The Black Woman in the basement: A note on segregated reading

It only really hit me after coming to the United States to study. It had always been there at the back of my mind, dispersed as unconnected memories of conversations with friends. But now those memories have cohered to form a narrative. The catalyzing event that facilitated this fusion was, and continues to be, my experience of segregation in Washington DC. This is the narrative of segregated reading practices across axes of race and gender. White readers self-segregate in ways that reflect and reinforce physical boundaries that account for persisting racialized gender tensions and inequalities across the country. Segregated reading practices involve avoiding literature by other races and genders, particularly those who have been historically subjected to discrimination. It is a form of literary solipsism where the self, and close approximations to it, is the only candidate worthy of attention in a book of fiction. This literary self-segregation engenders a narrow reading of the world that does little to dismantle prejudicial attitudes and unconscious biases held by those in power. 

More often than not the Black people I see within and around my university’s campus are often working in positions of servitude. On seeing this, I wondered whether this accounts for the few times that white students or professionals in the area engage with Black people on a daily basis. Can you imagine that almost every time you see a Black person – especially if you are white – it is to be served by them? And then, when speaking to people about their favorite novels you realize that they rarely ever mention reading books about women and men of color? Can you imagine living in a country where everyone who is not white is flattened and exists outside the range of a white person’s engagement with fully realized human beings, both in the realms of the physical and fictional? 

Men do not read enough novels by and about women. This is a simple truism that can be expanded through a race and gender disaggregation. White men do not read enough novels about white women or people of color, white women do not read enough novels about people of color, men of color do not read enough novels about women of color. Women of color, especially Black women, and especially Black women who are queer, occupy the bottom of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s metaphorical basement and have had to read up the ladder of human experience with little reciprocity. This isn’t to say that fiction is a panacea for society’s ills or that it can or should function as a replacement for engaging with actual people. There is certainly a performative aspect to some people’s reading practices, as though reading about Black women, and acquiring the language to speak about them and their experiences, are enough. It isn’t.

However, there is something to be said about the way that people’s lives are separated in the physical realm, and how that gets translated to their reading of the world. There have been too many conversations with men, both white and Black, who would rattle off their favorite books of fiction by other white and Black men while failing to mention a single novel by a white or Black woman. I’ve also often read several online pieces, such as The New York Times’ By the Book, where public figures proudly list the books that impacted them most in life. The majority, if not all, of those books center a white male imprint on human experience.

Another note on segregation. Trains in DC, at least the ones I take, perform a sort of magic. When I get onto the train in central DC there are crowds of white people who are tired after a long day of work, eager to get home, like me, to relax. As the train travels further away from central DC, this crowd slowly disperses until all the Black people – previously hidden among a sea of white – are revealed. Except, this isn’t a magic trick. I almost always know when the last white person in the train car will get up to leave before it ventures into more “dangerous” locales. This is the work of systemic racism that bleeds into how neighborhoods are organized. It bleeds into who we associate with, live next to, empathize with, humanize, and spend time with in books. I knew about segregation and gentrification prior to moving to the U.S. Knowing that didn’t diminish the culture shock. 

I’m somewhat pleased to note that efforts are now being made to include more women of color – within and beyond the global – into the fold of lionized literary wunderkinds. Recall former President Barack Obama’s summer reading lists, this year’s Booker Prizes long and short lists, this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the ever-increasing number of “woke” Bookstagrammers sharing their favorite books by women of color and discussing intersectionality. That most of these Bookstagrammers are women is not surprising, but it is my hope that, with time, the effort to read more books by Black and Brown women will occur in tandem with increased efforts to desegregate neighborhoods and dismantle systemic racism. Whether it’s Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo, Beloved or The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat, Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, or Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie, it’s time to destabilize privileged locations of storytelling by reading about the constellations of women’s experiences; of women who continue to exist in the margins in the mind of country plagued by a white pathology.

