How Black Writers Can Help White Readers – New Republic

These readers, however, are distinct from the lazy and incurious
lot who expect black writers to endorse their understanding of race, racism,
and racialized issues, or who ask, in effect, “What do black people think about
this?” or “Why do black people ____?” Four
prominent black thinkers discussed
this phenomenon in a recent forum for Slate. Since Donald Trump won the
election, sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom said, “Black people have
one primary job: to manage white people’s emotions. Their emotions are high
right now and we’re being overtaxed with it.” Slate writer Jamelle Bouie noted
that, “for many white readers and followers, we are the only consistent black
presence in their lives. And so there’s a kind of expectation that we will be
there to manage their emotions, whether it is calls for hope or outlets for
anger.” As NPR’s Gene Demby wrote during a Twitter debate last month that prompted the Slate forum:

In other words, white readers with racial curiosities and quandaries
should not assume that all black writers will handhold them in the way McGhee
did for the C-SPAN caller.

This is not just about strangers demanding dialogue. It
extends to readers who wear the writings of black authors as a badge. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nahesi Coates, whose memoir
Between the World and Me won a
National Book Award in 2015, remarked in a
recent interview
, “I’m the guy who, I guess, white people read to show they
know something. And that’s what Between
the World and Me
is now. It’s used as a symbol for something—what do you
do when that’s the case? That’s not what you write for.”

This is an age-old dilemma. Over a century ago, in the
opening chapter of The Souls of Black
, W.E.B. DuBois wrote:

Between me and the other world
there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of
delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All,
nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of
way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly,
How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in
my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages
make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling
to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it
feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

Today, the unasked question remains unasked by the earnest
white reader. But there is value, as a black writer, in answering the unasked
anyway, as well as addressing the questions that flutter round it. Of course,
these readers’ racial issues cannot be resolved so simply. If they are serious
about knowing more and engaging more substantially, they must put in the work—more
than tweeting a question at a black writer, or calling into a C-SPAN show.

McGhee’s advice to the white caller can be summed up in five
words: get to know black people. Black writers play an important role in this
endeavor. So engaging with black writers is a worthy first step, and we black
writers ought to welcome that engagement. And, on the whole, I think we do. Ultimately,
though, this is about black agency and recognizing that it is not black writers’
sworn duty to meet white readers’ demands to husband their racial anxieties.
Each writer determines how, when, and who to engage. 

I believe in meeting people where they are, as long as they
truly want to embark on honest conversation. This can be draining, but I’d
rather err on the side of being too generous with my time and effort, in the
hopes that my insights foster greater racial understanding. I am a black writer, after all—uniquely positioned to
make outsized contributions to white people’s understanding of the intricacies
of black American experiences. If writers don’t do this, who will?


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