As readers, and as humans, we crave knowing what the world is like for another person. When done well, this is what memoir offers: the chance to experience the world through another person. Literary memoir is a genre dominated by white authors confessing, starting with St. Augustine. Writers of color elevate the form by telling personal stories that chronicle the real trauma from systemic racism and the very real courage to heal from and survive it.
At this time of year, I’ve just wrapped up teaching a graduate seminar on “Race and Racism of Interior Worlds”. Each week we read a memoir written by an African American author, a dozen in all.
It may seem unlikely that someone like me, trained as a sociologist, would teach a course on memoir, but there is a turn within sociology now toward exploring interior emotional worlds. For example, the theme of this year’s American Sociological Annual Meeting is “Feeling Race: An Invitation to Explore Emotions.” This turn is, in part, a response to the 2016 election and the hunch that emotions, fueled by racism and sexism, influenced the outcome. I think that this turn in sociology is also an indicator of our very human desire for storytelling. And, as Lily Dancyger as observed, personal narratives are a balm for our perilous times.
Although the genre of literary memoir is much maligned — as too self-involved, or less than truthful — I think that these criticisms are misplaced. At the very least, such critiques sound out of tune when it comes to those written in the African American literary tradition. In the U.S., literary memoirs that deal with race and racism are rooted in a lineage that includes Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, often referred to as “slave narratives,” though perhaps more accurately they are narratives written by people who were formerly enslaved. These testimonies gave “fuel to the fires that abolitionists were setting everywhere,” Toni Morrison writes.
And, precisely because they were political, these narratives were frequently dismissed as “biased,” “inflammatory” and “improbable.” The authors had take care – “not to offend the reader by being too angry, or by showing too much outrage, or by calling the reader names,” writes Morrison.
People fling that accusation of narcissism at memoir today, but the stories that Jacobs and Douglass are not guilty of this. In these historical narratives, the self stands in for the larger society with a political goal in mind, of testimony against the horrors of slavery. As Toni Morrison writes:
“Whatever the style and circumstances of these narratives, they were written to say principally two things. One: ‘This is my historical life – my singular, special example that is personal, but that also represents race.’ Two: ‘I write this text to persuade other people – you, the reader, who is probably not black – that we are human beings worthy of God’s grace and the immediate abandonment of slavery.’ With these two missions in mind, the narratives were clearly pointed.“
There is a clear through line from the narratives of formerly enslaved people, such as Jacobs and Douglass, to contemporary memoirs such as Jesmyn Ward’s beautiful Men We Reaped, another title we read in my seminar. In her memoir, Ward chronicles the agonizing story of five men in her life who all died far too young and within a short time of each other. Through exquisite prose, she weaves her grief over these deaths into a larger story about systemic racism and structural violence.
In an interview in 2016, Ward speaks about the different kind of struggle that she confronts when writing the truth in her memoir:
“With memoir, you have to tell the truth, right? I knew that the truth might be problematic for some people, because in this country, unfortunately, the dialogue about black people seems to revolve around racist ideas. It’s all about blaming African-Americans. It’s all about the individual being at fault — for our own ineptitude, our own defects. There’s no awareness of the larger systematic pressures that bear down on us that make it easier for the sort of reality I write about to exist.”
The truth is, indeed, problematic for some people. In her memoir, Ward writes about drug use, poverty, depression, sexuality – elements of her life that academics tend to call “social dislocations” or label as pathologies — as in this passage:
“We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”
Ward wonders what it means to write about the truth of these conditions within a racist context in which black people are blamed for the consequences of their own oppression. In the interview, she explains:
“So my main concern with the memoir was giving that context to the reader, making those connections for the reader, bringing the larger picture back to the reader, giving the reader a rubric for understanding the individual stories. In the end I hoped that if I told the truth as I understood it about those systematic pressures, and how they affect individual actions and reactions, that would counteract any racist or narrow ideas people had about African-American people acting badly.”
The twin burdens of representation and respectability politics are as present in memoir as they are in other areas of cultural production, like novels, films or photography. Ward’s refrain about ‘the reader’ – making connections, drawing a larger picture, providing a rubric – all point to the question of audience.
“Sometimes, they read the book and they do see us as human beings.”
Every writer should think about audience. For an African American author of an emancipatory text, conjuring the ideal reader is complicated by double-consciousness, the ‘two-ness’ of seeing yourself as you are and through the lens of white-dominant society. And, there is a great deal at stake. As Toni Morrison observes:
“As determined as these black writers were to persuade the reader of the evil of slavery, they also complimented him by assuming his nobility of heart and his high-mindedness. They tried to summon up his finer nature in order to encourage him to employ it. They knew that readers were the people who could make a difference in terminating slavery.”
