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Black Pain And The Difficult Work Of Telling Our Stories

We cannot tell difficult stories for the sake of telling them, we have to tell them because if we do not, the perpetrators of our pain get to decide its impact.

By Kamilah Bush

Recently, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be an artist who creates “difficult work.” I think of recent pieces of art like Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us or Angie Thomas’ novel The Hate U Give or even scenes in shows like Issa Rae’s Insecure where Black characters are pulled over by police (as the character Lawrence was in season 2, episode 4); work that requires the consumer to experience difficult and possibly triggering depictions of Black pain. There seems to be a growing coalition of people who cannot engage with this kind of work and even call it’s production “fetishization.” 

As a consumer of art, I have to admit that I can readily understand the rejection of this work. As a creator, however, I have to stand up for the storytellers who feel compelled to write it. To be certain, none of these pieces of art, nor others like them, are without flaws—and a case can be made that some of them promote harmful ideas. To be sure—some of it shouldn’t have ever been released. I’m looking at you Detroit and American Son. I do not mean to defend the work itself, rather I defend the Black artist’s—and only the Black artist’s—right to create it.  

According to the Washington Post, 936 people were killed by police violence in 2019; a number that has held steady in the past five years since they began tracking these instances. Black Americans are killed by the police at a rate twice as high as white Americans, while only accounting for 13% of the entire country’s population. White people make up roughly 62% of the population and account for 49% of police killings—compared to Black Americans who are 24% of police killings—making a Black person more than twice as likely to be fatally shot by police than a white person. To look at these numbers is to realize that there is no delusion in feeling as though police violence is a large part of our daily lives. To feel that we are one incident away from becoming the next one, is not only normal, it’s probable. And for me, as a creator, this probability seeps into my thoughts, which fuel my imagination and inform my art. 

We do not have the luxury of a world where Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Atatiana Jefferson, Mike Brown and Botham Shem Jean are here with us. We do not have the luxury of not knowing their names. And I believe this means that we do not have the luxury of not writing stories that mirror this truth. Though I would rather have them than the work, the work is what I’m left with. 

Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James) in “If Beale Street Could Talk”

This is the same work of Gwendolyn Brooks, of Ann Petry, of Lorraine Hansberry, of Phyllis Wheatley. The same work of James Baldwin, whose If Beale Street Could Talk was adapted into a film just two years ago but was published in 1974. This book and film were set in a time 40 years before Darren Wilson met Mike Brown on that Missouri road, but as the author asserted, “Every Black person in America was born on Beale Street… Beale Street is our legacy.” And this legacy brings with it music and poetry and films and novels—fictionalized accounts of our existence which will last, and may indeed reach more people than the cold facts presented by the Washington Post

There are some that argue to fictionalize is to trivialize. I  believe that, rather, to fictionalize is to rationalize—to grapple with the legacy of Beale Street in ways that nonfiction cannot. Even fiction requires truth, and it requires faith and imagination. It requires that we see both what is and what could be. It requires both a removal of oneself from the narrative and a deep insertion of oneself. To write fiction, the writer must know how the truth affects them—what it means, what they want to do about it. It requires a deep knowing, the courage of conviction, to know where one stands. Then, just when the writer is sure—when they’re all the way inside of their own perspective—they must seek to understand others. To create, a creator must be able to create without judgment—just long enough to say what’s true. When I read or watch, or indeed write, fiction I have to process it on all levels—to accept the concrete and appreciate the abstract. I have always believed that good art should either tell us something we don’t know or remind us of something that we cannot bear to forget and that comes with all the beauty and all the pain.

How do we then create art that both honors our present truth and our hallowed history? How do we do it in ways that are sustainable for our audiences? Because while we are responsible to and for the art, we are also responsible to and for the people who will experience it. I am reminded that as a creator, I have to be someone people can trust. I have to reject the growing narrative that positions us as only “Black bodies” and be reminded that we are also Black Souls. We are entire beings whose bodies have been continuously destroyed, and that does something to the soul. 

Because this is true, I have to be sure that my work creates not just images of our bodies, but salves for our souls. I must only mention our pain in the context of our healing. Produce images of destruction only to illuminate how we take what we have and build. I have to, because if I only produce images of ruin, how dare I call myself a creator?  I do not see Black pain as necessary, but in order to survive it, it must have a point. This is why difficult work like When They See Us—a work that took great care to show pain in the broader and more complex context of the existence of five particular Black men—is valuable while work like Detroit—which only sought to present torture as a way to illicit a heightened response in its audience—is dangerous. We cannot tell difficult stories for the sake of telling them, we have to tell them because if we do not, the perpetrators of our pain get to decide its impact.

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I believe that we need the difficult work just as much as we need any other kind. We need it all. We need reruns of Martin and new episodes of Insecure. We need When They See Us. We need Children of Blood and Bone and The Water Dancer. We need “Formation”, we need To Pimp a Butterfly, we need “Hot Girl Summer”, we need “”BOP”. All of it is who we are, where we’ve come from, where we’re going. All of it concerns us. And while all of it is necessary, I respect that there are some of us who cannot engage with the difficult work. Even I have to unplug from it. To survive, to get by, to wake up in the morning with something other than rage and despair. To these people—and indeed I am sometimes one of them—I give nothing but space to not engage with this art because it is true that sometimes meeting the weight of Black existence in the mirror is enough. Hopefully, though, us artists find more sustainable and responsible ways to create this difficult work so that it is actually worth the engagement.

Entire civilizations are remembered by their art—the etchings on cave walls, arrowheads fished out of streams, snatches of parchment pieced together, pots and urns unearthed from clay. I want that when we are remembered, when they look back at our work, difficult though some of it may be, they can put together an entire picture. A picture of a people survived by both its sorrow and its joy.

Kamilah Bush is a theater artist currently living in New Jersey. A homegrown North Carolinian, Kamilah is committed to telling the varied and complex stories of Black folk. James Baldwin said that an artist’s responsibility to their society is to “never cease warring with it” and she takes this responsibility very seriously. Follow her on Twitter as the battle wages on @writingthewrong

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