Last week, I was assigned the task of editing a manuscript of a now popular piece of literature or poetry. The assignment failed to satiate my desire to be consumed in blackness by offering no black authored texts for edit. Although certainly not in the same position as my privileged peers, the assignment awoke within me the pertinent role of the editor. I was never particularly fond of white people editing black thoughts, but this assignment would make me far more devoted to the task of vetting black works.
While heavily invested in the black experience on a personal level, my assertions speak to what I will reference as communal ethics. By communal ethics I speak specifically to ethical behavior towards a community, or collective of people, not an individual. This assertion is prominent as it protects the black narrative from those seeking individual fulfillment. By ethics, I do not speak to its conventional use conjured by those of the majority who unethically succeed due to the detriment of the darker hued. Communal ethics with regard to publishing the works of marginalized authors, requires that all prospective editors bear a shared experience to the author, or in other words belong to the same community as the author. For example, if I were to write a novel or book prior to my death, communal ethics would require that anyone who can publish my work would be a pro-black individual like myself to ensure the integrity of my work.
I shared these comments in class after the instructor, a middle aged white man, referenced a vulgar detail about late author Wallace Thurman with regard to his short story, “Cordelia the Crude.” I will purposely omit the comment from this piece to eschew granting the white conscious a subtle victory in reproducing a negative image of the black body.
The comment cast the late Thurman who lived just over thirty years, as the product of an oppositional gaze, imprisoned by a hyper-sexuality. The comment, made to a classroom full of budding scholars to whom Thurman was an enigma— know nothing of this contribution to black literacy but can cite him as another example of black male sexual degeneracy. To this. I articulated a statement regarding what I now reference as communal ethics to which the instructor responded with a story about Ralph Ellison’s posthumous novel Juneteenth. For those who do not know, Juneteenth was assembled by a white man after Ellison’s death.
Glorifying a white editor’s “masterpiece” in assembling Ellison’s work, in addition to the Thurman comment set a searing rage through my body. The rage was not a personal rage, but one erupted from the injustice rendered by yet another white person seeking to justify whites tampering with black literacy. Isn’t it enough that the most prominent authors of the black collective are severed from their native language and bear a white man’s last nam?. No, whites must assume ownership over everything, wearing the elusive cape of a white savior who seek to “save” blacks from everything but whiteness.
To his proud assertions of white assemblage of Ralph Ellison’s novel Juneteenth, I responded by asking if white editor John F. Callahan was in the in fact the invisible man? And if not, his involvement with the project was an abomination to Ellison’s writing and legacy.
The professor grew indignant and yelled:
“Well don’t read it then. Go about your merry life without reading it.”
I do not paraphrase or mince words. This is what was to said to me in a class of ten or so of my classmates. The tone and words were indeed problematic, but mores the suggestion to just not read it.
The comment simultaneously denounces and performs the reality of white male privilege. For its not intrusive of a white man who assumes his visibility from the invisibility of Ralph Ellison and every black man throughout history to author the black narrative. It is however intrusive for me to denounce his actions. I am simply not to read it, but this white man is not deterred from assuming authority over the black narrative.
It is imperative that figures of black literacy— black writers, thinkers, and creative minds remain figments of the black memory and not casualties of the oppositional gaze. It is imperative that the black collective come together and form a community to which we collectively find purpose. This oppositional gaze not only worked to sully Wallace Thurman’s legacy, which include notable works like The Blacker the Berry, but also his founding of the Niggerati– a group consisting of prominent black authors Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and other brilliant black minds dedicated to black literacy, with an incriminating rumor. This admission was not accidental, but reflective of how the white gaze remains committed to ensuring that black excellence is demeaned by a caricatured blackness. As a black female, I was to be grateful for my professor’s inclusion of Thurman and Ellison in our class dialogue. I was to be even more grateful for the white man’s handling of he black narrative— ridding Ellison’s writing from the inferior idiosyncrasies of blackness such as bad grammar, lack of punctuation, and perfection of their master’s language.
This scenario was undoubtedly one of the worst classroom experiences I have had as a instructor or student. But it’s trouble stems from not the individualism of this incident, but in representing a larger portrait of the abducted narrative and silenced advocate shamed for possessing something the white world tries to strip from the black body—dignity. My professor tried to strip Wallace of his dignity in painting him a sexual deviant in a time where every day a new white man is outsed for sexual perversion. His attempt is a strategic attempt to redirect the current conversation of white male sexuality to the sullied sexuality of a prominent author, who wrote from a perspective no white man could emulate.
Furthermore, this scenario is most infuriating in representing a larger battle blacks have in demanding communal ethics from the unethical praxis of institutionalization.
Ellison and Thurman, may you rest in a peace denied to you in life and this unfortunate classroom dialogue .