Skip to content

MY Black History: Black + Writer

February 25, 2013

“I would love to say that my daily efforts to honour and explore my identity as a black woman in this land we call Canada ‘seeps’ through my artwork.

It does not.

If anything my cultural makeup dots my writing, like pointillism. The spots of my heritage, my points of origin speckle my characters but it does not dictate their movements. Being black, being a woman, being Canadian never spearhead my characters’ ambitions, nor does it dominate their settings. It’s a piece of the collective whole, like how I, a singular black woman, am a piece of the global collective.”

Characters: The first book I read by a black author, by a black female author have you, was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. For the first time I was exposed to characters who were black, in settings filled with other black people. Dealing with issues that effected black people, namely self-hate and shadeism. It was all very exciting.

A funny thing happened to me when I went to university to study creative writing. I wrote a short story that was workshopped in my class and although I gave no physical description of the characters (poor writing on my part, it was after all first year) the class had silently and collectively made the assumption that all the characters were black. If my story was given to someone who doesn’t know me, and only sees a name (Whitney French doesn’t hint to my ethnicity by any stretch of the imagination) would the same assumption be made? Reading books by white authors, or by authors who’s ethnicity isn’t made obvious, I too conclude that the characters are indeed white. When I was younger I was unaware that books written by white authors didn’t need to identify their characters with clues like “chestnut skin” or “caramel complexion”. I felt compelled to add these details for clarity sake, and to makes sure everyone knows I’M BLACK . What if I wanted to write a white character, even have a main character who was white? Would this be considered a betrayal? Will it confuse the reader, or does it really matter?

Quality: This issue is not specific to just black writers but to all minority groups creating art in Western society. Does the work receive praise because of it’s genuine quality or because it fulfills a multiculturalistic quota? Or worse, exotic and therefore profitable? Tokenism can make a black writer paranoid. This one at least. Am I being asked to do a reading because they think it’s good or because it can make them look good? There is also, in Canada but more so in the US the undeniable fact that the literacy rate for black folks is much lower than that of their white counterparts, thus creating an interesting and profitable genre of ‘hood lit’. Aesthetics, storytelling and perspective need protection. Even as a Jamaican artist, the repetition of the immigrant story has me worry, does my story adds to the canon or doesn’t take away from it?

Maybe I’m demanding for stricter criticism, but what does that look like? One answer is Harold Bloom, and for those who don’t know, this literary critic with his hyper Eurocentric narrow definition of literature insists”Shakespeare is the true multicultural author”. Is there enough room in the canon for everyone?  Bloom demands “we should read books that we know…instead of the shoddy stuff in the name of social justice”. Yeah, I know. And yet, although I violently disagree with him, I do wrestle with the idea that quality is being compromised.

Duty: There have been so many spectacular black writers before me. Too many to list. The concept of “paving the way” means I have to walk that way. There is a ‘duty’ as a black artist to bring black issues to the forefront. I’m down with this. But what is more important: the story or the cause? Not many will agree with me, but as it reads in the opening quote, story trumps all. In my early twenties I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt that if my work didn’t address inherent ‘black’ issues, if my work wasn’t a declaration of empowerment, if I wrote black characters who weren’t honourable or strong, I was a traitor. Or worse, less black.

It’s tough trying to be a Canadian writer, triple tough being a black female Canadian writer. Hyper marginalization is alive and kicking but does that mean that every character and every story plot have to work towards breaking down stereotypes, smashing oppression and uplifting an entire group of people? Does one voice, because it is marginalized, stand in for all the voices like it?

I’m realizing this is really just a bunch of questions than a coherent blog post, but I hope that it started up some questions in your head. Constantly working out the kinks. Constantly.

Over and out

[Note: Quotes from Harold Bloom is from his interview with Eleanor Wachtel from Writers in Company, 1995]

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    March 18, 2013 5:46 am

    What’s colour? I look at the palm of my hand and it’s rather white and then the back of my hand is brown, is it all just a pigment and figment of my imagination? When words are spoken out of my mouth people are stunned because I know English and it’s weird to them and just funny to me. I’m searching for a higher ethnicity where I can just be human and it not matter where I’m from but I came to an understanding that it does matter, my own ethnicity and roots.

    • April 3, 2013 2:18 pm

      What is colour is a great question. Unfortunately our world is bound by rules of categorization positioning people according to their race. I can’t “take a break” from being black, since this society’s framework will always perceive me as such. It will consciously and subconsciously affect my interactions with people. I applaud your search for higher ethnicity. I think we all just want to be human. Thanks for your thoughts and please visit again :)


  1. MY Black History Month: Recap 2013 | Writing in a Tree
  2. Happy Blog-o-versary…Year 3! | Writing in a Tree
  3. Happy New Year 2014 | Writing in a Tree
  4. Writing While Black | Writing in a Tree

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: