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When 'I' in First-Person Narrative Didn't Apply to African-Americans

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Once in a while, college teaching breaks out of the staid, authoritative lecturer/rapt audience model and assumes a raw ideal of rapid and spontaneous engagement between teacher and students. The engagement is live and open-ended and the information firing back and forth isn't necessarily pleasant or encouraging or even obviously related to the topic of the class on that particular day. But it's education for sure.

I recently presented a lecture at a local university that I thought straightforward and factual, though potentially controversial because it involved race. I'm teaching nonfiction writing and thought it would be useful to discuss the politics behind the first-person "I" narrator that frames so much nonfiction writing, especially memoir and personal essays.

We assume the use of "I" is a simple declaration of the self, the rock-solid point from which every story flows. "I" is also an affirmation of individualism that Americans hold so dear, and in that way a democratic institution in the literary world -- I write, therefore I am equal to all other writers. But I wanted to show how the whole concept of "I" and the self-affirmation it's meant to confer never applied to African-Americans.

For much of our history, the notion of an inviolate black self was not only absent in literature (and everywhere else), it was actually against the law. Law and custom prevented blacks from claiming authority over their own lives. The whole concept of an empowered, inherently worthy 'I' was therefore a joke at worst, fragmented at best. That legacy is still with us; for blacks, personal stories almost always have broader social meaning tied to a legacy of white supremacy that has told them in one way or another how they should see and interpret themselves. For nonfiction writing, getting out from under this "narrative oppression" is a rich and complicated subject.

While I hardly expected to resolve ancient racial problems, I assumed the conversation would be provocative and lively. It was that, but much more than that -- it was hostile. This happened immediately. Ten minutes into the lecture white students chafed at the very notion of oppression and a vocal few wanted to shut down both the message, and the messenger. Several students took offense to this and subtly and not so subtly accused the doubters of racism.

The stakes zoomed up from that point and never came back down. I learned later that students of all colors, whether sympathetic or entirely unsympathetic to the topic, kept quiet because they didn't feel they had a point of entry into the conversation -- it was a conversation they'd never had with anyone, certainly not in a mixed group. Some people got up and left, most stayed. A few complained to the department head about "the incident."

For the next two hours I tried unsuccessfully to get things on track -- my failure as a teacher, perhaps. But I have to confess that I was objectively fascinated by the tensions and the almost palpable struggle over history and narrative that were playing out in the room in front of my eyes. The situation illustrated far better than anything I could have said or cited from a text the realities of narrative supremacy, the truth about who and what controls our collective imagination.

Writers and most other people like to think that imagination is surely a level playing field, a thing of purely individual creation in which everyone writes a separate and equally meaningful story. It doesn't work like that.

We have forged the American imagination together, oppressors and oppressed alike. When I posed the question of why it is we as a nation don't elevate the narrative of Juneteenth -- official Emancipation Day for slaves -- in the same way we elevate the narrative of Fourth of July, one white attendee declared it was wrong to "celebrate" or make a holiday out of a war in which "so many hundreds of thousands of people died." In a very convoluted way, he answered my question -- the entire topic of slavery, whether addressed by Emancipation or by some aspect of the Civil War, is essentially in conflict with the all-men-are-equal narrative of the Fourth. It always has been. Slavery disturbs the great American narrative long ago constructed by whites. This is not emotion, it's fact.

Controversial? Not to me. But that's exactly the point, that my view of things simply doesn't have the weight of authority, not because it's wrong but because it is "black" and therefore always stops short of authority. Entertaining, engaging -- yes, maybe. Authoritative -- no. I felt that struggle keenly, at points uncomfortably, that day in class last month. But at least the struggle goes on. Every day we write the book.

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