For more than twenty-five years now, close to thirty, there has been a story in my head loosely based upon oral history in my native Richmond, Virginia and then expounded upon more by my imagination. I’ve been ripped from it occasionally to write other stories, which I’ve done, and the original comes roaring back at me demanding to tell even more. Then the descendants of the characters start talking and taking over – thereby forcing a series in mind. Nevertheless, I’m still wrestling with the first story to this damned day. They encounter so much which has everything to do with what people are starting to learn about black lives in this city as the Black Lives Matter movement strengthens. I’m grateful for this time. Enlightening readers about black history through story is what I’ve been wanting to contribute to my city’s history lesson. Now, I’m starting to wonder if I should bother.
The first of my in-progress series is set in post-World War II, in Richmond, Virginia. A lot of black history has become events for panel discussions and little soundbites of news segments. There is so much more to us than that. Voices of the past don’t come through and for most of my life, I continue to live with those voices. They are a part of me. They are a part of my city and community. I want them known.
As a writer, the best way I know how to share what I know is through storytelling, by personifying history. It’s why reading historical fiction has always been a better lesson provider for me and it’s the best way I know how to uplift the voice of my community and our history in Richmond. Now, as the racial divide in my city is being acknowledged in such a way as it has been in the past few weeks – beginning with the recognition of blacks in the South losing a standing chance for equality and fiscal strength with the rise of the Confederate monuments and continued reverence to the Confederacy and the Lost Cause after the Civil War ended – I’m overwhelmed with all of the characters talking to me now. I don’t know where to begin with the story anymore and now that black history is being looked at with the sense of reality, I don’t know if my fiction has a place anymore.
Over these past few years, I’ve remembered stories I grew up hearing and I’ve continued to lament the changing landscape of my community, the loss of its identity, and I’ve done so much research to remember more and to come up with additional questions I can ask of family members and friends. What am I to do with it, I’m starting to question as well now.
My characters’ stories define Richmond’s history, namely Black Richmond’s history. Their tales exemplify a community, illuminate its characteristics, and detail a people and its identity which seems to have been lost and now somehow rediscovered with the desire of many to learn much more.
I’ve come to question who I am to tell the tale anymore. I feel like I’ve missed my chance in these last twenty years by not having it come out when it should have earlier.
Other black women authors have written their stories highlighting the features of what
makes our history strong, of describing what we had gained, lost, and strive to recover. Why haven’t I been able to do the same? Why do I keep stopping? Do I feel that I can’t? That my words are less worthy? Will my stories be so lousy and will the purpose of telling history through my characters eyes get lost and become meaningless?
I think that’s where I am now. I recently wrote about being a black person in this country, about being a black mother, a black wife, a black woman. I meant and still mean every word. I now wonder: Will my fiction matter now? Does my writing matter now?
This is a time to rejoice. As I write this, it’s Juneteenth today of this year and I sure as hell don’t want to overshadow this day or these times with my personal concerns of my place here as a person, a descendant of slaves, and as a black woman writer. My community’s voice is being heard. Juneteenth is being celebrated on a larger scale than it’s ever been before. Our history in Richmond and around the country is being acknowledged, recognized, and appreciated. I just want more than anything to bring to life and highlight lost moments and their respective emotions and make them engaging so others can see beyond the panel discussions, little news segments, and even textbook entries. Should I keep trying though?
Art expresses life. My writing is my art and it’s my way of giving access and creed to what my black community has endured in this city. I just want to be able to do that.
As long as my resolve to write what I feel through my characters, their stories, and our history remains strong, I will. I have to.