“Reading Black Women Writers Saved My Life”
I remember the first time I uttered these words aloud to an audience. In fact, it was the first time I’d ever said them or, honestly, had ever thought them at all—at least in the frank and urgent manner in which I delivered them at that moment. I was in the middle of an academic job interview, and one of the committee members focused on my embodiment of whiteness and my relationship to the literary and cultural traditions that I study. The curiosity, shock, or even resistance that I often navigate in these moments was not what was troubling in that moment. It was her insistence that I did not—could not—have a relationship to the literary tradition that I’ve spent most of my life studying that gave me pause. The interviewer’s commentary and its undercurrent felt very wrong to me. It was wrong.
When I started answering her exact question, I began with familiar talking points, but before I realized what was happening, I experienced a sobering moment of vulnerability and verbalized a deep truth. Admittedly, it was an accident, but one I realized too late to stop. Causing visible shock to everyone in the room, I said it: “honestly, reading black women writers saved my life.”
As a young child growing up in a lower-income part of rural Georgia, I had a father who, however well-intentioned, was unable to love or to affirm his family, particularly not his oldest child and only son who could not—for whatever reason—conform to rigid ideas of American masculinity. Couple an unhealthy father-son relationship with the fact that I was a gender non-conforming young person in the deep south with an emerging but fraught queer sexual orientation, and you have prime conditions for haunting familiar results: troubled self-worth, difficulty building sustaining community, and a fundamental absence of specific and relevant resources to navigate the world. (Even though this was certainly a different historical era, some of these realities persist, especially in certain remote parts of the country).
Finally, because I was reared in a strict, conservative Southern Baptist religious circle, I was convinced that God was not on my side either. Similar to a young Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, I was not sure if a God was listening to me either.
Without affirming models that reflected my worth, without visible alternative narratives to counter negative, derogating ones, and without recognizable, available community, I struggled to move through childhood and my emerging adolescence. And, of course, when my body started freaking out and feeling like an enemy (the usual suspects here—unrelenting acne, teeth that needed braces, and a voice that could not make up its mind about its tonal qualities), I fell deeper into myself and into the oppressive thoughts that never yielded messages of care. Indeed, it would be easy to highlight my whiteness and my maleness to undercut all that I share now, but do remember that the person charged with my care—the person who indelibly shaped my worldview—reminded me daily, hourly, by the minute—that I did not qualify. And, to be sure, other adults and even children in my community regularly reminded me of how and why I did not count in their conceptualizations of valuable folks either.
It was in this emotional and mental state that I began to encounter and to engage with the writings of black women. The abbreviated version of this lengthy story follows a young, inquisitive (one might substitute nosey as an accurate descriptor) boy who regularly asked too many questions of his conservative, southern educators. Growing tired of asking his teachers repeatedly about black writers and consistently receiving frustrating, unsatisfactory answers, he looked outside of formal educational spaces to find answers. Using silly, uninformed phrases at the local library like “can you show me the black books, please,” this young man makes me both laugh and flush with the redness of embarrassment today. Nonetheless, he fortunately met a kind, no-fuss librarian at the local library about half-a-mile from his house who was kind enough to lead him to the near-back portion of the small library to a collection of books that might interest him.
Now, memory starts to fail me a bit here because I cannot, hard as I try, recall all that was on those shelves or specific details about how the classification of materials actually worked. Was it African American writers? African writers? Writers that might fall under the broader umbrella of “minority literature?” I cannot be sure. What I do remember is a comfy beanbag chair on the floor right next to a window that flooded that portion of the room with the warmth and light of the Georgia sun. And I recall profoundly the characters, the plots, and the emotions that I experienced in those pages.
Because I was unable to acquire a library card without parental supervision, the librarian let me read the books while in the library, which provided me with the perfect excuse to leave a household that felt less than safe and stay gone for extended periods of time. We often hear phrases like “books are my refuge” or “reading introduces you to new worlds.” While I believe that those phrases have a lot of truth in them and regularly share the memes along with other book lovers on social media, when I think back on the contours of my childhood, I see clearly the literal applications of those phrases. I see how the library and, more importantly, how the writings of black women that captivated me daily for hours and hours at a time were actually a refuge. One that served as a (temporary) buffer from the abusive behavior of my father and one that provided an invaluable escape from my own whirlpool of negative thoughts and emotions. The closest thing that I could imagine to “safety.”
