Nobody told me how I’d find peace in New York City. More often, people would remind me that there will be rats and high cost for cigarettes, but nobody went deep into how difficult it may be to find a slice of peace in the big apple. Peace lurks in the interludes of trains between the meetings that you make a ritual of a silent, peaceful moment; the moment you are looking in the mirror putting oil on your skin or the moment when you have the house to yourself and you just watch a Netflix movie with no disturbance. Those little moments become the little rituals that sustain you. This is what I was participating in when I came across a documentary about New York City and film icon, Woody Allen. In Woody Allen: A Documentary, they deep-dive into his life, including his art, philosophy and scandal. With jerk chicken sauce dripping down my chin, caught by a white napkin that they give you too few of, I found myself in awe of this man’s life. I didn’t like him. I didn’t hate him.
I was utterly and completely jealous of him.
This is not the first time I’ve gone green over people socialized into seeing themselves as white and how they are able to move in their art. For instance, currently, I want to break the literary fourth wall in this essay to explain how I have anxiety around writing this piece because I have constant anxiety about creating work that is a reaction or a centering of whiteness. I have anxiety around adding to material, both scholarship and entertainment, that endlessly centers the white gaze and not my own self. However, often the only way I can feel as if I am truly exorcising these cultural assaults of whiteness is putting language to it and releasing it. What am I to do? I know other white writers, like Maggie Nelson or Chuck Palahniuk, do not necessarily have these literary anxieties when what they desire transgress literary norms because when they transgress in literature, it is avant-garde. When I transgress in literature, it is just simply an error.
This racialized artistic anxiety of course is not just limited to me and my keyboard. Black people everywhere are often on a tightrope of trying to push their own artistic limits without delegitimizing what is they are producing based on laws given to us by those that oppress us. It is not just because some black people want to be legitimate in culture, but most people that produce things want to see profit, so you do what you must to ensure you can get profit. This is an economic and cultural anxiety. This is why appropriation is constantly so frustrating.
When stars like Miley Cyrus are able to use black culture as a way to arrive at an edgier, more avant-garde self, take it off when it is no longer necessary, and return to a more legitimate form to further their profit, I notice how diverse whiteness gets to exist. I notice if you are willing to realign with white supremacy, you are able to find a space and opportunity to profit. I observe the careers of people like YesJulz who has been able to transform their consumption of blackness into a business. She has been able to profit from her proximity to black culture and her consumption of it, and find herself exploiting experiences and a history that is not her own. But, this is business as usual. We know white people can use whole communities and cultures as bullet points on their resumes. We know white people can take off and abandon any given culture they appropriate. And we know black people are often jailed into scripts that rarely allow us to display the true variety, complexity, depth, and abstract nature of blackness. Black people don’t get to transcend and move like whiteness allows people to do. Our perceived cultural scripts are our prisons, and their costumes.
I soak up the sauce from the chicken with coco bread and listen to Woody Allen’s nasally voice explain how he has been able to fail, be niché, be surreal, succeed, and be commercial and never have to worry about if people will allow him to create what he wants. Between chews and swallows, I know that I don’t necessarily dream to acquire the same amount of dominator power a white creator has because usually, they can only acquire it through harm.
I do desire for black people to be able to express ourselves freely and diversely.
I do long for an era when we can be honest about what blackness truly is, which is the sum of everything.
I long for a day when that can be protected.
Myles E. Johnson is an Atlanta, Georgia-based storyteller. He is also the creator of the literary project, Dear Giovanni. You can follow him on Twitter @HausMuva. Revisit all of the OkayMuva columns here, and tune in every other Tuesday for a new installment.