The following is a guest post by Shawn R. Jones, whose poetry appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse.
I sat down to write a few days after George Floyd’s murder, and never had the writing process felt more precarious. In 2019, it seemed so clear. I understood what I wanted to say and who I wanted to speak for, but more recently, my mind has been fraught with hurt, rage, and disappointment.
I am not sure who I am writing for now. Am I writing for Black people questioning their place in America, for my white neighbors whose hellos are suddenly more of an apology than a greeting, or for people who are speaking to me for the first time?
For instance, my husband and I have been living in a predominantly white neighborhood for over a decade. There are a few neighbors who have refused to speak to us. However, a few days after Floyd’s murder, one of these neighbors pulled up beside us and asked how we were doing. I wanted to respond, the same way we have been for the past 401 years. I wasn’t sure if I should be thankful that she had finally decided to speak or angry that she hadn’t “noticed” us before.
I spoke back, with a hello that had a silent uh… in front of it and a question mark behind it. You see, I had stopped speaking to her because she had never responded and also because I had assumed she was the one who had written, “Niggers Go Back to Africa,” on the asphalt in front of our home. It was an assumption I made based on a gut feeling I have learned to rely on in environments where people can hate me and smile at me at the same time and others can hate me so much that they refuse to speak or smile at all.
In this racial climate, I don’t know what to expect from some white people any more than they know what to expect from me. I rely heavily on a gut feeling when I need to decide who I can trust. Thus far, that feeling hasn’t failed me. I don’t think I have a special mojo. However, I am convinced that many black people can feel racism without anyone even looking in their direction because racism feels more like a being, a spirit that prowls around our country, searching for a host.
So, how do we write about racism? How do we decide who our audience is? As I write this, I am asking myself those same questions while also understanding that sometimes we need to protect our mental health by not writing about events that disturb us. However, if you are compelled to do so, write a visceral response to a racial injustice you have witnessed this year. Revise later. If you feel ready, choose an incident, and write without worrying about what people are going to think about you. Become a gutsy writer, and write what you need to write for your own liberation. After you give your piece an honest voice, your audience will show up.
Shawn R. Jones is a writer from South Jersey. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Womb Rain (Finishing Line Press 2008) and A Hole to Breathe (Finishing Line Press 2015). Her poetry chapbook, Womb Rain, is #61 in Finishing Line Press’ New Women’s Voices Series. Her poetry has also appeared in Essence, Challenges for the Delusional, River Heron Review, and Guesthouse. She has poetry forthcoming in Peregrine Journal. Her debut short story, “The Life that You Saved” was recently published by Obelus Journal. Shawn is the owner and operator of Tailored Tutoring LLC and Kumbaya Academy, Inc. She is also a 2019 graduate of Rutgers-Camden’s MFA Program. Twitter: @shawnrjones1