Writing while Black/Writing while Indigenous: Part 2

23 Feb 2016 news 4 Comments


Just now as I came in, I heard a seagull cry outside my window and I was reminded, once again, that Brooklyn is on an island that faces the sea. I went for a walk this afternoon after mailing a book at the post office; next month I plan to self-publish the sequel to my time-travel novel A Wish After Midnight, and my most trusted reader-friend in Nova Scotia has agreed to provide a critique. There are so many of us separated by stretches of seawater yet when we find words for our experiences, the distance almost seems to disappear. One of the many books I have yet to write is The Hummingbird’s Tongue, an experimental memoir about migration, memory, and mental illness. I’ve tried to develop a structure for the book that reflects the fragmentation of an archipelago, which in turn symbolizes the fractures and ruptures caused by trauma. I’ve only given one talk on this memoir and found myself referencing a 1946 picture book I cherished as a child. In The Little Island by Golden MacDonald (Margaret Wise Brown), a kitten traps a fish but it wins its release by telling the kitten a secret: “All land is one land under the sea.” Weary as I am these days, I draw strength from the knowledge that I have allies like you at the end of so many seas, which makes the isolation of being a Black feminist writer in the US a bit easier to bear.

indexAs I read your initial post I felt a strange blend of affirmation and sadness—too much of what you wrote was familiar to me, and I’m weary these days of the many challenges facing my own beleaguered community. Tired because the fight seems never-ending, and progress minimal. This nation—my adopted home—is on the brink of electing a brazen bigot, and his popularity reveals just how deeply racist the US continues to be. In the past year I’ve found myself actively withdrawing from spaces where I’m likely to encounter groups of whites (harder to do these days in my rapidly gentrifying neighborhood). When women of color friends become consumed with the latest outrageous behavior of white women writers, I simply shrug and keep on planning the publication of my novel. I began to self-publish because I had no other way to get my books into kids’ hands, but now being excluded from the publishing industry almost seems like a blessing. As I often like to say when tempests swirl in the kid lit cup, “That’s not my peer group.” I don’t have time to respond to all the ridiculous things oblivious white women say or do, and Toni Morrison’s wise words are never far from the front of my mind: “racism is a distraction.”

But it isn’t right that when a woman of color speaks her truth, countless white women feel entitled to attack her and believe they can do so with impunity—because, in fact, they can. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently warned, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women.” If that’s true, then that special corner will be very crowded and mighty white. Yet afterlife aside, there never seems to be any penalty for the egregious behavior of those in the dominant group, and those with power and privilege routinely insist upon occupying the victim position even as they deny their role as victimizer. The recent Diversity Baseline Survey conducted by Lee & Low Books makes evident what many of us have known for years: white women dominate the kid lit community. So my separatist impulse is often thwarted by the fact that in order to reach the children of color I write about, I generally have to negotiate with an editor, librarian, reviewer, teacher, or literacy advocate who is likely to be a straight, white, middle-class cis woman. She is not from my community and likely got her job without needing to demonstrate basic competence in my culture. I do have radical white women friends who are actively anti-racist, but I can count them on one hand (and maybe two fingers). Their individual activism doesn’t change the fact that white women as a group are responsible for creating and/or sustaining the disparities we see in the kid lit community today. I very much appreciate true allies’ support and attempts at inclusion, but know that individual subversive acts will not change systems designed to promote and perpetuate dominance.

exist-resistSo how do we decolonize the kid lit community? How do we redistribute power and end the dominance of white women? As the topic of reparations resurfaces here in the US, I can’t help but wonder what reparations would look like within the kid lit community. How could the dominant group ever make amends for the damage done to our children? For decades here in the US they have ignored our pleas for inclusion and perpetrated a form of symbolic annihilation by distorting or altogether erasing the image of Black youth. Can the publishing industry really be trusted to reform itself when those who uphold it haven’t acknowledged the harm they’ve caused? Of course, the first step would be an admission of wrongdoing, but most white Americans prefer reconciliation without its prerequisite: TRUTH.

Author Libba Bray attempted to reason with her white peers and cited a reading by Toni Morrison that she attended here in Brooklyn. Bray recounts that when Morrison was asked what her female characters had taught her, she replied, “Sovereignty.” I imagine that word holds particular resonance for Indigenous people. For me, self-publishing is the only way I will ever retain control over my words and my message to our youth. And I love our youth enough to tell them the unfiltered truth about life in this country. Of course, there are penalties for women of color who dare to create as a radical act of love. As John Henrik Clarke once stated,

Racists will always call you a racist when you identify their racism. To love yourself now – is a form of racism. We are the only people who are criticized for loving ourselves, and white people think when you love yourself you hate them. No, when I love myself they become irrelevant to me.

Apparently Canadians are preparing an island for those in the US looking to migrate after Trump’s election. But I left Canada once already and know there is no island sanctuary for a Black feminist writer like me. What keeps me afloat is the work and the knowledge that there are allies like you in the world. Thank you for persisting, for claiming space, and loving your youth. The sea between us may seem endless, but under the waves there is land that unites us.

This post is part of a series of essays, letters, and reflections shared by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Zetta Elliott. Read Part 1 here.