disappearing into the system
I saw this meme on Facebook over a year ago, and its mandate has stayed in my mind. Ever since I was in graduate school, I’ve been thinking about the (mis)treatment of American Indians and those nations’ responses to their attempted extermination.* In some ways that part of American history felt like a cautionary tale and I would whisper to myself, “We’re next.” African Americans and American Indians have distinct histories and experiences with the dominant culture, but there is some overlap and this meme resonates with me as a Black feminist writer who continues to grapple with the legacy of colonization. I’ve been thinking lately of my father’s childhood in Nevis, which was then still a British colony. I think of him feeling alone and unhappy as his well-meaning Afro-Caribbean grandmother forced him to stay indoors and read Alice in Wonderland while telling him each night to pinch his nose so he could look more European and less African. My father grew up hating literature, which made it difficult for him to relate to a bookish daughter who aspired to become a writer. As an adult I witnessed his ongoing dissatisfaction with his hair texture—and mine—and I think it’s likely that he married a white woman in order to distance himself from his own Blackness. My father wanted his children to have the advantages he lacked, yet when he looked at me he couldn’t understand where I came from; I was too different, too hard to control, and not invested in the things that mattered to him. I can say NOW that I’m grateful for all the battles I had to fight at home, because they pushed me out into the world where I found alternate ways of building and/or experiencing family. I think my ability to resist my “home training” truly mystified my father because even though he grew an Afro and had a brief Black Power moment around 1980, he was ultimately unable to sustain his own resistance and so was haunted by the voices that told him he wasn’t “good enough.”
I still struggle to decolonize my imagination; I readily consumed imperialist British literature in my youth, and therefore internalized messages that erased, distorted, or degraded my Black female self-image. Reading literature of the African diaspora did a LOT to restore some of what was lost, but my storytelling voice still reveals the lasting influence of those British novels I loved so much as a child. In a conversation with Nicole Moore and Toshi Reagon over at the Hotness, Wangechi Mutu describes (what sounds to me like) the fulfillment of the mandate to “exist & resist & indigenize & decolonize:”
Black people are going to have to heal and empower and build their own spaces themselves. It’s not going to come from the outside. We are never going to get apologies for colonization. We’re never going to get the reparations we deserve. We’re never going to get an explanation for the cruelty that was dealt upon us for all of those years. So we have to decide to self-heal, which is very difficult. But you have to say, “This happened and I’m still here. I am a witness to this legacy of this madness. But I’m alive.” So I’m going to make testament to my livelihood by doing something beautiful and creative and crazy and bold and sexy and interesting and magnificent because that’s what they didn’t want us to do. We were supposed to disappear somehow into the system.
For my next post, I’ll be interviewing Dhonielle Clayton of Cake Literary and Rhoda Belleza of Paper Lantern Lit about the radical potential of book packagers. In some ways, packagers seem antithetical to my vision of “organic,” community-based publishing, but I also believe in using multiple strategies to get more inclusive books into kids’ hands. Do book packagers offer a way to resist the system, or are writers of color at risk of “disappearing into the system?” I’m grateful that these two women of color are willing to share their insider insights—stay tuned!
*If you know already know about Debbie Reese’s important blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, go there NOW.Older Post ❱❰ Newer Post