I am afraid of White people touching my shit. Explicitly, I am fearful of those who lack a comprehensive understanding of Black culture and language adding commentary to my work. It’s like someone going to an NBA game and asking me, “So, when does Tiger Woods come out?” I have seen what White people do to Black shit — to the work of Dave Chappelle, Paul Robeson, and Etta James.
White editors will say they are just editing your work, but it will feel like they are holding lighters to it, they are holding wicker to it, waiting for the ashen parts to show themselves. You and your almost-not-you-anymore piece of work will have new legs, different legs, whiter legs. It will not feel brave; it will feel forced, fake. Essentially, no longer you.
To fully know a culture, it must be seared into your skin before you could even attempt to rewrite its roots.
I sometimes think I lack the appropriate language to tackle this head-on with White editors. I wonder if being the unconventional writer that I am is more of a hindrance than a gift. In that same breath, I wonder how much of the game I’ll have to play: Back down, relinquish control, change the tone and voice to speak to a specific kind of “Black,” up-talk or downplay the way that I write. Whose language do I revere most? Ernest Hemingway or James Baldwin? Bob Dylan or Nasir Jones? James Taylor or Shawn Carter? Are they equal players in the field?
Where have my words gone?
I feel guilty about submitting my work to a publication that doesn’t speak the way my friends do, doesn’t fully understand the contextual meaning of jive. To fully know a culture, it must be seared into your skin before you could even attempt to rewrite its roots.
If you are White and reading this, my words are not for you. This piece is for the person of color sitting beside you, wondering if you are ally or antagonist.
What do I fear more than death, more than the NYPD, more than gentrification and high cholesterol? White editors. My art has more weight than my body, my Blackness more volume than my physical being. In the monochrome of words on a screen, I am anyone. No one will know if I am White, Latinx, Asian, or a hybrid of faux “post-racial” splendor — at least until those notes of Bronx tenement roof-hopping and abandoned building pissy hallway emerge in my tone.
David Foster Wallace’s dissection of Black English, better known as Ebonics, is noteworthy here. After analyzing language, dictionaries, and liberal versus conservative usage of American speech, Wallace concludes that for the Black students in his English course, the harsh reality is that the world will expect them to write in standard English — and that they do a disservice to themselves by not learning the rules that have been deemed the standard. With this, I agree; learning rules affords you the ability to break and bend them as you see fit. But where does it leave my work with someone who has no understanding of my cadence?
I worry that at times I make matters too much of a Black-White thing. I often hear from White readers that I’m “too much.” But I’ve also realized when you are Black and living in America, it is always a Black-White thing. America does not afford you the luxury of separating your Blackness from your oppression, an oppression that is expressly White. Every success, every failure can almost feel attributable to a White stakeholder sitting somewhere comfortably atop the food chain, licking its chops at the grave of your melanin and your opportunity.
If you’re White, this piece isn’t for you. It’s for the person of color sitting beside you, wondering if you are ally or antagonist.
When I say I fear White editors, that’s not entirely correct; there’s more to this than skin color. My hesitation has less to do with fear and more to do with resistance. A wider audience, a far-reaching audience, especially in a metric-driven world of viewership and engagement (shares, likes, reads, retweets, comments, favorites, etc.) is a big deal. More eyes on your words can mean more sponsors, more advertisers, more dollars. In this way, quantity can supersede quality, if only because bulk material increases the opportunity for more visibility to one’s work. And with that mass production, our Black identity often gets erased. Is that something we, as Black creators, should be made to sacrifice?
Being able to cherry-pick who edits your work is a rarity and, honestly, a privilege for a writer. To think that you can have authority over such decisions when legions of writers in history have not been afforded such a luxury. Choice has not been a luxury for my people for quite some time. Call me fussy, naïve, silly. I can foresee the vitriol in the responses already. But still, I am afraid of White people touching my shit, my work, my art, my livelihood. History has shown me what they have done to others, and I have a right to be cautious. My life and art depend on it.