Free the Work:by
Reflection on a Desire for a People’s Literature
By Kristina Kay Robinson
Today, Black Americans again find themselves in the crosshairs. The target of America’s militarized police–our deaths the crux of the country’s media machine. The abysmal statistics cited in a recent audit of diversity in publishing by Lee & Low Books and painfully revelatory details about the disparity between advances for white writers and Black writers associated with the hashtag #WhatPublishingPaidMe come as no real surprise. These numbers reflect very tellingly, the values of a nation steeped in a history of criminalizing our literacy. The moment we find ourselves alive to witness is critical for Black people both domestically and internationally. Hate speech from the highest office in the land has become commonplace in American political discourse. We are contending with police and vigilantes, who murder Black citizens of this country, daily, with impunity. We are living with our constant (televised) execution.
In a 2014 interview with Kamila Shamsie for Guernica Magazine, Indian author Pankaj Mishra asks where the rage is in American fiction? When, he asks, is American literary fiction going to engage with the role and consequences of its country’s empire? And why don’t America’s citizens at least care that in the dragnet of imperialism, their own freedoms are being encroached upon?
The answer, in the short term, is this nearly all-white publishing environment is creating the illusory projection of American political hegemony. In the long term, this is the way history is written or not. It is not the state of nature that renders American literature devoid of such rage and reflection. It is the self-conscious and self- perpetuating practices that make the industry, as of 2019, obstinately, 76% white. The continued construction of “authors” as: white, male, and at minimum middle- class aids the overarching narrative of America that orders itself on the political silencing of the Black people it has hoarded for centuries. All the while playing lip-service to superficial shows of carefully curated and hyperfundable “diversity”. For Black people around the world the stakes are literally life and death. The borders, seas, smoking guns– the silence and complicity are claiming our lives while white editors control the voices and tenor of the commentary, or in many cases, orchestrate the lack thereof. The rage cannot be disseminated if it is censored in the first place.
Currently, the state of Louisiana incarcerates more people, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. This year, Black Panther party member, Albert Woodfox was nominated for a Pulitzer for his memoir, Solitary. Woodfox spent more than forty years in solitary confinement in Angola State Penitentiary. I have thought of him daily since the protests and uprisings in America began over the murder of George Floyd. How must it feel to see this same battle one spent forty plus years paying the highest of prices for fighting reignited so soon after one’s release? Louisiana is one such place in America, where Black people know the wages of dissent. For Black Americans, this age of mass surveillance Mishra points to, as encroaching also on the rights of US citizens, is hardly a twenty-first century development. Rather it is a state of being that has influenced and informed our perspective for centuries. This experience of confinement and surveillance that has dominated the lives many Black Americans, ironically, connects and opens possibilities for solidarity with many oppressed peoples, who find themselves the prisoners of their respective governments and/or national conditions. A recent interview with Arundhati Roy, speaks to the complication of anti-black racism and casteism within these possibilities, but also to a possible philosophical bridge that may exist between Dalits in India and Black people in America. An an incendiary possibility that, if fed, carries within it the ability to blow apart the very foundations of the fascist state.
Black Americans are unable to work within the boundaries of nationalist assumptions of audience afforded to our white counterparts. Many of us are poor, underemployed, overworked, undercompensated, incarcerated, deported, isolated, struggle with childcare, live in neighborhoods where we are afraid, and are generally unable to access the fictional world where we might, but most often do not, exist. We are also brilliant, beautiful, and in constant creative flux. Black American artists continue to subvert nationalist expectations with a literature of aesthetics, orality and language that precedes the American project. Black writers are creating inside the paradox that is our existence in America. We understand well, the circumferential reach of our culture. And so, in that case, we are writing anyway. The battle is not just for the press, but as the ghosts of ancestors like Harriet Jacob remind us, but also for the archive.
While the industry continues to debate our validity many Black writers and artists are exploring notions of hybridity, doing away with genre, and accessing alternative media and forms of visibility for their work. Never before has there been opportunity, like the one that exists now to create a literature that is resistant to the conventions, constraints, and consequences of state allegiances. The creation of the kind of literature, the kind that can disembody the ideology of the militarist state will require people to stop waiting on more [ white ]American writers to come in to the know. It will require a disruption of current formulas and a return to the imagination. That force that Amiri Baraka called a “practical vector from the soul” and the source from which all problems can be solved.
It will require exchange and cooperation between those working in traditional capacities and those working very diligently outside of them. The day that Black writers in America are published at a rate that matches the amount of quality work being produced is a long way off. Old binaries must be demolished if Black writers are ever to free themselves from the bondage of American letters. From my vantage point in the American Deep South, the time is now for a declarative new thinking around writing and publishing.
A time for reconnecting with the legacy of those, who wrote while in bondage; sure that their audience was not contemporary. Those who created the songs that leapt oceans and preserved the rhythms that continue to move us through our lives. There is more excellence in our community than will ever be accommodated in white spaces. We must engage strategies that might look beyond borders to connect with artists and audiences. A movement toward giving all the words to the people of the world; moving them around in the ways that we know best. The ways we have grown expert. This is a movement toward freeing the work and the imagination, if we and the land are ever to be.