I don’t need esteem or affection, but I expect respect. No one owes me a reading—unless we are in a graduate-school creative-writing workshop at the University of Alabama. Then you owe me a reading.
You sit in a workshop; you endure with patience your peers’ comments, and when your turn comes to comment on their work, you assist them with your recommendations and support. The system works when all take part. No one denies opinions, and all must comment. This is the contract you sign when you enroll in a creative-writing workshop.
One by one, our professor, Sandy Huss, went around the table and invited my peers to share their comments concerning a chapter I’d written for a novel. We finally made it to an older white woman who informed Sandy and the class that she did not read “ethnic stuff.”
Her remark scandalized the room.
She’d broken the bond we had with each other. We were close, confederates, although we were of all sorts: men and women, young and old, clean-cut, and purple haired, but no one was inferior. No one felt less than any other. Sandy treated us all with respect and created a welcoming environment. The classroom had become a gathering room in a home, a place for the high pursuit of art—until that moment.
When the woman said she could not be bothered to read “ethnic stuff,” I felt low and inferior.
I’d been full, and with her words, life poured from me. I was empty. She had denied not only my experience but the experience of all black people. Also, as I noted, I felt insignificant. By denying my reality, she had elevated herself. She had deemed herself better than me. She was “up there” in the vast sacred whiteness of her assuredness, and I was below, a little importunate soul, choking on my grief.
I remember nothing that was said after her remark. Reality became colorless and rapid. I heard Sandy’s voice. She was telling the woman something, but I couldn’t perceive words.
After class, I perched on the steps outside Morgan Hall. Several peers came to see how I was doing: Chris Chambers, Mindy Wilson, Michael Mejia, Tim Parrish, Matt Posner (Alan May and Tim Earley may have also been there). They talked to me. Still, I heard voices but couldn’t recognize words. I think someone said, “unbelievable.”
After sitting mute for some time and feeling their eyes on me, I replied at last, “I’m making all my characters white.”
I’d been in shock. Obviously—to say something so outlandish. My wonderful friends talked me out of making all my characters white. After years, decades even, of striving to publish something not pigeonholed as “black”—gang banging, police brutality, incarceration, slavery, Waiting to Exhale, hand-waving church stuff, I wonder if that woman was not an anomaly, as my peers argued that day on the steps of Morgan. Her point of view appears to be the ruling view.