Jan. 20, 2017, will forever be remembered as a very somber day. It marked the swearing in of a man who is one of the most divisive figures in American politics. For many, President Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the White House represents a direct threat to the peace, prosperity, and safety of certain populations in the United States and abroad — namely anyone who is not a straight, white, wealthy, Christian man.
The vitriol and violence that coated his campaign rallies, the Twitter insults lobbed at entertainers and entire countries alike, and the refusal to answer straightforward questions with straightforward answers, are all legitimate reasons as to why Trump critics watch his incoming administration with foreboding.
There is a collective sadness, especially for black people living in America (or “the blacks” in Trump-speak). Race relations seem to have traveled back in time at least 50 years during this past presidential election.
Public racist drivel had already spiraled after Barak Obama was elected America’s first black president, but the insults, physical attacks, and raw hatred captured on camera at Trump rallies seemed like a time warp to the heady era of the Civil Rights Movement, a time when it was acceptable to publicly show contempt to black people whose only “crime” was being black.
This is why it is critically important for writers, and black writers in particular, to use the pen and keyboard to affirm, protect, and amplify black lives. Trump has spoken of black people in the most debasing terms, stating matter-of-factly that black Americans are poor, unemployed, uneducated and living in dens of unspeakable violence.
Black culture can not afford to allow this grotesque caricature of blackness to be the accepted contemporary view of blackness. As the late author Zora Neale Hurston said, “If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
But beyond just writing about the pain of black people, black writers collectively must show the full breadth of what it means to be black. Black people have a long tradition of using writing as a form of freedom fighting. Often times that has been political, social and even physical freedom, but it is also a freedom of thought and a freedom of being.
The canon of great American writers includes people like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison and many others. But there is also the genius of Octavia Butler, whose science fiction novels put black women at the center of worlds she imagined and made real. There is the incomparable Richard Pryor, whose short-lived eponymous television show in 1977 featured a press conference by the first black president of the United States. That was 31 years before Barack Obama won the historic 2008 presidential election. The writing room for that show included comedian Paul Mooney. The Richard Pryor Show was comedy, but it was also a vehicle for black thought and possibility.
Black writers have vital work to do. The wildly talented writing rooms for Issa Rae’s Insecure and Donald Glover’s Atlanta are important. The thought-provoking essays by Ta-Nahesi Coates are important. The elegant young adult novels by Jason Reynolds are important. The sharp witticisms of Black Twitter (which IS Twitter) are important. The beautiful worlds in Nalo Hopkinson’s fantasy stories are important.
All of it matters.
From online musings about who is getting traded in the next ‘racial draft’ to hefty tomes on the socio-political trajectory of black people in America, black writers have to be the ones to tell these stories. As reports abound that Trump is readying to defund the National Endowment of the Arts and evict the White House press corps, it is more important than ever that black writers use every platform available to tell the true story of black culture.
During the campaign trail, Trump asked what black people had to lose by voting for him. Truth be told, we have plenty to lose. Ourselves, for starters.