The Fire Next Time: For James and Octavia

 

 As a writer, and moonlighting teacher, I reflected on If Beale Street Could Talk after the hubs took me to see the movie. I was 6 when he died in 1987 of stomach cancer. And through my middle school and high school reading, I cannot remember him ever being mentioned. Either him, Octavia Butler, Alice Walker or Richard Wright. I think Toni Morrison would call that ‘the colonization of your canon.’  I mean, my Junior year of high school is when I got introduced to Toni Morrison. That was 1997!

I get incredibly pissed off when I think about that now!

Now, do I know, did I know, that Black writers existed? Yes. Most of my books are composed to authors whom I fell in love with on my own. I needed, wanted more than the smattering of Black writers we go in February. I remember being so tired of just reading Knoxville, Tenneessee by Nikki Giovanni! In wanted more of her work. But I’m aware that certain school districts like the safety of Maya Angelou and Lorriane Hansberry’s Raisin In The Sun. I get that Baldwin is confrontational to those whom govern these curriculum spaces; the people that can and do say ‘Yes’ to Washington Irving and ‘No’ to Octavia Estelle Butler. The people that think James Baldwin asking with audiacious sincerity why the country ‘needs to have a n–gger?’ is too much for White teacher in a predominately Black school, whose bosses and administrators are all White. I get that no one wants to have these conversations regarding race and writing. Perhaps, this is the folcrum that Wynton Marsalis talk about when he said this during the Ken Burns documentary Jazz:

“The more we run from race in this country, the more we run towards it.”

Perhaps this is why up until the birth of my parents, and a little after that educating a Black person in Mississippi was seen as punitive and would be punished as such! There is a power in control a narrative in such a way that the people you brutalize cannot even tell what happened to them in a first hand account. That kind of power the oppressor will never give up, be reasoned for or given away without it being identified and overthrown!

A friend of my husband graduated from seminary last week. As all college students do, she was cleaning out her apartment to move. In these three Rubbermaid totes, she just had books. Copious, delicious, incredible amount of books! She called it her Harlem Renaissance collection. I thumbed through them and almost cried. My legacy, my footsteps as a writer in this colonized, thieving nation was in these bins. I almost wept. I couldn’t take them all with me, and I couldn’t just take one.

My mission as I move through this space of writer-teacher is two-fold.

One. I vow to write constantly. bell hooks said that no woman has ever written enough. I agree.

Two. I vow to decolonize my canon. This means that I have to step up my reading to where it was before. This means I have to be willing to talk up other Black writers. Recommend their work as casually as I would any other writer. To quote them, read more of them, and–in the case of the marvelous Tananarive Due–follow them on social media!

For those of you IRL that know me, it is no secret that my passion has been and is words. The dream was–still is–to teach at the university level. Whereas before I wanted to be a professor at NYU, teaching English Literature. I think we can say that I’m passed that. The most amazing way to honor my Blackness, my gifting, my call–all of me that is Oracle–would be to teach African-American studies. I mean, I already got my thesis! No, I’m not telling you, but it’ll be dope I assure you.

In earnest, if I didn’t see folk that look like me setting the world on fire, I would never have believed I could. For that, I am grateful.

 

“The goal of the artist is to disturb the peace.” – James Baldwin

[images from azquotes.com and goalcoast.com]