Black stories are most rewarded when they center blackness — which, in a certain sense, is to center whiteness
It is a cool autumn morning and I am perched on my couch, a coffee cup nearby, a few pages into Claudia Rankine’s newest book, Just Us: An American Conversation. My 14-year-old son saunters in and asks what I am reading when I look up over the brim to tell him: “It’s a book on race by an author I met last summer during my writing residency.” “Is it good?” he asks. “It’s interesting,” I say. “But sometimes I get tired of reading about racism.” “Why… because it makes you angry?” he asks. “Angry is not the right word. Annoyed. Yes… annoyed that she took 300 pages to reflect on what White people think of us. Who cares?”
The book details Rankine’s various experiences with blackness, whiteness, and the ways in which the two collide and integrate throughout her life, work, and friendships. This work and others like it are necessary in a post-slavery country where, far too often, White people forget that the systemic effects of slavery are still alive and well: in education, in professional life, and in daily interactions between humans, whether they’re the same race or not. Early in the book, Rankine comments on a truth she has accepted about the “culture of whiteness”: “The lack of an integrated life means that no part of [their lives] recognizes the treatment of black people as an important disturbance.” In other words, White people are often not touched by racially charged events that do not interfere with their own livelihoods. They quite literally don’t even notice.
While Rankine’s book contributes to an important discussion — one that shines a light on White privilege, “white living,” and “white blindness” — I wonder, with doubt, if there is a space in literature for Black people to explore our lives outside of, and with disregard to, the White lens. In a 1993 interview with Charlie Rose, Toni Morrison famously said of racism, “I’m not a victim. I refuse to be one. If you can only be tall when someone else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem and you have to find out what you’re going to do about it. Take me out of it.”
There is the reality of race relations in this country — and the long, sordid history that precedes it — but before I am a Black woman and a Black mother, I am a human being. Far too often, that reality gets lost in mainstream art, film, literature, music. In our culture, White people get to be “just people,” and Black people always have to be “Black people.” Our blackness has to be pronounced and juxtaposed against whiteness in order for it to be relevant. The result is a literary tradition in which blackness doesn’t exist on its own. However, the idea that Black people spend our lives lamenting over what White people think of us is offensive, and dismissive of the truth: that we are people before we are Black people.
Rankine points out another accepted fact she has learned: White people don’t like being called White. This is an observance I’ve shared as well. Whiteness has always been equated with a lack of race. In contrast to those whose identity is defined by their being classified as members of a given group, Whites are perceived as individual agents. This makes the category “White” irrelevant because, again, White people get to be “just people” while others get classified as some kind of “hyphenated” American.
Though whiteness is constructed as blank and nothing in particular, it clearly is something. It’s the norm-defining something. It’s the body that is meant whenever universality — itself, a hegemonic construct — is invoked. Thus, in literature and in art, whiteness is assumed in texts that are not explicitly about race, while Black creations must center it if they hope to find a mainstream audience.
If one is to disrupt whiteness as the unchallenged racial norm, they must learn to value Black stories about Black life, to view them as simply human stories.
Playwright Radha Blank wrote and spoke about the challenges she faced in the art world, finding production for the stories she wanted to tell about Black people existing in and of themselves, outside of the White lens. The most lauded books, plays, and films on the lives of Black people surround issues of race, slavery, and civil rights. Critically acclaimed Black writers like Rankine, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Colson Whitehead, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Yaa Gyasi, Octavia Butler, and bell hooks are best known for their work on race. In film, recent Academy Award nods have gone to BlacKkKlansman, Hidden Figures, Harriet, Green Book, and Get Out, all films that center on the lives of Black people as they relate to White people.
In contrast, White films that have recently received Academy Award nods include Marriage Story, La La Land, Carol, Joy, and A Star is Born. These films are about White lives: falling in love, starting a business, raising children, getting a divorce. They are not racially charged, and have nothing at all to do with how the protagonists’ lives intersect with those of Black people.
What does art and culture do with a story about Black love, like the film The Photograph, or Martha Southgate’s novel, Third Girl from the Left, where the Tulsa race riots are mentioned but not central? What about the Black female friendships, like the ones featured in many of Terry McMillan’s stories? Or Black familial stories, like Yvvette Edwards’ A Cupboard Full of Coats and Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow (Some progress is seen in the success of Tayari Jones’ latest novel, An American Marriage, in which Jones boldly claims the term “American” to describe a black couple.) Or Black sex lives: a topic thoroughly explored for decades by writers like Zane and Eric Jerome Dickey — who, despite having published best-selling erotic novels well before anyone ever heard of Fifty Shades of Grey, haven’t received a fraction of the acclaim enjoyed by multimillionaire E.L. James?
Black people live regular lives, too. We fall in love, get married, raise children. We laugh, sing, and find joy in life — and surprisingly, we do these things without constantly acknowledging the White gaze. But I’m afraid critics don’t know what to do with “regular” Black stories that don’t comment on racism. If one is to disrupt whiteness as the unchallenged racial norm, they must learn to value Black stories about Black life, to view them as simply human stories.
After a long and thought-provoking conversation with her friend on White privilege, raising a mixed-race daughter, living with a White husband, White people’s delusional fear of Blacks, blond hair as culturally more appealing, Goldilocks, and ethical loneliness, Rankine mentions that her optimism has been stolen by White supremacy — to which her friend responds, “Don’t be burdened by white supremacy.” Rankine asserts that “the idea that one can stand apart is a nice fantasy but we can’t afford fantasies… Universalized whiteness lives in every moment.”
While I understand her sentiment, I tend to disagree. She is conveying an undercurrent in the everyday Black experience… the constant hum that persists as background noise in our lives. This is true. But still, this morning, I close my book after a reading session and accompany my son to the kitchen, where we make eggs, pancakes, and bacon. He tells me about a school crush and, in a moment untouched by racist ideology, I reminisce with him on my own high school sweetheart, on young love and finding out who I was.