Writing Prompt: Blackness, and A Seat at the Table
It came in the shower, as most ideas do. I was showering in the dark. Okay, I’m lying. I wasn’t in COMPLETE darkness. It was dawn, the sun was rising, and so I treat natural light like a photographer…embrace, embrace, embrace. I know how my body looks, I don’t need electricity to tell me otherwise. As a likkle yut, I would tip-toe into my mother’s room with the lights off, television blaring, to sneak pen or paper; or, getting dressed in the dark while my older brother slept so I could steal his clothes. Ninja tactics, indeed. But, the lack of a clear light source with running water got me thinking on, how all my life, I have learned how to work within constraints, how I have learned to work within a box in order to move. It is the physical act of contorting your body to make yourself seem less visible, smaller for others. I have mastered that, and part of that excellent tightrope walk is Blackness.
This is not a call to action to dig deeper for your Blackness, considering some reading this may not be Black at all, at least in the physical sense. In an advanced poetry workshop, I sat and was given ways to approach my writing. If you shift the lens, the picture changes, no? The hope is that, with writing exercises, you challenge your approach to the craft, and the structure in which we place the work. You take the length of the language, a borrowed language at that, with rules of grammar, and work the rhythms, press against the parameters, scale the text down to its bear necessities. It is granular, the process of probing the lines for justification — do these words deserve to be here, roam here?
You get to talking the way that needs to be talked, writer speak, to emphasize the idea that you’ve read who you need to read. Erasures, pentameters, you choose. The jargon, same as jogging around blocks, backhanding consonants and vowel sounds to lift the text from the page. But, all this beautiful poetry I partially learned before classrooms with sand-colored desks. The true learnings happened in apartment 3B, the one with the mouse problem and leaky faucet, the no heat winters and Mexican house party Budweiser can remnants at 3 AM strewn in our hallway. It was there where I gained my finest education.
This was more love than liability; a license to see the world and the work in it as a template for progress.
Because if I can write amidst skittlehoodiegoingtogetpizzaaftershootingithoughtitwasawallethadmyhandsupthisisntagundeadaftermyweddingchokeholdstepoutofthecar PTSD dangers, than surely writing under the pressures of a literary ask should be of no concern.
Fatherhood, is a prompt. A break-up is a prompt. A divorce is a prompt. A smile from across the diner counter, a prompt. Our lives are walking prompts if we can muster up the courage to explore their existence in ourselves. We are all working with things, within things, lurking under our skin, looking for the means to make it all matter to our mirrors. It is here, within the circumstances of struggle and challenge, that we define our tone, where we shape the world we write in. “We” is a collective — the sum of our voices makes our practice worth it. We labor over the chapters, the nuances of the lyric, constantly trying place the work into a place that it will fit. The truth is it can fit anyway. Solange is teaching us this now.
A Seat at the Table is not a question, it is declarative. It is not asking or begging, but demanding. There is no label, no checkbox for the table she is holding fort for. She has made a table, her own table, OUR table, a glorious one. The table is for her and her people, whomever those people may be. Being Black is weightlifting with ankle and wrist weights for extra strain — we live weight before we pick up pens, college texts, tech nine’s, whatever weapons we keep. She shows the delicate nature of the blooming that is Blackness, while still conveying the struggle that is a want for acceptance, a need for dialog. It also comes with the understanding that regardless of status, no one is beyond reproach for why seats at seemingly more prominent tables were never offered. However, more of her concern lies in the pitter patter of the drumming that is the heart valve Blackness steps to. It is the thing you learn when teachers cannot proffer proper reasoning as to why Saul Williams isn’t AP curriculum, why Warsan Shire isn’t required syllabi study. Solange, with this piece of art, is demonstrating the proclivity that is Blackness
You see, my Blackness taught me before anything else ever could. It is the same kind of Blackness that molded a Solange, built an Obama, bred a Master P. It lives in the same way someone’s graduation, death, birth, cancer, lives inside of them; breeding grounds for the creation of something new. Black death, Black live, Black art, they are things you work within, built into backbones almost. When you are taught to read Whitman and not NWA, or Yeats and not Yeezy, your approach to artistry is seen through that tunnel. My contemporaries are the Skyzoos and Dominique Mattis of the world; Coates and Shawn Carters.
When we speak of classrooms, and the millennials that make up the seats that are sharing those spaces, I think their prompts are different than mine. Being Black is a visible distraction, in that people recognize the lack of privilege (or rather, the belief that it is a lack or hindrance, rather than a gift) on sight. The immediacy of the distance between those who write and choose to have a model to work from, compared to those who the paradigm has ready been assigned, is a staggering one. Color lines are drawn, marked, and set before ink even dries on paper. I have been writing in the dark all my life. Even in the most light, the present will always have the silhouette of Blackness attached. This shadow of self is more art than Steinback will ever be able to muster, for me at least. But, it is in this darkness, with my Blackness serving as a lighthouse, that the world is the most clear. That is something no course or classwork will ever be able to comandeer.