On Thursday evening I walked into a writing class I was teaching for the first time. Fourteen eloquent writers of color were gathered together and waiting for me. I wondered what I could possibly teach them at this particular moment when I felt broken myself. What could I say to them about books and writing that had any import in the face of what had happened the night before?
The night before, a 21-year-old white man sat in community with worshippers for an hour before he slaughtered them. He said to them, "You're taking over our country." A statement that reveals a profound and brutal denial of how their ancestors came to this land. He said, "You rape our women," and then he proceeded to shoot six women, along with three men.
When I brought up Charleston, my students looked down at their desks, at their pens and paper, anywhere but at me or at each other. There was a muteness shrouding the room. A welling sadness.
We were gathered together, a collection of artists on the frontlines of a national conversation on race. And yet, we were speechless. We were silenced by the contradictions, this moment in history when we have a black president, a scenario most of our parents could not have imagined. At the same time, once again we are painfully reminded that we are a country founded upon the institution of slavery.
I asked them what they had read growing up and got the usual list of dead white men and a few dead white women. Like myself, these are writers who did not grow up seeing themselves or their communities reflected in the lauded literature of the land. These are writers who have only a few generations of mentors echoing their experience. These are writers challenging the normative white literary experience.
I asked them why they write. That was when the heat rose and the room came alive. For an impassioned hour and a half, we talked about storytelling and its importance. About why we continue to write in the face of opposition both from a mainstream audience that often overlooks our stories as well as from our own communities that sometimes feel we are either exposing secrets or that our stories are not important.
A woman talked about writing about the experience of her family in the segregated South. She had written a story about her grandmother walking down the street and being told to step aside for whites. She told us of reading that story to an audience and having an older woman say to her, "Why are you telling these stories? That happened to all of us. It's not important."
I didn't have an answer but I didn't need one. Her peers jumped in: "No!" they argued, these stories are important. A young woman said, "We have to tell these stories. We have to tell them and tell them and tell them until they are as ubiquitous as the narratives of the dominant culture we live within. Until we see their importance, until they see our humanity."
Over and over these students articulated writing as a path to sanity, connection, a fount of resistance to the violence happening to bodies and psyches.
A young man said, "(Writing) is one of the only ways I know how to articulate my survival while being in conversation with others trying to do the same."
"Survival." That's the word that stands up and screams. This storytelling is about survival. Survival on the streets and the survival of cultures. Survival in a country where as Jon Stewart, one unlikely voice of America's conscience states that there is a "gaping racial wound that will not heal, (which) we pretend doesn't exist."
But these students, these writers, they won't pretend this wound doesn't exist. They will join the ranks of Audrey Lorde and James Baldwin and the others that have come before them. They will tell their stories. They won't ignore the wound because it is woven into the fabric of their lives. They will write it, they will tell it. This is what my students will be doing, this is what I will be doing.
At some point somebody said, "I love everybody in this room." There were smiles through the heaviness. I thought: Here is our community, here is the only solace and salve I can imagine in this moment.
Next week, Vona Voices, the only ongoing writers of color conference in the country, commences in Miami. Two of my students will be heading there to continue this conversation in a greater community, a larger gathering. Being a Vona alumni myself, I know how much power and healing there is in that gathering. The stories will flow, they will flood the page, they will enter the ethos, they will change the narrative.
They will remind us of James Baldwin's words, "The precise role of the artist... is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place."
Thursday night in the midst of tremendous heaviness, those bright students gave me something I wasn't expecting: they gave me hope. In the scope of what is happening in America, hope is as noble a reason for writing as I can think of.