VSB, in conjunction with a black-owned and -serving bricks and mortar bookstore in Washington, D.C., Mahogany Books, started a book club a few months back. So far we’ve read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Glory Edim’s Well-Read Black Girl Anthology, and Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. Next month’s book is all about love by bell hooks.
During the last discussion (on Laymon’s Heavy), one of the participants said she didn’t like how Kiese overexplained something in the book (we all loved the book, by the way, through and through) that is pretty standard to black culture, feeling like—and I’m paraphrasing our discussion here—that if people want to know the culture, they should do the research themselves. Or if they don’t understand it, we shouldn’t have to explain it to them because it isn’t for them anyway. Basically, sometimes shit is for us (by us), and that’s OK.
It started an interesting discussion about explaining black (American) culture. Kiese’s book is rooted in his upbringing as a black man from Mississippi; the first shoutout in the book is to his grandmother’s porch. I won’t attempt to speak for everybody else in the room, but I will speak to a point I brought up that I think is worthy of discussion.
I understood the point that was being made, though I disagreed that he overexplained. Kiese Laymon is an award-winning writer who decided to write a book about his very personal, very black experiences growing up. In some ways, explaining things that could be considered native to black culture, and his experience, seems like slight pandering to what we presume are white audiences. Given our history in this country, I can entirely understand the frustration with that.
But white people aren’t the only ones who don’t understand black culture, especially once you factor in geography. Even other black people don’t understand every facet of everybody else’s black life. Southern black culture differs from northern black culture. If you’re from Brooklyn and your entire family is Jamaican, you might not get some of the references, and vice versa. You are still black, but a wide variety of experiences and cultural specifics could get lost in translation.
My wife, who is black, is also a foreigner. She’s from Ghana. She moved to New Jersey when she was 11 but largely lived as a Ghanaian-in-America until she went to college at Howard University. Even then, going to an HBCU doesn’t give you an automatic cheat code to understanding all of black American culture (which is a thing). When I was at Morehouse, the foreign students, especially from the Caribbean, were pretty insular outside of the classroom. My wife has lived in America for not quite 20 years, but there are still things about black American culture she’s unaware of and is only learning because she married a black American. It is wholly possible that if she read Heavy, there are many things she’d need some explanation for, as both a Ghanaian and, in terms of being in America, a northerner. Culture isn’t just racial; it’s geographical. It’s rooted in many factors. Or at least it can be.
And let’s go on ahead and vice versa that too because I learn so much about the differences in cultures being part of a black family that is of the diaspora. At times it’s very noticeable that I’m the only American in the room. When we got married, we had a traditional engagement ceremony (native to Ghana and I imagine other West African countries), and I had to learn an entire way to, ya know, get married. The whole room was full of black people, and I’d wager that on each side of our family, you could fill an entire book with cultural norms and reference points that neither of us were familiar with. So explaining culturally relevant specifics to me isn’t really a bad thing since, well, it ain’t just white people but the very audience most of us black writers try to reach who might also have no real idea what we’re talking about.
Now, the point was brought up that if people want to know something, they really can go look it up. And that’s fair; anybody can go do their googles. But if adding an extra sentence, or a parenthetical to a sentence, doesn’t detract from a point being made, I don’t see the harm, especially in literature. As somebody who writes and often leaves tons of Easter eggs in my writing in the form of lyrics, I get it. Hell, even after all my logic and your theory, I (often) add a “motherfucker” so the ignant niggas hear me. I feel like, though, if I’m not doing so much as to be distracting, there’s no harm.
I do, though, understand wanting to hold onto our culture in a way that allows us to speak to us without having to ease up the entryways for other people to understand. I imagine this occurs for anybody sharing culture across the board. It is annoying when you can tell a writer has had to pander to white audiences to ensure that they might understand something, creating a way for white people to feel included. And I think having the ability to read about other experiences is enough usually. But again, it’s not just white people who might not get things.
But maybe I’m doing too much. It was an interesting discussion. I’m not specifically married to my way of thinking on it, though I am a person who said I’d be willing to be the representative for black America and answer any and all questions. Does it make sense to explain, even lightly, cultural differences so that all, even our skinfolks, understand? Or should folks do the work themselves to discover the culture they’ve taken an interest in, at least in literary form?
I don’t know.
But knowing is half the battle. Because...you remember the GI Joe? Nevermind. Go find out yourself.