Thoughts on the Universality of the Black Experience

It took me three years to read Beloved. I tried on my own as a college sophomore but couldn’t handle it. It wasn’t until I took an African American Women’s Literature course, taught by the then president of the Toni Morrison Society1 that I was able to make it through. I was surrounded by my contemporaries, led by an older, wiser Black woman who helped me see the gutsiness, the sheer defiance and love it took to call that which is most reviled Beloved. I could never have learned that lesson from a white woman (or a white man, for that matter).

I am thinking today, on the occasion of her death, of how Morrison emphasized Blackness and centered Blackness in her work, daring to call Blackness universal when the world tells us in no uncertain terms that we are the margins, and therefore strange. Unworthy. And I am thinking of the beginnings of stories, of essays, of keynote speeches that have gone unwritten because at their heart they’re about Black people but because I could not whitewash those words and make them palatable to a white audience, I thought I was a failure.

(I am also thinking about how many of my story ideas came from dreams where Black people could set things on fire with their minds, and I chuckle, but I digress.)

My upcoming keynote in Australia has vexed me for months because I received the advice that I should try to make it universal. And I couldn’t. No matter how I tried, I could not get away from the pain, heartache, and self-doubt this profession has caused me, a Black woman, and others like me. Keynotes are supposed to address solutions, they’re supposed to set a tone. My tone is righteous(?) anger, and a desire to tell anyone like me to abandon the idea of universality. Do it for yourself. Do it for US. Let the rest burn.

I will set them on fire with my mind and I will not apply salve to their burns. And as things burn and are destroyed, I am also creating a path forward for others like me. That’s what my instructor did for me with Beloved. And that’s what I’ll do for others.

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  1. Dr. Carolyn Denard at Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA