Voices of colour

Print edition : September 22, 2006

Interview with Toi Derricotte, Professor of English and writer. By Shelley Walia

I remember the very day when I became coloured. - Zora Neale Hurston

IN her convincing and passionate work on what it means to be `black' in the multicultural American society, Toi Derricotte, Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, interrogates the social and cultural history of her past to tell the story of racial discrimination, of human misery and of the tragedy faced by her people. Several writers have worked to oppose and expose ethnic differences and discrimination, but Derricotte's writings bring out the message of suffering and disgust, of fear and loneliness, with poise. Fiercely expository and brilliant in their concern for recognition, her poetry and fictional writing deserve the honour they have received. Her scholarship and handwork go a long way in bringing alive an experience that underpins marginalised writings struggling to voice a moral and political philosophy.

Toi Derricotte comes from a middle-class African-American ancestry. She had a disturbed childhood, with her parents divorced and a doting grandmother who died leaving her insecure and lonely in a world where she craved to be with people. Living an empty life shared only with cousins, she felt a deep urge to voice her inner turmoil, which found an outlet in her poetry that she began to write at the early age of 10. She only once dared to show her poems to a cousin whose strong disapproval of them made her draw back from any further sharing of her writings with anyone until she was in her late 20s. Her studies at Wayne State University in Detroit came to an abrupt end when she had a child at the age of 20 and had to fend for herself. For the next 20 years she taught in a school and then joined a writers' workshop in Manhattan, New York. At the age of 43 she finally completed her masters in Creative Writing from New York University.

Toi Derricotte is co-founder of Cave Canem, a workshop retreat and deeply committed to the discovery and promotion of new voices in African-American poetry, which have in recent times come together to work on their craft and engage others in critical debate. It is "a national community of emerging and established poets, a family of black writers who create, publish, perform, teach, and study poetry, and support each other's work".

Derricotte has taught in the graduate creative writing programmes at New York University, George Mason University and Old Dominion University. Shelly Walia met her at the Rockefeller Centre at Bellagio, Italy. Excerpts from the interview:

Allow me to quote from your `The Black Notebooks': "Perhaps race isn't something that locks us into separate groups. Perhaps it is a state that floats back and forth between us, equally solid and unreal, as if our body and soul were kept apart and, like a kind of Siamese twins, joined only by the thin cord of desire." There seems to be wrenching anguish in your novels and poetry, especially so in `Notebooks'. Is it really a result of your mulatto background? Why were you determined to have the white community accept you? You did purchase a house in a white locality? Did you really desire to be part of the white culture and dream of escaping from your black history or `blackness'?

It is quite a poetic statement and, when I try to go back to the time I wrote it, I can't quite remember what I was feeling. When I first started writing The Black Notebooks I noticed that when I was in an all-white setting and would suddenly see a black person, I would feel a part of me emotionally retract. I felt terribly ashamed of this and began to wonder if I was just forgetting I was black because I was thinking of something else and this person reminded me; or if I was really burying, suppressing the knowledge of my own blackness because it was so painful.

I talked to many black people, and others had had the same reaction. One man who had been in the army and hadn't seen himself in a mirror for several weeks suddenly came upon himself in a mirror and felt enormous sadness, because he had forgotten that he was black.

I talk about "passing" in The Black Notebooks. Often people say that a light-skinned person is "passing" if the white person they are with doesn't know they are black. But if you are light-skinned, do you have to go about with a sign on your back "I'm black!"? When people don't know I'm black it's not because I am consciously deceiving them, it's because they assume that whiteness looks a certain way and because I don't look the way they think whiteness and blackness should look, they feel tricked. But it's not my fault that their certitudes are so far wrong. I'm not responsible for their assumptions. So that I say or don't say I'm black, depending on my own desires.

Perhaps because I can "pass" into white and black environments without people knowing I'm black, I feel less identified by blackness, less tied to it in my body. In some ways this is good, I think ... perhaps in some ways I am free to not feel myself always under some kind of scrutiny that I would be under if I were dark. But the funny thing is that I feel that anyway. I feel frightened often about how people will see me, and I can remember it from the time I was of a very early age. It's as if I know that something is wrong with me that they can't see, but that they'll soon find out.

So, to tell you the truth, perhaps it's not an insubstantial state. Perhaps it's more like a piece of lead you have to carry around like Sisyphus' stone, for the rest of your life. It can be a suit of armour, and it can be, well, for example, it can be, when you're in communication with one that you love, when you're not afraid, it can be like a light veil.

Are you at ease with the American world? If you ask me, I do find you totally at peace with yourself and your colour at this stage in your life.

The thing that I've always tried to do is to understand what made my father, mother, aunts and uncles so sad and angry. And the older I get the more I understand what bitter lives they lived. Remember, my mother was born only three generations away from slavery, only about sixty years. Her grandmother and her six children were kicked out of their home because they didn't have the written deed, a piece of property that had been given to her mother by her white owner. At that time, my grandmother gave all of her children away to be raised by white people who could take care of their physical needs. However, her children always hated her and said she was mean. But what choices did she have? It seems that some of the choices my ancestors have made have allowed us to be more successful in our lives than many black people, but have also made us more "crazy", as if, in a way, we don't know who we are.

My aunt once told me that the reason we had so many problems in our family was that we had all those different kinds of blood in us and that they were fighting with each other. Sometimes it did feel as if my insides were at war.

