On “Writing While Black”

Myrtle took shape quickly and easily in my mind: she was at once fact and fiction, a rarity in the depth of her hatred of dark-skinned black people and a common stereotype in her inability to identify with dark folks as sharing anything at all in common with her vastly superior, high yellow self.
And though I hadn’t delved completely into her back story within the fictional tale I was weaving, I knew that some of her sense of superiority came from directly from a light-skinned father who doted on her, planted a miniature orchard of crepe myrtles – his favorite and her namesake – in her honor, and loved his precious, beautiful baby girl so much, that he never left her to sleep alone in her room for even one evening in her entire life. I knew that every night, once Myrtle’s dark-skinned mother had gone to sleep, that Myrtle’s father visited his daughter intimately, assuring her of her beauty, her power, her worth.
And yet I hesitated to give this character, who loomed so large and clear in my mind, a voice, a story, a place on the page. Wasn’t this character a degrading stereotype? Did I have any right to conceive and give birth to her fictional selfhood, given that I’ve never suffered such trauma myself and don’t share her prejudice toward people different shades of black and brown than I? And of course, the question which nagged at me most, the one my mother asked me immediately upon her own introduction to Myrtle…
Where did she come from? My only answer was that she felt real to me, informed by literature I’ve read, movies and television I’ve seen, stories I’ve heard, and life I’ve lived. Further, IĀ discovered that the cliched area into which I feared I was stepping was perhaps not cliched but fresh in its perspective, and more willing to receive my company than I’d previously assumed. What I found when I introduced the idea of Myrtle’s prejudice to a group of fellow novice writers, was that people who have not experienced being black in this country were completely blown away by the prejudice that fueled Myrtle from within, that anything so demeaning as a paper-bag test had ever existed, that this prejudice is wrapped up in the tension between darker-skinned field slaves and lighter-skinned, (ahem) biracial house slaves.
And so when I came across this article the other day, I quickly found myself in it.
(Does that ever happen to you? You’re poking around online, click a tweet published by a writer you like and then – BAM – there you are, on the page, even though you yourself didn’t write it?)
And I realized – not quite as quickly – yet another layer of the thick aroma of systemic racism in this country, shared corporately among those of us born and raised here. And struggling, yearning to breathe free, from that stagnant, racist air, are voices like mine – voices needed to illuminate our experience: to empower our peers, and to clarify our experience for those who don’t live in our skin.
Myrtle is not by any means the first character of her kind. But she’s a first for me, and I now realize the importance of working through my reservations and anxieties to give voice to her, her niece, and her great-nephew. While her personhood is fictional, the larger truths she represents are real. Her story – and mine – needs to be told.
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