Writing Black Essays in White People’s Houses

Jill Louise Busby on the Writing Residency Industrial Complex

In which the liberals, through their foundation, choose eight artists to retreat for a week on the coast in two four-bedroom houses.

in which the (nice, rich, white) liberals, through their (nice, white, liberal arts) foundation, choose eight (black) artists to retreat for a week on the coast in two four-bedroom houses.

in which the (nice, rich, white) liberals (colonizers with a heart of gold), through their (nice, white, liberal arts) foundation (tax shelter) choose (gift as a charitable deduction) eight (black) artists to (receive money/time/opportunity/access) retreat (passively network) for a week on the coast in two four-bedroom houses (off-season Airbnbs).

Of the eight (black) artists, two are writers.

I am the one who writes essays (about being black).

The other writes screenplays about (black) kids who are (also) robots. The screenwriter, the painter, the muralist, the illustrator, the actress, the performance artist, the mixed-media artist, and the essayist.

The black artists are here doing the black arts, remember?
Oh, that’s right, that’s right.
They’re artists.
That’s good, that’s good. Okay, good. Good for them.

When I arrive, I am assigned a room in the blue house—the one closer to the shops but farther from the ocean. In my room, there is minimal furniture. A twin bed with a nautical throw pillow, a blue-striped wingback armchair, a wooden bookshelf filled with white classics and a dutiful show copy of Beloved, the pages still crisp and tidy, unturned. In front of a large bay window, there is a writing desk, and on that desk there are blue and purple begonias arranged in a glass vase. Tucked underneath the vase is a small white envelope, a card inside that reads:

Jill,
Before the masterpiece, we must master peace! We hope you enjoy your time here, and that it inspires within you a willingness to be great!

I rest the card on the desk, sit on the bed, call my mother to let her know that I’ve arrived, wonder if all the artists got the same flowers or if mine were individually chosen. Like I was.

*

That night, we are all welcomed to the coast by a man from the arts foundation. He smiles when he talks, apologizes for things that don’t matter. We offer back to him things he gave us in the first place—a seat, a plate of the catered food, a bottle of water. He says he just wants to get out of there and leave us to it, whatever it is, but he’ll see us on Saturday for the community Q&A.

“The people who live here are so happy to have you, and they’re very excited to hear all about your art,” he says.

Jill, we can’t wait to hear all about how our racism influences your art.
If you make us feel guilty enough, we’ll call you brave for your efforts.
You can’t make us love blackness, but you can make us love the way you use it.
How will you use it?

On the walls are childhood photos of the homeowner’s now-adult children. They spent their summers here, their growth spurts recorded on the door frame in permanent marker, meant to stay.

After he leaves, we convene in the yellow house for dinner. We sit around the dining room table with the curtains wide open on a window that belongs to them but is temporarily full of us instead: the screenwriter, the painter, the muralist, the illustrator, the actress, the performance artist, the mixed-media artist, and the essayist.

We squeeze in close, make just enough room for everyone to have a seat. We eat our catered food off their cobalt blue ceramic dishes, drink donated red wine out of their cups.

As it grows dark outside, the ocean view becomes implied, and we become less implied. We are reflected back to ourselves in the glass under the dim light of a low-hanging fixture, more easily seen by the neighbors walking their dogs or walking themselves around the neighborhood. We leave rings of donated red wine on their real-wood tabletop, talk and laugh so loudly that the porcelain teacups and family heirlooms rattle nervously in the cabinet, unused to so much vitality and bass.

We sit on display, swirl the wine, talk about what it means to be black artists (preservation).

They use us, steal our work, force us to compromise.
But how else can we get our art out into the world?
How else can our story be heard?
I mean, we have to do it, right?
Yeah, we have to do it.
It just sucks that we have to do it like this.
It does. It really does.
But it’s worth it.
Oh, it’s totally worth it.
All we have to do is take the cheese without disturbing the trap.
Easy.

We talk about what it’s like to be nice white liberals (speculation). To live in this town without having a real big special talent, influence, or fame. To live here not as a somebody but as an anybody.

Oh, but what’s it like?
To be you.
To be black.
Like you.
Write us a book.
Sing us a song.
Make us a movie.
About you.
That’s really about us.
And the thrill.
And the bravery.
Of your soulful
Persistence.
We’re paying you.

Sitting around that table, we don’t talk about the feeling.

Instead, we go around the table and talk about the art that brought us to the coast. It seems like, in every case, blackness brought us to the art. I’m so curious about each of us. I’m so curious about us.

We are the chosen black artists.

We are “recently awarded,” “semi-influential,” “well-educated,” “sponsored by,” “in conversation with,” “newly important fresh takes and reverse spins.” Here “on behalf of” everyone else. Everyone else who may or may no longer concern us.

We are the chosen black artists, taking up temporary residency in places where white people can afford to slow down, breathe, stay for good.

I listen to the painter, the illustrator, the actress, the performance artist. And when I speak, I sound like everyone else.

I talk in long monologues, answer questions about myself that no one asked. I like for my name to be known, and I like to mention other people’s names, too.

I like to tell an intimate story about my personal relationship with a public figure. I like to be given credit for showing/knowing/being/spinning something shiny and bright. I like to be stunning and prolific and devastating. I like to let everyone know that I’m here.

I am the overbearing parent of brainchildren and pet projects. I wax poetic about the black body. I will accept my reparations in the form of recognition. I crave the spotlight and I hope remaining seen can save me. I’ll express myself into the great beyond.

If I lived in this town, I would have no special occasion or collective camouflage to save me. There would be no other black person to pay the price for my compromise. No black person who could’ve easily been me instead. I would be immediately identifiable, the only one mistaking myself for someone else.

And even though I’m not, I tell them that I’m working on a book. What’s true is that I’m working my way up to a book, trying to stop pretending that I don’t want the things I want. That’s why I’m here.

As the next bottle of wine is passed and the mixed-media artist starts talking about making heads from headlines—I wonder what the point of a book would be.

If we could move enough units of something to live here, become a big- enough somebody to feel safe enough, we’d have to live in isolation, away from everything that is ours, the only one or two of something, their reminder of what’s out there, what they’re rich enough to get away from—with the exception of this one week, this one time.

This is their home.

We are the black artists.

Doing our black arts.

Resting our weary heads and tired minds for a week in someone else’s summer hideaway, the black people with the permission slip.

There’s an art to getting one, but that’s not the art we say we’re here to do, because that’s the art that makes us feel the guiltiest.

And we’re not here to feel guilty.

We’re here to do the art.

We don’t do it for the money. We don’t need the applause. We don’t need anyone to notice what we’ve made. We just want it, that’s all. We deserve it, that’s all. If we were white, we’d have it already. That’s all.

I want it because if I were them, I’d have it.

_______________________________________

From the book Unfollow Me by Jill Louise Busby. Copyright © 2021 by Jill Louise Busby. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing. All rights reserved.

Jill Louise Busby
Jill Louise Busby
Jill Louise Busby is a writer and filmmaker critiquing, imploding, and barrel-laughing at our personal and communal hierarchies; the myth of white fragility (and other words for racism); the endlessly-pending and highly-exclusive revolution, identity, and reaction-based illusions of societal progress; and the boundaries that all place on our lives. Her debut book, Unfollow Me: Essays on Complicity, is out now from Bloomsbury Publishing.





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