Full disclosure: I received one of the most whitewashed literary educations in the world.
I am black. I am African. I have been to Europe only once—to Germany, on a school’s cultural tour in 2019. But before that I had been to England, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Poland, and Russia through the books I had read when I was in high school and university. I have not been to the United States but I have experienced it through American literature, films, and music. In most things, then, I am quite familiar with Western sensitivities even if I have never lived in a Western country long enough to adopt them.
It was quite a shame, therefore, when I was asked for reading suggestions by audience members at my first literary outing at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, South Africa. Instinctively, I reached for authors and books from my university reading lists; I eagerly listed writers I had read in high school—writers whose works were educational, universal, acclaimed, and, therefore, sunk to the marrow of my being purely by my duration of exposure to them.
They were all, quite predictably, white.
I wish I had recommended black writers. I wish I had suggested writers from Africa. I wish I could go back and list storytellers from Southern Africa. I wish I could narrow them down to city and town, region and province, neighbourhood and street. Windhoek this, Maputo that, Lusaka and Luanda for the other.
I did not do this.
Even for black African writers, especially young ones like me, whiteness—its easy and expected veneration, the automatic respect it commands, the way it promises to get you in and put you on—is a reflex which is hard to overcome.
Even for black writers blackness can be secondary. This is not an easy thing to admit.
What I wish I knew back then is what I know now after watching countless Youtube videos and listening to innumerable podcasts featuring famous white writers talking about their craft, their influences, and the books that keep them turning pages, eager to read, and inspired to write: they never talk about us.
Us—the blacks, the Africans and those of African descent.
Achebe, Emecheta, Soyinka, Wa Thiong’o, Aidoo, Dangarembga, Morrison, and Baldwin—even the most average white writer does not talk about or recommend the best or the most popular of us. And these are the black writers who are acclaimed. They are the ones who are universal. Any black reader who has encountered their works will tell you they are educational.
When White Writer on a panel at Annual Literary Festival in Whitesborough is asked for a recommendation he flawlessly name-drops Joyce, Faulkner, and Nabokov.
And when Black Writer on a panel at Community-Funded Literary Festival (Which Might Be Cancelled Next Year For Lack Of Institutional Support) in Blacksville is asked the same question he triple jumps his way to Dickens, Melville, and Tolstoy.
Dead white men have a gravity that cannot be explained by physics, and black real estate in the literary world—writing, editing, publishing, marketing, and retail—is scarcer than it is in the real one.
Honestly, even unicorns have it better.
If there is one thing this present moment has shown it is that blackness cannot afford to be a secondary habit. Our lives and loves, our bodies and experiences, our desperate needs and slim wants must be talked about consciously every day. They must be affirmed every morning with a mantra and practiced each night like a skin care routine.
And at literary festivals and gatherings those of us who are given a platform and the power of recommendation should plug black writers when we are asked to share literary works that have influenced us (it cannot all be dead white men) and who we think more people should know about. These are powerful platforms. We are bodies in rooms many of our kind do not get into. We have come through the window, so now we have to open the door for someone else.
We have to do this actively because blackness is not the primary habit even among its own people—especially in the literary world where many of us were trained and instructed in the ways of whiteness. We wrote essays about white worlds and dissected white characters. We dreamed white dreams and fantasies even as we were shown our place in the nightmare. We know the classical, modern, and postmodern strains in white writing. We know the writing routines and processes of the privileged. We have earned degrees in white imagination—I have two.
Like all readers I was told all books are important. I was told all writers matters. And as an artist, my first instinct is to side with my fellow struggling creators regardless of where they come from, even if history has shown me many white artists did not (and do not) work with my best interests in mind. But all these dead white men and women who have come before with their educational, universal, and acclaimed stories of humanity have done little to stop black boys and girls from being killed in streets all over the world.
This may have been good enough back then but it is not fine now.
Tolkien, I love you and imma let you finish, but I have my own Dark Lord to destroy: whiteness.
It will take a fellowship to get it done.
So, black writers, compile a list of our literary sistren and brethren from A-to-Z, from Cape Town to Cairo, Monrovia to Maputo, and beyond. Memorise it. If you cannot, keep the list on your person. Because when the interrogation comes at literary festivals—and it is just that: an interrogation of how assimilated you are in whiteness as a black writer—you will slip into the routine in which blackness is a secondary habit.
We have to talk about black writers and literature because they do not talk about us.
They do not talk about us because they do not read us.
Also, full disclosure: fuck Tolstoy.
Do not worry. That dead white man is going to be just fine.