“Black women have always had limits set upon what they should be—how big, how sexy, how successful, how accommodating, how black,” essayist Shayla Lawson writes in This Is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls & Being Dope.
In this essay collection, Lawson delves into everything from bias in artificial intelligence to being on Tinder as a black woman to what cultural icons like Diana Ross mean for black women (the title, “This Is Major,” refers to Ross and others like her). This Is Major explores how black women have been shaped by—and overcome—cultural expectations.
Previously a poet, Lawson has experimented with various ways to tell a story. And before earning her MFA, she spent six years as an architect because of her “interest in telling a story,” she told me, where she learned “the importance of having clear definitions of what we wanted to say.” As an essayist, Lawson plays around with structure, including essays that look like charts, and others that have been built in the form of plays, or that are heavily footnoted.
Lawson has published three books—I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean, A Speed Education in Human Being, and Pantone—and is currently teaching a collaborative course called “Poetry with Friends” at Amherst. I talked to her on the phone from her apartment in New York. We discussed Black History Month, the n-word, and Lizzo, among other subjects.
Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Hope Reese: Before writing essays, you focused on poetry. In a 2018 interview, you said that “poets are really good about taking the sentiment of the time and figuring out a way to distill it.” What do you think is the best medium for distilling our current era?
Shayla Lawson: I’m writing essays. I think a lot of poets need to, and are, moving into essays as a genre. Cathy Park Hong’s book just came out recently. I think things switched for me post-election, four years ago, and it switched for a lot of poets. We needed an expansion. People who were marginalized were getting lost in the details. In the things people felt could be erased. In this very cliffnotes-society, in this very abbreviated, annotated society, I think more poets are continuing to be responsible for the fact that we might need our voices to take on larger spaces.
In one of your essays, you bring up the expectation for black women to show up to work and prove themselves—as “magical priestesses.” Has this expectation affected you personally, in your work as a professor?
I definitely see this among women of color. This is something that people of color have always known: that we need to present ourselves in ways that are exceptional in order for us to prove that we have the basic human rights to be in the same space as white people.
A heavy amount of the expectation is put on people of color—this is something I’m up against in my pedagogy. Coming out of west coast corporate, I wrote campaigns for Nike and Google. The mode of dress was very different from what I was used to. [If you] showed up for work impeccably dressed in that field, it was looked at as you not knowing what you were doing. This is extending to the creative Millennial world—if you have to show up in a suit, it’s because you’re not the boss. You have something to prove.
That hasn’t extended necessarily to the academic world. But a lot of my reason for teaching creative writing is to teach students how to manage the fact that when they go out in the world, their bosses are going to be millennials—and millennials have a very different philosophical approach to what it means to be successful, and a lot of that comes from startup culture. I teach in an oversized Adidas sweatshirt. I do it intentionally, because they have to get used to somebody who looks like me, wearing clothes that black people have been stereotyped or arrested for, being their boss. That is the way the world is moving. It’s an adjustment for them.
You see it as a problem, during Black History Month, when educators are assigning black students, for instance, to write reports on important black figures. Why do you view this as problematic? And do you see a better way to teach students about black achievements?
I’m not speaking to Black History Month. But what often happens to black children is that if you go to school in an environment where you’re one of the only black students, a teacher will think they’re doing you a service by handing you a name of a black person and saying “you go study this.”
In your question, I ask: Why would we need to deal with black achievements, black contributions, black history, by relegating them to the margin? Who does that serve? In what way does it serve a black student to feel emboldened to say: “Here, I’m going to give you a report on this because it represents me?” Why does it become an issue that this can only be represented by this kind of person? The thing that I think is better, is: In the stories we’re communicating as part of history, why do we assume that the way to do it is to say that there are just a handful of people of color that we can talk about? And then why are we saying that the only way they can be talked about is by handing them over to people who they “represent,” so we can make them feel comfortable?
When I was in 4th grade, my friend was [assigned to write] a report of Muhammad Ali as the only black male in the class. Why wouldn’t you give that to a white person? What does it do except further marginalize the story to say that the only way we can talk about this is to hand it off to one person that this applies to? We’ve done far too much for this country for that to be the way that we’re treated.
You write about white supremacy, saying that even you were “becoming a white supremacist.” How did you mean this? And as our country becomes increasingly polarized and we see white supremacy on the rise, how should we think about the term?
I’m not redefining white supremacy. As a poet and a scholar, as someone who works with language, the construction of the conversation is saying that white people are more important than everybody else. Why is this a concept that we would want to uphold?
When you ask: what is the way we should be looking at it? I would ask why is it a system that we continue to maintain has value? By saying that “white supremacy is just these people over here”—what pops into my mind is how big this whole Tiger documentary [Tiger King] has been in the United States, while all of us are sequestered in our houses, and videos have been circulating of the “Tiger King,” Joe Exotic, caught on camera asking why he can’t use the n-word—because black people are using it all the time. That’s what we associate with white supremacy—why are we not looking at white supremacy from zero, where we create this definition that white people exist?
Because whiteness doesn’t really exist. We’ve created it so that a group of people can feel superior. So that they can feel supreme. Anyone who goes through the educational system in America, especially if you’re not affiliated with an education rooted in the idea of having conversations about any marginalized population—we’re all being indoctrinated in white supremacy. It’s in television, it’s in religion, it’s where people can live, it’s who is allowed what jobs, it’s how we decide what our children can be named—to make it easier for them to get jobs.
