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.


bjanepr said...

Very good post. This reminds me of some similar gender "issues" which arose in the API writers/activists communities as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan came into prominence, accused by API men of their "anti-Asian-man" stance. Something of a descendant of that generation of API women writers, I have also experienced "anti-Asian/Filipino-man" accusations due to the feminism in my work, so all this to say I agree with you that our generation of women of color writing have a hard task ahead of us, of perhaps rephrasing the gender/ethnicity either/or terms by which we've frequently been pressured to abide.

ishmael reed said...

My comments about the movie,"The Color Purple," written,directed and
produced by white men ,are similar to
those made by Alice Walker.We didn't
like it. The strongest comments about
"The Color Purple" came from Toni
Morrison and Trudier Harris. They didn't like it! Thanks, Ishmael Reed

Anonymous said...

I have always viewed creativity as the ability to think outside the box. Your seat mate's presumptive comments about how you view men is an attempt to keep you within a box. By creating stereo-types we put off having to deal with people on an individual basis, hopefully getting to know them and connect. Its' the truly creative who continue to show us that we don't have to be defined or define others by artificial boundaries.

Carleen Brice said...

I never really thought about the boom of black romances and erotic as a reaction to Walker and company before, but what an interesting idea. Is it actually safer for someone to write like Zane than to write like Walker? Lots to consider here.

Anonymous said...

The questions from the seatmate (I don't believe they were assumptions, rather I think they were provocations) remind me of an all men's civic meeting I attended several years ago.
They had been goaded into "allowing" a woman who was editor of a regional business magazine to provide the program. The hostility in the room was palpable. I was the only other female in the room, but might have been invisible. I can't exactly remember, but probably everyone was white.
The woman did a great job talking in great detail about the current area business climate, concluded by saying she would take questions.
Immediately one of the guests asked in a challenging manner if she thought the regional baseball team had any chance of getting into the world series.
She was taken aback by the question, quickly recovered, and gave a non-committal response. When she finished, the men began either talking to each other, or rising from the tables, clearly sending to her the message that they were no longer interested in anything she might say.

evie said...

Thanks for this post, Tayari -- brave and insightful. I'd add that there's a level of self-protection in your response to the seatmate's question. The close quarters of an airplane are hard to endure for an hour or more with hostile energy raging right beside you...

I hate the binary that young man's questions constructed. Perhaps the response for next time (assuming you're willing to go there) is: "You haven't read many books by women, huh?"

Anonymous said...

I don't see it.

Maybe the gentleman on the plane was just a bit of a jerk that day. He might have been having a bad day. To draw a broad conclusion about all black men seems to me to be a bit dramatic.... but then again all women are dramatic aren't they???

UrbanUpscale-Intown Green said...

Interesting. I have two views on this based on being a Southerner and a man.

I think his question was meant to be provacative, but it's hard to know w/o knowing if he asked the question w/ a smile on his face. He deserved a little bit of challenging on his comment. The come back suggested earlier would have fit the bill. Or maybe a slightly toned down "You know better than that. How many non romance black women writers have you read?" My Southerness tells me, based on you description, he didn't know you well enough to take a dig at you like that unless he was purposely trying to be provacative.

As a black man I have experienced the extent to which we are schizoid about race and gender issues. I've known brothers will have strong opinions against Islam for demeaning women while at the same time loving some of Snoop Doggs most misoginist lyrics. Recently I told a friend of mine that Laurn Hill's Miseducation is one of the best records of the HipHop era. He immediately came back with "that b***h a dike!" Ummm, bruh, she has like 5 kids! He obviously wasbasing his opinion on the fact she wore her hair natuaral then and she actually had a coherent political message in her music and didn't just pander to the well worn sex/money/power themes of most hip hop.

Lord help us. We's just a man!

Anonymous said...

Boy, Tayari, I don't know whether to be mad that this thing is happening to other Black women besides me, or to be happy I'm not crazy--well, I might be crazy, but not over this!

