By: Ebonye Gussine Wilkins
Why does race often come into the picture for Black writers? This is a complicated question. Part of me wants to say that it doesn’t. The other part of me wants to say that it does.
I guess it’s a little bit of both.
As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer to be referred to as an American writer. Yes, I happen to be Black, but race is not all that I write about. Unfortunately, as soon as people realize that you are a person of color, they have to pigeonhole you because they have to know what you are (um, no they don’t!). I’m not sure what makes people so comfortable with labeling others, but it happens. It’s generally unavoidable. It’s happened to Oprah, Toni Morrison, Madame C.J. Walker, Charles Drew, and many others. You don’t have to be a writer to get labeled. Pioneers in all fields end up being labeled if their race, ethnicity, or culture deviates from the mainstream default of “White.” To be fair, “White” can mean different things to different people, but when it comes down to writing, “White” refers to the general lack of diversity in the field.
Don’t get me wrong, my favorite authors happen to be John Steinbeck and J.D. Salinger. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t want or appreciate the contributions of Maya Angelou, Nelson Mandela, and Langston Hughes. But life as a writer of color ain’t been no crystal stair. The moment a writer of color is labeled as a “writer of color,” assumptions are automatically made about the content of the book and who it is supposed to “speak to.”
When you read widely, people all write about the same things. Writers write about family life, about going to work, about social interactions, and about their life experiences. In a nutshell, that’s what it really boils down to: writers are writing about life as they see it. But the color of your skin can color your perception of the world. Whether or not some people admit it, it is true that people are treated differently based on the color of their skin. This is not just an American issue, there are centuries of documentation of differences in color of skin and how people are treated, even within the same race! If you are treated differently because of what you look like, then your experience will be different than someone who doesn’t look like you. You should write about your own experiences. While there are common threads between stories from different people, your story is uniquely your own. To tell a writer of color that they write only about race misses the larger issue. They are writing about their experiences, their feelings and their desires. These experiences just happen to be influenced by race, because it is something that most people cannot move away from. Society has absorbed it into it’s flesh and bones to the point where it can become unconscious.
It’s not all about race, but you still might think it is.
*Note* A version of this post ran on Ebonye’s author page.