| On Writing
Turning Points How Solange and Morgan Parker Inspired Me to Write My Heroine
I thought I had to make myself smaller, quieter, in order to survive.
I am a big crier—not in public, but on the couches of close friends and in the quiet of my own bedroom, wrapped in my softest blankets. I have always been a highly emotional person, and have long felt guilty about it. As a Black woman, I live every day aware of media caricatures that often force people like me into one-dimensional stereotypes: either the sassy Black sidekick, or strong and resilient to the point of being nothing else.
I remember when I first became keenly aware of the volume of my voice around white people, fearful they would ascribe anger to my words. In college, I took a Race and Cultures course in which I was one of only three Black students. Our class debates often led to my white classmates insisting they knew more about the Black experience than I did because they were African American Studies minors. We debated affirmative action and the use of the electric chair; who should be able to say the n-word and whether racism would eventually just “die out.” I desperately wanted to let them know how upsetting I found their arguments. I tried to speak what I knew to be true, again and again—but they refused to listen, claiming that I was “just being emotional.” I grew tired of essentially talking to myself.
Once, after we had finished watching a film about the Black Panther Party, my white professor turned to me and said, “Keah, please tell us what they were feeling and why they were so untrusting of the police. What were they thinking?” Shocked, I asked how she could expect me to be the voice of a movement I wasn’t even alive to experience. She whittled my concerns down to emotions, accusing me of “being angry and disrespectful to authority” because of my “background”—despite the fact that she knew nothing about my background.
In her class, I learned that while others were allowed to be “emotional,” to be firm and loud when discussing their beliefs, I, as a Black woman, was not. I decided I had to force down my feelings or risk being labeled as an “Angry Black Woman,” someone too difficult to deal with. I thought I had to make myself smaller, quieter, in order to survive.
I have always wanted to be a writer. When I was seventeen, I started the first draft of my novel. At the time, Twilight was popular among teenaged girls—myself included. I thought that was the kind of book I needed to write in order for someone to read it. I wrote for the love I thought I wanted at the time; I told myself that the act of possession, the need to know your companion’s every thought and move, was what true love was. My main character, Delilah, was a seventeen-year-old Black girl who cared for little beyond the boy she was dating.
Delilah was always quiet in the face of disagreements, willing to quell her own dreams and hopes in order to better serve another. The first draft of Delilah was more like me at the time than I would like to admit: She went along with whatever idea the person nearest her expressed; she did not know who she was, and she didn’t try to find out. She sacrificed so much of herself to care for everyone else, while tucking away all of her own sadness and masking her hurt with pretended indifference. She was a vessel without a voice of her own around the boy she was dating, and hostile toward everyone else.
Delilah, as she was then, spent too much time focusing on all that she had lost. She was consumed by her anger, allowing no one new the chance to get to know her. A stoic and untrusting character who complained often about feeling boxed in, Delilah was exhausted and exhausting—like me, she hated herself and allowed the people she cared about to make her decisions for her. She also expressed herself in stereotypical phrases, neck rolls, and sass; she was equal parts stoic Black woman and sassy Black friend, characters we scoff at in TV and film today.
As I grew older and more aware, I gradually realized how problematic the characterization of this young girl was. Still, the fear of saying too much and not enough was choking me. At the time, I kept a list of things that I believed made me “undateable” and specifically underlined “overly emotional.” I decided I couldn’t make Delilah a desirable character if she was anything like me; I was so afraid of being judged for my emotions that I wouldn’t allow my protagonist to have hers, either.
I listened to Solange’s A Seat at the Table for the first time in my room, under my light blue comforter, messaging my friends Amanda and Catherine. I hadn’t slept well in weeks; I was spending my nights thinking about all of the Black families whose sons and daughters would never return home, of the toll of being Black in America, of to-do lists and essay ideas I was too exhausted and traumatized to attempt. I was still feeling frustrated with myself as a writer, because I knew that I had unknowingly incorporated the strong Black woman trope into my own creative work.
Though I’d left Delilah behind for awhile, I was still, in a sense, writing that stereotype into my characters: Annabelle refused to cry, even in her saddest moments, convinced she had to be strong for everyone else; Adeline never admitted to any weakness, refusing the help of the people who loved her most. I had thought that writing such characters was a reclaiming of power and ownership, standing up to all the things that hurt Black women. But in writing these characters, I realized I was writing against myself. I was working so hard to make sure there was no hint of me, my feelings and my doubts and my fears, in any of my characters—not realizing that I was creating people who had no vulnerabilities or real, lived experiences. Who were nothing, really, at all.
