On Zadie Smith & The Missing Black American Woman Expert

Zadie Smith, New York City, June 2016

It is easy to be smitten with Zadie Smith, as I think I am. She has freckles and I love freckles. She can sing. She has a lovely accent. She is witty. She writes well.

Actually, she’s brilliant. I’m a fan of her nonfiction, and I was smitten more with Changing My Mind, her book of essays, than with On Beauty, which was fine but not my fave. Same with Swing Time, which I just finished before I happened upon this complicated essay, “Who Owns Black Pain?” in Harper’s Magazine.

It starts with a very interesting look and assessment of “Get Out”, which I have seen three times. I have yet to read (not saying it doesn’t exist but I’m busy and read a lot but also miss things) the take from a black woman that I want to read which is: That is exactly what black men who dismiss black women and our beauty GET. What is? Get Out is. Rose is.

Erika Alexander brought me all of the joy in the world in that movie. All of it. (The only other movie I have seen three times, by the way, is the Ten Commandments, but that’s because my mother had both tapes when I was a kid and I couldn’t help myself. [Charlton Heston was kind of fine as Moses.])

I’m burying the lede, here. My point is not to catch up on the critiques I didn’t share the first three times I watched “Get Out” but to elaborate on something I’ve said before. Something I deeply believe and am troubled by: We live in a culture that prefers to hear about the lived experience of black women from everyone but black American women.

I will not name check them all. But I will say from personal experience and observation that there seems to be a vested interest in hearing from well-known British, African and other “Exotic” women of the African Diaspora about the pain experienced by Black American women. The only thing our culture loves more is to hear from Black men about the ways in which we are undeserving of their love, affection, desire or attention.

The problem is that none of these people are experts in the black American experience because they cannot clearly, definitively or expertly explain the purview or perspective of Black American women. Let’s look at some data.

Years of Census data show that black women are a little over half of the black population in the U.S. and have been for a long time. A recent report released by the National Domestic Workers Alliance explains that 80 percent of us are the breadwinners in our families. We are the majority perspective in our communities, even though people would prefer that it was otherwise. We are the bellwether for what is experienced by our sisters — yes, especially our white sisters — even when folks would rather not hear it.

So it is understandable that some of us — and for the purposes of this blog, I mean me — had a visceral reaction to reading these words from Zadie Smith (italics mine):

“To be clear, the life of the black citizen in America is no more envied or desired today than it was back in 1963. Her schools are still avoided and her housing still substandard and her neighborhood still feared and her personal and professional outcomes disproportionately linked to her zip code. But her physical self is no longer reviled. If she is a child and comes up for adoption, many a white family will be delighted to have her, and if she is in your social class and social circle, she is very welcome to come to the party; indeed, it’s not really a party unless she does come. No one will call her the n-word on national television, least of all a black intellectual. (The Baldwin quote is from a television interview.) For liberals the word is interdicted and unsayable.”

To me, this paragraph simply means that Zadie has not been paying attention.

Yes to the lack of progress for the most part since 1963.

No to the fact that the physical bodies of black woman citizens are not reviled.

Hello, Serena Williams — apparently a naked black pregnant body means that the celebrity pregnancy photo shoot has jumped the shark. Hey, Kodak Black: This dark skinned black woman doesn’t want you, either. I could go on and on for days and days: Black women are most likely to be victimized by Intimate Partner Violence. In Seattle, a mentally ill black mother was shot by police in front of her children. Twitter has been ablaze with the justification of infidelity because Jay Z and Beyonce have wisely monetized the challenges of black love.

In any event, this is not what love looks like.

Also, a college professor who defended Black Lives Matter on Fox News was fired from her job simply because she expressed her personal opinion during her free time. This is not the same as someone calling her a nigger on air. But it is today’s equivalent. Let us not forget the government employees who called First Lady Michelle Obama an ape before she and Barack were even out of the White House yet.

So I thought these things, or I felt them and let them sit with me. Then I read some more of Zadie’s piece:

(On Dana Schutz’ painting of Emmett Till): “Neither of us is American, but the author appears to speak confidently in defense of the African-American experience, so I, like her, will assume a transnational unity. I will assume that Emmett Till, if I could paint, could be my subject too….Now I want to inch a step further. I turn from the painting to my children. Their beloved father is white, I am biracial, so, by the old racial classifications of America, they are “quadroons.” Could they take black suffering as a subject of their art, should they ever make any? Their grandmother is as black as the ace of spades, as the British used to say; their mother is what the French still call café au lait. They themselves are sort of yellowy. When exactly does black suffering cease to be their concern?”

