I work in publishing, a world carved out by the white upper class. A world that, for the most part, inadvertently continues to pave the way for white middle to upper class writers. I’m a black twenty four year old woman from a working class background. I’m increasingly aware of this, especially at a time when slavery is being thrust into people’s faces, with Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years A Slave being one of the works prompting some awareness of a system that people are keen to forget happened in the not too distant past.
I spend too large a portion of my waking day sighing, rolling my eyes and biting my lip at societal and institutional racial inequality from the minute I pick up the Metro and read that black youths are twice as likely to be charged for drug possession than their white counterparts, to the jokes and questions from parents of friends who tug, fondle and peer closely at handfuls of my hair. The crux of my day is usually pacing around my room, head in my hands, screaming “NO. LISTEN. BLACK PEOPLE CAN’T BE RACIST TOWARDS WHITE PEOPLE” to my white boyfriend.
Throughout my day, I get to look at the scattering of books by black women writers that have fought their way onto the rosters of publishing houses; Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Cake by Sandra Newman, Push by Sapphire, White Teeth by Zadie Smith. These books remind me that black women are present; not as much as we should be, but we are here, and we will be heard.
When I get home, I look at my shelves. They’re straining under the weight of incredible books written by white authors, but peppered with books by Bell Hooks, Alice Walker, Octavia Butler (a black woman writing dystopian science fiction, who’d have thought or allowed it?) and Audre Lorde. I cherish all of my books. Not just the ones one my shelves, but the few squeezed onto my mantelpiece, the pile stacked up on my desk and the 10+ by my bed that fall on my head when I knock them over in my sleep. Of all of them, the book I hold dearest to me is I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. My godmother, a Trinidadian author and professor of culture who has fought through cancer, racial abuse and, most painfully and laborious to her, “the fight to stay in my job as a woman of colour” gave me her worn and beaten copy for my eighteenth birthday. She pressed it into my hands, and she said ‘Cans, you’re a powerful black woman. You’ll be made to think otherwise, but to quote Maya Angelou, ‘The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.’
It’s hard to see how Maya Angelou hasn’t had an effect on me; the way I look at myself, the drive to transcend societal constraints that friends continue to tell me don’t exist, my hair, my body, the skin I live in. This week, I’m interviewing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I plan to ask her, with passion, excitement, awe and wonder, how it feels to be one of the increasingly growing, but still confusingly small number of black female authors of the present day. Without Maya Angelou, I don’t think either of us would be where we are today.