On What is “Too Political:” Kiese Laymon and “You Are the Second Person”

I never thought of myself as political. I just write about my experience. But it just so happens that my experience is situated in the body of a woman, of an African, of an American, of a mother, of a sister, of a daughter, of a lover, of a yoga-obsessed organic food eating appreciator of long walks and classical music. I write about all of these things. Not all of them, not all the time. But because they are part of who I am, these aspects of my identity appear in my work.

I wrote a love story once, set in a yoga studio. There was nothing political or at all revolutionary in it. Except, perhaps, the main character had box braids and took up space–confidently, articulately–as she moved through the world.

What I got back from 5 editors was that the short story was too political. I did not understand what was political about yoga. But now, I understand, it was because I wrote as a Black person looking at myself, not as a white person looking at a Black as is normal in most mainstream media, as, too, I had been told to do in so many writing classes I have taken where I was nearly always the only person who looked like me.

Nor did I rely on the usual stereotypes of Blackness you see in mainstream media— ho, pimp, prostitute, addict. Deadbeat parent. Ignorant, shrill, snarling, reality show star.

Cross-dressing mammy-figure played by a man.

My character was normal, and she was normal in this space in this country. And I wanted her body to be normal, not exoticized and othered through/because of its Blackness for a white audience. Nor set somewhere exotic overseas to be marveled and wondered at, othered. I wanted to own the narrative I. I wanted to give my avatar the luxury of being human, not the other.

And perhaps I had succeeded–and lulled those editors into thinking that the narrator was a person just like them. Perhaps this is what scared them. I do not know; I do not understand.

But I am beginning to understand that to be Black in America and write our experience for ourselves–to not cater to a white audience by making ourselves the “Other” is a political act.

And I am realizing that I need to own this, be proud of this. “The personal is political,” said the feminists long ago…and it is still true today.

I am beginning to realize the act of speaking, itself, is a political act.

 

There was a reason slaves and freed Blacks were not allowed to read and write under penalty of death–that they were not allowed to exercise their right to speak by voting even as late as the 2000 Election in Florida. There is a reason the Voter Rights Act was repealed yesterday. For, as attorney/writer Brian Gilmore tells us, “Remember good people, the 15th Amendment that guarantees the right to vote was passed right after the Civil War. It did not work because the same states let off the hook today stopped Blacks from voting. The country had to pass a the Voter Rights Act to make a Constitutional amendment work.”

I am proud to be political. I will own it. I will not allow others to define this term, to make it into a dirty word and to make me ashamed–like what was been done to the word “feminist.”

I will be political. But how, in this climate, will I be heard?

Over and over, African American writers speak of how editors and presses have called their work “unsellable,” or said that “no one will care about your story.” One awarded elder remembers that his first novel “was rejected by several presses because the characters weren’t acting out enough and using enough drugs.” In other words, his characters were not the stereotypes portrayed by the nearly all white-run and white product of American media. He had the courage to define his own Blackness, an authentic Blackness based on experience and nuanced specificity…not through racist stereotypes of “pimps, hos, and pushers.”

But because this legendary author owned his narrative I, because he wrote from his own perspective and not racist cliche, his writing was termed “too political.”

One emerging African American writer calls this literary marginalization of our perspective and narrative I “the biggest challenge for black writers. It’s a commentary on the publishing industry that I have to find a way to erase from my subconscious to insure that I am creating from my vision. But then the questions becomes who do I listen to? If I can’t count on my workshop and my agent/editor has a hidden agenda, then how do I become the thing that I need most?”

How indeed.

And so, this post is for every other Black writer–every other writer of color–who has ever heard the words “your writing is too political too publish” or “we can’t publish you because we already have a Black author on our roster” or “we can’t publish you because Black people don’t read.” Here, too, is Kiese Laymon’s heartbreaking account of being told that no one wants to hear the story you have to tell in Guernica Magazine’s Race Issue.

Details Laymon of what an editor once wrote about his groundbreaking novel Long Division:

“The success of your book will be partially dependent on readers who have a different sensibility than your intended audience,” he writes. “As I’ve already said to you, too many sections of the book feel forced for the purpose of discussing racial politics. Think social media. Think comment sections. Those white people buy books, too, bro. Readers, especially white readers, are tired of black writers playing the wrong race card. If you’re gonna play it (and I think you should) play it right. Look at Tarrantino. He is about to fool all these people into believing they were watching a black movie with Django. I guarantee you that whiteness will anchor almost every scene. That’s one model you should think about.”

“Also, black men don’t read. And if they did, they wouldn’t read this kind of fiction. So you might think of targeting bougie black women readers. Bougie black women love plot. They love romance with predictable Boris Kodjoe-type characters. Or they love strong sisters caught up in professional hi-jinks who have no relationships with other sisters. Think about what holds a narrative like Scandal together.

“In 2012, real black writers make the racial, class, gender, and sexual politics of their work implicit. Very implicit. The age of the ‘race narrative’ is over, bro.”

Read the rest of Kiese Laymon’s essay in the Guernica Race Issue HERE!

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