Listen. The definition of blackness in America is like everything else: It persists from slavery times. The persistence of hypodescent, better known as the “one drop rule”, means that actually whatever you are in America, whether you are pledging transnational unity to us or anything else, if you have a drop of black blood in you you are considered black. I don’t have kids. I don’t give parents parenting advice because who am I do to that? However, honey, blackness is not about complexion, it is about blood. Black suffering will always be the concern of your kids, at least on this side of the Atlantic. If you think this is a philosophical question, I invite you to actually talk to some Black American mothers about that.

Speaking of Black mothers:

“I stood in front of the painting and thought how cathartic it would be if this picture filled me with rage. But it never got that deep into me, as either representation or appropriation.”

It must be very nice to gaze upon an artistic representation of Emmett Till without experiencing rage or connection, especially in these times. Here is some data and anecdotal evidence compiled by African American women and scholars on the very real experience of Black women who exhibit symptoms associated with PTSD as a result of their exposure to the violence that has been waged against black children since before and after Emmett Till’s lynching. What is missing here, in this passage and in this piece overall, is a confrontation with the privilege that comes with viewing black pain from a cultural remove informed by geographical framing if not racial difference.

They might as well be the same.

“…I found I resented the implication that black pain is so raw and unprocessed—and black art practice so vulnerable and invisible—that a single painting by a white woman can radically influence it one way or another. Nor did I need to convince myself of my own authenticity by drawing a line between somebody else’s supposed fraudulence and the fears I have concerning my own (thus evincing an unfortunate tendency toward overcompensation that, it must be admitted, is not unknown among us biracial folks). No. The viewer is not a fraud. Neither is the painter. The truth is that this painting and I are simply not in profound communication.”

Again, this is a privilege that Zadie does not recognize in herself. The issue of Dana Schutz’ painting was covered with far more nuance in the New Yorker perhaps because Calvin Tompkins did not have the same penchant for overcompensation. Zadie is allowed to resent whatever she wants about black pain, but if she’s not in communication with a painting about a seminal Black American moment — politically, psychologically and emotionally — that is because it is not a moment that has any meaning for her. That moment or cultural reference point does not require her to feel authentically black. But it also doesn’t mean that she has expertise in how black pain should or should not be processed or how to define it.

Finally, let us discuss this:

“But in this moment of resurgent black consciousness, God knows it feels good—therapeutic!—to mark a clear separation from white America, the better to speak in a collective voice. We will not be moved. We can’t breathe. We will not be executed for traffic violations or for the wearing of hoodies. We will no longer tolerate substandard schools, housing, health care. Get Out—as evidenced by its huge box office—is the right movie for this moment. It is the opposite of post-black or postracial. It reveals race as the fundamental American lens through which everything is seen.”

Which collective voice is this, exactly? From where does it speak? Who agreed? Is this meant to be satirical, or is it real?

We have been moved. We are being moved. We are being suffocated. Not only are we being executed, but the police who are doing so are being acquitted. They walk and we continue to mourn, our black pain exposed and unprocessed. Over and over and over again.

I agree with Zadie on one thing: “Get Out” was cathartic, but not because it is the opposite of post-black or post-racial. Both terms were always fictive. It was cathartic because without its alternate ending, it provides relief from the reality in which we live. Its horrors were amusing to me because they are totally plausible and not at all inconceivable. I was reminded that black bodies, even black women’s bodies, are wanted for what they can offer in terms of plots or potential solutions, but they are never considered the meat of the story. In “Get Out,” as in Dana Shutz’ Emmett Till painting, as in Zadie’s assessment of black pain, there is a distance from the reality of black American women who are the beating heart of what it is to be a black American. That means that an entire core of expertise and authority go missing. Their absence is the real horror.

The answer to who owns black pain is always black women. It lives in us. We sing from it. We die from it. Our identities, our bodies are shaped by it. No one ever asks us what it feels like to never be free of this historical torment and heartbreak, but it might just be that that’s part of being an authority in your own agony.

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Rejection as a Blessing

Until recently, my relationship to rejection has always been extreme. The first time I received a long, thoughtful rejection letter from an agent, I stopped writing anything creative for years. I have always been good at giving over the power of affirmation to other people, which is certainly not the kind of thing you want to be good at.

Some time in 2007, my friend and mentor Evelyn C. White mentioned Hedgebrook to me. She called it the  gold standard of writing residencies. My heart yearned for a place where I could be with my writing that was a gold standard by Evelyn’s description — she is not prone to hyperbole.