As I grow older, I become surer of myself and calm. I think it's the kind of successes that I have had, not financial successes, but successes because of my life as a person who has tried to tell the truth, as a writer and teacher and lover, as a mother and friend. When I was a child I think I gave up on a certain kind of power. I never thought I'd be powerful like my father, who seemed to represent authority, who beat me and hurt me so much that I never wanted to be like him. In that way I gave up on being an authority figure when I was very young. But I wanted to do something that had invisible power, and I felt that writing and words were expressions of that invisible power that I wanted to have. Many good things have come from my writing, people who have read my books have felt that they are not alone, students I have taught feel more confident and encouraged because of my open style, and the best thing is that I have been the co-founder of a group of African-American poets who are doing some of the best writings of our new century. I never studied with or read any books by African-American poets all the way through graduate school, it was as if they weren't in existence or else they couldn't write well enough to be studied, as if their work wasn't smart enough.

So all African-American poets felt very isolated and unsure of themselves. But when so many came together and we saw how important our work was, we became confident because we could see the beauty and power in others that we couldn't see in ourselves. There they are having so many successes with their work and I feel so grateful to have been part of the reason.

In one of your poems you have written: "Oh, my people,/sometimes you look at me with such unwillingness?/as I look at you!/I keep trying to prove/ I am not what I think you think." Do you not feel that your escape from blackness resulted in racial self-betrayal? How is this schizophrenic existence responsible for the problem of black identity? You have always realised that the phrase `she think she white' is full of irony and disgust.

There is nothing worse than being shunned by your kin. And I truly think the reason we do this to each other is that it is the only way we can feel that we can escape the feeling and memory of what has been done to us.

For years in the past, when I did readings away from home, I would feel so inadequate, so unworthy. I would say to myself, `I'm only here because they need a black person, it's not because they really think I'm a good writer.' I began to call these voices that went on and on in my head the `torturing voices'. I told a friend and she said, `Why not ask the torturing voices from where they get their information.' I did and right away the answer came, `from your mother'.

I don't know, maybe it's some way in which my parents were trying to prepare me to be careful in a world in which they knew I would be treated badly, as if I always had to prepare myself for rejection. Or perhaps the torturing voices came all the way from slavery, or before, which found a way to make us believe that we deserved such a bad thing as slavery . . . maybe because if we had thought better of ourselves, we would have been killed. So maybe just staying alive was dangerous. And anyway we could do it, even if it was by torturing ourselves, was a way to survive.

Tell me something about your experience of physical and mental violence in your growing years. In terms of your work, what are you trying to express? Do you think it might be a way of making a connection with the past?

We left the past behind, people in my family didn't want to remember `the bad'. My mother never even went to her grandmother's funeral. It was as if she didn't even exist after my mother moved to the north. And I think it was because she was dark-skinned and a washerwoman, a woman who washed white people's clothes all her life for a living. It's as if she had committed some kind of act which gave us life but at the same time made her disappear, it was as if she really wasn't a part of our family, but more like a maid who had done us a service, someone that is part of your life when you're there but when you move away, that person goes into the distance.

Yes, I want to make the connection. I feel that my dead relatives are perhaps more with me now than when they were alive. I've heard it said that when someone you love dies, it takes a year for them to get across the river of sorrow and your tears are the boat that takes them across. However, after a year, they are no longer your relative, they are your ancestor, and that means they have a totally different relationship with you. My mother didn't want me to tell the truth about our lives, about the bad things that had happened, the physical abuse and depression. But now that she is my ancestor she wants the truth to come out, she supports me because she doesn't take her life personally any more. She wants to use everything that happened to her for the good of others.

What made you decide to begin Cave Canem? You have been committed to the discovery and cultivation of new voices in African-American poetry.

Cave Canem wouldn't exist unless three people had said yes to it. I asked my co-founder and his wife, Cornelius Eady and Sarah Micklem, if they wanted to do a writers' retreat. Cornelius is black and Sarah is white. Cornelius and I knew very well what it felt like to be the only black person in academic environments and we wanted to make a change. The great thing about Cave Canem, I think, is its humble and democratic beginnings. I couldn't have done it alone. I had tried to get funding but no institution would fund us. And I felt discouraged. But when we decided to do it together, doors just seemed to start opening for us. We did it out of our own pockets for several years and faculty came and taught for nothing, because black poets were so glad to teach other black poets. Even famous black poets had never been in a black environment before. So it was like a great family of lonely people finding each other. That was the kind of joy we felt. A friend of mine who was a priest at a large, beautiful monastery let us use the monastery for our retreats for several years. I think this began Cave Canem with a spiritual feeling, not religious, but spiritual, people aware of something larger that we were part of.

Black people appreciate this sense of history and sacredness in a way I think most white people don't understand. It's just a part of our culture. From the very first evening when thirty black poets sat in a circle and broke down in tears because we were so glad to have found each other, Cornelius and I knew it was something much bigger than either of us had suspected. Now we have a Ford Foundation grant and an office in New York, this year celebrating our ten-year anniversary, it seems to be a force that the universe wanted, it just seems as if Cornelius and I opened a door and behind it was the force of the universe that poured through.

It's changed a great deal. Now there are over 200 graduates (people can come back for three years), and it is more of an institution. But it still has that quality of family support that we had never found out there in the world before.

By the way, several other groups of people have started retreats based on the concepts of Cave Canem, a group of Chinese-American writers, a group of Jamaican writers, and a group of Black English writers. It seems as if it is an idea whose time has come.

Do you have any word of advice for the upcoming contemporary black writer in the U.S.?

Write and read everything you can get your hands on, check out the Cave Canem website (cavecanempoets.org), get a group of people who want to write for their life, people who are really committed to the writer's life, and let them become your trusted allies, put pressure on each other to do your work and validate that work, learn how to talk to each other to give honest but kind criticism. Love each other. Value each other. There are so few black writers in the world and they are so important.

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