The old normal cannot continue. The new normal needs you to come alive.
One of the newsletters I’ve been reading more closely over the last few months is Kelsey McKinney’s Written Out, which aims to reconstruct our literary history by paying attention to the women writers who have been overlooked or underappreciated in the past. In recent weeks, McKinney’s thoughts have turned to Black writers, and the current phenomenon of the antiracist reading list and the ways it can, lazily deployed, “reduce incredible work by black writers to something white people read for self-improvement and not beautiful works on their own.”
As someone who had recommended some books on this topic I’d found meaningful, I gave McKinney’s perspective, and the Lauren Michele Jackson essay that prompted her to share it, a great deal of consideration. This, I think, is the heart of her message:
“You do not read Nobel Laureate and American Treasure Toni Morrison because you feel bad about being white. You read her because she is arguably the best novelist America has ever produced.”
She had her own recommendations, books she thought we should read “because they are good and we like reading good things,” and really there’s no disagreeing with that criteria.
The following week, McKinney took what she described as “a hard look at my bookshelf,” and realized that despite her best intentions, her reading was still heavily shaped by the dominant White culture. This immediately resonated with me, because I’d gone through a similar self-discovery process eight years ago, grappling with the beam in my own reading eye., particularly concerning gender iniquities. “Book critics, like everybody else, have culturally embedded biases which, when left unchecked, tend to reinforce the status quo,” I wrote back then. “In this case, no matter how often prominent figures in the world of literary criticism insist gender plays no role in their decisions about what to review, male writers consistently get the better deal.”
Just like McKinney, though, when I sat down and did the math, I wasn’t much better than the New York Times at maintaining a truly diverse canon. “Why, despite my intentions, which had already begun to take shape, did I tend to veer towards this book rather than that one?” I wondered—and what could I do to fix it?
“I can’t fall back on excuses like ‘these are the books that publishers send me,’ or more broadly ‘these are the books that get published,’ to justify these results, because that’s just lazy; the books are out there, and it’s my job to search for them… I like to tell myself that I’m reviewing books to hold a mirror up to contemporary culture—more often than not to celebrate it, true, but in the broadest sense to engage with it. It seems, however, that I may be at risk of holding a mirror up to myself.”
Happily, the literary world seems to be substantially less defensive about its White patriarchal biases than it was back in 2012. It’s still plenty defensive, mind you; a recent attempt by the National Book Critics Circle to craft a statement in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement ended in a huffy farrago of finger-pointing and mass resignation after the poet and essayist Hope Wabuke publicly circulated an email that had been sent to board members by Philadelphia-based book reviewer Carlin Romano, who declared, “I resent the idea that whites in the book publishing and literary world are an oppositional force that needs to be assigned to reeducation camps.”
Of course, Romano isn’t an isolated figure within literary circles, and the heel-digging attitude he displays isn’t limited to the fancy end of the book spectrum. Remember back in January, when entrenched racism rotted Romance Writers of America from the inside? This is what I said then:
“As long as romance publishers continue to think in terms of, say, ‘African-American readers’ or ‘LGBTQ readers’ as niche markets that can serviced with discrete, finite efforts, they will continue to define the mainstream in ways that predominantly cater to heterosexual white women, and writers who can effectively cater to that audience will reap the rewards.”
That’s still true of romance, and it’s definitely still true of publishing as a whole.
And yet people are more aware of the problem, and more willing to acknowledge it, than they have been in the past. We don’t always know how to fix it, though—and sometimes we’re too quick to take the easy way out. “This isn’t the time to circle up with other white people and discuss black pain in the abstract,” warns Tre Johnson. Reading a few books won’t fix the problem, and too many people think that reading the books is all they have to do, especially if they made a big deal of buying those books from a Black-owned independent bookstore. (In fact, because everybody decided to order the few books all at once, bookstores are waiting for publishers to do additional printings so they can fulfill their orders—and some customers, who expected to have their homework done by now, are calling up the bookstores to berate them for poor service and demand their money book, blissfully ignorant of the privilege they’re flexing.)
By all means, read the memoirs-with-cultural-analysis that I told you about; dive into the literary list Kelsey McKinney curated. As you read those books, however, make room for them to change your life—then change your life.
“The right acknowledgment of black justice, humanity, freedom, and happiness won’t be found in your book clubs, protest signs, chalk talks, or organizational statements,” Johnson continues. “It will be found in your earnest willingness to dismantle systems that stand in our way—be they at your job, in your social network, your neighborhood associations, your family, or your home.”
Ibram X. Kendi says there’s no such thing as being “non-racist.” You’re either actively racist, passively complicit in racism, or actively antiracist. It’s not that we have an opportunity now to be antiracist—we have always had that opportunity, and some of us have failed to seize that opportunity more often than we may care to admit.
That complicity is bound tightly in complacency—and though it may seem strange to talk about complacency considering how many of us have had our lives upended this year, I believe it’s the right word for the occasion. Fortunately, you don’t have to be complacent about systemic racism, just as you don’t have to be complacent about this systemic failure of a Trump-led federal government (and several state governments) to deal with the crisis we’re facing. We can refuse to accept the status quo. We can destroy what were once our safe and happy lives, and choose a different way of being in this world. Let’s acknowledge where we’ve fallen short, and dedicate ourselves to doing better moving forward.
(Black Lives Matter/Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof logo created by Tom Haviv for JFREJ)