The Black Writer and Overcoming the Demand to “Write White”

A Common “Curse”

Toni Morrison is a phenomenal writer. Her writing grabs the reader by the ears and makes them hear the heart beat of the characters she creates in their minds. What she provokes is not reading, but a way to see with. words.  ToniMorrison_WestPointLecture_2013

All the great writers, from Gertrude Dorsey Brown, to Wallace Thurman  to James Baldwin—perform a similar function with their writing. Yet, a common complaint about the black writer is one of grammar. A quick look on Goodreads, Amazon, or any other hegemonic platform, features countless comments that condemn black authors for their imperfect writing. An anti black agent conventionally referenced as a college professor, boasted of correcting the flawed grammar of Wallace Thurman. This feckless comment capitalizes on Thurman’s general obscurity, and begs an ignorance to the fact that the late Wallace Thurman, though a novelist, was also an editor.  From consistent criticism on black speech that ignores the imposition English marks on the black tongue, to the formalized ridicule of the black college student for writing deemed inferior to the institution of “higher” learning,  it is no secret that “higher” translates to “whiter.”

Inferiority by Ink

Langston_Hughes_by_Carl_Van_Vechten_1936The general labeling of the black body as linguistically inferior is an anticipated complaint of our oppressors. The consequences are variant, as even the black body has internalized this poisonous perspective of their collective and upon occupying positions of pseudo authority, perform the policing that hindered their youthful dreams of writing.

Being a student nearly all my life, I am quite familiar with the white suprematist wrath on black writing. Youth coerces the black body to afford teachers a trust that many did not, and will never earn. Many blacks trust that our teachers wish to make us better, not cast us in the image of institutionalized defeat. I was rather shocked to see that many of the ambiguously hostile commentary of my academic past and present was reflected in the commentary one of my articles posted on platform Lipstick Alley. In hindsight, I know that I probably should not have clicked the link, however, considering that LSA is supposedly a platform of black voices, my vestment in black perspective led me off a cliff. 

These comments, in chorus, articulate an expectation for me to write white. 

The Ink Can Be Black, but You Can’t: Writing as Weaponry

By write white I speak specifically to the not so silent demand that I, a black woman, WallaceThurmanabide by the very grammar and mechanical rules that has articulated my collective inferiority for centuries. My writing is to demonstrate mastery of the very technicalities that legalized the niggerization of my people. 

Though actualized as issues with grammar and mechanics, these formalities functions to veil an anxiety. Now here is where the conventional arguments of this sort speak to an anxiety of black intellect. Intellect however is a problem, but it is not the problem. The black collective is not at a shortage of intellect—whether developed or underdeveloped. We are at a shortage of confidence. Accusations of grammar and mechanic deficiency functions to attack black confidence–to seduce the exercising of black talent to become what Langston Hughs labeled “ a dream deferred.”

To write white means to be a parrot of white supremacy. Instead, I prefer to write with soul.

Now, most black writers who function at the mainstream level to demonstrate mastery of oppressive grammar rules. This mastery though makes writing conventionally good-but it is not enough to make any writing great. Great writing is done from the soul. Great writing is an espousal of past and present, of body and mind, of feeling and sight. 

The superficial criticism of black writers for failing to adhere to the oppressive standards of grammar and mechanics, ironically marks outstanding writing. The writing made these scorned feel an emotion that they perceive as incongruent to the climate of white supremacy. Yet instead of investigating these feelings, they clutch the ways of white supremacy and cast the same denigration they experience daily onto their kinfolk. 

In “Da State of Pidgin Address”, Lee A. Tonouchi, makes a bold declaration of pride in his regional and ethnic tonouchidialect, pidgin. His essay articulates  a non-negotiable espousal to pidgin, as pidgin represents everything the academy wants to pull out of him. Most resonantly, is perhaps his proclamation of writing letters of recommendations in this language. Now Tonouchi is not a black man, and his arguments are hardly unique. Plenty of black men and women have also refused to code-switch, but have not been granted the prestige and agility Tonouchi, as a non-black person of color, receives by default. As a non-black person of color, the choice to speak in a language other than English is in fact a privilege. The decision to speak in this language is seen as a choice, not an ability to acquire or perfect the language. Ethnic whites and non-black persons of color are never as ridiculed or undermined for their use of English language as black people. In America, no black person’s use of the English language is ever enough. Even those demonstrating an unprecedented mastery of a coerced language with a severed tongue, are demeaned and treated as language degenerates.

In Closing…

I have no interest in mastering my oppressors language, and have no interest in inspiring others to do so. For too long, my use of the English language has functioned as a weapon against my personhood. This of course is two fold. On one hand, this language symbolized a an tongue cut and draped like a flag over African identity. On the other hand, this language has consistently functioned to personify my alignment with beasts, and general ineptitude. Moreso, playing into these beliefs allows the English language to foment my individual and collective dehumanization.

I am posting this piece because it is something I wish I would have read a decade ago, when the dreams of an undergraduate girl were uprooted by the university. So for the black boy, girl, man or woman who has felt the sting of superficial criticism—keep writing. 

Black Power ❤


5 Comments Add yours

  1. E says:

    Ain’t I a woman~ Sojourner Truth

  2. EttaD says:

    I know exactly where you’re coming from. I’ve written a short story in Bahamian dialect. Self publishing has become a nightmare due to grammar issues and I don’t want to write “white” because a lot, if not all, of the meaning of the story will be lost.

  3. I write my stories using correct grammar. But I don’t think of it as writing white.

  4. jusbnicole says:

    You fearlessly talked about barriers with black writers and I commend you for that. I try my hardest to add my own touch to my writing and if its accepted by everyone or not, i continue to do so. I believe there is no right or wrong way to tell a story especially if its coming from you. Either people will get it or they won’t The way I see it if they don’t it wasn’t really meant for them. I love Toni Morrison by the way. Thank you for sharing.

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