What you describe is the quintessential woman of color/Black woman's conundrum, I guess; we love "the brothers" and we love ourselves and wonder why those two loves must be mutually exclusive. It's even more difficult for Black female creative writers, dealing with the angels/devils perched on our shoulders at 3:00Am when we're trying to develop Black male characters who are both realistic and "a credit their race."

BTW, you know what would have happened if you had mentioned you were a Black feminist to the brother on the plane? THEN he would have asked, "So what does that mean anyway? Define that for me." And THEN you would have had to tap dance and tell him that you really, really like Black men--again-- and let you count the ways why. And being strong doesn't mean not being feminine. And so on and so forth. Ha!

Anyway, I thought your essay was beautifully written and quite timely. You should write some more about this!

PS To "Anonymous" who said he/she didn't "get it" and maybe this guy was "having a bad day": there must be an awful lot of bad days out there because I've had almost this exact same conversation--with a Black man--at least twenty times and all my Black feminist friends have this sort of conversation, too. Wow, we're unlucky:-). I don't generalize about Black men, no, but I think it's disingenuous to think sexism doesn't exist within the Black community, with both Black men AND women.--That's how that old chestnut goes: somehow, sexism doesn't exist with Black folks, but racism definitely exists with White folks. Imagine if this were a White man or woman who asked Tayari, "So you hate White people?" Who wouldn't be outraged? Who wouldn't think that person was a White supremacist/racist? Would that person be having "a bad day"?

Just thought I throw that out there.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing your honest and difficult essay - such a vital conversation!

In response to the backlash Alice Walker received for the BOOK The Color Purple, Calvin Hernton wrote what i think should be a classic essay "Who's afraid of Alice Walker?" in his book 'The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers'.

Interesting to note that some of the most virulent criticism AW received was from black men who had not even READ the book but were reacting to a black woman "airing dirty laundry" outside the community - an age old excuse for not addressing injustice.

I commend your courage and think you can always reserve the right to engage in conversations/teaching moments or NOT. Sometimes they are just not worth having and your passion could be better spent elsehow. :-)

Maria said...

Hi Tayari --

Wanted to chime in and congratulate you on your bravery for writing this essay. :)

Inyama said...

The comment made by this "gentlemen" merely illuminated his level of ignorance not only for black women writers, but as a human being. I guess he feels if you aren't writing about a booty-call, you must be man-bashing. Please do not allow narrow minded individuals to provide stumbling blocks in the perseverance of our craft. I think my first piece of advice for being a writer was to write of things that we are familiar with. If Alice walker could pull down a Pulitzer, she must have exhibited excellent writing skills, as well as believable subject matter. If she, Gloria Naylor, and quite a few others can display a comfort zone with what they write, why should any writer have to tip-toe around anybody's ego, Ishmael Reed or whoever? Caucasian women are allowed to write about murder, incest, love, hate or whatever suits their fancy without having to defend who they are or what they write. I understand Tayari's concern upon hearing this man's comments, but please don't obsess over what comes out of the mouth of a moron.

Joy Castro said...

Great post. We get such mixed and crazy messages from our men. My Latino father gave me a dictionary and a thesaurus for my high school graduation. Not exciting, maybe, but well-meaning, supportive gifts for an aspiring writer, right? I have them still. But he gave my brother, on his eighteenth birthday, a subscription to _Playboy_. Very different message.

As Walker depicted so painfully in _The Color Purple_, some men beat women, and some men rape their own daughters. I was so moved and helped by Walker's beautiful book of self-discovery, compassion, and healing, and it never encouraged me to generalize negatively about African American men.

All writers need to be free to write about whatever moves them, and issues of justice and freedom are usually high on that list. When men of color try to prevent the airing of manhood's abusive dirty laundry by turning its exploration into a loyalty litmus test for women writers of color, they are defending a false privilege: the privilege of not looking at, not owning, and not rectifying the soul-damaging crimes that some among their number have committed. It is not enough for a group to decry, however justly, its own victimization; it must take responsibility, too, for any who've suffered abuses under its power. That's just being honest.