Consider what this means: writing narratives to persuade the people who held you captive to end that system of captivity by convincing them of your innate humanity.
One key strategy of these historical narratives was to use the power of literacy to assert their claim to fully emancipated humanity. See, I am writing this to you now, therefore I am human, like you. The goal was to use their fluency in writing, and their intended audience’s ability to read, to expose the prohibition against reading and writing among the enslaved as the cruel exclusion from human exchange that it was.
While this may seem like an extraordinary effort to have go through just to demonstrate one’s humanity, this remains endemic to contemporary African American memoir.
Asked about the intended audience for her memoir, Jesmyn Ward says:
“I hoped this book might entice white people who wouldn’t have read my book before I won the National Book Award. I wanted to make those connections for them, to help them see us in a way they’d never seen us before, and understand us the way they hadn’t before. I think it’s working. On book tour I meet a lot of people from totally different backgrounds who find something in the memoir that resonates with them. Sometimes that means they read the book, and they do see us as human beings.”
I mean, anyone who is writing a book that they hope to sell is going to have to try to “entice white people” to buy a copy since white people still both run the publishing industry and make up a majority of book-purchasers in the U.S. But it is a searing indictment of our society that in the year of our lord 2016, Jesmyn Ward is hoping that once white people read her memoir they will “see us as human beings.”
If this plea for humanity is a point of connection between historical narratives and contemporary memoir, the level of interiority is where they diverge.
Interiority makes a memoir readable
“Interiority makes a book readable. By readable, translate: great,” writes Mary Karr in The Art of Memoir. In contemporary memoir, readers expect to learn about the inner life of the author. “Interiority,” is one of those academic words that just means “inner life.”
Not so, with historical narratives. Toni Morrison writes that for her, “there was no mention of their interior life,” in the stories of the formerly enslaved because they would often draw a curtain around “proceedings too terrible to relate.” For Morrison, the task is a very different one:
“For me – a writer in the last quarter of the twentieth century, not much more than a hundred years after Emancipation, a writer who is black and a woman – the exercise is very different. My job becomes how to rip that veil drawn over ‘proceedings too terrible to relate.’ The exercise is also critical for any person who is black or who belongs to any marginalized category, for historically, we were seldom invited to participate in the discourse even when we were its topic.”
This shift toward interiority in contemporary African American memoir begins with Richard Wright’s Black Boy, first published in 1945. His memoir of enduring a childhood in the Jim Crow South, and fleeing to a different kind of racism in the north that is no less brutal, is wrenching precisely because he invites the reader into his interior world. He spends much of his childhood literally hungering for food, beaten by his mother nearly to death, and under the stern, unloving watch of his grandmother. Hunger of all kinds becomes the guiding metaphor in the book. (The original title was “American Hunger.”) Once in school regularly, he writes: “The impulse to dream was slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing.”
The authors of all the memoirs we read in my seminar are in a external struggle against systemic racism. But the real action is with the internal struggle, the psychic struggle of the author against herself. As Mary Karr, the doyenne of contemporary memoir, writes:
“Mainly, the better memoirist organizes a life story around…an inner enemy – a psychic struggle against herself that works like a thread or plot engine. …Even a writer with gargantuan external enemies must face off with himself over a book’s course. Otherwise, why write in first person at all?”
The inner struggle in the books we read this semester were about the debris that racism leaves behind: the feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness. In Men We Reaped, Ward writes:
“We are never free from the feeling that that something is wrong with us, not the world that made this mess.”
Then she pushes through this ongoing, psychic damage caused by systemic racism, and there is a turn toward healing and resolution through connection, community, and actual kin and chosen. Ward, again, a few paragraphs later:
“And my mother’s example teaches me other things: This is how a transplanted people survived a holocaust and slavery. This is how Black people in the South organized to vote under the shadow of terrorism and the noose. This is how human beings sleep and wake and fight and survive.”
As we all figure out how to “sleep and wake and fight and survive” through the terrible present, it seems to me that personal narratives are the part of the way we do this.
The problem with so many memoirs and personal essays is that you often find “harangue passing off as art,” as Ms. Morrison writes. The challenge, she says, is to be able to create writing that is both “unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.”
~ Jessie Daniels, PhD is a professor of Sociology, Critical Social Psychology and Africana Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY).