“And It Begins Like This” Uses America’s Racist Past to Make Sense of the Future
LaTanya McQueen explores the generational trauma of the black community
Two summers ago, my family and I took a guided tour of the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, NC. It’s located in the original Woolworths where the lunch counter sit-ins began. At one point our group, which included several small black children, stopped at a display showing historic racist depictions of African-Americans: the minstrel characters, the Aunt Jemimas, the golliwogs and the pickaninnies, caricatures with bulging eyes, large lips, crinkly hair, many of them depictions from children’s books. I’m a school librarian; I watched the children staring. I felt horrified; I knew I could only begin to imagine the horror they felt. Yet the woman leading the tour defused the moment. She just leaned down to those children and smiled. “Do you see what they did? That’s how powerful we are, that they had to show these ugly images over and over everywhere to try and keep us down, but we didn’t let them.”
The children nodded their heads and smiled. They laughed to think of how some white people had had to make these ugly images to keep black people down.
I’ve thought of that incident often since I read LaTanya McQueen’s And It Begins Like This. Her collection of linked essays reminds me of taking that guided tour. In her book, McQueen explores racist stereotypes of African-Americans, particularly black women. She examines the impact of centuries of psychological trauma upon the black community. McQueen seeks to discover the story of Leanna, her great-great grandmother, an enslaved woman who demanded that her children bore the name of their white father after she was set free. McQueen visits the land her ancestor, Leanna, owned in an effort to discover her story. She also visits the Whitney Plantation, the only plantation museum to focus on slavery. With And It Begins Like This, McQueen explores the legacy of America’s racist past in hopes of making sense of the future.
McQueen received her MFA from Emerson College, her PhD from the University of Missouri, and was the Robert P. Dana Emerging Writer Fellow at Cornell College. She currently teaches at Coe College where she is a Visiting Assistant Professor. We met last year in Tampa at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference.
Deirdre Sugiuchi: I recently completed a draft of a book about being sent to a fundamentalist Christian reform school by my parents. I didn’t begin writing it until both of my grandparents, who were huge influences in my life, passed away. In your essay In the Name of the Fathers you talk about how you never spoke about race until your mother died. Do you think this newfound ability to talk about race was due to your somehow being freed by your mother’s death or was it the growing racial backlash of the past decade?
LM: I’m not sure if it’s been freeing, because even thinking about this question I find myself tensing up a bit. At the time I began this book, I really had no intention of writing an essay collection, much less one that dealt with my own issues relating to my identity, so I guess to answer this I have to explain some of the surrounding circumstances leading up to writing it.
The first would be the death of my mother. My mother was always a secretive person. I was in college when she got cancer and she didn’t tell me for a long time after, and when she did she downplayed how serious it was, too afraid that if I knew I would quit school and move back home (she’d done that when she was in school and her father had a stroke). After she died, there were all these questions about who she was that came to the surface. Growing up, my mother was pretty abusive, particularly during the period after my parent’s divorce. It was something I never mentioned to the rest of my family until after she died, but when I did they began to tell me their own stories about some of her behaviors that hadn’t understood, and it became this sort of situation where we were all suddenly realizing here was someone suffering in all these ways we never knew.
I always knew about some of the abuse she went through, but I don’t think I ever really fully grasped the extent of it until after she died. I didn’t know how to deal with that, and I spent a decade afterward trying not to think about it. Then, during my PhD program my grandmother died, and I was left with the realization that the last person who could have really answered some of these lingering questions to what exactly happened to her was gone.
Something else — my mother always talked about this story about one of our ancestors, this woman who’d been a slave to the family of the state senator and who’d had a relationship with a white man from a neighboring farm. During Reconstruction, she took him to court to make sure her children would have his surname.
During my program I read a lot about inherited trauma, and so I felt like if I could understand this story, what this relationship was, that I could also somehow understand my mother. I experienced a lot of shame over my identity, and I knew my mother had and her family had as well. My mother was abusive toward me but she’d also been abused, so in thinking about this story of Leanna — it just seemed important to me to investigate the truth of it.
