(The Root) — When I was in my first semester of journalism school, a well-meaning professor pulled me aside to offer some constructive criticism. He was one of my favorites, a great teacher and an accomplished editor at an award-winning newspaper.
He’d noticed a theme in the stories I’d pitched or written for his class — all about black people, especially women. “You’re a good writer,” he said, stroking my ego before delivering a crushing blow. “You shouldn’t pigeonhole yourself by writing about black topics.”
I’ve heard variations of that comment many times in my 12-year career as a writer and editor who covers mostly black subjects, often about black women, and is published by predominantly black magazines and sites. In some ways, those words have haunted me.
The fact is, many people don’t think that writing about black folks’ needs, desires, challenges or contributions, or anything else from a black perspective, is as worthy as covering more mainstream — i.e., “white” — subjects. There is an undeniable stigma in some realms that black issues aren’t as worthy or don’t even require the same amount of skill to cover. I’d be lying if I said I have not questioned my subject matters of choice. Luckily, I haven’t listened to the naysayers.
I wanted to become a writer all those years ago specifically because I wanted to talk about black people and tell our stories. I sat in an eighth-grade world-history class, during which my teacher skipped the chapter on Africa to extend the conversation on Ancient Greece. In American-history class, blacks were relegated to slavery and the civil rights movement. I remembered my (white, proud Republican) 10th-grade political science teacher arguing for racial profiling and extolling its benefits.
In college, I went through all the requirements (and then some, because I was really into it) of an English major, reading about the great literary contributions of white men and women. I was always bothered that focused examinations of black works were relegated to an African-American-studies class, and even then, the conversations were often about black men.
It was in a class on African-American film during my junior year in college that I had my aha moment. We were dissecting Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, specifically the scene where the legion of black men show up at the police station after a Muslim brother has been arrested and beaten. The camera pans to a view of hundreds of stoic black men, present and ready to be called to action if the police don’t give in to Minister Malcolm’s demand for medical treatment for their mistreated and abused brother. My professor showed a picture on the projection screen of a similar rally, in which a line of Muslim sisters “manned” the very front line of defense.
They were as much a defense tactic as their image was propaganda, she explained, much like the one used in the civil rights movement in the South, when protesters marched in their Sunday best. My professor talked about the imagery of seeing dignified-looking black people marching for their rights. While dresses and gloves and suits and ties might not have stopped Alabama’s Bull Connor from ordering the release of hounds and hoses, the photos of police attacking what looked like upstanding black people were more startling and appalling when the world saw them. Those images helped call more people to action.