People, we have a huge problem more insidious than COVID-19. It’s a virus that’s been dividing us and replicating itself during the course of four centuries. And yes, this is a blog about racism. If you’re tired of reading about this topic, stop right here. If you’re curious, keep going.
I don’t know if this is true for you, but the older I become, the more I want to learn. I have so many unasked questions. Some may sound naïve or child-like, but I assure you, I’m asking from a place of sincere curiosity.
For those of you who are historians, when and where did white people first have a negative visceral reaction to black people? Did this negative reaction feel like fear, loathing, anger? We need to talk about this.
For the psychologists in our midst, why did/does fear express itself as an aggressive need to belittle, destroy, or dominate those who are feared? Why, in spite of truths to the contrary, do some white people continue to believe they are superior in every way to people of color? We need to have several conversations about this.
From my perspective, there are as many threads woven into racism as there are in the AIDS Quilt. Because I steer my boat toward pragmatism, and because racism is so pervasive, I figure it’s best to tackle this dilemma one thread at a time. The thread that comes to mind in this setting is the one tenuously connecting lesbian literature to ALL of its writers, readers, and producers. This thread is thin and it’s fraying, especially for the forty years-old and up among us. We’ve stood on a few bridges far too long.
Here’s the first one to which I bring a torch.
If you’re a publisher, how many books written by writers of color (WOC) have you published? How many content editors, copy editors, book cover artists, promotion-tasked folks of color have you employed? Do you accept or reject book covers that reveal the protagonists are POC? How many minority-owned bookstores/book clubs/book fairs do you contact in an effort to promote the books you publish? How many manuscripts written by authors of color have you rejected because of the manuscripts’ characters of color, not because of the quality of the work? Can we please talk about this?
On a personal note, there’s an issue that continues to smolder under my feet… My first book was self-published. The manuscript for my second book was praised for its literary merit but rejected by a lesbian-owned publishing house because, “no one will be interested in reading about a black girl’s coming out.” That happened only thirteen years ago, decades after the Jim Crow era.
Please know these names. Stephanie A. Allen, Nikki Baker, LaShonda Barnett, Samiya Bashir, Renée Bess, Becky Birtha, Dionne Brand, Sharon Bridgforth, Laurinda Brown, Shonia Brown, Octavia Butler.
Onto the next bridge that awaits immolation.
If you’re a lesfic reader, have you bought any books written by WOC? When you’re shopping for books online or in person, do you tend to pass by those whose covers illustrate characters of color? When you’ve read books authored by WOC, have you felt surprised to discover the characters and plot details might represent life experiences that differ from yours, but the themes are universal? We need to listen to each other about this.
Please become acquainted with these names. Staceyann Chin, Cheril N. Clarke, Cheryl Clarke, Michelle Cliff, Lucille Clifton, Angela Davis, Alexis DeVeaux, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Mari Evans, Jessie Fauset, Jewelle Gomez, Sheree L. Greer, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Rosa Guy.
And now, as gently as I can, I’ll strike a match and set it down on this last bridge, one upon which I’ve seen a few WOC stand quietly, as if they’re asking permission to offer the world diverse characters, as if writing about white characters only will ensure greater book sales and popularity.
This bridge’s lane markings are faded. Its signage and support columns are rusted and weakened by the passage of time and the progress we’ve made. Why not write your reality? Why not write stories about the range of black people’s experiences? Why write your books for the white gaze only?
Those of us who have grown up living in racially diverse communities, attended schools with students of different races and ethnicities, and as adults have entered interracial relationships/marriages know first-hand the complexities, subtle and not, of the gumbo in which we exist. We are constantly aware of how the world sees and perceives us. Our survival depends upon it. I am suggesting there’s a readership eager to meet all kinds of black characters and explore their stories.
Angelina Weld Grimké, Lorraine Hansberry, Nikki Harmon, JP Howard, Cheryl Head, Bell Hooks, Zora Neale Hurston, N. K. Jemisin, June Jordan, Gayle Jones, Nella Larson, Ana-Maurine Lara, Audre Lorde, Penny Mickelbury, Mia McKenzie, Lisa C. Moore, Nik Nicholson, Chinelo Okparanta, Pat Parker, Nikki Rashan, Sapphire, Ann Allen Shockly, Makeda Silvera, Barbara Smith, Linda Villarosa, Alice Walker, Ida B. Wells, Rebekah Weatherspoon, Valerie Wilson Wesley, Anondra Williams, KD Williamson, Jacqueline Woodson, Shay Youngblood, Fiona Zedde. Please know their names.*
We cannot continue to fear, fight, and diminish one another while # 45 is drawing targets on our backs and the reality of 8 minutes, forty-six seconds assaults us head-on.
In memory of Sherry Mills who always sought to help people, no matter their race, gender identity, age, or sexuality. We miss you already, Sherry.
*My sincerest apologies to any lesbian writer of color whose name I’ve not included.
© Renée Bess, 2020
Renée Bess is the author of five novels published by Regal Crest Enterprises, whose owner didn’t hesitate to offer a contract to a writer of color. Along with Lee Lynch and Patty Schramm, who didn’t hesitate to accept Renée’s invitation to help create a book, she’s the co-story collector of the 2018 Goldie winning anthology, OUR HAPPY HOURS, LGBT VOICES FROM THE GAY BARS, (Flashpoint Publications). Renée is one of the winners of the 2019 Alice B Readers Award. You’ll find her blog posts here at Women and Words each month, because Andi Marquette and Jove Belle never hesitated to welcome her words.