Without any ado, we’re excited to introduce the inestimable Kim McLarin and her book, Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life. Kim’s work is breathtakingly intelligent, reasoned, and fascinating. She writes about the most under-explored, complex, and explosive nuances of race and gender, and she does not suffer fools.
So let’s turn it over to Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers, perhaps the only reviewer we know with the chops to engage Kim intellectually. Letitia’s starred review of Womanish appeared in Foreword‘s Jan/Feb issue and it can’t be read without instantly chasing down a copy of the book.
There’s a power structure in this interview situation. I’m the reviewer and interviewer—both gatekeeping positions that influence the narrative about you, your work, and, in a larger sense, Black womanhood—and I’m a white person, so the culture doesn’t require me to interrogate my own racism in order to gain access or hold an opinion. My power is an invisible and foundational part of this equation that perfectly illustrates your point about the sociological and systemic ties of white womanhood to power, so let’s dismiss with the pretense that it’s not at play here, too. What’s at risk for you personally and professionally when the reception to your work is filtered through whiteness?
Well, hell yeah. I could write a book about this precise topic, if only I had time. Two things just this week: First, I spent a lot of time trying to point out the problem with relying upon the accepted “standards” for hiring writers into the academy—major publications, awards, reviews, best-of lists, etc.—as if these criteria were objective measures of quality handed down by God instead of hegemonic barriers to entry erected and maintained by the gatekeepers of which you speak. (They mostly kinda blinked at me.) Separately, I was laughing with a friend about the time I spoke to a white reading group about my first novel, and one of the members tried to argue me down about my own book, insisting my protagonist’s anger was not at racial injustice or white supremacy but was just some kind of childish pique. Like, she was 100 percent certain she knew better than me MY OWN BOOK. Hilarious! Now.
Anyway. Clearly there is a great deal at stake for me professionally when the reception to my work is filtered through whiteness. For one clear, recent example, consider the Kirkus review. On the surface, it’s positive; I think the reviewer (who for all I know could not be white, but almost certainly is) really intends it to be complimentary. But consider first the tag line: “Courage and outrage inform 13 essays about Black womanhood.”
And it gets worse: “… McLarin gathers forthright essays reflecting on love, friendship, motherhood, and, above all, overt and ‘thinly-veiled’ expressions of racism.”
The Womanish of this review is one thing above all, and that one thing is not searching or thoughtful or wide-ranging or vulnerable or, God knows, human. That thing is angry. Angry. Against White people. The reviewer even condenses the long, complicated essay on depression—an essay over which I labored for months, an essay that seeks to lay bare everything I know and feel and have learned about living a lifetime with this trickster god, an essay of which I am actually quite proud and which I hope can save somebody’s life—this reviewer boils all that down to a line that is almost a throwaway, but which happens to mention White folks.
The reviewer clearly cannot see beyond her (his) own whiteness to the book which is actually there. So it’s this white-filtered version of Womanish that the bookstore managers and book review editors and book club buyers who rely on Kirkus receive. And, since the last thing the majority of white Americans want, having declined, as you say, to interrogate their own racism, is to read a book by an angry Black woman … the consequences are clear. Nor is this the first time this has happened. Nor will it be the last.
When I was younger and it happened, the risks did indeed move beyond the professional to the personal. Because I would get so upset not only (or even primarily) at the clear power imbalance but also at the maddening willful innocence (as Baldwin called it) with which most white people hold and wield their power (“… but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime“) that it would either send me spiking into fury or plummeting into depression. Neither one of which was good.
But one of the blessings of age is release, if you do it right. (That, perhaps more than anything—and certainly more than outrage—is what the book is about.) Maybe all of wisdom is release; it’s not about what you learn but what you let go.
Anyway, the Kirkus review offers no threat to me personally, to my heart or my mind or, critically, to my work. Whiteness can keep people from accessing my work (either from picking it up in the first place or from being able to read and absorb what is really there), but it can’t keep me from doing the work or from knowing the work is what I was set here to do. That certainty—that I have been set here to do this work and to do it as well and as honestly as I can and that if I do that, nothing else matters—is like … adamantine. Nothing can penetrate.