I had always given myself a time limit for feeling anything other than forced happiness: I would allow myself, say, ten minutes to feel angry, and then chastise myself for that anger, believing I had let others get the best of me by forcing me to feel that way. In the interlude “Dad Was Mad,” Solange’s father talks about being in the back of a state trooper’s car with other Black kids, seeing KKK members spitting and throwing cans at them. As a child, he lived under the threat of racist violence every day, and it made him very angry.
I reflected on my anger toward my college classmates. I didn’t need to question that anger anymore—because I felt it was justified. I had spent so long being quiet; now I felt the urge to call people out if they hurt me, recognize and give voice to my anger. As I listened to Solange’s album, I felt free of the burden of shame for the first time in weeks. And I understood my emotions in a way I hadn’t been able to before. That night, with A Seat at the Table on repeat, I sat down and tried to give my characters the same thing I was finally allowing myself: the room to breathe, to be flawed, to discuss their feelings honestly instead of hiding them away like a dirty secret.
I am filled with hope when I see Black women like Solange fighting back against the mold others would impose on us, especially the stereotype of the stoic Black woman that I myself fell into writing. It gives me hope when fellow Black women—especially artists—seem to say, I am going to feel what I want to feel and be who I want to be, and I won’t apologize for it . Just as Solange’s album has inspired me of late, poet Morgan Parker has also helped me see the beauty in being unapologetically myself. My own feelings of weariness about the country that elected Donald Trump as president are validated in her work—particularly her poem “If You Are Over Staying Woke”: Don’t smile unless you want to. Sleep in. Don’t see the news. Remember what the world is like for white people. Both this poem and Solange’s song “Weary” perfectly encompass my feelings as a Black woman in America who loves her Blackness—despite how dangerous that love may be.
Not long ago, when we were speaking about her poetry, Parker told me, “My work in life and in art is largely about knowledge of self. That sounds basic, but Black womanhood is one of those things people think they know all about . . . We’ve internalized so many messages about who we are and what our value to society is. So I take it as a serious endeavor to block out the noise and explore what is true about me and to me.” My hope is to do the same thing in my work. I aim to recognize but conquer the lingering self-doubt; the urge to make myself small or silent; the fear that if I write what is true, including my feelings, people won’t understand.
Now, I’m telling the story I always dreamed of telling. When I am feeling confident in myself and my work these days, I turn to Parker’s “Let Me Handle My Business, Damn” and the lines I run the streets sometimes they run me I’m the body of the queen of my hood filled up with bad wine bad drugs mu shu pork sick beats . As a writer, I relate to the power of owning who you are and celebrating it, even if it isn’t always understood. It is often necessary in trying to finish a piece of work. And as an emotional Black woman, it feels necessary for my survival in America today. There is such empowerment in knowing who you are, knowing it is almost enough.
Over the years, I had often returned to my character, Delilah, in an effort to rework what was already there—to no avail. Eventually I deleted everything except for her name. In the place of an insecure caricature, a girl hesitant to express her own feelings and opinions, I am now writing a young, quick-witted, Black disabled girl who falls in love and keeps herself. Her greatest love is not a romance, but the platonic love she shares with her best friend, Nicole.
Once I allowed my characters the same agency I craved—to be vulnerable; to feel and express fury and fear and grief—I was able to create richer, more genuine stories. Now my work features characters with disabilities both physical and mental, who lead lives worth living. They are complex and unapologetic; they demand to be heard and respected. The new and improved Delilah is sarcastic, witty, and sure of herself. She calls out the strangers she catches staring at her, lets people know when she is upset, and feels proud of the body she is in. Characters like her, characters who ask for and embody all of the emotions and experiences I was both afraid to write and convinced I would never be talented enough to pull off, feel genuine to me—like sisters and friends I could meet one day.
I have the poetry and music of Black women to thank for how empowered I now feel in my own creative life. Solange, Morgan Parker, and many other artists have helped me resist the long-held notion that I must hide who I am, suppress what I feel. They have launched, for me, a journey of learning how to live with my emotions; how to own them, guilt-free, and create stories and characters that work against self-denying stereotypes. I am my proudest and my most emotional in the moments when I sit down on the brown couch in my living room to write each day, music blasting from my phone as I give life to a girl who knows grief and a boy well aware of all he has to lose. It’s a joy to give my characters the same wild freedom I am finally allowing myself. I know I am doing the work necessary to becoming a better person and a better creative, the person I truly know myself to be: a writer, healing and healer, a creator of better worlds.