A few months ago, I wrote a newsletter about the small number of black women writers who are celebrated for something other than writing well about race, especially in the field of non-fiction. There were some helpful pointers to some who had published from members but overall, there is a segregation of subjects in the writing world; white people get to write about whatever they want, and black people have to write about race.
Of course there’s no compulsion, but the market wants what the market wants. People of colour in general are expected to be either "racesplainers" or provide race porn. Just as I felt things were getting a little bit better, with the publishing world beginning to realise that there was a market for a wide variety of stories by black writers, particularly in the Young Adult genre, the Black Lives Matter movement finally caught people’s attention and the market reverted aggressively.
Now, gripped with a sense of ignorance and urgency to understand, readers are trying to cram a lifetime of race-related knowledge, and a whole 100 years of history as well, down their reading throats. This isn’t a bad thing, reading can never be a bad thing. But as with all sudden changes and reversals, there are unintended consequences. One of those consequences is an essentialising of the black experience and its reduction to only a black experience.
There are two things that should be happening to make this moment fruitful: one is that white people need to become aware of the entire parallel universe in which black people live alongside them, and the quickest way to do that is to read books about it. But the second component that is important in this process is the actual humanising of black people – the ability to see them as three dimensional beings whose lives are yes, shaped by race for the most part if they live in white majority countries, but beyond that are human and complex like everyone else.
The danger in the latter not happening is that the bench of voices that gets to shape our world remains segregated, and in becoming so the credibility of black voices to have any ideas or comments about anything other than race falls away. This ends up reifying the very same dynamics that black people are protesting against in the first place; the absence of black people in the areas where it matters, in the media and the judiciary and politics, in the areas where they are given the power to shape the world. And it also makes it hard to go beyond the very basic and crude beginnings of race relations. We get stuck in the injustice phase, learning metrics about police brutality and incarceration, but unable to think of the entire hinterland beyond that.
So if you’re reading this and you want to learn by reading about the historical and contemporary oppression of black people, please continue to do that. But please seek to read and learn from and about black people who have something to say about the human condition, so you can also, perhaps, learn something about yourself.