Tuesday, January 21, 2020

It's Getting All Racial in this Piece...

Things that make you go hmmm

From time-to-time, I share stories of my pre-Momma life with my girls. One recent conversation with them had the middle and youngest looking squinty-eyed at me. It is an experience I will get to in a moment. For the time being, I would like to talk about an issue that has dominated discussions in my house—the implosion of the Romance Writers of America.
To discuss race in America, indeed the world, is always dangerous territory. It is usually part of the kitchen table talk in my house. These past weeks, though, have been a hotbed of accusations, resentment, and misunderstandings. It has always been fascinating to me that charges of racism inevitably garner countercharges of playing the race card. I would love to be able to clearly and concisely proclaim to my daughters that neither race nor gender plays a role in day-to-day treatment, but I can’t.
The controversy currently going on in RWA hits home. I joined in 1990, starry-eyed and excited, so it was with excitement and anxiety that I signed up for a chapter, and subsequently, a chapter conference. I have always been shy, so it was quite hard for me having to attend the meet-and-greet as a quasi-writer. At that time, I had come up with a story idea and begged my mother to write it. She agreed, as long as I researched and typed what she wrote in long hand. Giving my promise also meant I had to get out in the great, big world and network.
I was my mother’s only child and the youngest child of my father; both were older, turning 35 and 51, respectively, when I came into the world in the aftermath of the turbulent 60s. Saying I was sheltered is the understatement of this millennium and the next five. But my shyness entered the territory of sheer fear. To this day, I believe my mother pushed me to network to help me come into my own and face the world.
So there I was: facing the world at an RWA chapter conference. She stayed in our hotel room, wished me luck, and sent me off. When I found the suite where the meet-and-greet was taking place, I walked in with the burden of shyness on one shoulder and the dreams of a sheltered, starry-eyed nineteen-year-old.
I found the lady I’d had several conversations with over the telephone as I promised I would. Besides, she was the only person I kinda, sorta knew. I needed that lifeline because I was petrified. She was cordial but busy, so after a brief conversation, left me to do what needed to be done and, of course, to talk to who she knew. In a word: everybody. I stood by, nodding to those who acknowledged me or exchanging pleasantries for the same reason.
I was like a fish out of water. I felt different—out-of-place. For the life of me, I didn’t know why.
After being there for an hour, and picking out some well-known romance writers, whose books sat on my shelves, another author walked in. I knew her immediately because I had read some of her work. People were excited to see her. I was excited to see her. She mingled and worked her way through the crowd, drawing ever nearer to where I stood. I was working up my courage to talk to her whenever she had a free moment.
Ah, but she spotted me first. She looked me in the eye, smiled, and blared: “WHO LET THE HELP IN”? If I had any doubt that she meant me, (which I didn’t), the stares at me, snickers, and uncomfortable murmurs while staring at me, quickly cleared up. Not only that—I was the only Black person in the room.
I was humiliated and crushed. I left not long after that. Thus, was my introduction to the world of RWA.
I went back the next year. I wanted to be a writer and I needed to network. We couldn’t afford Nationals (aka RWA’s yearly conference), so this nearby conference it was. This time, I went on a Greyhound Bus. I’d only been driving about two and a half years, so my mother wouldn’t allow me to take her car almost two hundred miles away. I ended up meeting a writer and her husband, who ultimately invited me to drive back to New Orleans with them. The convention was uneventful…until I was cornered on a staircase and asked why was I there and what type of books did I write? I explained to her I was working with my mother on a book idea I’d had. It was set in 1853 New Orleans. The hero was a worker on the Underground Railroad and the heroine was the daughter of one of the wealthiest plantation owners. She let my explanation sink in, then asked me, “as a Black who can you write about white people?”
In all my naivete, (read: stupidity), it never occurred to me that I would need an explanation on why I chose to write that book. Or any book for that matter. Still, I answered her. I told her I researched the Antebellum and Post-bellum South, especially Louisiana, and, in particular, New Orleans. She contemplated that and then decided: “I suppose it is easier for you to write about us, then for us to write about you. We’re all over TV and the movies. It’s easy to find out about our mannerisms and the way we talk and live that way. Right?”
