Writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston famously said, “if you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” I see this warning as a call for testimony.
To testify is to bear witness. There’s a particular urgency to black testimony, exemplified by utterances like “I just wanna testify,” and “If you don’t know, you betta ask somebody,” and “This is my story, this is my song.” In the wake of laws that once mandated: “No black or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against a white man,” so many voices have been silenced.
So, I just wanna testify. I want to find forgotten voices, to bring to light their traumas and triumphs, to both bear and “bare” witness to the quiet dignity and everyday heroism of black life, wherever it is found.
While At Headlands
Pointing to his slanted eyes, my Mississippi-born father would evoke tales of some distant Asian ancestor. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of those stories. I do know that Cantonese laborers settled in the post-slavery American South. As Asian women were in short supply and Caucasians off limits, some Chinese men married black women. While I haven’t been inspired to follow my own imputed genealogy, I have opted to weave family legend into a work of fiction.
As a Headlands Artist in Residence, I will work on Black Rice. I plan to incorporate research and begin deep revisions on sections of a novel that tells interrelated stories about connections between China and communities of African descent, exploring a variety of voices from Tang Dynasty China to Reconstruction Era Southern United States, from 12th century Somalia to present-day Shanghai.
“Muskmelon,” Kweli Journal, June 29, 2011