by Shannon Barber

I spotted this article “You can’t do that! Stories have to be about White people  on tumblr a week or so ago and have been ruminating about it. No seriously go read it.

I also highly recommend watching the attached video but you can do that when you’re done here.

Now let me tell you a story about being an early and immediately voracious reader.

As a very young kid I went from reading Dick and Jane to reading novels. Almost as soon as I grasped the how of reading I was off to the races. The first novel I read was Charlotte’s Web. I read it first at home in the summer before Kindergarten and then once the school found out I could really read I spent my lunches that year reading the book out loud to my principal. Who, as I remember was the first Black woman I ever saw in what I thought was a big deal position but that’s another story.

That book started something that nagged at me for years. Every book I read until I was about 9 years old was all White people or occasionally there were stereotypical Black cooning characters.

People think children are color blind. The correct notion is that often, White children are colorblind because they see and have their reflections asserted in positive ways everywhere. They are the norm and I as a Black child was the aberration.

Understand that as young as 6 years old I may not have had the language but I knew that I as a little Black child had no business in books, in fantasy, in movies, in cartoons etc. I was just like one of these children in the doll test. I strongly suggest anyone who even thinks that color blindness is good or that children don’t see color, also parents especially white parents watch this in full.

Don’t flinch it will hurt.

I wrote my first story when I was 7. I remember it because it was spring and I was sick from school. I lay in bed with a crayon and my giant penmanship tablet and wrote a story about a Mouse who was in love with a goose.

One of the features of writing for me up until I was about 20 was that I told no one. Because so much of the literature that meant something to me was exclusionary of people of color and some of those authors I knew were racist, I felt that I should not be writing. Being that I was not Maya Angelou or one of her peers or foremothers, writing and the literary world was not for me.

I didn’t write stories about Black people. I knew that if I ever wanted to be the best selling lady version of Stephen King (my ambition at the time was to become an absolute horror goddess) I could not include a vision of myself, my family or anyone not the Average American, read as White people.

I was always very careful that I did not use any type of AAVE, I did not reference Black culture save in a very oblique manner through trying to emulate The Beats. When I wrote my first erotic stories at 17 years old, everyone in them was White and thin and beautiful. They went to nice schools; they were not like me except they were queer and kinky but even that I tried very hard to make heterosexual male friendly.

It is taking me forever to write this because thinking of it is painful. Remembering the deep desire to create art that reflected my world and the world as I might like to see it but having the clear understanding from years of being a reader that, in the literary world there was no place for me

The thing I loved and wanted most in the world did not want me as I was. I spent a lot of time writing and as much time destroying what I wrote not because I hated it but because I did not believe that there was any room for my expression.

That was the reality of my situation and frankly it drove me to some really destructive thought patterns and a belief somewhere inside that I was just inferior because of my Blackness and my want to explore and talk about Blackness.

I bought into White supremacy because there was no one to tell me differently. In the world I grew up in there was no real reason to believe otherwise. It extended from inside out. I hated my skin (see I tried the bleach and failed and After the bleach. On the fallout and trauma where I talk about bleaching my skin as a kid), I hated myself. I was ashamed because I did not want to believe in the White supremacist position and yet every time I spoke up or tried to shed that, whiteness smacked me down.

Now let’s fast forward to the last five years or so.

After having lost writing jobs because I had the audacity to write outside of Whiteness and refuse to have it put into some Box o Blackness, because I have objected to changing a Goddess in a now published story, to one White people would know. because I have objected to using artwork depicting White people when the story was not about White people I feel like I am coming full circle.

That isn’t to say that sometimes I write things that I honestly think White editors do not understand. One rejection I got last year “gently” suggested I remove the AAVE so “people” (White) would understand it put things back into sharp and painful focus for me.

The Literary World at large still doesn’t want me.

Unlike the weeping traumatized me at 6, 16 and 26; I am defiant at 37.

I realized that I don’t care.

I don’t care about traditional big box publishing. I don’t care that most likely I will never be an Internet darling author because I am not a nice White lady and that’s fine with me.

I won’t say it still doesn’t hurt sometimes. It does.

Sometimes as I am writing something I know that 90% of publishers won’t take it.

And that hurts.

It’s not okay but I gotta do what I gotta do.

So let me end with this.

I don’t always trust White publishers.

I try to get published anyway.

I try not to let the bullshit hurt too bad.

I write the stories I write because only I can tell them and they are the stories I want to read.

And a special message to my fellow marginalized authors.

Don’t run away from your roots. You don’t have to write to please Whiteness. Write to please yourself.

Shannon Barber is an author from Seattle Washington where she lives with her partner and a small collection of oddities. She is an avid writer, reader and blogger. Her most recent work has been seen in The Camel Saloon, an interview in Luna Luna Magazine and non fiction in Literary Orphans. To see more of her work please visit her at Shannon-Writes Tweet her @Weebeasty

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9 thoughts on “Writing and Reading While Black. Lessons learned.

  1. Reblogged this on Bound By Rosie and commented:
    This is a fascinating read that I believe many authors need to keep in mind as we begin to explore what diversity is, how it is defined differently by others and what it means to have diversity in writing. I don’t speak in AAVE. I have natural hair, but I adorn it with soft things that make me less “militant looking” as I’ve been told natural hair is. I have an advanced degree. I have an accomplished history however small it may bel and young I am. By being me I meet every standard of respectability. My black characters often, but not always do the same…and yet even then in workshops things get hairy. I have to explain who isn’t white. I have to explain that not every person of color talks in AAVE, whil writers like the one who wrote this article are told to drop it. We are told to be the perfectly digestible portion of blackness for mainstream, read white America. It is crushing. It is tiring. But I will never stop challenging it. You may say these things don’t matter. That all of us writers and black folk exaggerate, but we’re telling you what we go through. We’re telling you the truth. If you assume we are liars for disagreeing, for being tense, for reacting…then you are most likely part of the problem.

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  2. I hated my wavy hair when I was a kid and teen. I tried to straighten it to fit in. I listened to music that was mainstream and adopted mainstream styles that were foreign to my cultural heritage and my physical identity. And I suffered for it because I was always going to be less than what I wanted. When I looked for heroes in stories, I was blind to anything that didn’t conform. I wish I wasn’t blinded, now that I have a bigger perspective, because I lost so much of myself due to those attitudes I adopted as a youth.

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  3. This was so inspiring! I felt alienated by literature in school, especially since it was always Shakespeare et al racist White men. it was only until I discovered Maya Angelou, who inspired me to write poetry because her struggles spoke to me

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  4. I touched on this briefly in my blog post “Anonymous Writer”. It was the second post I wrote on WordPress. I had already planned to explore this further in a post coming next week. I agree with everything you said and that is why I am still writing…because someone has to hear the other side of things.

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  5. It’s a disheartening thought, and yet I can remember the words of my mother to me when I was a child, on more than one occasion – ‘you will have to work harder and be better than others if you want to achieve.’ I don’t doubt many others have been told these same – and unfortunately true – words.

    The world, at least at present, is not shaped to accomodate everyone in equal fashion. Preferences and biases are skewed according to gender, race, and various other socio-economic factors. But I think having art, and in particular dramatic art (literature, films, television etc.) that is inclusive and diverse is the best way to provide a platform for young minds to embrace themselves as part of the world and not feel alienated from it. I mean, that video clip from the doll test has to be one of the saddest things I’ve seen. It shows how deep the cultural biases that shape the world and media around us go.

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  6. I almost cried because I write too and I wish to work in books domain and I know it will be harder for me. So reading you reminds me the strength we have to hold on to. Wish you the best Shannon Barber.

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