I started this blog to introduce black readers to contemporary books that they might enjoy reading and be able to identify with. With the release of the film Black Panther, there is a huge pride and show of blackness because of the representation that this film provides. Representation does matter, in all forms of media, in film, books, art, poetry, etc. This conclusion has never truly been disputed, however, these past two weeks I’ve found myself asking a question: In creating works of art that provide representation for people of color, particularly black children, is it important to create the art so that people from various backgrounds can view and understand the art, or is it important to write solely for the people that are being represented while the rest of the world is privy to watching this representation at a distance?
I first asked myself this question because of a poetry workshop I had in one of my English classes. I am currently studying to acquire my masters in English – Creative Writing. While workshopping my poem, two things happened. One, I referenced something in my poem in relation to kinship that another black student in my class automatically understood, but that other non-black students couldn’t understand. It was a cultural reference, something that anyone that shared my heritage would understand. I remember asking myself, “Shit, should I change this? Should I make this something that everyone can understand?” The second thing that happened was that my professor, a very well-meaning, supportive and kind White woman stated that, “she had seen this topic covered before.” This made me angry but I couldn’t understand why it made me angry.
Later after class after thinking about why I was upset about a statement like that I understood that I was angry because I hadn’t written the poem for her. The poem was functioning as a “black conversation” and dialogue between black men and women and the impacts that stereotyping and racism have left that cause a divide between us even today. I recognized that this was the first time that I’d ever realized that I’ve never written my work for anyone who wasn’t black. I was fine with someone who was “other” reading it, but it was never for them and it bothered me that my teacher automatically assumed that my art and my expression was made for her consumption, when it was not. She was merely privy to it.
This questioning surfaced again the next week in another class when reading Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. The class requires each student to become a discussion leader and to thoroughly read the text in order to discuss it in class the following week. When the sign up list came for discussion leaders, this book was the only one that was available so I signed up for it by default, as I wasn’t particular about which book I received anyway.
While I was reading the book, a story of a black child growing up during the 60’s who moves from Ohio to Greenville, South Carolina, and finally settles in Bushwick, Brooklyn, I felt myself able to relate to her in many ways. I grew up with a single mother, my dad’s side of the family is from South Carolina and I’d lived there growing up, less than a year previous I’d lived in Bushwick, Brooklyn and walked the same streets that she listed in her novel, I was the daughter of parents that were in the military and relocated often, I started writing poetry as a teenager, and I also held a high regard for the bond and love of my family. Yet with all of this similarity as I continued to read the novel, I consciously came to the conclusion that this book wasn’t written for me, just about me.
Out of the many YA fiction and children’s literature that I’ve read this was the first one where I became very aware of a “white gaze,” a filter of sorts that diminishes black character’s abilities of simply being human lest they perpetuate stereotypes of African Americans created by white people. I will admit that I was now reading this novel through an adult lens and that if I were a child, I most likely would not have noticed this. However, I’m not sure that matters in the quest for me to understand why this troubled me.
I felt this way because the novel, written in verse, depicts multitudes of characters within Jackie’s community. There’s Jackie, her two siblings, her mother, her grandparents, her uncle and several other characters within the novel. As I kept reading I noticed a limited range in reaction to the very large and sometimes traumatic or dehumanizing events that were happening around them. There were poems about her mother’s high school being burned down, her grandfather having to work with white people who undermined his authority, and even absence of her father in life. In response to many of these events, I noticed the tone was often subdued, blase, or nonchalant. That many times these events were simply described as they were without too much emotional attachment to them.
Langston Hughes is a large influence in this novel for Jackie, who later becomes a writer as a form of protesting the discriminatory events that she and her family members faced. Hughes himself was criticized for his poetry but other black writers for not presenting the “best” of black life. If black writers were going to present poetry to the masses, it had to show the very best representation of them, yet again wanting Hughes to subject himself to the “white gaze” which he refused to do.
Yet, Woodson, who is largely influenced by Hughes, does well in using the tone of “hope” and recycling his form and then making it her own. Yet, I still wasn’t impressed or happy about the lack of emotional range that was displayed within the characters of the novel. I believe many times that in regard to representation many black people are too concerned with the “white gaze” and what white people are going to think of the characters that they write about. Often times, I’ve read interviews where black authors state that they are trying to fight stereotypes in their writing. Although I understand the desire for black authors to do so, it becomes an issue that older generations have which is that the best way to interact with white people is to not make them feel “uncomfortable.”
In my time in college, a liberal university in Southern California, I’ve become familiar with a strange fascination and desire by white people to try to “figure out” black people. I’ve observed this in the classroom and in life, particularly while I was at work. Often times, there’s a strange desire for people to obtain or understand blackness, however, this desire is always done at a distance.
Three years ago, my college hosted Claudia Rankine, the author of “Citizen” to speak at my college. While speaking at the packed event she spoke about “microaggressions” a term that I’d never heard until that day. She stated that while researching microaggressions she would ask black people to describe some that happened to them and many times they weren’t able to think of any off the top of their heads. Instead they would often call her later in the week because they’d finally remembered microaggressions that had occurred. She explained that often, black people have to tuck away these microaggressions because if they didn’t, they would walk around angry all of the time. I remember trying to think of any microaggressions I’d experienced but I couldn’t.
