Jamaica Kincaid is one of the preeminent literary voices of our time. That's why her work is featured on our list of 100 Books by Black Women everyone must read. But many Black women know that exceptional brilliance or achievement will not shield you from the closely-held misconceptions many hold about our womanhood. In a recent interview with The American Reader, Kincaid explains why critics so often call her "angry."
People only say I’m angry because I’m black and I’m a woman. But all sorts of people write with strong feeling, the way I do. But if they’re white, they won’t say it. I used to just pretend I didn’t notice it, and now I just think I don’t care.
There are all sorts of reasons not to like my writing. But that’s not one of them. Saying something is angry is not a criticism. It’s not valid. It’s not a valid observation in terms of criticism. You can list it as something that’s true. But it’s not critical.
You may not like it because it makes you uneasy—and you can say that. But to damn it because it’s angry…. They always say that about black people: “those angry black people.” And why? You’re afraid that there might be some truth to their anger. It might be justified.
I promise you, if I had blonde hair and blue eyes this wouldn’t be an issue. No one ever says, “That angry Judith Krantz…” or whatever.
Kincaid's words are familiar for those of us who've hesitated to show emotion in mixed company for fear of the stereotype. Somehow Black women must navigate these landmines while retaining our integrity and confidence. However, Kincaid's life and work reveals that, perhaps, self-censorship isn't the answer.
Later on in the interview, the author gives another incisive take on how those who find her success unbelievable questioned her accomplishments, particularly early on in her career.
I have no credentials. I have no money. I literally come from a poor place. I was a servant. I dropped out of college. The next thing you know I’m writing for the New Yorker, I have this sort of life, and it must seem annoying to people.
I remember my friend, George—people used to say to me, other women, when I was young and at the New Yorker: “How did you get your job?” And I would say, “Well, I met George Trow, and he introduced me to the editor.”
And they’d say, “No, no, no. How did you get your job?”
And I said to George, “I don’t know why they ask me this.” And he said, “Oh, just tell them your father owned the magazine.”
And so the next time people said, “How did you get your job?” I said, “Oh, my father owned the magazine.” And it stopped.
I feel a great sense of relief whenever I hear a woman of Kincaid's stature utter thoughts like these -- the kind that many of us simply don't have the gravitas or opportunity to speak so plainly. Feeling like you must constantly prove yourself, your rationality, and your worth becomes exhausting. Kincaid's plain talk on the matter is refreshing.
Pick up Jamaica Kincaid's latest novel See Now Then: A Novel as well as another other one of our favorites Lucy: A Novel
Why I am OK with Being an Angry Black Woman
Dear America, Black People Have A Right To Be Angry
Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or Follow @KimberlyNFoster