This conversation was making my head and stomach hurt, and I really wanted to throw up. I didn’t know what to say, though, so I nodded. I added, on a mumble, “but we’re all just people, right? We aren’t any different because we are different colors.”
She probably didn’t hear me because when I say I mumbled, I did. I wanted to be invisible. Yet, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I stuck out like the only Black person there who wasn’t part of the hotel staff.
That was the last time I went to the conference. Eventually, I became Vice-President of a chapter. I was invited to speak at certain places. I was awarded a Trailblazers Award. We got an agent. We got five publishing contracts. We were on local news stations in Southern Louisiana and Beaumont, TX. We were featured in New Orleans Magazine and in two Natchez, MS newspapers. I met some of my heroines of the romance genre. I fielded “race” questions. The characters my mom and I wrote were Caucasian. I accepted criticism and denials. Black bookstore owners refuse to carry our books. We were Women-of-Color, who chose to write ‘white’.
No, I would say. We are Americans, who exercised our freedom of speech and wrote what came to us. Read your history, girl, they would say to me. Mostly, they said nothing at all. They just gave me the side eye and firmly closed their doors. At booksignings, I came across women who turned their noses at me without even approaching my table, friends pulling friends back with the warning: Don’t go to HER table because she writes THOSE books. You know? About Blacks. I heard from my friends, I’m not reading your books unless you write about Black people. I can’t identify with Whites.
So what was this: racism or ignorance? Not one-sided, either.
Months later, the friend I’d made at the last conference in that Louisiana town and I went out exploring an ended up at a restaurant in Buck Town, in a section that was the heart of Duke Country (David Duke, former KKK Grand Wizard). Towards the end of our meal, she looked around and exclaimed, “Oh my God, do you know you’re the ONLY Black person in here who isn’t bussing tables?” I was as shocked as she was. “Well, yeah,” I responded. “I saw that the moment I walked in.” My words shocked her. “You did?” I thought her reaction was funny and I said, “as a Black person, it is something you tend to notice immediately. Call it instinct or a sense of survival.” Her eyes grew rounder. “Are you afraid?” Now, my eyes grew round. “Nope. Should I be?” Nonplussed, she shrugged. “If you took me to a restaurant and I realized I was the only White person, I would be afraid.” I tsked. “First of all, it wouldn’t have been a dawning realization that you were the only White person. You would’ve picked up on that immediately. Secondly, the world is much more accepting, so you and I should be able to go wherever we want to, without any problems. Just like I trusted you to bring me to a place where I wouldn’t come to any harm, I expect that same trust from you.”
Eventually, she and I lost contact. She moved away.
I continued in RWA. The editor my mom and I had, resigned. Our agent closed her doors. We were assigned a new editor, who had never liked our writing, so I knew our time at the publishing house was coming to an end.
I continued in RWA.
I attended another conference. My last, actually. I was older now. Divorced. Mother of a beautiful little girl. I was also weary. Being an American was one thing; being a Black American, a Person-of-Color, was another. And, as a Black woman, the onus was on me to preserve the Black race. To keep it pure by marrying a Black man. But this always falls on a woman’s shoulders. We are expected to stay within the boundaries of race.
I hadn’t, though. I married a man from Northern Ireland. Our daughter is bi-racial. We fit in as long as we were with our families, amongst a select number of friends, and within the world of romance writing. Off the top of my head, I recall two fights due to our interracial relationship. One, when we were in the French Quarter, showing his visiting friend what New Orleans had to offer, a guy from a group, looked at my then-boyfriend and his friend, then looked at me and said, “she ain’t all that, bruh.” My boyfriend asked what that meant. I shrugged and said it means, “I’m not that special. Basically, why are you with me when he wouldn’t have me?”
Egged on by his friend, my boyfriend backtracked and approached the group. Fighting commenced, a melee that went across Decatur Street and the back again. Someone sprayed pepper spray into the fighters. Cussing and shouting and accusations and chaos ensued. Until I heard sirens. I squeezed my way through the crowd and told them that cops were coming. Unless you want to be arrested, stop this now.
