disappearing into the system

10 Jun 2015 news 0 Comments

exist-resistI 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 misguidedcouldn’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.
Mutu, who was born in Kenya, explains how her journey as a transnational artist made her empathetic to the journey of many LGBT Africans: “I had to leave my family, my country and my continent and say that I’m an artist. There was no support. No explanation for how I could make it.” I found a writing community and Black feminist role models by leaving my family and my country behind, and though I’m based in the US, I identify with other Commonwealth writers who see the production of children’s literature as a necessary postcolonial project. This came up during the #Caribbeankidlitchat hosted by Summer Edward, and she is contributing to a MOOC (massive open online course) that is specially designed for Commonwealth writers interested in writing for children. Children everywhere need books that are mirrors, but what special needs might children have in formerly colonized communities? We need diverse books that serve as mirrors AND counternarratives if we’re going to undo (or at least address) the damage caused by the imposition of dominant culture values that devalue kids of color.
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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.