Editor's note: This is an essay submitted to a course titled "Is the Civil War still being fought?" at Harvard Extension School
I write. My spirit, my human, my existence is wrapped up in pen and paper, thought and blank canvas. I have great respect for words and acknowledge the power in their dispensation. Because of that, I sometimes cower at the responsibility of it all.
In a 2008 acceptance speech, Toni Morrison talked about the role a writer has. “Writers are trouble,” she said. “Writers...these people disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on a population, a coma despots call peace." Perhaps these words spoke to me because I am a writer whose focus is often on social justice and social consciousness. I’m an essayist, blogger, and podcaster who treats the themes she places in the care of writers.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I created the blog, it was my invitation to a space that others might not enter. This issue has three components. First, people lack access to or the comfort to access spaces inhabited by people who are dissimilar to them. Some of that is the work of the individual. Comfort is the enemy of change, and, if you’re looking to make change, it will involve a heavy amount of discomfort. Once you’ve accepted that, you have to know how or where to enter these spaces. That part may be on those who live in the spaces oft un-visited.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I have a precarious relationship with that responsibility. On one hand, I feel like it is not my job to make others feel comfortable in my world when my discomfort is often dismissed in theirs. Anything outside of how I would normally behave is inauthentic. But at the same time, how can wish people had a better understanding of my world without showing it to them? As Morrison did in “Romancing Slavery” from The Origin of Others, I have to ask myself the question: “How do you make it safe to enter...Black Space.”
The last part is the part that causes more anguish than I think we are prepared for and requires much of both parties. Those in the unfamiliar territory need to feel free to act as they normally do. This is not a thing that happens often. The double consciousness that W.E.B. Dubois spoke of is alive and well, and I believe it’s referenced even in Morrison’s concept of “othering.” They both speak of seeing one’s self through the eyes of others.
For that reason, I often speak differently when around more White people than Black. There is pressure to look and act a certain way in front of “company” as if we have something to prove. Clearly, this is something that was handed down through generations because you see it in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the exact passage used by Morrison: “Can’t ye be decent when White folks come to see ye?” Changing this behavior requires honesty that is revolutionary. It requires people to let go of the fear of being other’d and embracing that difference.
In this same example, however, you must consider not only how Black people act when White people are in this space or how White people are treated when they’re in the space, but also how White people allow themselves to be treated. In this same passage, it’s clear that Master George allowed himself to be full; he allowed himself to be treated differently. In this respect, how Black is the space he’s inhabited if he’s treated no differently than when in a White space? The onus is on us all at that moment. But what happens when people leave the unfamiliar place?
Once you’ve been to these spaces, it’s your responsibility to not only tell of them as you witnessed them but to invite others who experience it to tell it as well in order to provide context. Professor Stauffer talked of empathy and the beliefs of Kara Walker that empathy could be a danger - narrowing the chasm of differences and homogenizing experience. That is a danger. Because to feel a foreign concept, I have to create a situation that is isn’t foreign to me. The problem is saying, “because I understand the feeling, I, therefore, understand completely the situation.” Therein lies the trouble. Instead of understanding that leads to change, we end up participating in the Oppression Olympics, fighting over which marginalized group has it worse instead of recognizing that we just have it differently.
I don’t have a solution to this. After reading “Romancing Slavery” four times and listening to various speeches she’s given, I’m not clear that Morrison does either. But, she does entreat us writers to continue to disturb the peace and wake the community from its coma. “Romancing Slavery” is not just about making a horrible institution pretty and digestible. It’s about how we romanticize our involvement by accepting our comfort as a lack of conflict rather than an abundance complacency.
Sure, as a writer, I enjoy telling stories of whimsy: those of comedically timed and ill-fated relationships, of a pull to journey and encounter self, or of dysfunctional family and friendships. But oftentimes, my greater desire is to do what Toni Morrison calls writers to do: to be a threat to despots. I want to trouble the waters and awaken the masses by using literature to shine a light on the truths that oppression hides in stereotypes and assumptions. I want to write something that causes scholars to debate, as they do with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the author’s own fallacies. I want to be unafraid to display my own ignorance because that would mean people are awake and vigilant and thinking. I want the truths I tell to cause so much trouble that the poisons of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and discrimination are exposed and released. I want to cause so much trouble that trouble would then be called peace.