Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine?

In the last year I have been promoting books by women of colour on this blog. Every month I have read and reviewed a book and every week I have promoted a post from this blog about a book by a woman of colour on my twitter account. My intention is to amplify the marginalised voices, contribute to the discussion generated by these writers. 

I recently read an article by Yaa Gyasi that got me going, made me question my motives and effectiveness, as I expect she intended. It was published in the Guardian in March 2021 and headlined

White people, black authors are not your medicine

You can read the article here

What does Yaa Gyasi say?

Yaa Gyasi is the Ghanaian-American author of Homegoing (2016) and Transcendent Kingdom (2020). She lives in the US. In her article she argues that white people are not moving quickly enough, are still imbued with racist attitudes. In the US ‘they have failed to contend with the legacy of slavery’. I would say that in the UK we have failed to deal with the legacy of colonialism.

Public interest in her work was revived by the Black Lives Matters movement last summer and Homegoing appeared on anti-racist reading lists. But she found this very disappointing for the questions being asked of her at literary events had already been answered, she claims, by James Baldwin in the ‘60s and Toni Morrison in the ‘80s.

She concludes that white people are responding inadequately when they just buy books by black authors. The ‘just’ refers to not going further and reading them.

So many of the writers of colour I know have had white people treat their work as though it were a kind of medicine. Something they have to swallow in order to improve their condition, but they don’t really want it, they don’t really enjoy it, and if they’re being totally honest, they don’t actually even take the medicine half the time. They just buy it and leave it on the shelf. [Guardian article 20th March 2021]

I’m going to note in passing that she cannot know that white people treat the books in this way, although many of us might. More important is the question she goes on to ask:

What pleasure, what deepening, could there be in “reading” like that? To enter the world of fiction with such a tainted mission is to doom the novel or short story to fail you on its most essential levels. 

This tokenism – look at the shelves behind my face on zoom and you can see lots of books by black writers! – this taking your medicine – I’ve bought the books, I’ve done my bit – is clearly an inadequate response. She quotes Lauren Michelle saying

Someone at some point has to get down to the business of reading.

Yaa Gyasi declares

… I also know that buying books by black authors is but a theoretical, grievously belated and utterly impoverished response to centuries of physical and emotional harm. 

I must point out that that sentence I have just quoted begins with this clause:

While I do devoutly believe in the power of literature to challenge, to deepened, to change, I also know …

I am not sure how the two parts of the sentence are connected unless she is saying that she knows that the books aren’t read, because things are not changing, the power of literature is not being realised.

Promoting books by Women of Colour

I too believe in the power of literature to challenge, expose, provide alternatives, to deepen understanding and even to change. I will continue to buy, put on my shelves, and read books by women of colour and blog about them. I don’t regard it as taking my medicine. I will enjoy reading the books because they are books, and many of them are excellent, revealing, eye-opening and brilliant. 

I hope to read them without believing they were written for me and people like me, a white middle class woman of a certain age. Recently I read and reviewed Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988). She is a Zimbabwean writer, and this was her first published book. The introduction made it clear that one of its notable features was that it did not assume a European reader. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (2019), set in Ethiopia at the time when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia (as it was known), also makes few concessions to European readers in its use of indigenous vocabulary and names. 

I hope to see beyond the story to the deeper currents. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) keeps peeling back the layers to expose the damage done physically, psychologically, socially, financially, politically, even lexically by slavery. Her ‘highly vocal ghosts’ must be heard.

Some writing provides joy. In Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika (2016) I was pleased to meet Morayo da Silva, a flamboyant, generous, educated older woman born in Lagos, living in San Francisco, created by a Nigerian-American. You should meet her too.

I loved Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019) and the richness of the characters in her multi-layered novel. The novel is innovative in form and structure, her restless style reflecting life in the city. The best book I read in 2019.

And so on.

These are great books, not medicine, not tokens, books worth reading for their own merits. I treasure their challenge, what they give me in depth and how they contribute to my determination to be part of change. 

So, I have bought a copy of Homegoing, and it is not on my shelf yet, but in my tall pile of books to be read. I’ll go on reading and reviewing and promoting books by women of colour. I know this alone will not bring about the change I want, but it’s a step and, at the moment, it’s the least I can do.


Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Women of Colour

8 Responses to Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine?

  1. I agree that to consider books are bought as tokens or ‘medicine’ is to assume and patronise those readers. We all buy and read books for different purposes on different occasions – just as we all watch a diversity of films depending on our mood, state of health and particular need and appetite on a particular occasion. I don’t think it does writers of colour any service to make such an assertion – although as a white middle class woman of a certain age I hesitate to say this and thus disagree with Yaa Gyasi.
    Recently, I have read novels by many writers of colour – and I have to say it is the quality of the writing, the fascination – or not – of the story that impresses and holds me – I would never ever read a book for ‘medicine -‘ I think many of us had to do that in school or as part of a degree decades ago and it would not occur to me to repeat that simply to be able to claim to be doing ‘the right thing.’

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this, Jude.
      I hope the article and my post has had the effect of drawing readers’ attention to books by Black writers. It is lways good to support those whose voice is less heard than white males.

  2. I do agree – I have bell hooks and Audre Lorde on my tbr because I want to *read* them, to understand their experiences, and not to tick any box. Diversity in reading will hopefully lead on to more understanding of each other – or at least I hope so. I don’t have my James Baldwin books just for show – I actually read them, and some decades ago too!

    • Caroline

      I don’t suppose Yaa Gyasi meant to offend readers, only to be provoccative. I am really enjoying the books I have read to promote my strand of novels by women of colour on Bookword. And you have just reminded me of two more authors I should pick up on.

  3. I agree, although I would suggest that book bloggers will naturally differ from general book buyers (and even Guardian readers) in that they blog book about books which one assumes they’ve read. In that sense, book bloggers are perhaps not representative of the book buyers Yaa Gyasi had in mind as a group.
    This said, I mostly wanted to comment that I liked your point about The Shadow King and how it “makes few concessions to European readers in its use of indigenous vocabulary and names”. I’ll keep that in mind when I next read books from writers with background different from mine, to see how that issue of different audiences plays out in them.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for these observations. Bloggers may be a slightly different kind of reader, but I am still not happy about her unsustainable criticism of readers. It might be true, that white readers buy but do not read the books of Black writers, but she can’t possibly know. And it’s a little provocative to those who do buy books to read them.
      I found her comments that we often read from our own position, in my case, expecting writers to write for the white reader, and so I was pleased to make the connection you did with The Shadow King.

  4. Carole Jones

    Thanks for raising this subject, Caroline. I read Yaa Gyasi’s comments and was bemused. I cannot afford to buy books to con visitors into thinking I’m well-read on World Authors. However, I am guilty of buying books – by any author – and not always getting round to reading them for years – but that’s because I want to read them all … and life keeps interrupting.
    After fairly narrow ‘Eng Lit’ reading at school I was introduced to ‘World Literature’ via a ‘BA in Lit’ degree at Hull University. Once discovered, the work of wonderful writers – from all countries, races, tongues, creeds, colours, etc – was far less likely to remain unread on the shelves, than the works of many ‘notable’ white (male?) writers of any time.
    However, I do fear that there may be a problem with many readers – the world over – who only like to read: what they know, what they feel safe with, what they grew up with, or what their friends read – etc.. Yet I still cannot see these groups buying books purely to display them on their shelves. In my experience, one of the best solutions for widening our reading tastes are wonderful ‘Reading Groups’ – especially those run by lovely ‘Libraries Unlimited’ Yay! Donate!

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this Carole.
      School reading can be fairly middle of the road, although when I was teaching in the 1980s in London all year 9 students read Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry by Mildred D Taylor.
      It’s good to move beyond safe books if you enjoy adventurous reading. I think we have to accept that many people want to read just what they know, but also that many others will enthusiastically buy books, too many books, to explore unknown worlds.
      I am with Yaa Gyasi when she wrote ‘I do devoutly believe in the power of literature to challenge, to deepened, to change’ so I would want that for all readers. But not all readers want to be challenged.
      Thanks for your comments, and please make any recommendations you might want.

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