“I’m already discredited, I’m already politicized, before I get out of the gate,” The late author Toni Morrison said in an interview with Hilton Als from The New Yorker Magazine. Morrison went on: “‘I can accept the labels’ — the adjectives like ‘black’ and ‘female’ that are often attached to her work — ‘because being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination — it expands it. It’s richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I’ve experienced more.’”
Morrison beautifully vocalizes the process by which our identities are internalized and subconsciously influence what we produce. While this idea applies to a diverse range of disciplines and is not limited to writing by any means, it actually prompts a particularly introspective question to grapple with: To what extent do our identities contribute to “good” writing and also in a way, inform our writing? On the flip side, how do our identities impact how our audiences’ view and understand our writing? While “good” writing is a social construct at its core, for exploration let’s follow Morrison’s working definition to say “good” writing signifies richness in content.
I’ll start: I am a liberal, Indian-American woman and daughter to immigrants. Now that you know this about me, does your perception change as you read the rest of this column?
It absolutely does, and you’re lying to yourself if you object. It is the blatant truth that our core identities such as race, gender and political affiliations affect the way we interpret the world just as much as it affects the way the world views us and our work. Most writers are opposed to labels, but I wholeheartedly disagree and side with Morrison that they actually expand the richness of our writing. Morrison has never shied away from being a “black woman writer.” In fact, it’s essential to take into account race, gender and political affiliations of any author, lecturer or instructor. Productive dialogue results from confronting different opinions, and our viewpoints are reflections of our values and belief systems. In order to properly engage with a text, it’s necessary to look beyond the superficial and instead take into account the factors that play a role in the creation of the text.
It’s important to view the characteristics that make us unique, whether it be cultural, spiritual or political, as a shared experience. Learning together is arguably the most successful method by which to expand our understanding of humanity. It’s important to force ourselves and others into uncomfortable spaces and, paradoxically, to grow comfortable with the uncomfortable. That being said, Morrison’s being a “black woman writer” does not automatically make it her “responsibility to be a teaching tool for white people” about Black culture, in the same way that Malcolm Gladwell isn’t writing to an audience consisting of 21-year old Indian-American women like myself. Morrison’s work and lasting legacy is defined by her ability to create a new space for women like herself. Her writing founded new perspectives on “Blackness” and beautifully exposed deeply personal and moving stories of Black women.
A personal favorite of mine, Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young Black girl who prays every single day for the beauty of blue eyes. This story addresses society’s obsession with beauty and beauty standards set forth by whiteness. Through Pecola’s idolization of “beauty,” the reader witnesses the way in which this toxic, normalized precedent of beauty operates from a young age and persists into adulthood. Morrison explains her purpose in the forward of “The Bluest Eye.” This text serves as a medium through which to reclaim racial beauty. There are elements to Pecola’s story that resonate within Morrison and are intended to ignite a fire within Black females to enact change. Her stories must be understood within the context of her life experiences as a Black woman in order to receive the level of attention and response that her writing demands.
It’d be a disservice to the author, their experiences and ourselves to tip-toe around discussing a writer’s text with regards to their identities. What comprises our identity is meant to be displayed proudly to our audiences. Sharing our innermost traits and ideologies with those who are open-minded will benefit the masses by creating an open and inclusive learning environment. This is my final request: In an attempt to not be racist, don’t go so far as to be “color-blind” as plenty of colleagues and friends joke. Excluding and confronting race as if it is a taboo subject only further contributes to ingraining the racist rhetoric that exists within society. Here’s a general rule of thumb: If it makes you uncomfortable to talk about social and personal identities, then that’s a clear sign to use these formative years to educate, engage and encourage yourself. Become comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Varna Kodoth can be reached email@example.com.