Reed called _The Color Purple_ a "neoconfederate" novel, claiming that it colluded with white feminists in "whipping up hysteria" against black men, way back in 1983. Based on his post here, it looks like he's moved on from that stance, and I'm glad. But it's a hot shame that this issue continues to play out, 25 years later, in the experiences of gifted writers like Tayari Jones.

Earth Angel said...

Wonderful post Tayari. I commend you. I appreciate you raising this issue of how Walker’s work and subsequent ordeal have affected younger black women writers, both feminist/womanist and those not identified as such. I too think of Walker’s ordeal when I am writing black male characters. I worry not so much about painting “negative” portraits, b/c I am committed to telling the truth, but I find that my portraits of black men veer toward sainthood, which I find an equally egregious sin. If we respond to history by focusing only on the good we have seen black men do, are we overcompensating? Are we afraid to tell the whole story, even though Walker has paved the way for us to tell the truth? I think the hardest thing to do is to paint characters that are real, that reach for the heavens while dragging their feet in the mud. This is the work of a writer. If I tell the truth, I have seen black men hit black women and refuse to support their children. I have also seen black men walk to work every day for thirty years to save more money to support their families. If we choose to tell the truth, we will create characters based upon both, or either of those men. No writer should be castigated b/c she simply told one story, well, rather than all of them. Your post made me angry, and it will make me continue to think about the effect of all of this on black women writers and on black male/female relationships. The man on the plane’s reaction saddens me, as does that of “anonymous,” who seems unable to see or admit that you quite accurately painted a portrait of an actual scene that occurred, featuring ONE black woman and ONE black man. Nothing about your post suggested you drawing a “broad conclusion about all black men.” Such displays of insecurity and blatant disregard for actual facts and reality make me wonder about the future of black male/female relationships and encourage me to celebrate those that keep on ticking. Since I seem to be writing my own post, I will continue this on my blog. :-> Thanks for making me think. And feel.

Motherless Child said...

I join those who commend you on your courage and remind you of your right to decline to engage when the battle doesn't seem worthwhile. It seems, though, that you didn't *decide* not to engage but flinched back in an effort to deflect a potential verbal attack by declaring your allegiance and loyalty to "the Race" as you put it, which is really declaring your loyalty to black men, as if black women aren't really black. Like the other black feminists who've commented, I've been in that situation a dozen times as well. To "come out" as a black feminist in most spaces is to risk accusation and abuse. I don't know how we change this, since as a historian, I know it's been an intra-racial problem for at least 150 years. But I'm glad to find a space beyond my own circle of friends where the conversation is ongoing. Can anyone point me to other such spaces, publications, etc?

spottedslinky said...

Tayari Jones eloquently describes the difficulty in keeping focused on the issue, which to me lay underneath all the issues which show up as race, gender, faith, etc. That underlying issue is the difficulty of sharing with people who have not had the experience we have (some who cannot, maybe some who chose not). The fact that she is haunted attests to her own faith in something larger than politics, the desire to write from her own reality. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

Kudos to you Tayari for your bravery in attacking a subject from which many would shy away. Had it been me who had been asked that question, I may have taken the "low road" and been critical of your seatmate's assumptions. Although I hope that I would have found the courage to voice my convictions without being offensive. Tayari, you represent a generation of writers who you so adequately state will pave the road that was cleared by our predecessors. I applaud this post and your thoughtfulness for both subject matter and insight...Bravo, my Spelman Sister, Bravo!!

Sustenance Scout said...

Such a fascinating, important post and comment thread, Tayari. Thank you! Also thanks to Indigo Girl for this:

"The hardest thing to do is to paint characters that are real, that reach for the heavens while dragging their feet in the mud. This is the work of a writer."

Anonymous said...

When I presented my memoir to the publishing world, it was rejected because I described being mistreated by a black woman who ran the Home me and my two brothers lived in for seven years. They said I was attacking black women. I replied that I didn't know all black women in America, but I did know this woman,who was not fit to live on this earth.
Fred Beauford