#blackonblack is a feature in which black people discuss black culture/black experiences/black everything.
Harlem, NY, 1978 – Dawoud Bey.
Talking about your experiences as a black woman means you’re prone to sprouting clichés. There’s the idea of self-sacrifice. The notion that you’re to be everybody’s rock but your own. The fear of walking and slaving your existence away to give gold, frankincense and myrrh to your only begotten sons. The whole Nubian Kings and Nubian Queens produce Nubian Princes fairytale. The bullshit featured on the walls of raging misogynists masquerading as pro-black radicals who are into make-believe stories about black history.
As a black woman, I’m painfully aware of the ways I fall victim to cliché. Whenever I’m sick, I know one too many complaints could result in being called lazy. In the heat of an argument, I’ve practised tempering my voice to avoid amassing more ticks on the angry/sassy black girl box my peers have confined me to. In terms of writing, I’ve realized how important it is to give my prose that whiskey neat nuance that seems to be the stuff of white male writers with liberal-ish politics and a deference to the blues.
Black writers, university education has reminded me, invoke a transcendent, pseudo-religious prose that’s overwritten and overly ambitious. It’s a criticism which suggests that there’s a cap on the extent to which black narratives can be afforded creative and literary freedom. It suggests that they have to adhere to different forms, stylistic choices and language to be considered a good black novel. Black experiences are often accused by critics of lacking complexity. They’re said to be redundant and ridden with a bad or rather, black case of one-dimensionality. When people make these complaints, they perhaps feel like they’re doing the right thing. They perhaps believe that they’re invested in going beyond the common narrative. They’re sincere in their belief that they’re asking for something deeper.
Yet as a black woman, I can’t help but suspect they’re in search of the familiar. That when they speak of nuance, complexity and depth, they’re essentially asking to see themselves. To see the white light in a room shrouded in darkness. When I speak my truth and they dismiss it as a sequel to “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”, I know they’re scared to consider that the exhausted narratives of pain and suffering have an element of truth in them. They’re afraid to admit that these so-called clichés exist largely because they’re true.
I don’t always comprehend why dealing with the excruciating is so difficult. I’ll confess that I get fed up whenever I’m asked to be understanding of how “uncomfortable” the topic of racism can be. But when experiences that resemble my own are ignored because they lack what so many people take for granted, it makes me quite livid. I suppose there’s something jarring in coming to terms with the idea that someone else’s life is abhorrently different to yours. That the odds were designed, not tilted, in your favour. It’s a sentiment I can understand when I’m focused on being intellectually detached from thinking about the historical horror my skin represents. If I’m being truthful, I’m bothered by what I find to be a self-centered approach to black writing. It unsettles me as a black woman to know that selfishness is a feeling I have to strive for when writing or reading. I don’t like being selfish. I try to think of others. To make sure everyone is counted. To go beyond myself to guarantee that the loneliness I feel is exclusive to me.
These criticisms also confirm the idea that the content of black writing can only go so far. I’ve seen reviewers stress that black writing belabours themes of suffering, hardship, supernatural inclinations and racism. They seem to impede on the comfort and sensibilities of its most open-minded white audiences. Yet it’s writing of this sort that has and will always gain traction. It appeals to the fantasies of the other while stoking the right amount of self-flagellating guilt its white readers desire. It speaks to the rhetoric, mysticism, paranoia and woe-is-we narrative on the fingertips of conscious black folk tweeting their oppression away. I draw much contentment in the idea of the universal struggle. As trite as it is, I enjoy being able to relate racial frustrations over 140 characters. I know I’m only contributing to the imagined church of black victimhood. But I believe the revolution will be tweeted about, facebooked and snapchatted so no regrets.
What your African American Studies department won’t tell you is that black writing serves as a moral brochure. It’s there to offer history, pleasure, vengeance and hope. I’ve come to understand how important it is for us to see the latter in black writing. Much of the criticism over Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” is that it fails to inspire hopefulness in its readers. At times I’ve been shocked at people’s entitlement over what they feel black literature ought to do for them. I’m more surprised at how comfortable they are inserting and centralising themselves in a narrative that has nothing to do with them.
But as a black woman, I remember that our hardship is to be shared, dissected and milked of its didacticism for the good of the world. I’ve learnt that our struggles can be used as a means of accrediting others. “Woman is the nigger of the world,” John Lennon once exclaimed as he sought to tell us just how undervalued women were in society by comparing them to black people. I’ve often wondered how to interpret that statement, as a person who is both a woman and black. If woman is a nigger of the world and nigger is the worst possible thing you can be then what of the black woman? What grotesque and punishing form of existence must she lead to be worse than a nigger? I can tell you what I think. But it’s worth asking whether you want to listen to me? When you crave more of the black woman’s experience, what exactly are you demanding? A narrative that is nuanced in the sense that it comforts and considers you? Or do you want an experience that is unexpected in its dark, predictable and sometimes hopeless ways?
Khanya Mtshali is the Deputy Editor of PTL. She likes talking about her love for vegan chilli and browsing Solange’s life on Instagreezy. Khanya also enjoys curling up with a good book and watching Come Dine With Me because it makes her feel like a grown-up. When she isn’t attempting to write stuff, she can be found working on a cure for her severe case of resting bitch face.
This piece is a part of Season V of PTL which is run in association with: All About Trans.
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