I’ve been thinking a lot about service lately; more specifically, I’ve been thinking about how people serve their communities in ways that ring true to them and are impactful.
While there are things that we do that we can easily and readily identify as of service to our communities–like teachers of color who dedicate their lives to teaching children who look like them as activist work, for example, there are the less obvious–like making art that celebrates and highlights our experience.
Read the feminist critic bell hooks’ instructive Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994) in which she asserts that, in her younger years she believed that while writing was about private longing and personal glory…teaching was about service, giving back to one’s community. For black folks teaching –educating—was fundamentally political because it was rooted in antiracist struggle” (2). She insists that her all-black grade schools were where she “experienced learning as revolution” (2). Still, we can also recognize her art—her brilliant political and cultural critiques—as acts of service as well.
hooks continues—and I quote her at length because her words are so cogent:
Almost all our teachers at Booker T. Washington were black women. They were committed to nurturing intellect so that we could become scholars, thinkers, and cultural workers—black folks who used our “minds.” We learned early that our devotion to learning, to a life of the mind, was a counter-hegemonic act, a fundamental way to resist every strategy of white colonization. Though they did not define or articulate these practices in theoretical terms, my teachers were enacting a revolutionary pedagogy of resistance that was profoundly anticolonial (2).
hooks’ later educational experience is marred by her enrollment in racist, desegregated schools where she and her black classmates were exposed to an intellectual assault in which mainly white teachers taught lessons that reinforced racist stereotypes (3). Indeed, many hooks’ generation experienced the trauma of attending predominantly white schools where they were not welcome and people who looked like them did not show up in the curriculum as role models to emulate.
This was not my experience. I actually spent the majority of my educational career in black schools with many teachers in whom I was able to see myself. I especially remember my fourth grade teacher who, though I cannot recall her name, I do remember was tall, honey brown, and sported a completely shaved head. King Tut’s tomb had been discovered that year and we spent a lot of time learning about Egypt. I remember the earnestness with which she dissected the history to make it accessible to nine-year olds and the way she pointed out the beauty, majesty, and glory that the discovery of this great civilization signified for us as children of African descent.
Another experience that etched itself in my memory was one of the first books I picked out for myself and read: Alice Childress’ A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich when I was in junior high school.
I read the thin, compact young adult novel carefully and, feeling deeply moved by the story, read it all over again.
And then I lost it in one of my family’s many moves.
When I found it again at a library sale (the inside back cover is stamped with a note in block letters: WITHDRAWN FROM FREE USE IN CITY CULTURAL AND WELFARE INSTITUTIONS. MAY BE SOLD FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY ONLY) as an adult, the memory of the feeling that my community and I were being seen for the first time prompted me to buy it again, just to gaze upon it every once in a while—the magic was in its very existence.
Memories of elementary school teachers who taught as a form of service and activism and first novels in which I saw myself when everything else around me told me I had no history and no story worth telling came flooding back to me as I read Glory Edim’s masterfully edited anthology Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves (2018).
As Edim, founder of the Brooklyn-based book club online community that celebrates the uniqueness of black literature and sisterhood, Well-Read Black Girl, declares in her introduction, something which all of us who love books can relate to: “All the books in my library hold a memory” (xi). Indeed, the collection is a kind of ode to black writers and the black women who love them. Her community; those to whom she dedicates her service are clearly identified in her dedication:
To the Well-Read Black Girl Community. I am in awe of what we’ve built together. Books will always bound our sisterhood.
For the countless authors who spoke to me from the page. From Toni Morrison to Audre Lorde, their words guided me into womanhood.
The voices and perspectives in the collection are varied, with each author uniquely offering the reader a glimpse into the way that a black author made them feel seen and worthy; truly a profound and deeply meaningful service, not only to women who read them, but to those who read those who read them—for it gave them the courage to write and act, and sing, and create, all of which in turn will positively influence the next generation of talented artists who will do the same for those who follow them.
Thus, contrary to what hooks believed in her youth, for black women artists, writing is not simply a personal endeavor. It is also a service that they gift their communities that pays itself forward. Their self-expression inspires and empowers those who see themselves in them and their stories to do so themselves.
They give their readers permission to authentically express themselves; the brilliant effect of which we’re seeing contemporarily in every milieu possible, most recently in Barry Jenkins’ (of Moonlight fame) gorgeous filmic adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel, If Beale Street Could Talk.
As the feminist scholar and activist Barbara Smith reminds us in her piece, “Go Tell It” in Well-Read, in talking about Raoul Peck’s brilliant documentary based on Baldwin’s fragments of unpublished manuscript, “When I saw I Am Not Your Negro, I was struck by the fact that Baldwin’s ideas are as relevant and insightful today as the day he originally expressed them” (41-42). Sadly, truer words have never been spoken. In the film, If Beale Street Could Talk, black beauty and love are violently (is there any other way?) disrupted by the injustice that seeks to crush those who get in the line of fire of white supremacy and its many tentacles. And as the filmgoer witnesses through brilliantly placed stills in the latter half of the film, people of color are born in the line of fire today just as they were in the 1970s when Baldwin first penned the novel.
Smith continues, “Timelessness is a major characteristic of classic creations. Baldwin is a moral philosopher. His work does not merely describe and analyze oppression, but relentlessly asks the reader to examine their individual relationship to evil, to cruelty, to bigotry, and white supremacy and whether they are ready to change” (42). Indeed, this is what teachers who are dedicated to the liberation of their communities are and do. Judging from the life-altering impression that all of the writers discussed in the narratives in Well-Read left on the artists included, this is also what all of those women and men who dared to put their creative work out into the world are and do—what a gift.
Read: Here is a lovely The Atlantic interview with the filmmaker about his obsession with Baldwin’s novel the conceptualization and making of the film:
Read: Here is a great Jezebel interview with Glory Edim on the importance of representation: