Race and Technology

A blog about the intersection of race and technology.

Race, Identity, and Writing

Excerpted from a talk given at the American Library Association Annual Convertion

Sunday June 23, 2019, Washington, D.C.​

In 1949, Walter Winchell asked famed sportswriter Red Smith if he found it difficult to churn out a daily column. "Why, no," Smith dead-panned. "You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed." Most writers, while sitting down today at a computer instead of a typewriter, still know what it is to "open your veins, and bleed." It describes a process that is in equal measures both exquisitely painful and deeply intimate; of laying bare some essential aspect of yourself. Everything about writing, involves finding identity, then finding the courage to reveal that identity to others.

Yet the danger is, particularly with us writers of color, that our books are judged by our skin color rather than the content of characters and our chapters. Bantam brought out We CAN All Get Along in 1994, my book about practical steps people could take to help end racism. We took that book on Oprah. In 1999, Bantam published The Hero with An African Face, my work on African mythology in response to Joseph Campbell's dismissal of Africa. In 2006, my novel The Long Mile amazingly received the Zora Neale Hurston-Richard Wright Literary Award in African American fiction. And my latest book, THINK BLACK, is a memoir about my father, the first Black software engineer in America. I suppose that qualifies me as an African American writer, and my writing, therefore, about my identity being Black.

I don't deny that race, racism, and Black identity are subjects that I feel passionate about, and compelled to explore. But the four books I've just cited represent only one-third of my oeuvre. Before We CAN All Get Along, I wrote on body-mind healing, my work as a chiropractor and psychotherapist, and my identity as a healing arts practitioner. Somewhere in the mix I managed to author a series of nautical thrillers set along the Inside Passage, which while they featured a Black maritime private investigator, my alter ego, no doubt, were more about my love of the waters of the Pacific Northwest and of Coastal Salish mythology and lore. I even managed to squeeze in a work on protecting the environment. I think I'm most proud of Boat Green because Pete Seeger gave me an endorsement and I had a chance to speak with Pete for almost an hour not long before his death, and to tell him how much he influenced my character and identity as a young man. Writing allows me to explore my identity on many different levels not just race.

Writing even allows me to explore my identity as an author. I recall struggling for a long time trying to write a novel. Dialogue was particularly hard. In those days, I'd go down to my boat at the harbor each morning. This particular day was overcast and cloudy, as many days are in the Northwest. While walking up the metal gangway from the dock, I stopped, turned around to look out to all the masts and sails and hulls; and out to the bay beyond. And at that moment, I realized that in the writing I had done just before leaving my boat, I'd discovered a tempo, a rhythm, a cadence with dialogue, in particular, that I found very satisfying and very much me. I had found my "voice."

The advice often given to new writers is to "write what you know most." It's not the advice that I give. I feel we are at our edge, which has the potential to become our best, when we write what we know least; what we don't know; what we wish to discover. Discovering one's career—and here I do not mean one's profession but career in the sense of one's path in life; one's essential nature; one's identity—discovering one's career only happens outside of our comfort zone; beyond that which is familiar; in a zone of danger where we do slit open a vein and bleed and examine that painful and intimate opening into ourselves.

I once listened to a well-known Zen master, who sat on stage in a discourse about spirituality and finding one's identity. The audience wrote questions on index cards, handed to the Zen master, who read each question, looked out to the audience, then replied each and every time with the same quiet, patient answer. "Zen mind, don't know mind." After the fourth or fifth time, we got the message, and we all began to laugh. To think you know, even before the question is asked, clutters your mind in a way that hampers the awaiting self-discovery. "Writer's mind, don't know mind."

When I began my memoir, THINK BLACK, I did not have this "don't know mind." I thought the book was going to be a "Branch Rickey-Jackie Robinson" story about my father with Thomas J. Watson, Sr., the founder of IBM as Rickey, and my father as Jackie Robinson. Kind of a "hidden figures" tale about the first Black software engineer in America. But Tracy Sherrod, my wonderful editor at Amistad/HarperCollins said to me over lunch, "we have to know more about Watson. Who was he? Why did he hire your father? What was IBM like as a company back then?"

So, thanks to Tracy, I now had to adopt that "don't know mind." I went in search not only of my father but the real Watson, the real IBM. What I discovered shocked and horrified me: IBM was deeply involved in eugenics, the Holocaust, apartheid, and racial profiling. And yet they hired my father, a Black man, in 1946. I wrote the following passage about my own experience of working for IBM, and metaphorically about searching for my father:

When I went to work for IBM, I risked following the thread of my father's path into the very corporate behemoth that nearly swallowed him whole. And where I had thought to find a contented man reaping the benefits of good fortune to build a comfortable life, I found a troubled soul battling both inner and outer demons arrayed against him; where I had thought to find a man quietly accepting of his place, I found a man covertly working to bring about change; where I had thought to find a company awakened to social justice, I found a business blinded by corporate greed; and where I had thought to come only to a deeper understanding of my father, I came also to a deeper understanding of myself.

No matter the genre, sitting down to a blank page, slitting open a vein, and bleeding, thrusts you on a journey of self-discovery; a journey of finding and exposing some part of your identity.

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