- "A Battle for my Mind" in Gloria Naylor's 1996
On January 20, 2021, the world was introduced to Amanda Gorman through her inauguration poem "The Hill We Climb." The National Youth Poet Laureate delivered the poem during the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. For me, the event was an opportunity for reflection after four years of enduring a racist, sexist, xenophobic, and transphobic ideology under the previous administration. Just fourteen days before, the nation sat gripped by images of so-called patriots storming the Capitol to undo the peaceful transition of power which is a sacred tradition that secures the legacy of democratically elected presidents in the United States. The political climate surrounding the inauguration was not as hopeful or uplifting as I had hoped, but the mood changed when Gorman approached the podium. When she spoke, she captured my mind with her evocative language that personifies the current political landscape: "When day comes, we ask ourselves:/ Where can we find light/ In this never-ending shade?"1 Following her introduction, Gorman was everywhere. From daytime talk shows to TikTok videos of parents recording their children watching with rapt attention, Gorman embodied the moment as a symbol of success and hope that the country was moving in the right direction.
However, Gorman's personal experiences of racism shared on Twitter challenged the hopeful vibe of her celebrated debut on the national stage. On March 5th, she documented an all too familiar experience when "[a] security guard tailed me on my walk home tonight. He demanded if I lived there because 'you look suspicious.' I showed my keys & buzzed myself into my building. He left, no apology. This is the reality of black girls: One day you're called an icon, the next day, a threat."2 Upon deeper reflection, Gorman added "[i]n a sense, he was right. I AM A THREAT: a threat to injustice, to inequality, to ignorance. Anyone who speaks the truth and walks with hope is an obvious and fatal danger to the powers that be."3 Gorman's lived experience demonstrates the perilous reality of African Americans. Daily as we attempt to live our lives we are accosted, bothered, and othered because of negative impressions attached to our skin color. The terms to describe these common experiences have often been tagged with the phrase "while Black" to exemplify the ways in [End Page 78] which every day banal activities can be laced with trauma when racism gets in the mix. Gorman used her "walking while Black" experience to illicit a conversation about the inequity of Black experience in America and revised the impressions the racist security guard applied to her skin. In this way, she sought to challenge racial stereotyping and reclaim her body and skin as a political agent for change.
Gorman's experience might have shocked some, but it did not shock me. Instead, it reminded me of a novel that I have read many times: Gloria Naylor's 1996. While Gorman's attempt to reclaim her skin and challenge a society that sees Blackness as a threat is noble, the reality is exhausting. Naylor writes about the reality of living in a racist country in her final novel 1996 published in 2005. This book breaks genre conventions and is regarded as a fictionalized memoir where Naylor dramatizes personal experiences to make a political point about the problems of White supremacy in a contemporary space.
Naylor introduces and concludes her novel with the following words, "I didn't want to tell this story. It's going to take courage. Perhaps more courage than I possess, but they've left me no alternatives. I am in a battle for my mind."4 Throughout 1996, Naylor addresses stereotypes associated with Black femininity via her characterization of self. She begins by incorporating elements of memoir by chronicling her journey to St. Helena from New York City: "I was born in New York City, the first of three daughters to parents who had migrated from the South to New York in 1949."5 The family's journey north for economic and political freedom connects Naylor...