During my first semester of graduate school I had a professor who gave us regular writing assignments that had to somehow mirror or use the literary tactics from books we were reading. I had a full-time job while in graduate school and during one of my first weeks, I could not deliver a 10-page opus in the way I would have wanted for a first assignment. So instead of staying up all night the night before the class, I turned in a short piece I had written during the summer, which was also coincidentally the first short chapter of Gbessa, what would become my thesis, and what has become the novel I am dedicating so much time and energy to complete.
On the day we were supposed to get the assignment back; my professor, a rather old and gray-haired former hippie from Long Beach, handed me back my 10 pages and asked that I see him after class. “Do you have time to talk about it now?” I asked, since I was the only one in the classroom. “Read the notes first,” he said, “then we can talk.”
There was no grade on the front page, only an arrow that directed me to page 10, which proceeded to ask questions like: Did you get any help with this? Is this yours or was it translated from another language? How long did it take you to write this? Should anyone else receive credit for this piece? In other words, how much of this is yours and how much should be credited to someone else? He concluded the harsh and (very) offensive inquiry with “I will give you a tentative A+ for now, but let’s continue this discussion after class.”
By the time I raised my head from the page of notes, fighting back the tears, the classroom was full, and I had to spend an hour and thirty minutes fighting the urge to throw all ten of those pages in his varicose veined face. I do not remember what we discussed; my sight became blurry; his words all blended together into something that sounded like “Black woman, who do you think you are coming in here submitting something that I think is great? Great beyond you and your capabilities. Great beyond talent. Great beyond what is possible for a student who completed undergrad at a place like…Howard.” Little did he know that Howard University was all through the tips of my fingers as I wrote those pages, and luckily for him, my Howard University tact was the only thing that kept me from leaping across the table and physically rectifying his reprehensible accusation.
After the lecture I waited for everyone to leave the class before looking him dead in the eye and saying: “It’s my story. I wrote this on my own.” He may have apologized, further inquired, I did not care, I left the room and drove home crying as I was calmed down by a phone call to my mother.
This was in 2008. Not 1968, not 1864, not 1980. 2008. Forty years after the Civil Rights Movement, and only a couple short months before our country elected its first African-American president. I will never forget that day and still keep those 10 pages in a folder. This was my introduction to “master level” instruction in creative writing. That allegation, the assumption that somehow there was something so mediocre in me that I could not produce work that impressed him drove me and drove me hard for a year after. I am an adult and could luckily step outside of the situation to assess it for what it was–a man who had probably even marched with Dr. King, who was so blinded by how accessible he thought he was to people who were different from him that he could not see his own prejudices, and thus suffered from an inability to relate to an anti-him: a young.black.woman. (who although was a writer like him) was still a young.black.woman; and he could not see past what he thought I should be writing. I am an adult and I was able to step outside of that and still excel and even graduate early; but I often think about the young children in this country with teachers who consider themselves “liberal” the “teachers for America” the “peace corpers” the “children of former hippies” the “lefters” the “i understanders”. How many young children, when they are excellent, are met with sentiments of surprise and even suspicion from the educators who are supposed to be on their side? And further, what would that continuous response do to a child and their sense of self worth and their academic identity?
I am a storyteller and that has always been my calling. The medium has changed over the years, from song, to stage and now to paper (and back to stage soon); but I believe that is why I am here. As long a journey as it has been, I am grateful, even for the critique that started it all. My prayer is that it propels the legacy of atypical literature by black and minority authors, in a way that transforms the opinions of majority readers and common presumptions about what stories by black women writers look like and sound like and feel like. I have no expectations. What I think of people is what I learn about them over time and experience with (only) them. I hope I can continue the missions of the many brilliant women who came before me, and help to give black women that same right–that freedom, that reputation of expected greatness.
To my writer-motherauntysisters whose stories I read to sleep when it runs from me.