The Right to Write, the Right to Speak—for others and ourselves

person with body painting

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If you have read my blog recently, you probably saw my firm opinion about The Nation editors apologizing for publishing a poem written by a white guy in Black vernacular (AAV, AAVE, whatever). I believe—still—that the poet has the right to write (and publish that writing) for other races, so long as he does it well. I haven’t actually seen anyone critiquing the poem saying the vernacular was used incorrectly. Mostly it’s been woke white people saying a white person shouldn’t use it at all.

Moving on from that, however, I was thrilled to read an article in The New York Times entitled “Go Ahead, Speak for Yourselves” written by Kwame Anthony Appiah. I have no idea if Mr. Appiah supports the right of Mr. Carlson-Wee to write in Black vernacular or not. However, I liked his take on representing for different cultures. It seems these days that we’ve simplified things a little too much. We’re “woke”, so Black people speak for Black people, gay people for the gay community, and white women for white women.

But what do I—a middle class suburbanite raised in a lower income household—know about a white woman raised on a farm? If I express an opinion “as a white woman”, does it represent everyone from my retired next-door neighbor to my daughter (who is very different from me and will, by the time she is my age, have had very different experiences throughout her life than even some of her peers)?

As a writer, I feel the limitations of this. I strain at the bonds of being a Southern white woman forbidden to write or empathize with other cultures, even when I do my best to learn about and experience those cultures. It’s a multicolored world and we all have a portion of that rainbow in us, whether we’re Black transsexuals or white Southern GRITS or straight Mexican men. I believe if we all learn to embrace that rainbow and take more of it into ourselves, we will grow not only as individuals but as a united human race.

That’s why I stand up for Mr. Carlson-Wee’s right to write and empathize with a race he did not grow up in, even when he and his editors did not. That’s why I will continue to write from the perspective I am drawn to, regardless of what color that person’s skin is. I hope someday I will have the skill to write from the perspective of someone who is truly different from me. I will keep working toward that goal, improving and expanding the boundaries of my empathy.

Because that’s what writers do.

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