By Mariam Williams
For two weeks after the election, I wrote nothing. I was enrolled in two writing workshops for my MFA, and I wrote nothing. I submitted a poem I had written over the summer and didn’t bother to revise for my poetry workshop that week. The following week, I skipped my nonfiction workshop all together. I also doubled my regular dosage of anti-depressants and avoided all the people I can’t stand on even my best days.
On November 9th, I opened up Instagram and my writers group pages on Facebook and found people touting Morrison, Baldwin, Hughes.
This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no room for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That’s how civilizations heal. —Toni Morrison
If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things that you do not see. —James Baldwin
Looks like what drives me crazy
Don’t have no effect on you—
But I’m gonna keep on at it
Till it drives you crazy, too.
—Langston Hughes, “Evil”
On Twitter, a woman live-tweeting a phone conversation with her mother said mama wouldn’t let her off the phone until she recited Claude McKay.
If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
—Claude McKay, “If We Must Die”
Black writers who had seen oppression far worse than I will ever see (I hope) were galvanizing other writers, but I couldn’t return to the page. I curled up on my sofa and slept. As a writer, I felt useless.
The problem wasn’t that I write. It’s what I write about.
I write about God and sex. More broadly, I write about my life and how I see the world at the intersection of Christianity, blackness, womanhood, and feminism, but for the book I’ve been working on since 2011—the book that I pitched to agents in 2016 at a writing conference, the book agents said they were interested in, the book that will be my thesis—I write about God and sex.
And until the wee hours of November 9, 2016, when a friend on the West Coast sent me a text confirming that the almost unthinkable had happened (I kept telling people who thought an orange-hued Twitter troll’s election was impossible that it could happen, because everything we had thought impossible about this election since the primaries had, in fact, happened), I thought what I had to say was important, timely, and necessary to women and black people’s ongoing struggle for freedom and equality in the U.S.
And to be completely honest, I had also thought what I had to say was sellable.
I would write a memoir about my life at the intersections, a memoir that also would serve as a meditation on black female sexuality within the culture of the southern black church, and people would buy it. They would buy it because it would be interesting, new, different, important, timely, necessary, and well-written.
On November 9th, I had the same 50 pages in a Pages document in my computer that I’d had when I went to my polling place the morning of November 8th. They were still well-written. They were still different and, relative to the market, new. But when it came to the subject matter, all I could imagine potential readers (and agents) saying was, “Who the fuck cares?”
My internal dialogue went something like this:
An openly racist rapist has been elected—elected—by about 63 million people, to the most powerful office in the world. Who the fuck cares about God and sex and church? Man, fuck writing. We need to be strategizing about how to unify, how to resist, how to get our black asses to Canada like some of the ancestors did. Why do you still want to write about feminism, or blackness, or equality anyway? You’ve been writing about this shit for ten years now, and an openly racist rapist was just elected president! Your message isn’t doing any good. You are not winning anyone over. An orange-hued Twitter troll will appoint the next Supreme Court justice and who knows how many federal judges. Men who think you don’t have enough sense to make up your own mind about your own body and who would rather see people in your home state die than admit that a healthcare plan they hate is working for poor people who keep voting for them have control of both houses of Congress. And you’re talking about writing a book? About God and sex? Who. The. Fuck. Cares???????
Despite everything I’ve written in the marketing section of the book proposal I’ve crafted and sent to agents for this essayistic memoir, I don’t know who’s going to care—that is, who besides me. I care for two reasons: 1) I have academic expectations of myself to uphold, and since there is a thesis to complete, I’m going to finish it; and 2) I eventually came to realize what—besides a meditation on black female sexuality within the culture of the southern black church—this book is.
It’s memoir. It’s history. It’s community intervention. It’s Baby Sugg’s sermon in The Clearing. It’s radical self-love. And self-love in a world that hates you is one of the most subversive things you can commit to.
I wrote that in a newsletter I sent on November 13th to people who have supported me as a writer for many years now. As I wrote it, I felt a little stirring in my soul. My heart and brain started talking to each other. Oh shit! This is militant and brave as hell! Put your fist up! I realize now that I had hit not on what the book, which I’m still birthing, is, but what it needs to be to me if I am ever to finish it. It will never be as well-written, but it must be as powerfully written and as powerful as Baby Sugg’s sermon in The Clearing. It must be as radical and subversive as self-love. It must be both artistic and political, even when evidence suggests no one is being changed.
After the election, I wondered how I could change my writing to be apolitical, to disengage from the polemic completely. Could I write poems about trees or moose or birds without a nod towards environmentalism? Could I write about beauty without writing about the beauty of blackness? Could I write about women without a mission to take down the patriarchy in my language? Could I write about an historic injustice, craft it so well, and divorce myself from identity politics so much that I manage to convince scholars that I have no anger about the injustice at all? (That’s not shade to Robert Hayden; it’s shade to people who interpret “Middle Passage” as neutral.)
It might be possible if history, religion, identity, and black feminism weren’t integral to my work, but I can’t produce art for art’s sake right now, and I don’t want to. I also don’t think now is the time to do it. In a recent interview on The New Yorker Radio Hour, author Elif Safak, who works primarily in fiction, said that writers in war-torn countries “do not have the luxury of being apolitical as a writer. If you care about what’s happening outside your door, if you care about injustices, inequalities, other people’s sorrows, the private space is also political. So politics is everywhere. It’s diffuse. Wherever power is, there is politics.”
And wherever there is power, there is the need to speak truth to it, even and perhaps especially in our most private and intimate spaces. I wrote my newsletter to my supporters a few days after seeing Ntzoke Shange perform at an event celebrating the 40th anniversary of her Obie Award-winning play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. I left that evening marveling not only at how brilliantly her play showed the intimate effects of systemic oppression, but also at how safe and loved I felt in a room full of her fans, and how blessed we were to hear her perform a few new poems, the first of which honored victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting. She gave so much of herself, despite the stroke that has altered her speech and mobility forever. Even Shange hasn’t stopped. She can’t. And neither can I.
Mariam Williams is Kentucky a writer and educator living in Philadelphia. She’s working on a memoir, seeking representation, and blogging at Redbone Afropuff & Black G.R.I.T.S.