It’s been ten years this month since my essay collection Notes from No Man’s Land was published. The book was never finished, it seems to me now, or maybe I was never finished with it. Still, I distinctly remember feeling that I had exhausted my abilities in those essays and could take them no further.
After spending my twenties asking myself what it meant to be white—in my family, among American followers of an African religion, as a teacher in New York City, as a reporter for an African American newspaper in San Diego, as a tourist in Mexico, as a graduate student in Iowa, as a new arrival to a gentrifying neighborhood in Chicago—I was in my thirties and pregnant with my first child. It was time for the book to be finished. When I stopped reworking the essays, I stopped tracking the movement of my mind on the page, but my mind kept moving and the world kept turning. White supremacy, once a term that I rarely saw applied to our contemporary American condition, has been making increasing appearances in major newspapers over the past ten years. And white privilege is all over the internet now. In this context, the book feels new again, and newly unfinished.
I remember holding the page proofs of the book in my lap while I watched Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. It seemed, in that moment, that I’d written the wrong book. Obama was not a legitimate citizen of this country, his critics were contending, and his wife, they would later say, was a monkey. They’re going to kill him, my husband murmured during the long applause after that speech. That applause was a preamble to the applause white liberals would give themselves after Obama’s election, as if the work of righting this country’s racial wrongs was a job well done. They did not kill him, as it turns out, they assassinated his policy. And this they, the they who did not kill Obama and the they who applauded him, were, like me, white.
Late that summer, while I was reviewing the copyeditor’s corrections to the final proofs, I was following a series of op-eds that argued Obama was either too black to be elected or too white to be a black president. I feared that I had written the wrong book because I wasn’t interested in whether Obama was too black or too white, but in what exactly it meant to be white.
In February 2009, the first month of Obama’s first term, I went into a bookstore to buy a copy of my newly released book. But after searching the table of new nonfiction and the shelves of essays and the shelves of autobiographies, I couldn’t find it, so I asked an employee for help. It’s in African American history, she told me, consulting the computer. I felt uneasy as I pulled my book out from in between Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street and Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name. African American history is where I went to learn about white America, but what I brought to the page of that history seemed too incomplete, and too much in service to my own project to qualify me for a place on this shelf. I took my shelving issue, which was also something of an identity issue, to the white employee of the bookstore which, as I know now, was about to go out of business. The book, I told her tentatively, having never put it this way before, was really about whiteness. “We don’t have a shelving category for that,” she said, in a tone of voice that added of course.
That whiteness was not widely considered a meaningful category was part of what made writing about it, from within it, so difficult. Whiteness was everywhere and nowhere. Nowhere in the sense that white people never seemed to talk about it. Everywhere in the sense that there was a shelf for African American history and the rest was just history. A friend of mine once joked, in response to the arrival of whiteness studies at her university, “Why do we need whiteness studies when we’ve already got art history?” My research into whiteness brought me to a study that haunts me still, a study that suggested every major life decision a white person makes—where to live, where to work, where to send her children to school—is likely to involve race as a deciding factor, though that white person is unlikely to recognize the role race plays in her life.
During the years immediately following the publication of Notes from No Man’s Land, I was very often asked some variation of the question, “What made you think you could say something about race?” I understood that I was being asked on what authority I had written this book. I had no authority, only my experience and the questions raised by that experience. “Essays about one person’s affective experience have, by their very nature, not a leg to stand on,” writes Zadie Smith. “All they have is their freedom. And the reader is likewise unusually free, because I have absolutely nothing over her, no authority.”“More” remains the single most important word of editorial advice I have ever received.
In February 2009, I was one week from giving birth and still sweating from the effort of walking my heavy body down Navy Pier for an interview with Chicago Public Radio when I was asked, “What is the future of race in America?” I found that moment funny, as excruciating as it was. My interrogator was Richard Steele, an older black man, and as I looked across the studio at him I thought, “Fair enough. I deserve this question. But both you and I know that I can’t answer it.”
It would, if I had pitched it as a work of immersion journalism, have looked like an ambitious plan for a book. To move ten times in ten years, to live on the east coast, the west coast, and in the Midwest, working for a parks department and then a temp agency and then for an elite university, all the time asking myself, as I moved through one community after another, what my race meant—to me, to the people around me, and to our country.
