Symbolism and Cynicism: On Being a Writer During Black History Month

Symbolism and Cynicism: On Being a Writer During Black History Month

Tayari Jones
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

The invitations start around Thanksgiving: Greetings, Ms. Jones! I am events coordinator for the Mayberry Public Library and we are delighted to invite you to be our Black History Month speaker! About ten years ago, when I was struggling to make a name for myself as a writer, I greeted these requests with an uncomplicated delight: my handful of short stories and essays had reached an audience and had earned me a place not just as a spokesperson on black history but as example of black excellence. These invitations usually came without honoraria and I often shared the docket with three or four other “emerging” writers. Some of my peers who are not black writers grumbled a bit about the idea that I could score invitations “just” for being black. And I must admit that at that stage of my life, I did think of this as lagniappe, just a tiny leg up. Since then, I have published two novels and have begun to chafe a bit at these invitations. Like many black writers, my schedule is frequently packed during February, but comparatively lean during the rest of the year. If February is Black History Month, is the rest of the calendar reserved for white people?

Countee Cullen was not the first to declare that he wanted to be a “writer” rather than a “Negro writer,” and Percival Everett certainly will not be the last. The politics surrounding Black History Month have made the decision to accept or refuse an invitation far more complicated than matters of scheduling. There are writers who adopt an unnuanced stance, flat-out refusing to read during Black History Month. When their in-boxes start to fill in November, they request dates in March. If the sponsor agrees, fine. If not, not. Other writers ask for the March 1 booking, as a test of the sponsor’s politics: if the sponsor agrees, the writer will backtrack, accepting the February date. This dance is just a part of the ongoing conflict that black artists struggle with as we wonder if we are being used as symbols or tokens. I have been asked to read at institutions in February and I have been fairly confident that I would not have been asked were it not Black History Month. If my schedule allows, I accept the booking anyway, although I know many who would refuse.

Writers turn down dates in February to take a stance against tokenism, to smite those who believe that good behavior during the shortest month of the year makes up for eleven months of exclusion. The writers believe their participation in these Black History Month programs endorses this cultural segregation in pursuit of exposure and, of course, the honoraria.

The cynicism of our age has taken Black History Month far from the idealism of its founder, Carter G. Woodson, best known for his book The Mis-education of the Negro. In 1926, he instituted Negro History Week (also known as Negro Achievement Week) primarily for the benefit of black Americans who were unaware of their contributions to American history. He also imagined this week to be a weeklong PR campaign to improve race relations by improving the estimation of black folks in the eyes of white America. Of course, like many other American institutions, Black History Month has been appropriated by corporations. There is something obscene about McDonald’s restaurants in the greater Washington, D.C., area handing out copies of A Raisin in the Sun while they push unhealthy foods on African American children. Although universities are not seeking to make a monetary profit from Black History Month, I am sometimes uneasy in the moments before my talk when the organizer professes a commitment to diversity and tolerance and then invites me to the stage as defense exhibit A.

The irony is that those who would opt out of Black History Month share the goals of its founder. Although many black people grumble that it is not their responsibility to educate white people about our worth, most would agree that racism stems largely from ignorance, the antidote to this is obviously education, and somebody’s got to do it. The question is whether refusing the invitations serves any purpose besides giving the writer a sense that she is doing something to address the problem. This, of course, brings in a second irony: performing a symbolic action to critique the symbolism of another equally symbolic action. This quiet act of “resistance” vibrates no further than the consciousness of the writer in question.

The flip side of the complaint—“The only time they invite me is in February”—is to imagine the scenario from the point of view of the audience: “The only chance I get to see these writers is in February.” This idea is even more compelling when you consider that audiences during Black History Month are disproportionately African American, many of whom live off the usual black book-tour circuit—D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, etc. They arrive for these February events in excited groups—sometimes they are members of book clubs, other times they are families.

This is not to say that my experiences during Black History Month have been entirely positive. For example, in Raleigh, North Carolina, I was asked, “What percentage of your work is black, and what percentage is universal?” One benefit of that encounter was that the man who asked me that will never pose such a question to anyone again, ever. I do not look back at that event as one of my best moments on the road, but writers shouldn’t travel just to be feted. We travel for the same reason that we write: to bring attention to the stories and truths that matter to us.

One February, I read from Leaving Atlanta, my first novel, a recollection of growing up during the Atlanta child murders, when at least twenty-nine African American children—two of whom were my classmates—were murdered in 1980. The reading, at a junior college in my hometown, was well attended by students of all ages and races. During the Q&A, I received the usual comments from the students and even the faculty that they had been previously unaware of this aspect of our recent history. Then a black woman about my age raised her hand. “Thank you for writing this book. It’s like nobody remembers what happened to us. Before hearing you talk, it was like I had hallucinated my whole childhood.”

After the Q&A was over, I pushed through the crowd looking for her. I tapped her shoulder, and when she turned around, we hugged, grateful to have found each other. There has been no more rewarding moment for me in my life as a writer. That it occurred courtesy of Black History Month doesn’t diminish the significance of the experience.

Although this may seem a bit feel-goody, it would be dishonest to omit this recollection in the interest of making a larger point about the implications of cultural segregation. The woman in the audience who affected me so profoundly had never heard of me or read my work. She saw my black face on a flyer and figured that my talk would be as good a way as any to earn credit for her English class. When I walked to the podium, I didn’t care much what motivated the students to attend. I was naïve enough to imagine that they were dedicated readers of my work, that they were there because of who I am. I was invited because I am black and much of the audience attended because I am black. I don’t care. What matters is not so much why the people filled the room but rather what happened when we were there together.

This is not to dismiss the problematic aspects of Black History Month invitations. However, the invitation itself is just the catalyst for an experience that will likely fall within the range I’d have at readings during any other month of the year. It’s naïve to think that potential organizers and attendees notice my race only in February. Similarly, it’s foolhardy to assume that the most significant interaction during these February events happens between the black writer and the white members of the audience. Finally, it’s cynical to presume that the motivation behind the planning of the event is more important than the writer’s contribution, the audience’s reaction, and, of course, the power of the work itself.

More Reads

Ghost Stories for the Very Adult

Leland de la Durantaye

The Brain and the Tomb

Avi Davis

Lost in Canada

Eileen Myles