On Being Black and Being Sat in the Back of Literary Events

Rosa Parks: an introvert who changed the world.

I wish I could find a phrase that instantly informs the sweet, perfectly nice, very liberal and progressive white organizers of literary events that if you’ve only got four black guests in a room of over two hundred, you don’t sit one of those black guests in the back of the room, especially if she’s been nominated for a prize.

Not near the back.

In the back.

In the back, by the doors, which open up on the left to the women’s bathroom and on the right to the man’s bathroom.

I wish I could remind the organizers that when one of the honored, invited guests is an older black lady from the Deep South, being sat in the back of the room by the doors which open up to bathrooms might trigger her racially and make her think of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

Being in the back might make an honored, invited, black guest feel ashamed. That might hurt her feelings.

That might make her wonder, did you really mean to honor her, or did you mean to remind her that she’s not as special as she’d like to think she is?

And why were you so nice to her and, in the past, why have you talked about racial politics–and yet, you can’t pick up on what sitting in the back of the room means for a black person from the South?

That might make your honored guest feel insane.

That might make her run a dozen, strange scenarios in her mind, when she needs to be getting sleep so she can get to Church the next morning. It might make her miss Church, where she was supposed to be praising the Lord, Who has assured her, there are no Negro seats in Heaven. Everybody gets to sit up front when they get to Glory.

I wish I could find something to say that would seem kind and polite, but in all these years, anything I think of seems ungrateful–after all, I’m an invited guest. Considering who my ancestors are, I should just be happy to be there. My unspoken objections have seemed angry and, well, BLACK.

Whenever I’ve practiced my objections in the mirror, they have made me feel like crying. And if I actually uttered those objections to someone and actually started crying, that would make me seem like a hysterical woman of any race. And I don’t want to be that person.

And I don’t want to hurt my literary career by making trouble. I want to be the “good” black person that white people love to be around. I want to be life of the party–but not in an Uncle Tom way. I want to be fun, but not too fun.

I want to make money from my writing. And if I make money, at some point, somebody will think to put me in the front of the room.

But at this age, I’ve started wondering, I’ve got maybe thirty-five or forty years of life left. And when will this mythic-sitting-in-the-front-of-the-room moment happen for me? Haven’t I been “good” for a really, really long time? How much money do I have to make to sit in the front? Is there a specific, monetary amount down to the cents?

Once, I was really excited not to be sat in the back. I was in an auditorium for the event. I was an invited guest at the event–although I hadn’t been invited to the luncheon, nor to the dinner, which really hurt my feelings, but looking back, this was probably a good thing, because sometimes, I get tired of eating by the bathroom.

Anyway.

I’d been escorted to the second row of the auditorium. I was thrilled. And then, right in the middle of the event, someone white approached me. She was an official with the organizers of the event.

Whispering, she told me, I had to move to the back. I whispered back, and I asked why, and she said, there wasn’t any room for me to sit on the second row. I glanced around. I was surrounded by empty seats. I gestured to those seats, and she said, those seats were being saved for someone else. Honored guests.

I really wanted to cry, but in a normal voice–not a whisper–I told her, I wasn’t moving.

Whispering, she told me, I had to move.

I told her–still in my normal voice, which was trembling a little bit– please stop talking, because I really didn’t want to cause a scene.

Then, I looked ahead into space, just like Mother Parks. I hoped my ancestor was looking down on me from Heaven where she sat in her front seat. I hoped she was pleased.

One thought on “On Being Black and Being Sat in the Back of Literary Events

  1. Terribly insensitive at best. My heart goes out to you.
    However, I’m not following the details perfectly because I haven’t been to many literary events. Were you actually seated in the back or was that the only place left?
    If you were nominated for a prize, why weren’t you an honored guest? Who were these honored guests? “Famous” authors? Were they asked about sitting elsewhere?
    As for the larger issue of race relations, if I were the white person, I would have welcomed your explanation, even if they were angry. It would have saved me a ton of self-recriminations and shame when I figured out how you felt.
    But I known many people who value appearances over reality, especially at public events. Very sad.

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