Who Can Tell My Story

Photo: Marty Umans Photo: Marty Umans

We speak a different language in my grandmother’s house. When the family is alone together or with close friends, our language flows into a southern dialect essenced with my younger brother’s (and sometimes my own) hip-hop of-the-moment idioms — what was once good became fresh and is now the bomb. What was once great was then hype and now phat and so on. My younger brother and I listen to music that plays with language, that pushes against grammatical and linguistic walls. We speak this language to those who understand and then we come home and this language gets blended into the language that is spoken in my grandmother’s house. What is spoken in her house is the language of a long time ago, before we were shipped off to college, before my exposure to Chaucer and James and the Brontës. It is not the stereotypical “I be, you be” that has made its derogatory way into others’ perception of ‘black dialect.’ And it is more complex and less frustrating than the whole ebonics argument, although the seed of the argument is truly the essence of our language. It tells its own story, our language does, and woven through it are all the places we’ve been, all that we’ve seen, experiences held close, good and bad. You don’t have to be a part of my family to understand what my grandmother means when she turns a phrase in a way that makes some friends knit their eyebrows and glance at me for help. You just need to have been a part of the experience.

A friend once asked if it was hard to speak “standard” English. I had never thought of standard English as that. I had always thought of it as the language spoken on the outside, the language one used to procure scholarships, employment, promotions. Like putting on a nice suit — one that you feel good in in the outside world but wouldn’t choose for a lazy Sunday afternoon. Having majored in English with a concentration in British Literature and Middle English, I have come to love all aspects of the English language — have come to love sitting down with the writings of James and Pound as much as I love sitting down to Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s house. Each event is buttered thick with experience and language. But at my grandmother’s house, her experiences and the memories have filtered through her to us and by extension become our own. James’s Portrait of a Lady doesn’t do this. Nor does Pound’s version of The Seafarer. But if I take the beauty of these works and filter my own experience through them, I can create something that is mine. And by this means, through the different, complicated elements of language and experience, through being and reading and listening and re-creating, I have come to understand the world around me — and myself as a writer.

At conferences, I am often asked to speak about my experiences as a writer. I talk about the early days, about what propelled me to write certain books. I talk about my friends, my goals as a writer, my home life, even my pets. Invariably, there is the question and answer period. Invariably, there is The Question. Although it is phrased differently, it always comes. At every conference, at every adult speaking engagement, at my breakfast table at the Coretta Scott King Awards, at my dinner table at the Newbery/Caldecott, even at book signings. How do you feel about people writing outside of their own experiences? How do you feel about white people writing about people of color?

More than the question, it is the political context in which it is asked that is annoying. As our country moves further to the right, as affirmative action gets called into question, as race related biases against people of color soar, as the power structure in our society remains, in many ways, unchanged, why, then, would a person feel comfortable asking me this question?

When I asked my white writer friends how they answer this question, I was less than surprised to find that none of them had been asked. Why was it then that white people (because I have never been asked this by someone who was recognizably a person of color) felt a need to ask this of me? What was it, is it, people are seeking in the asking? What is it about the power structure our society was built and remains upon that leads a white person to believe that this is a question that I, as a black woman, should, can, and must be willing to address?

In the early days, I couldn’t see past the anger of constantly having this question hurled at me to the political ramifications of not only the question but the dynamic of the asking. And to the fact that what was happening in the moment of the question had always been happening. As my twenty-something activist mind wrapped around this idea, I began to speak. It was Audre Lorde who said, “Your silence will not protect you.” As I came to understand what Lorde meant by this, I became grateful to those who weren’t silent, who weren’t afraid to take the chance and ask this question of me. And I became grateful for the chance to no longer be silent. Their asking afforded me the opportunity to have a dialogue, and through this dialogue to learn more about how people were thinking. True, I didn’t like some of the thoughts, but I knew what they were and came to understand that it was safer to know what people were thinking than not. I realized that, like the backlash against affirmative action, there was a swelling wave against “multiculturalism.” There were few who believed that the movement shouldn’t exist (and these few were made known to me only through friends). But there were many who believed that while the movement to get a diversity of stories into classrooms and libraries was important, one didn’t need to be a person of color to tell these stories. This did and continues to surprise me. When I bring stories like this to my grandmother’s table, my family and friends look at me as though I’ve grown a third eye — or worse, never grew any. They remind me that the ‘art’ of other people “telling our story” isn’t new, that people have always attempted to do it in literature, radio, film. And I trace back my own childhood memories of the Our Gang series where white members of the cast appeared in blackface, to the novels of my childhood where people of color where often represented in subservient positions, to the present-day dilemma of others attempting to speak in “black English,” to the films of my childhood where people of color were oftimes represented as maids, brutes, and temptresses.

