A Response to Zetta Elliott’s “Minstrelsy is the New Black“.
One of the most hard-hitting, unapologetic movies I have ever seen is Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled.” I was just out of college when I watched it on the big screen—young, angry, hurt, and even though I wouldn’t have admitted it then, a little bit afraid. At that point, I thought I’d learned everything there was to know about racism. But at the end of the movie is a cinematic montage of the representation of black characters in film throughout American history—variations of Stepin Fetchit, Buckwheat, Mammy, and pickaninnies. I watched those scenes through a stream of tears. I had a deep visceral reaction and it forever changed my understanding of how
racism white supremacy truly functions in this country and in the world.
This is when I began to question if blackness itself is performative art in the presence of white onlookers.
In mentioning my book within the context of minstrelsy, Zetta Elliott is suggesting that my novel is merely a “black face”—complete with its popping eyes, oversized protruding lips, and “yes massas”; that black writers telling stories featuring children and the trauma in their lives, regardless of the stories’ origins, are performing for the White Gaze. While I certainly can’t speak for every black writer and their intentions, but based on my own work and experiences in understanding and loving blackness in all its complexities, nothing about my work speaks to the Mantans of the American entertainment world. Truth-telling, providing context within the story, and humanizing black children is my main focus. A far cry from minstrelsy.
While writing American Street, I researched violence committed against black teen girls. There were one too many stories. In most cases, there weren’t enough details in these news reports to make it a legitimate story. The short lives of these teen girls were relegated to a date, time, location, and a vague description of that single fatal violent act. One such story literally hit close to home several years ago in 2009.
A block away from where I spent my teen years, 14 year-old Sabrina Matthews was killed in her own bedroom. As weeks and months progressed without a suspect charged in the case, only then did the details of Sabrina’s life and family begin to unfold in the newspapers. The case went cold for nine years until this past November. A 24 year-old man was charged in her death. Rashon Venable was 16 at the time of the murder. I cried when I discovered that story. I’d been checking the family’s Facebook page memorial for years.
Within the story of Sabrina’s murder is also the story of a sixteen year-old Rashon and if I peel away at the layers, there’s also the story of a family struggling with poverty, institutional racism, more violence, and more trauma. And somewhere within those layers is also the story of an unrealized dream. Sabrina’s parents were from Jamaica. They were immigrants who had worked hard and made enough of a living to move to the middle class neighborhood of Cambria Heights, Queens.
In 2011, I started to write a young adult novel inspired by Sabrina’s story. But I’d already proclaimed to the world that I was a science fiction and fantasy writer. Looking back now, this box I placed around my writing life was a shield. It relieved me from telling a certain kind of truth in my art—that violence was a major part of my adolescent life.
At that time, I was submitting my work to agents, learning about the industry, meeting authors, and workshopping. If I told a story inspired by Sabrina Matthews, I would have to present her bloodied body to the world—the all white world of children’s books. I’d already had a number of personal experiences to understand the White Gaze—how in presenting black art in all its messiness and complexities, a white audience will take from it what it wants. I knew that they would want the violence and the trauma—black bodies in a constant state of duress.
As a Haitian, I am a firm believer in the vodou tradition. This is how I strive to decolonize my imagination. Vodou faith is sprinkled throughout American Street. My inclusion of Papa Legba, guardian of crossroads and doorways, is intentional. I wear a pendant of Papa Legba’s vévé. This is to acknowledge that as an artist, I am always at a crossroads or a doorway. It is also to help me decipher doublespeak in an industry that talks out of two sides of its mouth. (Calling for diversity, for example, but continually publishing dehumanizing images of children of color.) Our Papa Legba opens doors. The same doors Joseph Campbell refers to when following our bliss.
When the opportunity presented itself, Papa Legba had swung open a door and on the other side was something like Sabrina’s story still waiting to be told—that of immigrant families, and my own inclusion of violence against girls and trauma begetting trauma. This was ultimately my story to tell. It resonated so deeply with my own life on so many levels that I was afraid to write it. I was afraid of what the White Gaze would do to my black children’s bodies on the page. But in my African-centered personal world view, storytellers respond to their audience, not the other way around. If this audience is indeed the pervasive White Gaze wanting to be entertained, to stare down at bloodied black bodies on the page, to pick away at their own guilt-laden wounds, do I, or any other black writer, tuck this story away like dirty laundry?
If I’m to present a certain truth about the full experiences of black children and include my own stories as a teen—fighting, dating low level drug dealers, bearing witness to violence against other girls—I have to remove the White Gaze from both my story and my creative space, regardless of my editorial team. Their editorial presence cannot possibly add any layer of truth or authenticity to my story. They are there for clarity of language and to chisel away at plot. And I, as the storyteller, am not merely a face. I bring bones, blood, and memory to a story, especially if it centers violence and trauma. I don’t write from an intellectual space or from an Ivory Tower gaze. My specificity in story comes form day-to-day lived experiences. This violence, this trauma, this brokenness has always been a breath away.
Many teens of color in urban areas are trying to wrap their minds around what happened to the Sabrinas, Rashons, Trayvon Martins and Rachel Jeantels of their world. The news stories can never make sense of the emotional landscapes of inner-city violence, generational trauma, and the long-lasting effects of slavery and colonialism.
So I take my cues from black artists like Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall who present black bodies as they are within overwhelmingly white art institutions. They are funded by white tastemakers and their works are viewed more often than not by white audiences. I also look to Ava Duvernay who has been given the classic story A Wrinkle in Time, written by a white author and featured absolutely no children of color, to reshape into something truly empowering and meaningful. Or Ryan Coogler who has done and will do wonders for both the Rocky and Black Panther franchises. Both these instances feature white producers and funders. And their stories are not any less black, or authentic, or relevant because of it.
What matters most is that we black content creators within all-white industries take the helm and steer the ship to tell stories that are true and humanizing—narratives that pull from lived experiences and are based on a deep love for black people. There are no ManTans in these situations. And there is nothing new about this sort of blackness, nor can it ever be relegated to the realms of minstrelsy, no matter how many white people are seated at the creative table.