But I didn’t pitch the book because I didn’t know I was writing a book. I was just writing essays as they came to me. When Jeff Shotts at Graywolf Press expressed interest in my work, I sent him every essay I’d ever written and he, in his gracious way, let me know that this was a miscellany, not a collection. “Find a theme,” he suggested. I shuffled the essays and sent them all back to him again, telling him the theme was “music, pain, and love.” He laughed and asked, “What else is there in life?” I still hadn’t found a theme. I removed a number of the essays, including one of my best, and read through them a few more times before it occurred to me that racial identity might be the theme of this unfinished collection. And then Jeff told me to write more. “More” remains the single most important word of editorial advice I have ever received.
I was not a journalist but an itinerant artist, though I was no less embedded in my work. I was writing to make sense of my life. The questions I was asking myself took the form of essays, the literary essay being an expansive genre that generously holds all kinds of quandaries, uncertainties, transgressions, and imperfect efforts. The essay is critical but not comprehensive. It is a refuge for unorthodox history and irregular philosophy. The essay is dedicated to the marginal. And, as Shamala Gallagher has suggested, it is the rightful domain of the marginalized.
I wasn’t marginalized by my race, but I wrote my essays from the margins. Wherever I moved, I lived at the end of the line, the last stop on the train. I had very little income for most of my twenties and no health insurance. Beyond my constant contact with other people who lived on the margins, I wasn’t well connected or particularly well informed. I followed the news, but it read like distant dispatches from a center of money and power that I didn’t inhabit. In Notes from No Man’s Land, the major news events of those years—9/11 and the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina—appear only briefly, and usually as the backdrop to a drama taking place outside the reach of the national news.
When I wrote in response to the news, I was often drawing from the back pages, from the story of a Long Island woman who, after a mix-up at a fertility clinic, had given birth to a black baby and a white baby who were technically twins but unrelated to each other. Or I was drawing from local newspapers like the Voice and Viewpoint, which ran a series of stories about black women whose children were taken from them by white social workers. I was drawing from documents in the Iowa Women’s Archive that told the history of Buxton, an integrated town in rural Iowa with a population that was just over half black in 1900. An entire book had already been written about Buxton by the time I did that research, but I had never heard of it. As I would discover, most of the history of race in America was history I had not heard. Last year, when I picked up Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, the first thought that occurred to me was that the truth of our racial divide is not unspoken, it’s just unheard.
The essays in Notes from No Man’s Land were an effort to write myself out of my own ignorance. If the narrator of those essays seems impossibly naïve at times, that’s because she was. True ignorance and false innocence were what I was writing against. I wanted to undo my ignorance and, in the process, refuse any claims to innocence that I might be tempted to make. I was trying to grow up, in other words. Those of us who are white are always in danger of remaining eternally children, in so far as we believe ourselves to be inherently innocent. And as long as we remain children, we live protected lives of helpless confusion while we burden other people with our care. “For black people,” Hilton Als writes, “being around white people is sometimes like taking care of babies you don’t like, babies who throw up on you again and again, but whom you cannot punish, because they’re babies.”
In the ten years between when Notes from No Man’s Land was first published and when it was reissued this month, I became a mother to a child who can now ride a bicycle and read Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. I stopped moving, I held a steady teaching job, I wrote another book, I bought a house, and I planted a garden. I sat on the board of advisors for a nonprofit preschool and volunteered at the local elementary school. I attended city council meetings and school board meetings. I grew up, in a way. And I rejoined the middle class, which can serve as a blind for children who are hunting the kind of adulthood that is defined by financial security.
These past ten years were the years of the Charleston church shooting and the Ferguson demonstrations and the killing of a protestor at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, and these were the years of Black Lives Matter. A litany of murders made the national news, a list of names that is always incomplete and begins and ends with an ellipsis, as in… Trayvon Martin, Dontre Hamilton, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Freddie Gray, Samuel Dubose, Jamar Clark, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Sylville Smith, Keith Lamont Scott, Terrence Crutcher, Alfred Olango… Video footage replayed death after death as names were added to this list from every city I had ever lived in, and every city I had ever visited. The litany felt to me like a continuation of the list of lynchings in the first essay of Notes from No Man’s Land. As Angela Davis says, “There is an unbroken line of police violence in the United States that takes us all the way back to the days of slavery, the aftermath of slavery, the development of the Ku Klux Klan.”