Just like that, the fight broke up. Nothing else anyone said had worked.
Another time, we had gone to an event in downtown New Orleans. It was a peaceful Sunday afternoon and we were enjoying each other’s company, heading back to the car. The looks, comments, and sneers, from one man, ruined it. Before I could blink, this stranger and the man I loved were arguing. I. Was. FURIOUS. This pushback, when it was no one else’s business, was just too much. In the middle of the testosterone-fueled shoving match, I jumped between them. By the time I was pulled away, I had torn the stranger’s shirt off and tried to rip his chest open with my nails.
No, it didn’t make me better than them, but I was so frustrated, especially by the fact that the physical confrontations were always with Black men. I was the traitor. The Oreo Cookie…the…well, you get the picture. In the years to come, my biracial daughter would also face…?
What would you say if I called it racism? Would I now be playing the race card?
What would YOU call it?
It has impacted her life, and left her with an identity crisis.
Yet, in that room, with that editor, I pushed all the past hurt and confrontations out of my mind. I saw her as a woman who would want to see a proposal that I wrote. Or not. I didn’t care about the ignorance or the hatefulness that I had faced through the years. I was a writer. She was an editor. I was at an RWA chapter event, and I needed another publishing contract.
I gave my pitch. And she looked at me. “Why don’t you write Black stories?” she demanded. I floundered for a minute before I replied. “I believe love is love. It really has no color.” She nodded, courteous enough to acknowledge my reply, then said, “The romance industry is an overcrowded field and there are enough white writers to write white characters. I can’t look at your submission because I don’t feel you should be competing in such an overcrowded category. Write about Black characters. We need more of these stories. You’d get more recognition because there’s even a special section in bookstores for Black romance. I’m sure many of my colleagues feel the same way. That’s why you haven’t had much success.” She walked me to the door with a smile, reveling in the advice she’d given me.
I felt…punched in the gut. But…why? Hadn’t this woman just taken the time to give me career advice? Wasn’t she offering helpful insights into the publishing world? Why did I feel so…so…Colored? Black? Let down? Discriminated against?
Hmmm…Why was I so crushed?
I cried on my mom’s shoulders and told her she would have to meet with the editors from now on. I was done. I couldn’t do it anymore.
She declined. She didn’t, and doesn’t, suffer fools lightly. But I pulled away from chapter conferences. For a while, I pulled away from writing.
As always, I couldn’t stay away. I’d written my first story at 4, then tried to write a novel at 12. Writing was a siren’s call I had never been able to ignore.
Eventually, I moved into self-publishing. Wicked Allure was our first self-published title. It had moderate success. Months later, I was still pushing it, and began to contact blogs because we were starting book two and a prequel. We wrote pretty fast, so while bloggers were reviewing Wicked Allure, we would be completing Scandalous Allure and Wicked Addiction. The book is erotic, however low-keyed it might be in the suspense and action department. I specifically searched for bloggers who accepted erotic manuscripts.
Because Wicked Allure had been out over a year, we received a lot of rejection. Completely understandable. We took it in stride. Then, one day, I received an email that, in part, stated, we are not interested in reading those types of novels.
My first inclination was to apologize. Even with rejections, I tried to send editors and agents thank-you notes for looking at my project and/or responding.
“It’s their job!” you say.
Yes, it is. But that slush pile was a wicked beast. Unagented and/or unsolicited works were far down the line on publishing radars. These dedicated people do a billion things in a day. Even if I received a form letter, I was appreciative. They could’ve easily taken someone else’s blind submission.
Before I sent the apology to the bloggers, (perhaps I’d mistakenly chosen a blog that didn’t review erotic romances), I went to their blog. Half-naked men and women, explicit language, and graphic sex scenes dominated the site. Wicked Allure was the perfect candidate. Except, maybe not, because my characters were Black.
This stung as bad, or worse, than anything else I’d ever gone through in the romance industry. No, in day-to-day life as a Woman of Color in America. Yet, the publishing industry is particularly merciless.