I should pause here to be abundantly clear about something. This is not some scene from The Help or some 1990s-version of Imitation of Life (even though I do make space for subversive readings even of those films). Nor am I conflating my—however crappy—circumstances with the trauma endured by black women in America. These writers were not writing about me. They were, in large part, not writing to me or for me either. Their careers do not exist to assuage the pang of my violent childhood necessarily, and they certainly do not acquire their value because a white male reader learned how to love himself in and through them. But their work did accomplish those things as well, however obliquely.
Rooted in their fundamental particularity, women like Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, Ann Petry, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor, Lucille Clifton, and so many others taught me lessons that became life-giving. By engaging with their fictive communities and worlds, I encountered models of communal care, palpable examples of deliberate revaluations of self, vibrant meditations on the dynamics of love without possession, ruminations on the dangers of viral quests for power and domination, and roadmaps for how to navigate a world not ready for you (or not even built for you to thrive).
Their reverence for orality captured the ears of an emerging young reader. Their language always said “come on in and sit for a spell. Let’s talk.” Their characters offered testimonies of healing. And, from a very young age, their narratives exposed me to complicated ideas like “intersectionality” in practice—even if I would not have the theoretical or political vocabulary to describe them until graduate school and beyond.
Though I know clearly that I did not even begin to scratch the surface of these stories and their complexities in those early readings, I did develop a life-long appreciation for, dedication to, and deep love of writing by black women writers. I am happy to share today that that relationship has never dissipated. These women writers taught me what it means to belong to communities, how to love self and others, and how to exist with the natural phenomena that surrounds me in ethically sound ways. How to “get right” when I forget.
When I was twenty-six years old, I was packing to make my move to Washington, DC to begin my Ph.D. program in African American literature at Howard University, and I came across two journals from days gone by that I was sure I had destroyed. I immediately panicked. Had my mom read these? Who—for whatever reason—had ventured through them without my knowing? While I was successful in destroying most of them years before (perhaps a cardinal sin for an English Professor, I now realize), two remained because I had hidden them so well that I forgot where they were.
Honestly, I did not have the courage to read them all cover-to-cover, but I did read enough to remind myself of the darkest of times when my understandings of self were the most polluted and when the future seemed completely out of view.
As I sort of marveled at how this young person managed to persist, I came across a line that I had written down and surrounded in quotes in one of my more defiant entries: “I found god in myself, and I loved her fiercely.” Even though I neglected to attribute the quote according to MLA format like a dutiful scholar, the incoming doctoral student in me immediately recognized Ntozake Shange’s words from her famous choreopoem: for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Though I knew that I wasn’t the lady in red, brown, green, blue, orange, yellow, or purple, I still bore witness to their boldly black feminist testimonies, and I thank a pro-feminist, pro-queer, and unapologetically pro-black spiritual being that I did.
If you had asked me years ago how I avoided self-harm throughout my adolescence, I might have half-seriously answered “a combination of accident and the internet.” While I still believe that online communities were vital, I realized during that moment of consciousness raising in my job interview that it was the writing of black women that somehow kept me pushing forward to claim a future that I now firmly know that I deserve and that the world can benefit from.
In my larger career development, I eventually learned how to engage with the field professionally and how to hold myself accountable for producing responsible scholarship that is theoretically informed and robust, but affective studies has shown us time and time again that these emotional dimensions matter as well. Theoretically and otherwise. We should be cognizant of how and why they impact our complicated relationships with texts.
Though great emphasis is often put on detached, “objective” scholarly inquiry, I would be remiss if I did not—at least in some spaces—refuse that professional position as my only engagement. In fact, the development of the literary traditions that I study found their earliest manifestations by writing for life and death situations and by using experimental knowledge as a critical way of knowing. A way of knowing that has substantial value. And I am not sure that the tradition has ever lost that sense of urgency—that fundamental effort to help folks get free. To make life more livable. It might, actually, form part of its essential life-blood. For that, I am eternally grateful.
Writing about this even today, I realize that when I uttered the words “reading black women writers saved my life,” I was not being hyperbolic or offering dramatic effect. I accidentally but sincerely articulated one of my most important life truths about my relationship to narrative. And I have trouble imagining who I would be as a person or a professional without it. Thankfully, I don’t have to.
TEN LIFE-GIVING READS (in no particular order)
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf
Toni Morrison, Sula
Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place
Audre Lorde, Zami: a New Spelling of My Name
Lucille Clifton, Good News about the Earth
Janet Mock, Redefining Realness
Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings