constantly confronting the notion I have to choose between the two. That’s rather jacked, in my opinion.

I remember when I went to see Wilson’s Jitney on Broadway with my friend Heidi Durrow (whose husband had generously bought my ticket). Russell Hornsby was in it, along with a host of fabulous well-known actors. I’m sorry I can’t name any of them, because Russell was so fine and so on fire that night, I couldn’t focus on anybody else but him.

In the theater, I looked around and I saw a very racially mixed crowd, and the theater was packed, too. There were racial references in the play, references I thought only the other Black folks and I would get, and there were “Black vernacular” flourishes as well.

These Wilsonian moments were ones that I recognized out of my own childhood, when I would sit next to my uncles as they talked and drank beer at family gatherings. The beer drinking stopped after they all found the Lord and got saved, but the talking did not, thank goodness. These storytelling men, along with my mother (their sister) taught me how to be a writer.

I was shocked that, because of Wilson’s emotional craft, the white folks in the theater would laugh in the right places just like the Black folks did. And I thought, “I want to be able to do this in my own work.”

Yes, my Blog-readers, in answer to what I know you are thinking, it IS harder to be a Black writer than a White writer, if you are a Black writer wanting to write about your own folks. You’ve got to write a great piece of literature AND you have to make sure that you don’t turn off White readers. Because when you write literary fiction–not a book titled, Mama, My Baby Daddy Sells Crack and My Other Baby Daddy Does, Too–White readers are assumed to be your audience. (Yet another assumption!) So you have to find a way to translate your cultural reality to your readers and not spoonfeed them, either.

That’s “the Black tax” we all speak about in the African American community, but as my New York friends can say, “Hey, yo.” I think that means, it’s just like that and get over it.

I could whine about how hard it is for me to be Black, but that’s not going to get this novel written any faster. And plus, I’ve got reasonably great skin like most Black women. I think the skin is really reparations for slavery, since we’re not going to get any, like, actual money for that.

So, I’m going to commune with the ancestors. I’m going to read all of August Wilson to help me out with this Black And Deep issue. I’ve already read five of his plays, but not the whole ten. Even though he is a playwright, still I think I can learn something about capturing and holding a multi-racial audience while delivering painful, emotional, and honest truths that intersect with race. I’m hoping the spirit of Bruh Wilson will guide me as I keep traveling through this novel, trying to figure things out.

My Eyes Were Watching God

I know I haven’t posted in a week, but grades are due in TWO days! And a sister is so completely frazzled.

That’s bad enough, but last Monday there was a tornado in the town I live in, and it touched down a few blocks from my home. It destroyed so many fences, and around the corner, there’s a tree that’s lifted a few feet out of the ground. It looks a tooth that was only half-pulled. Worse than that, there are some people who died in the storm. Fences you can rebuild, but you can’t bring someone back to life. It’s a sad thing.

And this isn’t my first encounter with a tornado. I drove through one nine years ago.

Sidebar: The number nine is very powerful in the African Diaspora, I am starting to learn. I’m wondering if the Yoruba Orisha Oya is my patron saint, keeping me safe, because nine is her number. I placed an offering to her on my altar last night, just in case.

And no, there was no place to run during the first tornado. Do you think I WANTED to drive through a tornado?

So forgive me while I’ve been trying to get myself together. I wanted my mama so bad last week, I swear. I know I’m too old to sit on her lap, but if I could just sit next to her, holding her hand for as long as she would let me, and touching her salt and pepper hair–that would be happiness. I’m trying not to feel sorry for myself, but if I liked to imbibe, I’d be drunk as Cooter Brown to deal. Instead, I gotta keep my job and give these kids grades for the semester.

Here’s a poem that I wrote a few years ago, to tell you what I mean. And please stay strong with me, y’all. I’ll be back real soon.


Word on Earth

I take the land as text, as a preacher might,
or a deceived ecstatic hoping for signs.
Now prairie, where I’ve squatted
for three years but before,
I found my mind in red clay.

Come back, child is a call too strong
for me, a woman grown–June, the month
of emancipation, decides the time.
I’m headed home out of Oklahoma,
on to Georgia.

I follow the interstate line, straight
like a good girl, then down.
Never as the crow flies, but through back
roads my folks wouldn’t trust fifty years ago.
I seek those blues-tinged drawls, clingstone
peaches, clichéd porch swings,
keep on past cattle, flat fields, oil wells.

Sixteen hours of driving in tornado
season, my anxiously searching
for telltale gray-green horizons
in the rearview mirror.
Once leaving Georgia and reaching
and unknown part of Illinois–
I can’t say where now–
I saw a funnel cloud.
The sky was lovely, an unholy shade.
Then a shitting down of hail:
the Word written on Earth.

I knew the end was upon me.
My bowels almost released–
I felt like Janie.
I prayed with a clean heart
then drove through to clear skies.
I swore to myself, to my mama,
to God above,
I’d never leave Dixie if I saw it again.
I lied, forgive me.
Red clay, I lied.

Rest in Peace, Lena Horne

Another sister has passed over, but let’s try not to feel sad today, even though we have lost an icon on this Mother’s Day. Let’s celebrate Ms Horne’s ninety-two years of beauty, elegance, and talent on this earth, and how she made it possible for other Black women to let their creative talents shine.

Here is a great obituary in The New York Times, which really does Ms. Horne’s memory justice.

And, here is Ms. Horne singing her signature song, and looking fierce and fabulous while doing it.

Rest in peace, Miss Lady.

Miss Dorothy and Miss Harriet

As I hope y’all remember from a past “You Gotta Read This” feature, Camille Dungy is the fabulous, sassy editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, which, by the way, was featured on NPR, and is the NUMBER ONE book of African American poetry and the NUMBER THREE anthology of poetry on! Can you handle that?

Sidebar: I know y’all think I was biting off of NPR’s “You Must Read This” feature when I started “You Gotta Read This.” I swear, I had no idea idea about the titles. I always try to be original with the word, so I’m thinking about changing my feature to simply “Read This.” You know, give it an intellectual Black dominatrix sort of feel. What do you think? Give me some feedback in the comments.

Camille is also the author of three books of poetry, What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen, 2007); Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen, 2010); and a new book that is forthcoming next year from Southern Illinois University Press. She works so hard, I called her the “female James Brown” of  American Poetry.

I guess that would make her Jane? Or maybe Jametta?

Anyway, Camille has done a guest blogger over at the Poetry Foundation Website blog, Harriet. Now, I love the Poetry Foundation website because they are one of the few places that rep American poetry and actually seem to take that ever-elusive diversity thing seriously. They have all sorts of sassy people of all complexions talking about different aspects of poetry, and it’s not boring either.

For her final post, Camille blogged about the late, great Dorothy Height. Here’s an excerpt:

“This morning in the nation’s capitol, mourners said farewell to Dr. Dorothy Height, a life-long Civil Rights activist to whom this nation owes a debt of thanks.  Rather than end my blogging stint on Harriet describing some of the revolutionary things that National Poetry Month has allowed this nation and its poets to accomplish, as I had originally planned, I have decided to dedicate this space to the memory of Dr. Dorothy Height.  This is fundamentally about poetry, too, because I am curious about the ways we have and can and will memorialize the women and men who make this world the sort of place in which I want to live…”

Doesn’t that little excerpt make you so curious? Well, then, click on this and check out the rest of Camille’s lovely post on Dorothy Height! And there are other wonderful blog entries by her as well!