Despite the fact, that as a sixteen-year-old in modeling school, the Director told me, “I tell all my Blacks to go to Chicago if they hope to work in the industry”; despite the fact that, as a child, another child looked at me and asked, “Are you a n****r”; despite the fact that as a grown woman, I was pushed to the back of an elevator by a group of men who allowed two women to get off them elevator before them, then made me go behind them so they could walk out next in a New Orleans office building.
Despite the fact, that as a magazine owner, I was told that “it took a little Black gal from Louisiana to come to Rosenberg to start a magazine”. Not girl. Not woman. Not lady.
Despite the fact that, as Hurricane Katrina survivors, staying in a temporary home, we were told not to go in a certain direction, on the very road we were staying, because Klan members lived that way and held their meetings.
Despite the fact that, as a magazine owner, I was told to be careful when I chased ads in some places because there was Klan activity in the area.
Despite the impact of society’s views on my interracial relationship and biracial daughter.
And, despite all my other experiences, this blog, not reading those types of romances HURT.
Jesus Christ, I couldn’t win. What was this? What importance were any of my experiences in the great scheme of things?
Was it racism? But just what the fuck is racism in today’s society? Was it the blatant use of racial epithets? Was it perception?
Did racism even exist anymore?
Goddamn it, I felt as if I’d been subjected to racism but, maybe, I was just being too sensitive.
Hadn’t other writers told me Ms. Who-Let-The-Help-In had only been joking? Maybe, it was insensitive, but I know her and she is NOT racist.
Hadn’t other writers told me that the editor who told me she wouldn’t look at any work of mine if it didn’t feature Black characters, was giving me good, solid career advice?
It was 2013, and our world was unashamedly multicultural. These bloggers probably hadn’t even turned the book down because it had Black characters.
Who knew? More to the point, who cared?
Only me. And, me hadn’t immediately told anyone about any of the incidences I’d had at these RWA chapter events. It was me who felt so insignificant that I couldn’t bring myself to even report the incidents because I don’t think it would’ve mattered. The RWA hierarchy wouldn’t have listened to me. Furthermore, me had brushed off the Black gal comment, even though I specifically advised hiring people to wear black face and serve guests at an event wasn’t a thing to do.
I stopped writing on book two of the series and the prequel.
But I couldn’t stop writing. Soon, Christopher Caldwell introduced himself to me. After advice from a writer friend, I decided not to show the ‘real me’. I wanted to be on the USA Today Bestseller’s list or the New York Times list. I wanted to write about bikers and murders and sex. I wanted to be relevant. So I chose a White avatar. Chose a birthday not my own. If I couldn’t be accepted as Black, why would I be welcomed as older? I teased and tantalized and pretended. Every August 6th, I cursed my ass for not choosing the month and the day of my actual birthday, if not the year.
In our ‘woke’ society, I felt…alone. Sometimes, even now, for one reason or another, I feel my differences. I’m still Black, and most of my couples are still  White. I write the stories that come to me. Besides, my books with African-Americans on the covers have always undersold all my other titles.  
At an event I attended, a hot model looked at me with distaste. I was...inebriated, to say the least, but so were my friends. He didn’t do that to them. AND no one else noticed.
I did. It is those subtle nuances that experience, confrontation, and being a Woman-of-Color in America, has taught me to pick up on.
I’ve seen his photos for sale. He would be perfect for an upcoming hero. But, in this, the power is mine. I would rather burn my fucking money, then to give him an opportunity to appear on one of my books.
No, I’m not a big deal—I’ve never listed. Whether I choose one of his photos won’t hurt him, but it does give ME satisfaction.
Okay, Woke People, to this I say you can’t see it because you have never lived it. You don’t understand how lines are crossed with in the most unobtrusive manner. It isn’t blatant. It isn’t overt. It isn’t obvious.
Still…it’s there.
Most of the models I’ve met have been down-to-earth and lovely. Yet, this wasn’t exclusive to the self-published world. I’ve had male models at writing events I’ve gone to, distant to me, when they welcomed other women. I’ve sat at dinner tables with seven other empty seats, while I was the lone occupant because I was given cursory glances before everyone walked on by.