I did not fully appreciate how unbroken that violence was when I placed my essay about lynchings in a section of my book titled “Before.” But in 2014 I felt a nauseating sense of familiarity as Michael Brown’s murder was covered in the news, the particulars echoing the New York Times articles from between 1880 and 1920 that detailed 2,354 lynchings, articles that underscored the criminality of the hanged man, suggesting, without saying so, that the man was more criminal than the hanging. After Ferguson, when I opened my book to the first section, I knew that I had made a mistake. Lynching is our before and our now. Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander reminds us, is not in the past. We have a new Jim Crow. And Obama’s presidency didn’t change that. Our current state of stasis was summed up by a man on the street in Chicago, who remarked to a local radio reporter the day after Trump was elected, “I was a black man in American yesterday and I’m a black man in America today.”
In my copy of Notes from No Man’s Land, the first essay is covered in marks and corrections accumulated over years of reading it at universities and conferences and bookstores. I do not, after all these years, find it any easier to read that list of lynchings aloud, to put that history in my mouth. My slashes and cross-outs and notations in the margins are evidence of my ongoing arguments with the essay, which, among other omissions, does not name the victims of the lynchings it recounts.
The possibility that I might correct all my mistakes for the tenth-anniversary reissue of Notes from No Man’s Land was an appealing fantasy that dissolved almost as soon as I opened the book. I was a few pages in, with my pencil ready, before I understood that I had to change everything or nothing. I was no longer the person who had written this book. I could write a new book, but I couldn’t re-inhabit my younger mind, I couldn’t think backwards, and I couldn’t fill the gap between what I knew then and what I know now. My writer’s impulse, ever impractical, was to tear up the essays and start over. But Jeff had advised me to avoid making major changes. So I erased a few sentences and corrected a few typos. I replaced the word problematic, which I’ve come to dislike, with the word false. As I read through the book from beginning to end for the first time in ten years, I flickered between mortification and pride. There were moments when I felt amused by my former self, and then frustrated, and then chilled, and then edified, having learned from my own writing something I had once known but needed to learn again. I did not feel, in the end, an uncomplicated sense of accomplishment. I felt instead that I had undergone an uncanny revisitation—a return to a place I had left behind but could never forget.
I still love the book. It’s a book I can’t defend, and a book I can’t renounce. It has its faults, I know. It discusses race, as critics have observed, almost entirely in terms of black and white. But the book has its reasons. The symbolic opposition embedded in the words black and white, the opposition harnessed by the Black Power activists of the 1960s who preferred black to the more polite negro, is the opposition I was trying to think through in my life. My repeated return to the lived experience of everyday politics between blacks and whites was not just an homage to black activism and its lasting legacy, it was my way of marking an ongoing economic relationship that is still at its most unequal and least reciprocal between black and white Americans.
Both Asian Americans and Hispanics—categories used by a study of income inequality recently covered in the New York Times—occupy a different economic reality than African Americans. That study traced the fortunes of 20 million children from my generation and found that Asian Americans and Hispanics enjoyed more upward mobility than African Americans. The only group with as little upward mobility as African Americans was Native Americans. But African American boys, specifically, grew up to face the widest income gap compared to white men. The white Americans in the study who were raised in the middle class, as I was, were more likely to move into the upper middle class than to fall into the lower middle class. After spending my twenties doing nothing that would seem to promise a place in the upper middle class, after writing three books and teaching for fifteen years, I’m uncomfortably aware of the possibility that I owe my current economic position more to my race than to my work.
The book isn’t finished. It’s not done. And neither am I. “It may stop,” William Carlos Williams wrote of the essay, “but if it stops that is surely the end and so it remains perfect, just as with an infant who fails to continue…. Whatever passes through it, it is never that thing. It remains itself and continues so, pure motion.” Unless an essay is moving and changing under my hand, it’s dead to me. I’ve always regarded publication as a process of petrification. But in my return to Notes from No Man’s Land I’ve found that time has changed the work without my hand. Time has opened new meanings, new frictions, new problems, and new questions in these essays. And so the book isn’t perfect, like an infant, but imperfect, like an adolescent still in the process of growing up.
Read an excerpt from Notes from No Man’s Land here.
John Freeman, Aminatta Forna, and Eula Biss will be in conversation at Georgetown on on February 26.