What are You Missing by NOT Exposing Yourselves to the Works of Black Writers?

Written by Shir Toledo and Edited by Elowyn Ingler

We’ve all played the game “telephone,” where a person whispers a phrase or a sentence to the person next to them. There is usually laughter at the end because of the confusion of the message. I am positive that the last person won’t get the phrase the first person whispered most of the time. But why? Because from ear to ear, the words change slightly depending on the listener and the speaker, getting farther and farther away from the original message. 

The same is true for a story of a person told by a different person. The storyteller might remember things differently, which stood out to them when they heard the story. The story has been modified to what the teller believes is essential, but these are not necessarily the things the person who experienced the story prioritized. 

Some stories are easier to modify, like a rumor or a dramatic adventure, whereas other stories are a little harder to change, like a biography. What about a personal narrative that includes important historical events? Barracoon, by Zora Neal Hurston, is a personal narrative that includes important historical events. This story is about Cudjo Lewis, the last known slave in the 1920’s. Kept in Cudjo’s dialect, this story was painstakingly written over three years. Because of the ‘negro dialect’ (as the book calls it), publishers didn’t accept the manuscript; they considered it not “language”. The author refused to change Cudjo’s way of speaking and didn’t correct him because his story and dialect’s authenticity was important to her. She insisted it be preserved despite the great efforts of publishers to change it. She was a trained ethnographer, a profession that requires telling a story exactly as it is said to her for historical accuracy. This idea of “talk white,” or “talk proper,” has been around for decades. Later, when the ‘negro dialect’ started to get accepted as an authentic and historical example of language, Barracoon was published. It took 90 years. 

Barracoon felt unedited as Cudjo shared his personal views about his life. Sharing his experience with slavery without judgment, he gave some background about his culture and community. This context and background helped me as a reader because it offered a break from the difficult and sad topics. Cudjo’s dialect made me feel more engaged, and in some way, it felt like he was talking to me. However, what if Zora hadn’t given Cudjo the chance to express himself by telling his own story? What if she took over and told us, the readers, only the parts of his story that seemed relevant to her? That would be a completely different book!

A part of what makes personal stories so unique is the limited editing. They may include some details and information that would be considered irrelevant by certain people. Still, another way of looking at it is how completely transparent the storyteller is with their audience. At times Cudjo talks about how he felt: “Cudjo felt lonely”. In other places, Zora is the one who describes how she thinks Cudjo, or Kossula (his African name), felt in the moment: “Kossula got that remote look in his eyes, and I knew he had withdrawn within himself”. Zora sees that remembering these challenging times is painful for Cudjo; she sees it can become too much, so she sometimes leaves him alone. She then comes back a few days later and continues the interview. 

I would consider some things in this book historical, like when Cudjo mentions dates and events, beginning with his ancestors. However, this book isn’t a history book because he explains how things occur by talking about his culture and customs. I noticed that Cudjo used the phrase “you understand me” often. I think Cudjo says this because it is his figure of speech and also to check in with the listener (in this case, Zora) to make sure they understand. 

Throughout history, there have been many cases where one group of people tried to erase another group of people’s culture. During the times of slavery, most slave owners only cared about the benefit they were getting from the work of their slaves. They didn’t care about the slaves’ well-being, or  their culture. Black people were forbidden the right to celebrate their culture with their community and families.

In 1860, a place in Alabama named Africatown was built by African Americans to preserve their culture and sense of community. They did their best to make it as similar as they could to Africa. It was the closest place to home. It is a place for them to rebuild their community and share their stories, which portray their culture told with their African roots’ sounds. Why would anyone want to take that away? Why is one culture less important than another culture? I am afraid I don’t have answers for you. I believe that people’s culture is one of the most unique and essential things to preserve because what are we without our cultural practices and celebrations? It shows the history and forces us to look at and understand things from a different perspective. It is our identity.

Today, many of us strive for equality, whether in respecting cultures, having the same human rights, or eliminating judgments. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of inequality in the world. There are too many examples to name, but I would like to focus on one topic: inequality in movies.

Black people’s contribution to art is significant when there is a story being told about their culture, where Black people’s perspective is crucial. Sadly Black people’s perspectives are often not represented, and white directors and actors represent their interpretation of the story through the lens of their culture and experience. This simply makes no sense. 

There is also a conversation to be had about representation. No Americans of color have ever won an Oscar for best director: a powerful role that shapes a production. Directors get to tell stories. Telling stories is power; it is a voice that impacts others. But who gets to have this power and tell the stories? Usually white men. 

When asked at The Screen Actors Guild awards, “do you feel real change is starting to happen inside the industry?” Adrienne C. Moore answered: “I think change comes in allowing stories to be told from a different vantage point; I think change comes with allowing more writers of diversity to be behind the scenes, or at the table, as well as there are actors in front of the camera. For change to really come, it starts from behind the scenes first.” Answering the same question, Jessica Pimentel said: “I think we need time to think ‘how can we change it?’ and to get those writers, producers, scriptwriters, (and) actors together. But I think just having the conversation openly is the first step.”

I agree with these women. The first step is recognizing that diversity is needed and having an open conversation about it. That is definitely not going to happen overnight. 

The fact that no black director won an oscar is concerning and should be changed! What does this tell us about our society? 

Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight, secured several Oscar nominations while still not earning a Best Director award, though he did earn the Best Picture award. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has only ever nominated six filmmakers of color for the Best Director Oscar in its 92-year history, and half of those nominations occurred in just the last five years. There is a problem; racism still exists today. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in 2015 the hashtag #Oscarssowhite was created, exemplifying the problem. 

Examples of unfairness are everywhere: in the news, in offices, schools, and in courts. The part in Barracoon where Cudjo didn’t get justice in court shows reality- how African Americans were treated differently than white Americans in court and had a limited chance to be heard. That is still a problem today; Black people are still fighting for their fundamental rights, and I stand with them. 

It is 2021. A year for a change? 

Quote from the book, Barracoon: 

– ‘negro dialect’ (xii, introduction)

– “Cudjo felt lonely” (page 35-36)

– “Kossula got that remote look in his eyes, and I knew he had withdrawn within himself”. (page 35-36)

– Stars at SAG Awards discuss diversity https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2016/02/02/oscars-academy-award-nominations-diversity/79645542/ 

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