I remained a member of the RWA until 2005. I merely stopped attending conferences and meetings.
Besides, ugly undercurrents aren’t strictly within RWA. It is in the publishing industry and is taken directly from our day-to-day lives. The RWA controversy just puts the issue at the forefront.
And what issue might that be? Racism?
I have a very definitive answer to that question. But I also know for each experience I wrote about could be construed in a different context, to make it seem as if I am a disgruntled person-of-color, filled with nonsense and bitterness.
The travesty committed by RWA isn’t exclusive to them. The entire world could take a lesson or two on inclusion.
Take the time I was in a fashion show for a charity because I was in the community. My vitiligo, at that time, had me looking like an inverted raccoon. We were instructed to bring ourselves and be ready for the catwalk. Hair and makeup people were coming in to beautify us. The make-up artist assigned to me found everything else to do before she got to me. There came a time when she couldn’t ignore me any longer. I had to get out on stage. When she realized, she didn’t have powder or foundation to match my skin color(s), she was annoyed. “Did you bring your own makeup?” I was simply horrified as I told her ‘no. I was told we didn’t have to bring makeup.” She wasn’t amused, and, frankly, her attitude began to annoy me as well. Finally, she declared, “there’s nothing I can do with your face. Not bringing makeup was optional. You should’ve brought your own makeup because I don’t have colors to match your dark complexion.” She walked off.
I remained seated in the makeup chair, contemplating if I should walk out or not. But, I told myself, she was right. Her delivery could’ve been better, but I should’ve brought my own makeup. If it hadn’t been needed, at least I would’ve been prepared.
This was outside of the writing industry and I was still dealing with it.
But what was, is, it? Hmmm. Again, was this really racism? Or was it just a misunderstanding by a woman who was probably tired and frustrated by the time I sat in her chair.
What about the time I shared my grief with a therapist over the death of a beloved two-year-old? My therapist scolded me. “That’s a White child you’re crying over. They wouldn’t cry over you.” I begged to differ. “No, your mother is just their housekeeper. You’re the housekeeper’s daughter. That family doesn’t care about you. There are so many things to cry over, other than a White child.”
I was already in the midst of depression when I saw her. I was already grief-stricken. I even felt a little guilty because I’d thought to call my mother, then changed my mind because I figured she was dealing with the kids and would just say she had to call me in a few minutes. For so many months, I told myself had I called, things would’ve turned out differently.
My mother came home from work, and cried for weeks. Months. She couldn’t discuss my pain and grief because she was so heartbroken. I didn’t report my therapist. She was Black, by the way. Who was I supposed to report her to? And I was almost incapacitated with depression, grief, and sadness. Would anyone believe me if there was a way to report her? It would come down to she said-she said. I wasn’t emotionally or mentally available to engage in such a fight. I told myself they were only words and she was so wrong about how she saw the entire situation.
That day was the last time I ever set foot in her office.
The tragedy took place about three months after I’d been cornered by the woman wanting to know how could I write White characters as a Black person. It came about 6 weeks after pre-cancerous cell were found on my cervix and I had to have an operation. It happened roughly two months before my twentieth birthday. And, months later, when I finally found someone I could open up to, she scoffed at me.
I was so hurt and disillusioned because of my experiences at the writing conferences and because I couldn’t fathom why a sweet little angel had been taken away. I was done. Fed up with writing, with praying. With living. I was just miserable.
I attempted suicide.
When I read about how their ethics complaint was handled, I wasn’t too surprised. I had lived it, inside the writing community and outside of it. It did sadden me that the group had yet to come into the 21st century. Twenty years into the new millennium, it was supposed to be different.
For many, many years, I told myself my shyness, what I deemed as my biggest weakness, was the reason I’d had my experiences within RWA. If I hadn’t been so painfully shy, I would’ve had different experiences. If, when I had been a new member if what I saw as a prestigious group, I had stood up to the curious who commented on my presence, gawked at the fact I was young, Black, and literate, and stared at me like an alien when the found out what I wrote…If I had complained…if I had responded with anger and outrage instead of confusion and hurt…If I…
Wait, now. Hold on. I can hear the disagreeable voices. Why would you do anything different, since you didn’t experience anything but day-to-day living in America? Besides, you put yourself in the position of trying to break into an industry that was, is, notoriously hard to break into. Suck it up and deal with it. Who cares about people’s stupefaction at the fact that you not only spoke decently but could read and write?