The next day in class everyone was talking about how great the reading was and how great a book “Citizen” was. I joined the conversation and starting talking about how I really related to what she said about microaggressions and how it took me until the next day to remember the microaggressions I’d experienced. There was immediately an uncomfortable laughter and then a quick change in discussion. I immediately understood that in regard to black stories, liberals are comfortable reading them at a safe distance, yet when a black human being, myself, gave life to those stories in the flesh, it was too much for them. In the essay, “‘What did she see?”: the White Gaze and Postmodern Triple Consciousness in Walter Dean Myer’s Monster,” Tim Engles and Fern Kory argue,
As Jodi Melamed points out in Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence
in the New Racial Capitalism, multicultural literature has been commonly deployed in the service of what amounts to liberal, state-sanctioned anti-racism.
Since the Second World War, successive waves of multicultural sentiment and
practice have taken the form of additive, celebratory, and largely cosmetic
practices. While these modes of “tolerance” have encouraged racial awareness
and connection, they have not encouraged effective resistance to institutional
racism and the broader forces of entrenched hegemonic oppression. Reading
multicultural literature ethnographically, as a window into “other” peoples
and cultures, does not necessarily lead to a productive critical assessment of
the contemporary social structure.
If “others” are only going to read black literature from a distance, it doesn’t serve black authors to try and get “others” to understand their humanity by stripping their characters of their full humanity. By doing so, they are only perpetuating stereotypes of black people, not fighting them. Further, black authors themselves are placing themselves in a subservient position that they are working so hard to escape. They are placing themselves beneath “others” by trying to serve their desire to assess our blackness and in a sense obtain it and understand it from a distance. In this exchange, it is only confirming white people’s entitlement and sense of superiority instead of placing black humanity on an equal playing field.
In the workplace, I’ve experienced the most liberal of people who truly believed that they were “down for the cause,” project racist stereotypes onto me as a black woman and get upset when I didn’t fit into the role or stereotype that they believed I should. Once, in the workplace, I had a white female lead who only dated black men, made a point of only having black friends, to speak her best impression of Ebonics and absorbed the “cool” parts of black culture like music while proclaiming that she truly understood that “black lives mattered.” However, months after I started working with at this job, the lead and I got into an argument where she asked me if I, “remembered that the first time that we met, after she introduced herself I didn’t want to talk to her?”
Even with her boasting of her understanding of everything black, she still didn’t understand that was projecting the “cool, outspoken, funny,” black woman stereotype onto me and that she believed my blackness was for her use and disposal. It never occurred to her that a black woman could be shy or introverted. Further, it was expected that I automatically accept her or be friends with her simply because she was nice to me when she met me. It never occurred to her that I had the right and agency to refuse her friendship. It was the equivalent to a man believing that just because he was nice to a woman that she had to respond to this advances and if not then suddenly he had the right to call her a “bitch” and any other title that he saw fit. This was the first time in my life that I experienced true liberal racism and anger from someone that didn’t realize that they still weren’t accepting that I had a full range of temperaments and rights as a human being. Engles and Fern further state in their essay,
Historians, psychologists, and others have long argued that a persistent misconception whites have had of blacks, and to varying degrees of other people of color, is that they lack the full range of apparent human emotions, especially such “higher” ones as compassion and empathy.
When I expressed this sentiment in my class (where I am the only black student) that I felt Brown Girl Dreaming was toned down, several of my classmates overreacted. One classmate stated that I “triggered something in her and needed to remember that this book was geared toward children and I don’t want them to be traumatized.” Another stated that it wouldn’t be appropriate and it couldn’t have the “violence that I wanted.” These reactions further support the above statement. By simply expressing that something was toned down, the most dangerous assumptions were made and my words were twisted and made into something that they were not. Ironically, I became very angry and actually livid that this assumption was made. It never occurred to them that I could simply mean the children’s reactions to the many themes discussed could range from confusion, to anger, to sadness, to humor; the many ways that human beings respond to life events.
Black stereotypes often include a form of anger and aggression. From the Sapphire stereotype that portrays and angry black woman to the Mandingo stereotype that portrays an oversexualized and strong black man. Many times in real life many black women and men subdue their anger in public places for fear of being seen as a threatening stereotype but in doing so they devoid themselves of an emotion that they are entitled to have. Black subjects in children’s literature and YA Fiction should not be kept from being developed as complex people.
The “white gaze” can’t matter in black literature. It shouldn’t matter in black literature. Black literature should be black conversation and a dialogue between people within the community in order to enhance the community. When inviting “others” in with their gaze and lack of knowledge of blackness truly is, they are given a distorted and harmful power and a feeling of entitlement when trying to “figure out” who we are. While many white people are genuine and are well-intentioned, it doesn’t change that they simply are not of a community, and nothing will change until they truly asses and figure out their role in the system of racism and see how they within their actions can promote change and equality. Racism isn’t our problem, it is theirs. Until then, black authors should simply tell human stories that feature black people, as Toni Morrison expresses in her interview speaking about the “white gaze.” This is something that Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and other black others have made a point of doing with their literature.
When trying to fight stereotypes, what black authors are ultimately doing is trying to prove their humanity to white people, and in doing so, they rob their characters of their entitlement to feel and express a wide range of emotions that everyone else on this Earth is able to. It is not by “fighting” stereotypes that black authors prove their humanity within text, it’s by writing complex human characters that express a variety of emotions. Instead of writing for the “white gaze,” black authors should focus on simply writing for people that look like them and in doing so “others” can witness the exchange and the humanity but as Langston Hughes states in his 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,”
We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.