My thoughts are jumbled.
I want to go home.
I always get to this place in a stay at an artists’ residency/retreat: I want to go home.
And it’s not that I want to go home but I want to go away.
But I left home to go away. & here I am: away.
What is it like to be a white person at an artists’ retreat?
But that’s not why I’m here, logged into this blog.
I didn’t come to a writer’s retreat to write about being at a writer’s retreat, but here I am. Sitting in this chair that sinks in between the springs. In this town miles away from the retreat. Surrounded by all of this outside noise. Because the retreat has its own array of noise.
I didn’t come here for this.
I came here to work on a 5-years in the making manuscript. A rather complicated work about power and coercion and brutality and temptation and the deep need for change. But here I am writing about yet another white person encounter, another “soft attack”.
“Where are you from?”
“Definitely not here.”
“Well, hmmm, your ummm” (points at his throat)
I’ve been here so many times I knew what he was asking before he opened his mouth. I knew what he was asking when he heard me speak for the first time and raised his white man eyebrows. The Southern gent encountering a foreign presence. As always, I tried to think of where he’d been, who he’d talked with, how many Black people he’d spoken to.
“You ahem ahem your voice it’s uh very distinct”. He flounders, as they all do, trying to locate my distinct voice. He begins to rattle off a list of places outside of the U.S., places he can imagine Black people may live and interact with intelligent life. I can see him crossing out the entire continent of Africa, even as his mouth moves to make some noises that sound like countries in Africa. He also shakes his head to erase all of the Caribbean countries, as he tosses them over his shoulder: “Jamai no no ummm”. I let him spin himself into a state of geographical confusion before I cut him off.
I tell him the same story I’ve told to countless whitefolks.
“Oh ah ok I see well I was going to say hahahahaha that you uh have very very proper very good English yes very good English I was really surprised but ah ok ok I see.”
Yesterday a colleague, who is at the same retreat, asked me if I’d like to have dinner tomorrow with her and one of her old grad school friends, who is also at the retreat. Before I can say yes, she says “And Kurt’s in, as well, I mean, I don’t want you to feel pressure to go just because everyone else is going, but I didn’t want you to feel left out, I mean, I wanted to be sure to invite you.”
I close my mouth before it gapes open. I allow my mind to travel back to that encounter with Kurt, where my colleague stood next to me, absorbed by my story. Perhaps she, too, had wondered about my voice. When I finish the story she tells her own story of being a Louisiana Southerner shipped off to boarding school in the Texas Southwest, a story of being teased and getting rid of her own accent. I look from her to Kurt to the other white person, Alex, who replies, good-naturedly, “Well, I don’t have an accent.” Alex is from Jersey and sounds like someone from Jersey. Here I am trying to connect to these white Southerners and this white Northerner, on a vocal geographical level, but they’ve missed the other, more essential point: being a Black person from the South who has a Southern accent is a double whammy: on the face of things, you’re seen as stupid. When you open your mouth and out comes the South, it’s just a confirmation of your stupidity.
I blink at my colleague, remembering that Kurt is just a few feet away, typing quite rapidly in his room, completely unaffected by our encounter from the day before. “Yeah, sure, I mean, I’m heading to Aberdeen for a concert on Friday, so I’m not sure that I’ll want to eat out and have drinks twice, but I’ll see”.
A few minutes before her invitation, Kurt had walked past me, and stopped to chat.
“What are you reading?”
I show him the book.
“What do you think about it?”
“Meh.” I want to tell him how racist the narrator is, but really how racist the author is, since the racist statements aren’t inserted as racist statements. I want to tell him what it’s like to just want to read a simple mystery, but then be accosted by the one black person who is talked about, a memory that is brought up, about pure evil. In this white world, I want to say to Kurt, where there are no characters other than white characters, & in the real world, where evil is so incredibly WHITE, why bring up a black person, who is only a paragraph of memory? What is the significance of this? And also, I would continue if Kurt weren’t Kurt, when the narrator recounts the sheer number of human bones in the world, when she lists the trajectory of human life and death, beginning with cave men of all people, why does she move from cave men to native americans to early settlers and then ends her list? Why doesn’t she mention, also, the enslaved Africans?
“I think I know who the murderer is, which is never a good thing.”
Kurt frowns and raises his shoulders. “Have you seen my books?”
He goes on to talk about his work and actually invites me to read his books. This Kurt who thinks my English is really really good wants me to read his books.
Every artist residency is the same. Some white person puts their foot in their mouth.
Some white person continues to make art while some Black person is somewhere eating a tuna melt and stewing.
I recall a passage in Toi Derricotte’s The Black Notebooks, where she’s at an artists’ colony, and has an encounter that is racist. She didn’t go to that colony for that shit, either. And it affected what she was able to get done, too.
The last residency I attended was four years ago, at Millay Colony, and as expected, I was the only person of color, and the white people were whitefolks. Some mornings, during my morning power walk, a deer would appear on the path, and we’d stare at each other. After awhile, I realized the deer was an invitation to turn my race-based encounters with the other residents into art. Here, too, a deer has shown up. Once on the first day, the day of the Kurt-encounter, and then again this morning, the day after another Kurt encounter and after the invitation from my colleague, who likely thinks Kurt didn’t mean anything by his racial insult. So I’m listening. I want a cleared mind, a mind that can focus on the work I came here to do, not the work put on me by these white writers who won’t mean much to me in a few years.
How many stories are out here?
How many whitefolks have tried to ruin our retreats?
Share your stories.
Maybe if there are enough of us out here willing to interrupt our own creative work to share these stories, these insensitive, indecent, life-thwarting whitefolks will put a shoe in their mouth to keep themselves from putting their naked foot in it.