March 20, 2021, 9 AM, GMT
In 2018, when two other novelists and I were being taken from a reception in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, to the downtown Detroit hotel where we were staying, we saw a black man arrested on the side of the road. The driver of the car, a white woman who had spent the first part of the drive protesting the way that Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, had ruined the city, looked at this lonely black man who was surrounded by police officers. police with their weapons drawn and said: “How good that there are so many of them. You never know what they will do. “
Two years before, I had published Back home, my first novel, a book that, among other things, deals with the survival of the transatlantic slave trade. That book gave me a kind of recognition that is rare among fictional authors. I went on late-night television gatherings and they took pictures of me for fashion magazines. I gave countless interviews and wrote very little. Most of my work activity consisted of touring the country giving lectures and lectures. I allocated about 180 days of the year 2017 to attend an event or to travel from one place to another. By the time that drive in Michigan took place, I was feeling drained, not just from the travel, but from something more difficult to express: the disagreement in the way the attention is focused on blacks, between being revered in a certain way. and reviled by another, with a disgust that exposes the falsity of that reverence.
The next morning, I delivered my speech to a room full of people who had gathered there to raise funds for a library, a speech in which I insisted, as so many black writers, artists, and scholars have done before, that America has not yet it has faced the aftermath of slavery. That manifests itself in everything around us, from our prisons to our schools, our healthcare system, our food and our waterways. I finished the speech. I received the applause and thanks and got into another car. The driver was different, but the world was the same.
What exactly can a man do with a knee to his neck, what can a sleeping woman do to deserve to be murdered?
Last summer, when the news about the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor began to rage, I remembered the words of that driver again. I was thinking about how white people, to justify their own grotesque violence, often adopt a kind of fiction, a completely insidious denial that generates the very reality against which they claim to protest. By this I mean that refusing to see the violence that actually takes place in front of you for presuming the violence that might occur is, in itself, a kind of violence. What exactly can a man do with a knee to his neck, what can a sleeping woman do to deserve to be murdered? To make room for that atrocity, that depraved thought, to believe in the necessity of any murder, one must renounce reality. To consider that the problem is that man who is being pointed with several pistols and who has his hands on his head, one has to get out of the present tense (”How good that they are so many “) and enter the future (” You never know what they will”). A future, of course, totally imaginary.
I make a living with my imagination, but this summer, while I saw how Back home resurfaced on the bestseller lists of The New York Times As a result of its appearance on anti-racist reading lists, I realized again, with a not inconsiderable bile, that I also earn my living by expressing pain. Mine, my people’s. It is heartbreaking to understand that it is the killings of black people and the subsequent act of “listening and learning” by white people that cause this renewed interest in your work. I would rather not have to experience that feeling of your career reaching high heights at the same time that you are inundated by a grief so old and worn that it seems unearthed, a fossil of other ancient and worn grief.
Why have we come back to this? Why do you ask me questions that James Baldwin answered in the sixties, that Toni Morrison answered in the eighties?
When in an interview they ask me what I feel when I see that Back home reappears in the lists of best-sellersI answer something brief and banal, like “it’s bittersweet”, because the idea of delving into it exhausts me and offends me. What I should say is: Why have we come back to this? Why do you ask me questions that James Baldwin answered in the sixties, that Toni Morrison answered in the eighties? Read Blue eyes by Toni Morrison for the first time when I was a teenager, and I found it so crystalline, in such a beautiful and perfect shape, that it filled me with something akin to terror. I did not understand it. I did not understand how a novel could pierce my heart and find the inexpressible wound. I learned absolutely nothing, but there was a small adjustment within me, an imperceptible change that only takes place when I am faced with wonder and admiration, before the best art. In a better world, having my book appear next to that title on any list should have filled me with unqualified pride, but instead I felt depressed. While I firmly believe in the power of literature to challenge, to deepen, to change, I also know that buying books by black writers is nothing more than a painfully late and totally impoverished theoretical response to centuries of physical and emotional damage. Blue eyes it was published fifty-one years ago. As Lauren Michelle Jackson wrote in the excellent essay What is an anti-racist reading list for? published in Vulture, “At some point someone has to focus on the subject of reading.”
And it is that question of “the matter of reading”, of how we read, of why we read, of what we read. makes and what makes for us, on what I do not stop reflecting. A few years ago, I showed up at a festival with a friend, another black author, and we started telling anecdotes. She noted that the first time she participated in a panel with a white writer, she was shocked by the questions they asked him. Questions about the trade. About the characters. About the documentation. Questions about the novel itself, about its characteristics, about the content of the pages. I understood exactly what she meant.
Whites approach black people’s works as if they were medicine, something they have to swallow to improve their health
With many of the black writers I know, whites approach their works as if they were some kind of medicine. Something they have to swallow to improve their health, but they don’t really want to, they don’t really enjoy it, and if they’re totally honest, they just skip taking that medication half the time. They buy it and leave it on a shelf. What pleasure, what deepening can be achieved if it is “read” in that way? Entering the world of fiction with such a contaminated mission is equivalent to condemning that novel or that story to disappoint us in the most essential.
I have published two books in especially tense election years, and the only way I can think of to describe the general tone of many of the question sessions that took place is as a frantic search for answers or acquittal. There is a huge lag between “please tell me what I’m doing wrong” and “please tell me I’m not doing anything wrong.” The intensity and suddenness of this desperation to be seen as “good” contradicts the age of these problems and how deeply ingrained they are. There is a reason why Back home It spans three hundred years, and yet that is no more than a very shallow dive into a bottomless pit. This is not fixed with a summer of readings. Some may wish to view the events of June 2020 as a “racial reckoning,” but in a country where there was a civil war and a civil rights movement a hundred years apart, at some point it may be It is useful to ask how long it takes for that reckoning to take place. When, if ever, will we do it?
So what exactly is all this “listening and learning” leading to? In the early days of summer, as my dog barked at the protesters flooding the street in front of my building, I tried to decide whether or not I wanted to join them. When I finally did, I felt a million things at the same time: I felt touched and proud and hopeful and angry and offended and desperate. There was something legitimately beautiful about being part of a multiracial, multigenerational, cross-class crowd, made up of people who, for months, filled the streets, shouted, demonstrated and resisted.
And even so. Seeing white people holding Black Lives Matter signs as we marched through gentrified Brooklyn. Seeing white parents cradling their children on their shoulders, singing “Black Lives Matter,” when I suspect that they have gone to great lengths to make sure those same children never have to attend a school that has more than one graceful number low black. All this brings up the disagreement again. That disgust that exposes the falsehood of reverence. The words “Black Lives Matter”, black lives matter – a reverent, simple and true phrase – cannot be more than false in the mouths of those who do not tolerate black life, real life, when they see it at school, in the doctor’s office, on the side of the road. Anyway, I joined the demonstration. A few months later, I went on tour to present my second novel, knowing what I have always known. The world can change and remain exactly the same.
Translation by Eduardo Hojman.
Yaa Gyasi She is a Ghanaian-American writer. His new book, ‘Beyond my kingdom ‘(Salamander), is published on May 13.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.