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May 2013

I was called ‘liar’ and ‘whore’ and ‘traitor’ for no other reason than that people who have been made to depend on the approval of the powerful grow afraid of criticizing themselves, because the powerful may hear, amplify their distress, and hold them up to censure and ridicule. The powerful can also manipulate people, and pass horrible, repressive laws, based on the negative images that are permitted to proliferate. This is the reality. And yet, until we can criticize ourselves, and feel safe doing so, there is no hope of molding better values in our children, or of increasing the respect we feel for ourselves. I am not interested in being a role model, or in fulfilling the expectations of others. I know I am of most use to others and to myself by being this unique self.


Alice Walker

This is from her reflection in The Same River Twice on some of the intraracial backlash to The Color Purple. Fear of The White Gaze is why in the 80s, some Black people asserted that she was only writing to harm, not to reveal, deconstruct and empower, or worse, some asserted that domestic violence, rape and incest never occurs among Black people. By viewing the story as only those themes, it also reveals how limited their perception of this story is. Because it most certainly is not only about those themes. The limited perception approach is one some Whites take regarding her work as well.

There’s a third space of existence for Black characters. Not as White stereotypes. Not as lies of “100% positivity” that should evade humanity itself in reaction to White stereotypes. But as human beings. Dynamic. Flawed. Relateable. Her work always dwells in that third space (which isn’t truly a “space” in that it has boundaries; it’s the absence of boundaries). The problem is the third space frightens some Black people who because of internalized White supremacist thought and respectability politics, can only think in the second space. The problem is the first two spaces are built on the same lies.

To be clear, simply regurgitating stereotypes of Blackness in inappropriate contexts is NOT engaging in the nuanced conversation in the way that Alice Walker does. Some Black people think insulting other Blacks in front of Whites and talking around Black people to Whites via bootstrap theory or personal responsibility politics is the same as progressive womanist/feminist critique in an intraracial context. Also, it is possible to recognize the manifestations of White supremacy and racism on Black people without making the racists themselves the central story. Black writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison do this with ease.

I also love what she wrote in regards to “role model.” I believe that being a role model is dehumanization through deification. It’s a thankless burden that does not allow a person to truly be a person.

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