(Photo Credit 1: The Guardian) (Photo Credit 2: ThoughtCo / Robert Alexander / Getty)

Generation Cry: Taitu Kai Goodwin was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in Anguilla

Taitu Kai Goodwin

There is something unsettling in having the world’s eyes turned toward your community. My community. The world temporarily turned its focus toward the latest victims of the climate crisis in The Bahamas and rekindled sweeping debates about the human costs of environmental degradation. This is the reality of the Caribbean community during the hurricane season. We are tired and frustrated, but, as Kamau Brathwaite notes, the hurricane does not roar in pentameters.  Our grief cannot be measured. I watched the video clips from a Bahamian acquaintance of homes being inundated by storm surges. Facebook itself became flooded with posts by other folks from the Caribbean and its diaspora. It is Facebook that constitutes one of the lenses through which I frequently see and engage this community while I study in the United States capital. The United States capital; that place where the decision to refuse Bahamians temporary protected status was made. Facebook is also one of the main platforms on which I navigate global narratives about climate change, race relations, gender, and their intersections. The timeline comes alive. The world speaks. I listen. Everyone is committed to expressing the requisite amount of anguish, sorrow, and compassion. I’m pretty sure a lot of it is genuine. However, soon enough, posts about The Bahamas peter out, as most trending topics, no matter how grave, are wont to on these platforms. 

A few days pass and I find myself walking through the streets of downtown Manhattan after one in the morning. The reason doesn’t matter. I am alone and wary. I’m suddenly overcome with the fear that I could be attacked and so I quicken my pace and phone a friend, a St. Lucian, also studying in the US, to keep me company until I arrive at my destination. I make it home in one piece. I am safe…but home and safe are not synonymous. I eventually make my way back to DC and soon enough I fall back into the rhythm of my daily routine: I log onto Facebook. The timeline is flooded with eulogies for someone I attended high school with in Antigua over a decade ago. Her name was Taitu Kai Goodwin and she was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in Anguilla. Taitu Kai Goodwin. Taitu. Daughter of the Soil. Antigua Girls’ High School Alumna. Former Ambassador’s daughter. Miss Anguilla. Someone I knew. Taitu. Her murder is preceded by the killing of another woman in a domestic dispute, Carissa Chandler, in Antigua earlier this year. Carissa’s death is preceded by another. Taitu’s death is followed by another. And another, and another. I do not know all of their names. Life in Leggings and Walking into Walls will tell you. Taitu. Someone I knew was a victim of gender-based violence. I remember Taitu very well. I recall her bubbly personality and incandescent grins. Some classmates even joked at the time that we could pass for twins. I am shocked and overcome. Verklempt. Taitu.

Facebook is flooded with an outpouring of grief from Antiguans and Anguillans. This time it isn’t the global, or rather, the regional gaze that unsettles me but the way that Facebook prompts us to give shape to dialogues around violence and death. For a given person there is an earnest post about the tragedy of her death and of the scourge that is violence against women. In five minutes, something else has caught that person’s attention: a meme, another social issue, a life experience. But Taitu. While someone’s posting habits are hardly an indicator of how they feel internally, and while I cannot presume to tell anyone how to grieve, or how to express that grief, there is something disconcerting about the patterns of discourse on social media in times of tragedy. The Lorde, Audre that is, reminds us that we do not live single-issue lives. However, in stepping back to scrutinize these patterns, it is clear that, like the devastation in The Bahamas, violence against women is often reduced to a trending topic. For a few days we lament the prevalence of domestic and gender-based violence as a group. At the individual level, we are quickly compelled to move on and shelve violence against women for another day. For another tragedy. For another Taitu. In  “Generation Why”, Zadie Smith says that “when a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everyone shrinks…one nation under a format”. Not only are the complexities of character reduced, but our attention and range of empathy. And while Facebook does not necessarily create the conditions whereby we are reduced, it acts as a conduit that amplifies. Reduction squared. We can only care if we knew her. If we knew her, we can only be sad for so long. It’s time to move on to something else. But I wanted time to stop. I wanted that moment, the focus on Taitu, and on violence against women, to freeze. I wanted that moment to swell with the rage of women across the Caribbean until it spilled over and drowned the misogyny that keeps killing us. But it was not to be. The posts are petering out again. It’s something else now.

(Photo Credit: The Antigua Daily Observer)