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Writerland, Chapter 12: Raise Every Voice
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
David Wall Rice had never told me this story and hearing what had happened 25 years ago when he was a student at the Columbia Journalism School was at once upsetting and unsurprising. David had been a student of mine at Columbia in 1995 and after writing for the Washington Post and VIBE, returned to school, earned a PhD in Psychology at Howard and eventually became a professor at Morehouse where he is also principal investigator of the Identity, Art and Democracy Lab.
We’d kept in touch over the years and in the aftermath of the rage, protests, and long overdue national conversation of racism ignited by the killing of George Floyd, I wrote to ask his advice. I labored over the wording, fearful of overstepping or sounding like yet another white person asking a Black person to explain what it means to be Black in America.
I wrote because far too few of the stories we’d published since 2013 (at the Delacorte Review and its predecessor the Big Roundtable) had been written by Black writers. Much as we've tried to publish diverse voices, we’ve fallen short in including enough Black voices. I wanted to get David’s perspective as a writer and as a teacher about the power and joy that comes from discovering your voice – voices historically not heard.
David was happy to help. But first he had a story to tell about what had happened to him as a young writer. He was working on his capstone project, an ambitious undertaking – many students would say ordeal – that involves months of reporting, thinking, struggling, and writing. David brought his project to his advisor. His advisor – who retired years ago – was not pleased.
The problem, she told him, was not in the reporting or in the writing. It was something far more profound and troubling.
“My voice was not good enough,” David wrote, “not the writing, MY VOICE.”
I suspect his advisor did not understand what was clear to David: that she was performing the traditional role of gatekeeper, determining the acceptability of Black voice to, in this instance, a white audience of one. “This is typical because gatekeepers are too often culturally disconnected and only validate those narratives that they are comfortable or are familiar with and those stories are often steeped in deficit and pathology. So Black voices are too often only validated if they fit in a prescribed box that positions them as human only through their pain and sorrow, not their uplift and freedom (which does exist).”
Gatekeepers have long played a pernicious role that escapes otherwise well-intentioned white people, but with which Black people are all too familiar. I remember as a high school sophomore in Brooklyn in 1967 being in an English class. We were assigned to choose and read an autobiography. I searched for the thinnest book I could find. When the teacher asked a Black classmate what book he had chosen, he replied, “Pimp: The Story of My Life,” by Iceberg Slim.
“Doesn’t count,” said the teacher, presumably unaware that Black readers had made “Pimp” a best seller.
Years later I pitched a book idea to an editor whom I knew and liked, the story of three friends who had grown up playing basketball together in Brooklyn, become famous, but whose lives had taken dramatically different turns.
“Are any of them white?” asked the editor, because it was accepted as an article of faith in the mainstream publishing world that without a white character the book would not sell because everyone knew Black people did not buy books. This was in 1989, three years before Terry McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale” became a best seller, and decades after “Pimp” had sold two million copies and been translated into nineteen languages.
The point, David wrote, was not about the voices because the voices were present and strong – so much so that he was not terribly upset about what his advisor had to tell him. He knew he had a voice. “As a writer, professor, as a father, I don’t think of the Black folk that I engage as being uncertain about their voice in the sense that I imagine white folk think about it.”
Gatekeepers perpetuated beliefs based on assumptions about the stories white people wanted Black people to tell them, and about how they wanted those stories to be told. Those assumptions were often based on the gut; the data, meanwhile, suggested otherwise. “I think this is the dilemma when we look to ‘gate keepers’ of the work, the written word the expression of ideas and figuring of one’s self through the page,” David wrote. “Writing is documentation of what is, no matter the genre, the immediacy of a lived experience that is communicated, through whatever lens.
“The voice, then, as I experience it in relationship to Black people, my people, is not in terms of uncertainty, but in terms of what effort do I want to employ to extend myself in areas that have demonstrated no need or want for an authentic ‘me.’”
He continued. “So it is not an exercise of convincing or cajoling an unseen voice. It is in developing with the writer, the thinker, the person in their Black life the avenues through which they are comfortable sharing themselves. The joy is in striking a balance with the self and the society with which you are sharing without sacrificing your soul. I say this both figuratively and literally as writing with your voice is soul work. The question is how deep you might want to go with that work, with that voice.”
This was not to suggest, he wrote, that pain was not a part of Black life, any more than it is a fact of every life. There is, however, more to Black life than pain and sadness and suffering. There is, he wrote, “the communication of the joy, also the calm of ‘being’ without qualifying.
“Black voices are freedom. For Black folk and for white people too, so it would do the ‘gate keepers’ well to educate themselves accordingly. Because without the power of Black voices, Black thinking, Black doing, the Black life, freedom and power is denied to all who would muffle it, or pretend that it is not there.”
Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.