I should add that Black readers know the portrait of my work they are handed has likely been filtered through whiteness (my friend Bernice McFadden saw that Kirkus review and clucked her tongue), so the danger there is not that they will believe that version but that they simply will not hear about the book in the first place. The rise of social media and online book clubs, etc., mediate this danger but do not eliminate it: Those gates are still big and important and powerful. Still, I guess probably the biggest threat to me is that some tender part of my ego will judge the success or failure of the book by the number of gates through which it is allowed to pass. It’s a human temptation, and I am human—what writer doesn’t want a Pulitzer?—but it is also deadly. I’m trying hard not to do that.
You say, “Who we are and what we are is how we are,” which seems like a perfect adjunct to intersectionality, a term coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw to identify and analyze the interlocking systems of power that impact Black women. Although the term’s use has expanded, your book pulses with all the term sought to describe. You delve into mental health, race, class, gender, relationships, beauty standards, feminism, motherhood, and more in thirteen essays that demonstrate just how interwoven these issues are in everything from lived experience to culture to scholarship. But people love to essentialize when faced with complexity. Is there an intersection in your work that’s likely to get overlooked and shouldn’t? Why or why not?
That’s a pretty good line, isn’t it? It’s funny how I don’t remember writing it. Generally, I am not one to romanticize the writing process; I always urge my students against the unhelpful notion of the muse and her fickle visitations. That comes partly from having been a journalist, with a requirement to produce whether I felt inspired or not, and partly from a general disinclination towards romanticism. (I distrust romantics. I think I said that somewhere in the book?) But it is true that when I am immersed in an essay or a chapter (or even an impassioned work email), I’m working with some other-directed part of my brain, and, later, when I emerge, and certainly by the time the thing is published (or I calm down and read the email again), I am often surprised by my own words.
Anyway, yes: people love to essentialize when faced with complexity. Especially Americans. (That may be unfair, but I don’t think so. We are not the only ones, but we are surely among the worst.) I’m sure there are intersections in my work likely to be overlooked, but I’m actually more concerned with the ones I overlooked myself. I didn’t write about religion in this collection, though I did in my previous one. I would like to go back and revisit that, because I don’t think I made all the connections I should have made. I haven’t written as deeply as I’d like about how geography intersects with Blackness and class and community. I haven’t really written about the erotic, because Audre Lorde already did that thang and did it slamming, but to not write about it leaves a hole in the other parts. I started, but didn’t have time to finish, a companion piece to “Becky and Me” tentatively entitled, “Aiesha and Me,” about the necessity for me of having Black female friendships and my journey to that understanding. I regret I didn’t have time to finish it because it leaves the book open to accusations of once again centering whiteness, even if the centering occurs for the purpose of pulling whiteness apart to look at it. (I kinda hope I’m done with writing about whiteness.) I’m writing an essay on kindness, which is really much more interesting than I would have thought. Because who we are and what we are is how we are. So, yeah: I’m pretty sure this book, as with my other work, is likely to be essentialized in some way by some one, but I don’t really have time to worry about it.
You use the term “womanish,” both in your title and at various points where issues around gendered social expectations are addressed. Feminist and womanish seem to share space in a Venn diagram, but I didn’t read them as perfectly synonymous. What’s the difference, if any, and what’s important for you about this term?
I came of age during Second-wave feminism. And because it was pretty clear that mainstream feminism was not for me, I never thought of myself as a feminist. I thought of myself as a Black woman, which, long before I heard of intersectionality, I understood as an identity and a personhood (though that personhood was so oft-denied, which was part of the identity) distinct into itself. So although I certainly share and support the political, cultural, and economic aims of feminism, I was just never interested in the term. Whereas, somewhere around the age of 40 or 45, I became very interested in the question of what it means to be a Woman. Not what it means to be female—what it means to be a Woman. Grown. Grown-Ass, if you want to get down into it. That’s what the old folks used to say when I was a child: “Oh, you think you grown, huh? You acting womanish!” Yes. Yes, I am. Womanish is not a stance or a position; it’s a declaration of attainment, a proclamation of arrival, an ululation. It’s weighty. And joyous. And earned. If that makes sense. It’s that great Lucille Clifton poem “Won’t You Celebrate With Me.” Actually, scratch everything I just said and read that poem. It defines womanish far better than I ever could.
