The Burden Of Writing (And Reading) While Black

James Baldwin (Townsend/Getty Images)
James Baldwin (Townsend/Getty Images)

“I don't burden myself with the impossible task of writing the "Black Woman's" experience; to be honest, I think categorically-Black writing loses a lot of nuance and is generally lazy. I just tell my own stories and hope somebody feels me.”


This was a small part of a longer exchange I had with a VSB reader last week following my post about street harassment. From what I can tell, we both walked away feeling heard, and perhaps even understood. Despite being sensitive about my shit, I like interacting with people about my writing. It’s important to have your point of view challenged, especially if you share your point of view for a living. Still, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve said. As a writer, I’ve received a lot of questions about my approach to blank pages. I've never tried to write the Black Woman’s Experience, and to do so would be a disservice to myself and my readers.

In mixed company, Black folks hate representing the race, but we relish an opportunity to do so in our art, which makes sense in its own way. But it has its price. From a writing perspective, it’s rendered a lot of stale copy. Many of us —self included— hold on so firm to the proud legacy of Black authorship that we follow an unwritten Blackprint about what our words are supposed to say and how they’re supposed to resonate with audiences. Proud. Strong. Valiant. Tenacious in the face of adversity and oppression. Resilient. A bit of respectability politicking up and down the galleys and the gutters, pages telling us what we most want to believe about a people who have come so far.


But in the same way that trying to be a “strong Black woman” exhausts me, there are some days that I sit down at my desk and I feel none of these things. I started taking note of how often I used the words “Black” or “Black woman” in the essays I’d write. I started wondering how much I needed those qualifiers and if they had become signifiers. An easy button of sorts. Did I need to write about my experience as a “Black Woman,” or could I just write about my womanhood and let my Blackness inform it as it does anything else? Yes, there is “Black girl pain,” but there is just regular folk pain, too. And most days I’m not pained at all. After all, we are the freest Blacks in the history of free Blackness, not everything has to be, or should be a story about overcoming some shit. Yes, I’m a Carefree Black Girl, but I’m also a girl who just ain’t got no worries. And that’s a story worth telling, too.

Has the adoration of the greats paralyzed our imaginations? Do we know how to go beyond the scope of “Black writing” to write about life in a fuller way? Have we reserved the right to have protagonists that are just fucked up or as gleeful as any others? Can Black writers and editors move farther beyond race-driven news, and deeper into topical arenas like technology, lifestyle, sports, money, or news? I hope so.

With all this in mind, I have a challenge I’d like to pose to my fellow so-called “Black writers” (and readership!) Instead of being “Black writers,” I want us to be writers who are Black. Though it seems like a case of semantics, the way we’ve come to understand what qualifies as “Black writing” is has dictated the way we exist on the page. I challenge us to explore all parts of our Blackness, not just the parts we're "supposed to."

Maya K. Francis is a culture writer and communications strategy consultant. When not holding down the Black Girl Beat for VSB, she is a weekly columnist for Philadelphia Magazine's 'The Philly Post' and contributes to other digital publications including xoJane, Esquire, and Sometimes TV and radio producers are crazy enough to let her talk on-air, and she helped write a book once. She cites her mother and Whitley Gilbert as inspirations.

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Just thinking…

I'm not sure there's anything wrong with being a Black writer. There always seems to be a debate about how we own our Blackness. Why is that? What is being a writer who happens to be Black? Are we being fooled into thinking White writers don't own their Whiteness? They do. They have just fooled themselves and many of us into thinking White is the default human. So, in that light, their writing seems to be lacking a White point of view. But, is it?

When we become writers who happen to be Black are we not allowed to see the world through our own Black eyes? Why is our writing diminished if it's through a prism of Blackness?

And, how do we move beyond "race driven news"? When someone writes about some going on in Europe aren't they writing about race driven news? Or does it only seem that way if we're writing about Africa?

It seems to me that we are constantly being encouraged to move beyond Blackness. I wonder what's wrong with embracing our many unique views. Can't we write about tech as a Black writer? Sports, lifestyle, money? If we write just like White writers then aren't we buying into White being the default point of view?

I think we can write about any subject under the sun as Black writers and have our writing be just as valid as any others. There is no default point of view. Why do we need to act as though there is.