Can I Only Write About Race?
“The pain inherent to my Blackness offers me all sorts of opportunities,” I told myself this past February, the February before that, and all the months between Februaries.
On February 1, like clockwork, a slew of editors called for writers of color to contribute to their Black History Month content.
“It’s my time,” I whispered to myself, scrolling down a Twitter feed begging me to write. Growing in a Black body means some of my experiences are unique to the color of my skin, and as a writer I can — and should — bleed onto the page with pain-ridden Black ink to create a harrowing narrative in which I bare a soul accustomed to trauma to readers who seek out personally hurtful stories. Look at me, already hitting the standard beats of writing about race, introducing my Blackness with words like “bleed,” “pain-ridden,” and “harrowing” — yup, still got it.
Minority voices have been muzzled for a long time, but over recent years we’ve noticed a shift: the personal essay is no longer only White. The essays available at my fingertips take on colors I’m not used to seeing when I study for my English degree, where the personal comes from Whitman or Thoreau, not Roxane Gay or Athena Dixon. Writers who have known hardship solely because of the way they were born write their way out of their circumstances using a voice permeated with their struggles. I wanted to be part of this.
The same way Hollywood tends to reward movies featuring people of color only when the stories center their pain, I realized quickly that many writers of color were asked to perform suffering on the page. Blackness and pain are intricately linked, so it didn’t strike me as odd that editors and readers alike would gravitate toward writers of color who excel in cathartic writing.
Until I realized that writing — like any other art form — is a craft that should always be compensated monetarily, I felt weird about the whole thing. A post-traumatic moneymaker, I called it. The 21st century asks me not only to monetize my hobby, but also my pain. When my hobby morphed into my vocation, I feared the blurring of the line between my writing and my pain, where all my words would become the typographical embodiment of my pain and nothing else.
When Carson Griffith, editorial director at Gawker 2.0, said people of color prefer to write only serious pieces about race, I was more than upset. I relished in the backlash that followed. Writers of color came forward to speak out against an industry that often sees minorities as tokens instead of full-fledged, three-dimensional human beings who don’t want to write only personal takes on the same narrative.
Her statement was exactly what I feared would happen to my writing, but I wasn’t upset because she hit this specific nerve. I was upset because it was something I had been telling myself for a while — my voice was worthy of an audience only if I let my pain shine through.
A week after this debacle, at the very beginning of Black History Month, I started writing an essay I originally titled “What I Learned About My Blackness After I Thought I’d Nearly Killed a Man.” I told myself people would want to read about this, and there I was, perpetuating the story the Carson Griffiths of the world fed me for years. But as I wrote, this story in which my Blackness was funny, politicized, and insignificant all at the same time morphed into something else. Now, my Blackness means breathing of my own accord, and my story is appropriately titled “Learning to Own My Blackness.”
I rarely tap into the deepest trenches of my inner self unless prompted. Now, months later, almost perfectly between Februaries, I realize that essay liberated me not only from how I would interact with my Blackness, but also from the only way I thought I needed to showcase it to the world.
My new writing principle is as follows: The pain within the confines of my body will not be the sole component of the ink I spill on the page, but I will not numb the pain that inevitably overlaps many aspects of my life to the point where my story can’t be found in the narrative.
The purpose of such a principle isn’t to always find the perfect middle ground between numbness and unfiltered stream of pain — I know I won’t. This principle is my lighthouse, offering me a safe path but not forcing me to follow it, so I can still venture into darker waters on my own terms, knowing I’ll always find my way back to the light.
No matter where a story stands in the spectrum of pain, I will always be proud of the journey taken by any writer of color — including myself — willing to share their story, always hoping they did it on their own terms. Unburdened by the Carson Griffiths of the world, let us become Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Black Folk, fitting in both a circle and a square with utmost excellence, but also able to break through those shackles of human perfection keeping us boxed into a one-size-fits-all narrative.
Let us be free.
This story was published in response to Human Parts’ Weekend Writing Prompt, “Pick a story you’ve told yourself a billion times, and unspool it. Challenge it. Ask yourself if this story encourages you to play it safe. If the answer is yes, let it go. Take one step closer to freedom.” To receive prompts like this one every weekend, subscribe to our newsletter by following Human Parts.