(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.
I don't remember the discussion, only that I didn't raise my hand to contribute. I was sitting there thinking that I wanted to do something about black women being erased.
It would be untrue to say this is what I think of when well-intentioned people like that professor (or the many others) suggest that I shouldn't pigeonhole myself by writing about black issues or black women's issues, as if a black point of view isn't as important as a wider cultural one, or a black perspective is relevant only to black people. Or, too, that black women's concerns don't affect anyone but black women.
On better days I think, "Seriously?" And on lesser ones? Well, it's profane, and you can imagine the string of impolite words I'd like to deliver. What I usually say is, "Really?" because I don't have time to go on a rant explaining the basics. I have stories to write and deadlines to meet. I'm trying to move the conversation along and go on and write about what I want, anyway — largely what black women are concerned about, dealing with or amused by.
I don't think of myself as having an agenda when I'm pounding on my keyboard, whether I'm writing about "fluffy" topics such as whether Beyoncé is or is not a role model, or heftier matters like the limited civil rights for black lesbians, the getting-better-but-still-highly-disturbing HIV rates among black women or those black men heading to Brazil, who pay to have their egos and other places stroked and throw black women under the bus to justify it.
But I do have an agenda. I want to talk with black women and use the space available to tell our stories — good, bad, ugly and controversial, too — and give voice to our varied concerns. I want to build a community where we can express, debate and share freely.
This week marks the debut of She Matters, a new column on The Root that will appear each Tuesday, which seeks to meet those lofty aims. I have some juicy ideas in store, and I hope you'll stop by to see what's on my mind. But also, I want to hear from you. Let me know what I should be thinking about and what you're eager to discuss at SheMatters@theroot.com.
Talk to you soon!