In case you’re wondering: yes, these were actual comments made to me through the years at various writing events. The qualifier, and she’s so well-spoken too, had become tiresome by the time I removed myself from chasing a dream of having our books in stores again and on the bestseller’s list.
In other words, if it acts like racism and sounds like racism…most definitely doesn’t point to racism.
Truly, this makes me go hmmm.
As I close, I will end where I began—with my girls and the story I told them. It all began as walk-talk—holding conversations while we walked through our neighborhood for exercise.
Is there such a thing as reverse-racism, I asked, or is it only racism?
Have you ever felt uncomfortable in a situation due to racism?
What can be done to make the world a better place for everyone?
What can be done for us to see each other without skin color?
How much does race matter?
The questions went on and on. Finally, they asked me, what had I ever done to overcome racism, and do you think you’ve ever experienced it yourself?
Thus, I began the tale of the time a KKK member was a guest at our home. It was before they were born. And he only came because his wife forced him to, and he loved her. He was uncomfortable. He was upset. Many times, he looked downright angry. He’d sit on the porch gazing toward the St. Bernard Project. Excuse me, he’d stare at the St. Bernard. I wondered what went through his mind, so I asked him, “do you see a lot of differences between us?”
He told me that he saw some, but not many. “If my friends knew I was staying in this place with you people, they’ never talk to me again. I’d never be able to face them again.”
I rolled my eyes. “You’ve eaten with us. Laughed with us. Talked with us. And you still feel this way?”
He just shrugged and said, “You’re still Black, aren’t you?”
After that, I was done. I didn’t know what else to say. At twenty-two, I was still very shy and quiet.  When it came time to take pictures, he’d crouch behind everyone else. He really didn’t want his friends to know he’d been in a Black person’s house on friendly terms.
The night before they were heading out, he and my mom had a chance to talk. He mentioned if his friends were there, they’d go into one of the courts in the St. Bernard, waving their guns and watching how many of them would run.
My mom’s response? “So you’re only a racist when you have back-up?”
“I wouldn’t call myself a racist.”
“I wouldn’t either. I’d call you an ignorant sonofabitch.”
He snickered.
“Why did you come here if you feel as you do?”
“She wanted me to. So why did you let me stay here knowing how I feel?”
“We’re not the ones with the problem. You are. Why don’t you get your ass up and go through the St. Bernard right now, with your gun?”
“I ain’t stupid.”
“You just don’t have a brain.”
He glared at her, grabbed his beer, and stomped inside.
We never saw him again.
Which, I told my children, was on him. We allowed him into our house because, we, as a society, would never bridge the divide if we didn’t reach across the chasm and get to know each other. There would be no need to understand race, if we didn’t see color. Besides, in many ways, in the 90s, the world was so much more tolerant.
The fact of the matter is it isn’t getting racial in this piece. It is just still racial. Until we see people, this kind of tumult will always flare up. There needs to be real, honest talks in businesses, in churches, in schools, on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Someone needs to ask the questions, where do we begin? How can we start? A narrative must begin everywhere. Let it spill outside the boundaries of the Romance Writers of America.
Why am I sharing my experiences now? Because I want insight. We can't learn and grow, until we listen and consider other perspectives. Tell me what is your take on my experiences? Do you see it as racism or ignorance by people who really meant no harm?
I am sharing my experiences now because the subject of race has been dominating the news recently, more so than usual. Besides, I was once enamored of RWA, and all it represented, even with the many challenges I faced. In my heart of hearts, I believed there would come a day that an industry built on happily-ever-afters, communication, trust, openness, and relationships would get it right and show the world how it is done. Instead, it allowed the anachronistic ideologies that we still face to seep into its ranks.
We want a better, more diverse and inclusive RWA? We need to initiate such an incredible cultural movement in the whole wide world first.

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