It's My Duty as a Writer to Reflect the Times
I sunk down into my Economy Plus seat and started watching What Happened Miss Simone?. I admit I’d never really known much about Nina Simone. I knew she was a respected musician. That she had a legacy that extended far beyond her prime. I understood why people were outraged when Zoe Saldana was cast as Simone and painted in blackface in a 2016 biopic. But I didn’t know much about her contribution. About the magnitude of her lyrics and her activism.
I was surprised to learn that she was a classically trained pianist who’d only started singing to book jobs in jazz clubs. I was surprised to see how controversial her music became later in her career. When she sang “Mississippi Goddam”, she was willing to give up her entire career to let black people know they mattered.
She wasn’t a pacifist. Quite the opposite, she motivated the crowds before her to ditch peaceful resistance. With that, I don’t agree, but then again, I didn’t live during those times and can’t say what I would or wouldn’t have agreed with. What I do respect is her bravery. Her uncompromising willingness to tell America that the treatment of black people wasn’t right. At the cost of her fruitful and profitable career, and to some extent her personal life, she ensured her art remained 100% truthful.
“It is an artist’s duty to reflect the times,” she said. Indeed, Miss Simone, it is.
I had big dreams when I graduated from college. I found myself floundering for several years while I tried to find my path. I tried my hand at modeling, singing and songwriting and publishing. The latter was the first industry I tried to break into.
I wrote a novel called Transplant. It was the story of a 12-year-old black boy who left the primarily white suburbs of Ohio for the all-black suburbs of Maryland. The novel was essentially a memoir with the names changed. For me, that year in my life was pivotal in helping me understand race relations. Growing up around only a handful of black kids, I never felt out of place in school or anywhere else. Everyone in my life did their best to make me feel included. My skin was never a concern, at least not the color. It was only when I enrolled in Lord Baltimore Academy in Fort Washington, Maryland that I felt different. Surrounded by people who looked like me, I felt even more like an alien.
Transplant was my attempt at telling my story, one that I felt was compelling. At the time, I didn’t realize my ambition outweighed my literary talent. I devoured the Writer’s Market, the annual listing of book agents and publishers and magazine editors. I learned how to write a compelling query letter. I even asked one of my college professors to read my draft and give his honest feedback. Before I started mailing out my manuscript (you still mailed them back then), I felt like I had New York Times bestseller gold in my hands. Every writer feels that way until they get their first rejection.
A small publishing house liked my first chapter and my query. They asked to see my full manuscript. But upon reading it, they ruled that my protagonist was underdeveloped and they couldn’t publish a work with such a weak lead character. My dreams of the bestseller list crashed before my eyes. Instead of working on another draft, I put my returned manuscript back in its envelope and placed it in my closet.
Though it would sit there, in a plastic storage container, for 12 years, I knew that I needed to revisit it. And even if Transplant wasn’t the version of the story that I eventually told, it was a story that shouldn’t stay sealed. As a writer, I had a responsibility to tell meaningful stories, and that particular story couldn’t stay buried within me or my closet.
After Sunday night’s Grammys ceremony, I contemplated writing a piece called “Why Your Black Friends Are Mad Beyoncé Didn’t Win Album of the Year”. But better judgment prevailed, and I opted to dig a little deeper into the message.
Black artists have a history of making innovative, controversial and political statements that push their art to new heights. But at the same time, they’re rebuked by the powers that be. Nina Simone stopped getting invites to play at popular venues once her message turned to one of black empowerment and civil rights organization. Initially, when Marvin Gaye first phoned Berry Gordy on his tropical vacation to tell him about “What’s Going On?”, Gordy asked him why he wanted to ruin his career. And now, in a year in which Beyoncé dedicated her art to celebrating the beauty of black women, the Recording Academy rejected her. The message was powerful, but simply too black to be an album for everyone.
And in one respect, they’re right. LEMONADE wasn’t an album for everyone. But it was a cultural tour de force that we’ve all spoken about at length for almost a year. It wasn’t an easy pill to swallow, and good art shouldn’t be.
I’m in no way saying that Beyoncé’s musical contribution compares to that of Nina Simone. But I am saying that their struggle is quite similar. Two black women who decided to abandon the mainstream to advance their culture. Two black women who were increasingly denied access to things they earned because their pro-blackness was seen as threatening. Their music is worlds apart, but their message comes from the same fiery, earnest, driven place.
As a writer, I consider myself an artist, someone who’s uniquely qualified to create things and send them out into the universe for consumption. And I’m not just any writer—I’m a black queer writer. I’m a voice within a marginalized, underrepresented community. Ideally, my pen and paper, my laptop and blog, should be my megaphone.
The times around us that need to be reflected are very apparent to me. Democracy itself is being threatened every day. There’s a disregard for truth amongst the people who are supposed to represent us and make important decisions on our behalf. There’s an aggressive repudiation of diversity—an unwillingness amongst this country’s most influential people to accept and embrace difference. There’s a lack of necessary temperament and diplomacy needed to keep us out of global military conflict. There’s a threat hanging just above our heads, that the very rights we’ve come to expect, aren’t always guaranteed—especially if they’ve just been won.
I see the turmoil that waits outside my front door. I see a project within me that’s dying to get out. A story of inclusion that explores blackness and sexuality and spirituality and loneliness, and attempts to reconcile them.
I see a black, queer story that needs to be told in an authentic way. And I see myself as the person that needs to create and publish that story. With Transplant, I was eager but not yet suited to be the beacon of truth that I aspired to be. Now, I feel that my ambition can finally be matched by a developed craft.
I understand that a queer, black story with a bit of an agenda might seem ambitious and anti-mainstream. But like the black artists and writers and creators before me, the purpose of my art is not to conform or appease. It’s to tell the truth.
The publishing industry tends to be kinder to envelope pushing, diverse messaging and provocative storylines. Just look to the National Book Awards. Colson Whitehead’s slave narrative The Underground Railroad was awarded the prestigious honor last year as well as Ibram X. Kendi’s nonfiction tour de force Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. And the year prior, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a nonfiction exploration about the plight of the black male, was a top honoree. More than any other industry, the literary world is ready and willing to listen.
I finished What Happened Miss Simone? midway through my flight, and I was floored. I wasn’t simply entertained. I understood that I had a mission. That I had a responsibility as a writer to tell important stories. To use my work to help encourage conversation. It was about more than getting a book deal or going viral. It was about purpose and contribution.
“An artist’s duty is to reflect the times.”
Indeed, Miss Simone, it is.