It seems impossible that The Slaves Have Names has been out for over 4 months now.  Somehow, I think the book came out both yesterday and 18 years ago.  9781250035561

But these four months have been incredible. I’ve had the opportunity to talk with the descendants of people who were enslaved at Bremo or on other plantations.  I’ve spoken to groups who have been courteous and challenging, enrapt and less so.  I’ve seen my friends’ restaurant sell out of the book over and over again.  Most of all, I’ve learned, I’ve grown.

Friday, as I was listening to Ntozake Shange‘s incredible essay collection lost in language and sound, I realized something that felt – as these things always feel – that it should have been obvious all along: my understanding of a black person’s mental, physical, psychological association with Africa as “home” needs more complexity.  In The Slaves Have Names, I started to explore that idea – considering carefully how it might have felt for James Skipwith to have to choose emancipation in Liberia with staying enslaved with his family.  But when I wrote that piece, I didn’t consider that James may have wanted to return to the land with which he felt most at home. I didn’t think about the idea that he might have wanted to leave this place that had been so hateful, brutal, and oppressive to him.

My white privilege, my naivete, my ignorance kept me from seeing that idea.  Ntozake Shange helped me see with more awareness, to deepen my understanding, to challenge my own ideas.  I’m sure I will be challenged over and over again.

If there is one thing that this journey of writing has taught me, it’s this: to be a good, honest writer, I must be willing to explore my own ignorance, to face my own prejudices, to challenge my own lack of knowledge.  It’s very hard, very painful, and I’m defensive often. But I”m learning to sit with my own defensiveness and let it fall away in the light of knowledge and understanding, even when it hurts and even when I see the ugly parts of myself.

So tomorrow, when I speak to a middle school English class, I hope I can carry that openness to self with me.  I hope that I can show them that it’s okay to grow, that life is about changing and learning and, sometimes, about hurting to do so.  But that when we do, we shine with the light that others have shared, and we carry it forward.

Thank you, Ms. Shange.  Thank you.

When have you learned something hard about yourself? How did you deal with that insight?
Last week, I released a new video for The Slaves Have Names. I am not a video-making expert, but my friend Jennifer is. So over the last few days, she has reworked the video into something extraordinary. I hope you will take a few minutes to watch it, and share it if you are inclined.  And if you love the song included, please visit Joy Ike’s website and find out more about her incredible work.