When you ask that question, I don’t know where your metric is for where white supremacy starts. That’s what we need to change. As soon as we move it to the people who are going out burning tiki torches, and the people who are still asking why they can’t say the n-word, we’ve gone too far into the level of extremism that we’re never going to get out of.
Sojourner Truth’s quote, “Ain’t I a Woman?” was originally written in proper english, as “I am a woman’s rights”—but later translated to this famous version. What are the implications of this kind of rewriting of history?
That was something my students taught me! It’s one of the things I love about being a teacher—a shout out to Amherst College. The first thing I did was go into the bat cave of archives, went to the library, and found a copy of the original newspaper, and what was printed there. I went online and read that Sojourner Truth, and the person who republished the speech, an abolitionist, worked hand-in-hand to make sure it was translated the way she said it. But 12 years later, another woman came in, a white woman, and “translated” it—she felt that the voice didn’t carry, because it was written in standard, academic english. That was the way Sojourner Truth spoke. But the woman couldn’t believe that was a way to communicate the speech of slaves.
What’s interesting about that was that she was right. We wouldn’t pay the same attention that we do to that as a sound byte if it wasn’t communicated to us in the minstrel black english that we’ve come to expect. The idea that Sojourner Truth would be educated enough is still a concept that we’re very removed from. I also looked at how often, when it came to slaves’ autobiographies or memoirs, it was reiterated that it was written by the slave or in the slaves’ language. Even in Frederick Douglas’s biography, it said something to that effect in the title.
We’re still dealing with a culture in which we don’t believe that slaves read or had complex thoughts. Or had an ability to associate that what was happening to them was completely abhorrent. We have to think of Sojourner Truth in this way—the only way of communicating her personhood was “Ain’t I a woman?” as opposed to “I am a woman’s rights.” We still have a hard time synthesizing that. This is the version of a story we continue to accept.
The n-word is “America’s baby,” and “still in adolescence,” you argue. Can you talk about where we are in the history of that word, and what you see as its trajectory?
The n-word does not have a long history. We’re using words that have been around thousands of years. We don’t have a more evolved relationship to the word than an adolescent. If we take the English language 100 years out from now, we will have a more evolved relationship—in the same way that there are a lot of racial slurs that have not continued to carry, or if you hear someone bring it back, it feels like they are resurrecting something from the past. To the point that it becomes painful, but also comical. For instance: If someone called me a “tart,” I would find it quaint. They would be meaning to insult me, but I would think, “really? You have to resurrect an Oscar Wilde-style insult in order to insult me?” The n-word is too present. It’s too near.
It’s got to get boring before it loses its power, and the only way to do that is to let it live out its life expectancy. I’m trying to map out a way that can potentially do that in a way that’s a little bit more respectful. Who that word belongs to—which, to me is still definitively white culture—but then who it has been imparted upon—which is, writ large, black culture. This is a word that has been used to humiliate black people, to hurt us. So, how do all of us allow black people to deal with many generations of language as trauma, and how do we allow that healing to happen in a way that is capacious?
You write that, “no matter how we represent ourselves as we rebuild and repair, our blackness is still in its infancy, its weakest state.” What do you mean by this?
It goes back to: Why is it important to see whiteness as a construct? That is that whiteness doesn’t exist—all of us came from the same root. We all come from Africa. And yet, in America, we define a small percentage of the population as black. We have decided that black has to do with skin color, but then there are whole swaths of the population that are removed from this definition because they might speak a different language or they might be black and Latinx at the same time. Or they might be dark-skinned and Southeast Asian. So what are we talking about when we talk about black? There is a longstanding legacy of darker skinned people. The version of blackness that we’re talking about is a way of categorizing a very specific group of people as subhuman because they are descendants of slavery. We continue to apply that definition to people who come to America, who might not come from that same historical root. This definition of what blackness is is new. It’s only been around a few hundred years. We’ve been around for so much longer than that, but we haven’t been talking about each other in this particular way. I’m not saying there wasn’t racism—but what we defined as blackness in America, that only represents eight to ten percent of the population, is very new.
Lizzo, the pop star, is now a cultural icon. Does she break the mold of what we expect Black women should do or look like? How does she—or doesn’t she—fit our expectations?
I love Lizzo. She is not breaking the expectations of black women. I mean this in the proudest sense. We have always expected ourselves to be exceptional. We have always loved our bodies. We had to love our bodies in a way that other people have not, because of the fact that they define what is loveable based on a particular size, a particular color, a particular body shape—and we’ve never fit in. We’ve always had a multitudinous relationship to ourselves and what we can do. Lizzo is major in the way that I define major throughout the book. She’s not an atypical black woman, she’s a prototypical black woman.
Majority culture wants to feel sorry for us. You want to look at someone like Lizzo and say: “Isn’t it great that she’s being accepted?” by the fact that she’s fat, and she’s dark skinned, and she spent a good portion of her career living out of her car. But we’ve been doing that for fucking ever. And have still loved ourselves and still managed to create things in spite of the fact that people look at those things as something that we’ve overcome. As opposed to the things we knew as black women. The places we’ve been relegated to.
At the same time, being black women is our joy. That’s one of the things that people are accepting about Lizzo that Lizzo didn’t necessarily learn to accept about herself—because all of a sudden we’re all paying attention to her. She already loved herself for what she is. She’s gone through watching her life go through changes, spent a good portion of her life not being accepted because of the way she did not fit into white culture’s mold. And now because she’s being accepted as an individual who’s achieved something great—even she uses it as a platform to draw attention to the fact that she’s not unusual.