Later in the book, you speak openly about depression and suicidal ideation, and your use of Audre Lorde’s assertion, “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between the individual and her oppression,” in the context of depression’s complexity, really struck me. I found myself thinking back to your earlier exploration of choice and the double bind of both too little and too much. What connections do you see between the structures of choice a culture provides and the psychological effects on an individual? How do you think this may or may not be affected by access to community?
I think I see what you’re getting at. It’s an interesting question, one I don’t think I can do justice to here. The easy response is that depression is still generally misunderstood, misconstrued, and mistrusted in America and doubly so in Black America. That’s true. It’s also true there are good reasons why Black America (speaking, of course, generally) mistrusts depression. Depression is seen as weakness, and the weak will not survive in the ongoing war against Black people in the United States. Weakness in Black women is a death sentence; weakness in White women is an invitation (instruction?) to care. Hence the “strong Black woman” trope, which is both truth (we’re still here, astonishingly) and dehumanizing myth (superhuman or subhuman, it’s all the same) and something I didn’t want to dive too deeply into in that essay because … bleh. And, so, yeah: some communities allow more choice than others in the declaration/manifestation of inner turmoil. I teach at a private, predominately-white liberal college, where between a quarter and a half of any given class is likely to contain students with diagnosed or self-declared mental health challenges. And we work hard to support, accommodate, and uphold these students. But if I drive over to one of the Boston public schools where I volunteer and see young Black and Brown students dealing with those same issues (depression, anxiety, trauma), they are treated as discipline problems at worst, slackers at best. And ….
I don’t know if this is going anywhere. It may be too complex a question for me to address here.
I agree that the ways depression manifests and is received culturally isn’t a topic that resolves itself in a simple (or even a complex) Q&A. Still, there’s a lot to chew on in your response. I can’t help but think about the way class is a factor in your example and how money, or the lack thereof, also generally influences attitudes about mental health. This may be another question that has a wider scope than this format can handle, but here I go! Books aren’t written overnight, yet Womanish seems eerily prescient. In other words, what’s being dragged into the light in our current cultural moment has, in fact, been happening for quite a long time. What’s your greatest hope and worst fear about addressing the issues Womanish tackles?
Nothing. I hope that doesn’t sound flip, but truthfully I am neither hopeful nor afraid. In part, this is because I have been writing about these issues, in journalism, fiction, and creative nonfiction, for a good thirty years. For the first twenty-five or so of those years, a lot of people (including some of my former in-laws) insisted that I was angry, bitter, and negative, that racism and racial injustice no longer existed in the United States, that everybody got along except me. For a short while I wondered if they weren’t right, and then, for a much longer while, I knew they were not but that no one would listen to me. And then, eventually, I knew it didn’t matter: My job was to keep writing anyway. When Obama was elected, those people were exceedingly smug. When Trump was elected, those people were exceedingly shocked. Through it all I kept observing and thinking and trying to see clearly and writing. That’s my job.
So I am neither hopeful (I know too much about American history and about human beings) nor afraid (that’s where the womanish/grown part comes in) because I know that I have done my job with this book, done it to the best of my ability (to this point), and done it with as much honesty and truthfulness and compassion I can muster. And that’s enough—it doesn’t matter what happens to it now. That’s all out of my hands.
Here’s what Baldwin said: “Most people live in almost total darkness … people, millions of people whom you will never see, who don’t know you, never will know you, people who may try to kill you in the morning, live in a darkness which—if you have that funny terrible thing which every artist can recognize and no artist can define—you are responsible to those people to lighten, and it does not matter what happens to you. You are being used in the way a crab is useful, the way sand certainly has some function. It is impersonal. This force which you didn’t ask for, and this destiny which you must accept, is also your responsibility. And if you survive it, if you don’t cheat, if you don’t lie, it is not only, you know, your glory, your achievement, it is almost our only hope—because only an artist can tell, and only artists have told since we have heard of man, what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it. What it is like to die, or to have somebody die; what it is like to be glad.”
It’s my job and I’ve done it. That’s all.