As I grow older, as the negative misrepresentations of people of color showed up again and again, understanding replaced the anger. I realized that no one but me can tell my story. Still, I wondered why others would want to try. When I say this, that a person needs to tell their own story, people argue that this view is myopic, that if this was the case, there would only be autobiography in the world.

I have just finished the final draft of a novel, If You Come Softly, about the love affair between two fifteen year olds. In the novel, the boy is black and the girl is white and Jewish. As I sat down to write this novel, I asked myself over and over why I needed to write it. Why did I need to go inside the life of a Jewish girl? More than the need, what gave me the right? Whose story was this? And the answers, of course, were right in front of me. This, like every story I’ve written, from Last Summer with Maizon to I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This to From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun, is my story. While I have never been Jewish, I have always been a girl. While I have never lived on the Upper West Side, I have lived for a long time in New York. While I have never been a black male, I’ve always been black. But most of all, like the characters in my story, I have felt a sense of powerlessness in my lifetime. And this is the room into which I can walk and join them. This sense of being on the outside of things, of feeling misunderstood and invisible, is the experience I bring to the story. I do not attempt to know what it is like to come from another country. Nor do I pretend to understand the enormity of the impact of the Holocaust.

What I know is this:

Tomorrow is Yom Kippur — a holy day of fasting and atonement. My partner and I will attend service at sundown, as we have done for the past few years. While I am not Jewish, my partner is, and we observe and respect each other’s religious beliefs and plan to raise our children with our two sets of religious values. In this way I have stepped inside the house of my partner’s experience. It is not my house, nor will it ever be, but there are elements of it we share. I know the struggle of Jewish people and experience the sting of anti-Semitism through the stories told over dinner, through what I hear from people who do not know the relationship I am in. I know what it is like to be hated because of the skin you were born in, because of gender or sexual preference. I know what it is like to be made to feel unworthy, disregarded, to have one’s experiences devalued because they are not the experiences of a dominant culture. I cannot step directly into my character’s experience as a Jewish girl, but I can weave my experiences of being black in this society, a woman in this society, and in an interracial relationship in this society, around the development of my character and thus bring to the creation of Ellie a hybrid experience that will, I hope, ring true. I don’t want to tell the story of Ellie and Jeremiah because it is the “in” thing to do. I don’t want to shortchange anyone that way. Nor do I want to exploit people through my writing. When I write of people who are of different races or religions than myself, I must bring myself to that experience, ask what is it that I, as a black woman, have to offer and/or say about it? Why did I, as a black woman, need to tell this story? I say this, because there is always, of course, one’s position of power. I have read books where this position isn’t named, where white authors write books “about” families of color with no white characters figuring into the story, and I wonder how this is different from the demeaning stories I read as a child, the television I watched, the movies I was taken to. I wonder why is that author standing in that room watching without adding or participating in the experience, without changing because of the experience? Why is that author simply telling someone else’s story?

I realized in the middle of writing If You Come Softly that, more than wanting to write about a boy and a girl falling in love, I wanted to write about the relationship between blacks and Jews. And here, at this point, where boy met girl, where different worlds and belief systems sometimes collided, was a story I knew well. A house I had been inside of.

Once at a conference I met a woman who had written a book about a family of color. “What people of color do you know?” I asked. “Well,” she answered. “It’s based on a family that used to work for mine.”

This family had stepped inside this woman’s kitchen, but she had not been inside theirs. And having not sat down to their table, how could she possibly know the language and the experiences and the feelings there? How could she know who they were when they took their outside clothes off at the end of the day and moved from their outside language to the language they shared with family and close friends? How could she know what made them laugh from deep within themselves — a laughter that is not revealed in the boss’s kitchen — and what made them cry — the stomach wrenching wails one hides from the outside world? And most of all, why was it this woman needed to tell this story?

As publishers (finally!) scurry to be a part of the move to represent the myriad cultures once absent from mainstream literature, it is not without some skepticism that I peruse the masses of books written about people of color by white people. As a black person, it is easy to tell who has and who has not been inside “my house.” Some say there is a move by people of color to keep whites from writing about us, but this isn’t true. This movement isn’t about white people, it’s about people of color. We want the chance to tell our own stories, to tell them honestly and openly. We don’t want publishers to say, “Well, we already published a book about that,” and then find that it was a book that did not speak the truth about us but rather told someone on the outside’s idea of who we are.

My belief is that there is room in the world for all stories, and that everyone has one. My hope is that those who write about the tears and the laughter and the language in my grandmother’s house have first sat down at the table with us and dipped the bread of their own experiences into our stew.

*   *   *   *

Jacqueline Woodson is the author of several books for young readers including I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This and The House You Pass on the Way. Her forthcoming novel, If You Come Softly, will be published by Putnam in the fall of 1998. From the January/February 1998 Horn Book Magazine.

Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth16 for more articles in this series.
Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson is the winner of the 2015 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Brown Girl Dreaming (Paulsen/Penguin). She is the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature 2018-2019 and the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Laureate.
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An incredibly moving article, thank you. That analogy about the nice suit I think speaks beautifully to the identities that are shed or suppressed by donning the rules and expectations of others when you leave your safe zone. I was just wondering what people's thoughts are on BAME characters in books out with the genre of literary/realist fiction e.g. sci-fi/fantasy, in which entirely new humanoid worlds and histories are created. Surely the lack of BAME characters here is downright racist, indicative of the lack of BAME authors? Do you think it problematic if white authors were to write from only white perspectives in settings removed from our own history? If so, and if white authors included more or only non-white characters, would an explanation for why a certain character or race in a created world looked a certain way even be needed? And if it wasn’t, would diversity in the race of characters different to that of the author then seem equally problematic, like “token” races thrown into the story to make it more diverse and therefore directly dependent upon the race, persuasion, and political agenda of the one behind the pen? Or would “over-explanation” seem equally “self-conscious”? Sorry for such a tangled web of musings but as a prolific reader I’m just really interested in different perspectives on this! Anyone who happens to read this, please pitch in with your own opinions, thanks! Bethan craithban@outlook.com

Posted : Apr 01, 2017 03:17

Virginia Rinkel

I've just read the comments here, and especially "Mary's" comment also hit me deep. I so appreciate your picture book stories, 'Each Kindness' and 'Coming on Home Soon'. They speak deeply to me, and to the children I've read them to seem to reflect a little more about the thoughts you send through these books, especially 'Each Kindness'. I'm looking for strength to let my own courage come out in my illustrations, and in ways yet unknown to me. Thank you.

Posted : May 16, 2016 10:32

Orel Protopopescu

Beautifully said, Jacqueline, and a welcome, nuanced addition to the discussion about who "owns" any culture. You can't tell by looking at someone what they have experienced, nor how many "lives" they have lived. I'm a secular Jewish-American who came of age in an African-American neighborhood. There are many African-American writers who've had the opposite experience, having grown up in largely white, middle and upper class neighborhoods. It takes courage to write what you know, not what others expect you should know.

Posted : Feb 21, 2016 07:00

Sharon Dennis Wyeth

Dear Jacqueline Woodson, Such a thoughtful article! Thank you for tackling this sensitive and complex issue. I've been on both sides of this question as a light skinned Black woman, not readily identifiable as a writer of color at conferences such as those you describe. Why a writer chooses her subject must vary from person to person. I only know for sure that I am compelled to write the stories I write because of my own and my family's personal history as people of color. I regard our stories as part of a valued legacy that I continue to mine and investigate in order to come closer to the truth. Our stories, like our names, allowed us to place ourselves within the context of diaspora. Within a context of financial insecurity, our stories were our riches. For some of us, the stories of our often buried history are sacred. When translated to thoughtful and deeply felt fiction such as yours, they are re endowed with value to be shared with a wider circle. Keep spreading the word! Sharon Dennis Wyeth

Posted : Feb 19, 2016 12:35


Wow. I'm wiping tears away. Yes, why THIS story? I've always thought I wrote my stories because I understood what it was like to be a child from a broken home, or a child in another culture, or a young woman without a home base , or a woman without a mother. Just now I realized there was a broader theme to my books, especially my series set in Louisiana, with Creole characters. I just asked myself, WHY this story, with these people, when I'm not Creole or Southern (although I did live there and am related to some, etc., etc.). It wasn't the yearning for a family history or a bone-deep sense of cultural place. It was because these characters are Catholic in a land of Baptists, and Catholic in a way that's not altogether "acceptable" (influences by African and regional customs). More than any identity I've carried of being "other" (living abroad, learning other languages, marrying a migrant worker, having children who identify with two cultures, raising them in a bilingual home) is my sense of my religion not being the "right" religion. In a land of pale, blue-eyed Protestants, we were the short, darker Catholics. Even more so, both of my parents were converts. My grandparents didn't participate in our religious traditions. We were not quite Catholic enough (like my friend's Italian family with their infant baptismal gowns being passed down generations). Thank you for the powerful article. I learned something new about my own fire-in-the-belly stories that I hadn't understood before. After fulfilling two separate 3-book contracts for my Big Five publisher, I stopped submitting. I wrote Christian fiction and for the past several years I'd thought it was just minor irritations that had led me to go my own way. But I clearly see now n that adhering to the CBA guidelines of "no overt Catholicism" (Amish is fine, of course) was the real problem. Every book I've written since has featured Catholic characters. I've finally taken off the fancy suit, and I'm sitting at the family table, speaking the language that I know.

Posted : Feb 18, 2016 05:53

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