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Writing While Black in Times Like This

[1]

I’m sitting at my computer, but my fingers have lost their rhythm. They’re rigid. Mechanical. Impotent. It’s as if they know or have been here before and recognize the shackles that bound my Black ancestors are the same ones we wear today.

History lacks originality, always emerging in new skin encasing the same old terror.

I’m a writer and I’m supposed to bring eloquence to our coarse dialogue, a balm to our pain, beauty to our ashes. But there’s nothing new to say, nothing but what’s been said before and will be said again.

The world knows Kenosha, Wisconsin now, and news anchors nationwide stumble over its pronunciation. I grew up not too far away in Chicago, and my first job as a television news reporter was with a small, independent station in Kenosha. The town fell silent about six years before I moved there when the Chrysler plant closed, and thousands of jobs disappeared. I remember the gaping hole of despair in that community with an empty assembly plant sitting in the heart of town, its hum silenced.

I also distinctly remember one photographer at my station who greeted me loudly every time I entered the newsroom: “Here comes Nancy, there goes the neighborhood.” Attempting to sweeten his venom, he often chased his insult with a chuckle. Decades later, in that same town, seven state-sanctioned bullets pierced the back of Jacob Blake and I can’t say I’m surprised about the devaluing of Black life. It’s in the DNA of Kenosha and every other corner of America.

I’m formally and professionally trained as a writer, but my real education comes from living in a Black body. That daily reality informs what I write, how I write, and why I write.

In my fiction, Black bodies tense in police encounters and face oppressive systems. Yet those same bodies allow muscle memory to transport them to the hand-clapping games and double-dutch rope of their youth. They slam their cards and trash talk at the Spades table. They live. They’re more than their pain. And I’m uniquely suited to bring them to life on the page.

I want my writing to be a guiding light of education and understanding, a bridge connecting Black and brown people with our white neighbors. Writing can be a lofty, altruistic endeavor, but it can also be hazardous. Living while Black and then writing about it can be injurious. Truth-telling costs. The emotional labor of justifying my outrage and explaining my humanity is exhausting.

The importance of this work complicates everything. People say this is the largest multiracial movement for change ever in the history of America. After a string of deaths of unarmed Black people this year, white folks began reading about the Black experience in this country. That is a good thing. Yet for the Black writer, there’s a price to pay even for that good thing.

We rejoice in building our careers and finding new audiences for our work. The gift of our voices is meeting the moment. However, something doesn’t feel quite right about it. Black trauma shouldn’t lead to spikes in sales for Black books. No one should consider patronizing a Black bookstore an act of charity. There should be no cause and effect. If you believe Black lives matter, then Black stories, Black authors, and Black booksellers should matter year-round, not just when another Black life is snuffed out.

It also needs to be said that one can’t cram for the anti-racism exam. Yet here we are. Some of my white counterparts are trying to binge-read what I’ve experienced in close to a half century of living. Even the most prolific text can’t close that gap. Still, I’m gratified by the empathy, the sincere interest, and the desire to understand. It’s important though to be a lifelong learner. The course syllabus is only a guide and it can’t confer a degree of changed policies or changed hearts. The things that last will be the genuine relationships you develop, the votes you cast, and the progress that you demand.

As writers, we know caricatures are poor substitutes for the complexity of real people. I’m always seeking stories that add color and dimension to the lives we’ve lost, because I understand that those victims are more than chalk outlines on black asphalt. Black lives are more than that.

We’re more than hashtags.

We’re more than our spilled blood.

We’re more than our private pain made public.

Breonna Taylor loved driving her Dodge Charger with the dual exhaust that made it go vroom!

George Floyd sang to his high school football team to lift the players’ spirits during tough practices.

Ahmaud Arbery surprised his Mom with handwritten notes and would give her a funny side-eye to make her laugh.

When we say their names, we must know that they were complex—scarred and beautiful like all of us—fully human people before they were defined in death and deified through memory.

It occurred to me that as a writer I’m the sculptor adding the texture, the layers that give a life or character its fullness, its richness. That’s how I can write through the pain to find Black joy, and tell that, too.

Blood is pumping through my fingers now. They’re limber. I guess it’s time to write.

I welcome your perspective and look forward to the conversation.

About Nancy Johnson [2]

Nancy Johnson [3] writes at the intersection of race and class. Her debut novel, THE KINDEST LIE, is forthcoming in 2021 from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. This is the story of an unlikely connection between a black woman searching for the son she never knew and a poor, 11-year-old white boy who finds himself adrift in a dying Indiana factory town. THE KINDEST LIE was named runner-up for the 2018 James Jones First Novel Fellowship Award. Nancy’s work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine and has received support from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, Tin House Summer Novel Workshop, and Kimbilio Fiction. As a television journalist, Nancy received Emmy nominations and multiple writing and reporting awards from the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. When Nancy’s not writing, you can often find her exploring bookstores, festivals, and restaurants in her hometown of Chicago. Nancy is represented by Danielle Bukowski at Sterling Lord Literistic.

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