Tuesday, February 19, 2008

So You Have a Problem with Men?

Tayari Jones is the author of two novels, The Untelling (2005), which won the Lillian C. Smith Award for New Voices, and Leaving Atlanta (2002), which received the Hurston/Wright Award for Debut Fiction. Essence magazine has called Jones "a writer to watch." Jones is a graduate of Spelman College, The University of Iowa, and Arizona State University. She is an Assistant Professor in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark University. Visit her site at

A few months ago, before the media coverage of Clinton/Obama contest pressured black women to decide if we are "women" before we are "black," I sat beside a black man on an airplane. Since such close quarters lend themselves to small talk, he asked me what I do for a living.

“I’m a writer,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “What do you write? Romances?”


He gave me a sideways glance. “So you have a problem with men?”

Though I was completely aware of the inanity of his question—of both his questions—I found myself working hard to allay his fears. “Oh no,” I said. “I have no problem with brothers!” Once I had disembarked from the plane, claimed my bags, and settled myself in a taxi cab, I recalled my own voice, treakly sweet with an edge of desperation.

What the hell was that all about?

The man on the plane was about the same age as I am—37 this year. We both came to understand the tradition of African American women’s writing in the context of the maelstrom surrounding Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, and Gloria Naylor. And though these women writers came to public prominence because of their talents, they also achieved infamy in the African American community because they were charged with being anti-man.

Perhaps the most biting of the attacks was Ishmael Reed’s claim that “the same charges that Alice Walker makes against black men were made about the Jews in Germany.” Sadly, Reed was not alone; the vicious castigation of Alice Walker was performed on talk shows, in English Departments, in magazines, barbershops, and any other place black folks gathered.

As my own novels have been published, I have been fortunate enough to meet the writers whose work guided me, not only as a craftsperson, but as a thinker. In October of last year, Cheryl Clarke, whose work appears in the Black Feminist Anthology Homegirls, remarked that Ntozake Shange gave the women of her generation permission to “tell a black woman’s story.” Squirming in my seat, I envied her this moment of experiencing the debut of “For Colored Girls,” to be enthralled by the language, the performance, and the narrative, without being frightened by the controversy that would follow.

In her memoir, The Same River Twice: Honoring The Difficult, Alice Walker relates her experiences following backlash to the publication of The Color Purple and to the release of the movie adaptation:

It was said that I hated men, black men in particular; that my work was injurious to black male and female relationships; that my ideas of equality were harmful, even destructive to the black community. … It was a curious experience that always left me feeling as if I had injested poison. (22-23)

It was a curious experience for me as well. As a tender young writer-to-be, I was very much like a small girl who witnesses domestic violence and sexual terrorism between her parents. As I have set my own pen to the page, I recall the experience of Alice Walker. I understand what she meant when she said that the criticism “prevented my working at the depth of thought at which I feel most productive.” So fearful was I of being “unfair” to my male characters, that I relied on my older brother to vet my manuscripts. When he was unwilling to help me with my second novel, he unwittingly forced me to trust my own sense of just representation. For this, I will ways be grateful.

In her famous essay, “Looking For Zora,” Walker writes that she had limited exposure to Black women writers as she was coming of age as a writer herself. Gloria Naylor has remarked that before she went to Yale, she didn’t know that black women wrote books. I sometimes wonder if this was not a mixed blessing as they created their art without fear of being forced out of the circle.

So this brings me back to my experience on the airplane. My seatmate’s question-So you have a problem with (black) men- was really a demand that I establish my loyalty to the Race. Although we engage in philosophical discussion about what “blackness” is, there is no doubt that—whatever it is-- it involves an uncritical appreciation for its men. The consequences of being pronounced a race-traitor are cultural isolation, crippling for a person already marginalized. Of course, the flip side of this is that proving my allegiance requires a toxic silence.

I am a feminist, and I do not resist the label. I didn’t mention this to my seatmate although this is probably the real answer to the question, “What do you write about?” I would not be honest here if I didn’t confess to a secret desire to please this man, for him to tell me that I am still a member of the fold.

But I am veering away from my experience on the plane. Perhaps I can’t stay on task because I am embarrassed by own response, that I didn’t take the high road, seeing this as a “teaching moment.” Or maybe I could have taken the low road and given him a piece of my mind. Perhaps I can’t stay on task because I am ashamed to remember so clearly the moment, to have been so rattled, to feel the need to confess here my reticence.

The antidote, of course, is to return to the substance of the texts that convinced me that a black woman’s story is a story that must be told, that must be passed down. Black women writers of my generation must have a bravery that exceeds that of the women who went before us. Although they are said to have paved the way, I think a better metaphor is that they cleared away the brush. The road down which the next generation will travel is still in need of pavement. There is molten tar to be mixed and spread. The work will be difficult, dangerous, and essential.