So I went after the residency the way I go after everything: With my whole heart. I applied more than five times. I applied so much that when I first applied back in 2008, it was before Hedgebrook went to an online application system. I vividly remember printing and copying multiple double-sided copies, sending the thick envelope along with my hopes and dreams tucked inside.

I should mention that every time I applied, I was in the middle of doing all the things that make up a life: I was working full-time at a local newspaper, writing/editing/revising/printing/sending queries to agents for my memoir, A Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans, enrolled in library school, freelancing, not sleeping, falling in love, falling out of love, running marathons, planting gardens, adopting a rescue dog.

The first note I received from Hedgebrook was a letter that arrived by snail mail, informing me that I wasn’t selected this time. In the immediate, I remember grunting and thinking, “There won’t be a next time, but oh, well.”

I was disappointed, but ready to move on and never apply again. Thankfully, Evelyn had other plans.

“I can’t think of one woman I know who was accepted the first time,” Evelyn wrote to me when I bemoaned facing rejection again. I soak up the wisdom of others like a sponge, and Evelyn is excellent and generous at sharing it. “The sooner you understand any and all ‘rejections’ as blessings, the better off you’ll be.”

She went on to share with me that when you ask for something, you have to be ready to receive it. And for all the reasons I mentioned above – from my insecurities as a writer to the chaotic overwork that I used to love to be at the center of – I was not ready for a good long while to receive what it would mean to be at a place like Hedgebrook. Which is why each time I applied and the rejection came, as the years passed, a sense of inevitability began to sink in until I forgot about what I thought I should feel and truly began to feel like I wanted a place to just be with my work for a good stretch of time to find out what I could make if I could only focus.

Almost nine years after my first application to Hedgebrook, when I got news I had been accepted — one of 40 women writers out of an applicant pool of more than 1700 — I was unable to contain my joy. Of course, I told Evelyn, who was thrilled that I had not given up. I also shared the news with stacia l. brown, who had encouraged me to try one last time.

If not for their encouragement, for their reminders of rejection as a blessing, I would have missed out on what greeted me at Hedgebrook. The women who organize, manage and nurture both the farm itself and the women writers who visit have every reason to pride themselves on what they call their radical hospitality. The goal of our Hedgebrook residency was centered around doing what we needed to do for ourselves for the time we were there.

Not surprisingly, for me, that meant sleeping in. Resetting my relationship with my phone, because I didn’t have reliable service in my cottage or elsewhere on the island, really. And writing — longhand, in notebooks that I’ve hoarded during back-to-school sales and on my laptop when I just didn’t have the patience, or my characters didn’t, to take my time.

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Deer Lagoon.

I learned to get a wood fire going. I realized that I didn’t need to check my email every 10 minutes or watch my Twitter timeline relentlessly – that, in fact, not doing these things could lead to a lot of productivity that I may have previously been afraid of. After all, if you don’t write something, you don’t have to worry about what happens to it next.

Maybe because producing was the only goal, I wrote more than I could have imagined. I almost finished the sequel to my novella, All City. I wrote a handful of essays about the dismissal of black American women writers, reflections on being an Obama appointee, thoughts on writing. I finished the draft of a multigenerational story of Bronx girls and women who each try to live out the dreams of their foremothers, with varying degrees of success. And then, out of nowhere, a novel that I started back in 2011, popped up with a notion of what it wanted to become, so I wrote that.

Every other day, in the afternoon, I walked or jogged to Deer Lagoon. To marvel at the trees. To admire the beautiful birds. To see if Mount Rainier was visible that day. To watch the water: still or rippling in brutal waves, the ducks just riding with all of it.

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Useless Bay.

I’d sit on a gray plastic bench and look out at what I called the ocean. Technically, it’s a bay. But it was exquisite. I thought of Isak Dinesen’s quote: “The cure for anything is salt water: tears, sweat or the sea.”

Not only did I write dispatches to Evelyn from Hedgebrook, I also got to meet and share work with other amazing women writers who I came to love and respect. We had incredibly affirming discussions about how to keep ourselves and our work safe in a world that remains hostile to us and does not seem to be getting more loving. We read each others’ work, astounded and appreciative of the talent in the room.

We played Scrabble. We ate our fill of delicious, lovingly prepared meals. We walked in the dark night, glancing at the stars in wonder, our flashlights lighting a path for us back to our temporary homes.

Nine years, five, even two years ago, I would not have known how to settle into a place like Hedgebrook. It was true: Rejection had been a blessing; it had delayed my trip there until I was ready for it. I won’t go so far as to say that I’m looking forward to hearing “no” more often, but now when I do, I am aware that it doesn’t mean no forever. It just means not yet, not now.