i love myself when i am laughing…

Today I learned that Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven weeks, garnered critical attention, and died alone in a welfare home. Alice Walker some decades later deemed herself Hurston’s niece so she could buy her a tombstone, a luxury she could not afford at the time of her death. I learned that Richard Wright hated her work and in so many words, called her a coon because of her dedication to capture the joyous side of Black living in the south. I want her zeal to write about Black joy amidst a terrifying period of unrest. I want so much inspiration from brief moments of bliss in vacation homes that I spend countless nights writing until complete.

Instead, I don’t write.

For class, I read an essay by Hortense Spillers talking about her writing process, and she talks about how her autobiographical “I” has never just been about herself. It exists on a dual (and dueling) axis: her writing represented the complicated politics both within and without a white institution in the 1970s, a period marked by the Civil Rights and Black Power movement. Her revelation made me teary-eyed, not because of her struggle to voice herself in an unwelcoming academy. I’ve months ago given up my want to love an institution that will never love me back. What made me emotional was Spillers’ awareness of the weight of external pressures on her production, and how it complicates what she loves to do. Re-reading the essay now, I’m embarrassed that I missed an important part of Spiller’s work: she knows her work is transformative and impactful, two words that would never land in the words I use to describe my own.

Lately, my writing has felt selfish, and I’ve been beating myself up for not knowing how to name it. I don’t know how to write on current events lately because it all feels forced and disingenuous. Anything I could possibly say on politics or Black feminism, on literature or afro-pessimism has been said and my words feel more like a hollow shadow. All I have to offer is my voice and myself.

There is something to be said of the fear of “I” in writing. School has taught us that to use first person is to be passive and unsure of beliefs. The whole point of writing papers, regardless of school year, major, or department is to convince the reader that you know what you’re talking about while working hard to convince them that you’re not there. The paper’s facts write themselves, and you are simply a medium. I have never known how to erase myself from my work. I remember a seminar where I essentially admitted that I would not be in graduate school if my work did not feel autobiographical.

And it’s true: as much as I hate to admit it, my writing is selfish. My writing is selfish because it is one of the few places where my voice is clear and my own. No fumbling over words, no trying to remember if I am quoting myself or some dope woman I’ve heard before. No overwhelming anxiety about ensuring a statistic is accurate or I’ve correctly cited my source. My writing has been and continues to be a means of survival. On the roughest of days, my only means of survival. Younger me had bedside drawers full of notebooks that were my first line of distress in family arguments and very real moments of self-doubt. In moments of confusion, my journals remind me of who I really am.

Yesterday, I finally read the comments from a paper I submitted a while back and my professor referred to my writing as “elliptical” and for a while, I denied it. Sometimes my writing reminds me that I am my worst self when I betray it. Right now, I don’t have much to cling to: dwindling hope and energy and a slowly extinguishing fire for everything around me, but writing will always be there.

I have spent all night thinking about how little time I’ve spent in the past three years thinking about Zora Neale Hurston and what she could have given me, had I listened. I’m sure all the writers who hated her were up thinking similar things. This is perhaps the best thing I learned about her today: Zora Neale Hurston was hated by so many people for her brashness and arrogance. I can’t lie, something in me wanted to be as hated as Zora if it meant being so apologetically committed to weaving every particle of myself into my work. I can feel myself becoming possessed by Hurston, the Hurston whose second husband in their divorce case accused her cursing him with hoodoo. This Hurston, the scary, frightening, hated woman has taught me that selfish writing is my birthright in a world that refuses to gift me anything other.

In a world of unwavering anxiety and questionable professorial feedback, let this one thing engulf me and take me. Let my I be I and I alone and let me be.



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