The first essay, In the Name of the Fathers, is my attempt to do that. I thought I’d write it and be freed of this story and all this other baggage, but after I wrote it, I shared it with a few other friends who told me the story wasn’t done. I ignored them at first, but a bunch of other circumstances cropped up that let me know I wasn’t. A few of the subsequent essays talk about what those were. Eventually, I got to the point where I realized I was also having my own sort of personal reckoning and this book became the arc documenting that self-acceptance.
I was wrestling whether I wanted to commit to this book or not, to write a book about race and the slavery and generational trauma, while also recognizing that that story is often asked of black writers.
DS: I also grew up in an abusive family, by people who were also abused. They were also multi-generational Southerners. I often wonder how much the dependence on corporal punishment and control of one’s offspring ties back to the South’s history. I think it is also reflected in the subjugation of women nationwide.
You have these horrific yet beautiful paragraphs, paragraphs that are almost prose poems, which detail the abuse of enslaved Africans. Later on you go on to say “I wonder if it is even possible for us to have new stories and burdened by history of slavery.… We are all staying with his past… All the actions of our ancestors are entangled in the shaping of this country, in who we are and what we’ve come to believe and understand about ourselves.” Can you discuss this?
LM: I’ve heard the prose poem comparisons before and I find that really interesting. I’m a huge fan of spoken word artists, people like Aziza Barnes or Porsha O. for example, and whenever I do read a poetry book I try to find readings with them to see the comparisons between how I hear their work and how they speak it, so maybe that is having some sort of effect on my own work without my realizing it.
I’ve also always been fascinated by the different rhetorical strategies used in sermons — the inclusion especially, as well as the use of anaphora. When I’ve read from the essays I’ve told that they are pretty concentric, which makes sense since linguistically, structurally, and thematically I seem to be circling back again and again over the same sort of issues.
The quote you’re referencing is in the essay where I visited the Oak Alley and Whitney Plantations in Louisiana. At the time, I was still wrestling whether I wanted to commit to this book or not, to write a book about race and the slavery and generational trauma, while also recognizing that that story is often asked of black writers. When I went to the Whitney I was struck by how here was this black tour guide telling all of these traumatic experiences to a mainly white audience, and they were responding in a way that felt not dissimilar to this white fetishization of black trauma narratives. I remember people being moved by the tour, some even wept, but when we think about say, the prison-industrial complex, how much can we say has changed? As a country we need to try and understand the history of how we got here, not revise or erase it, while also understanding the present-day connections.
DS: How much of your silence do you think stems from being in academia, studying in predominantly white institutions? How could Predominantly White Institutes or individuals themselves be more welcoming and inclusive?
LM: Being in these white spaces is part of it, yes, but also on some level you want to be accepted, or at least I did. I’ve never been the sort of person to rock the boat, so to speak, so when situations happened where someone said or did something racist, I didn’t comment on it because what could I do? At the same time, there were people who did speak up, time and time again, especially when things escalated with the protests on the campus, and seeing them do it, as well as the fallback from it, made me begin to examine my own silence.
One thing I think people can do, and I see this happen often — in the classroom, in online groups, in conversations, is that when someone does brings up an instance where they feel another person has done something offensive, to not double down in the defensiveness and disregard what is being said. The fear of being labeled a racist sometimes clouds the ability to actually listen to what’s being said.
DS: You speak of your godmother, Vanessa Siddle Walker, often in the book. She is the one who first outlined for you the cyclical backlash that follows whenever African Americans achieve racial progress. Can you discuss who she is and the importance of having her as a mentor, not just as a writer, but in your personal life?
LM: My godmother was my mother’s cousin. They grew up together and worked with their families on two neighboring farms situated on inherited land. She has excelled in her field, recently becoming the President-Elect of the American Educational Research Association. She has a new book, [The Lost Education of Horace Tate: Uncovering the Hidden Heroes Who Fought for Justice in Schools], that took her close to two decades to write. She has been a model and a mentor for me in terms of working in academia, and that has been especially important to me.
DS: You write about colorism in the black community, both in your own family and in the culture at large. You talk about the shame you felt as a child about having an identifiably black name and how even though you are light-skinned, how as a child you would rub your skin raw, “ashamed, even then” of your blackness. You speak of the Clark doll experiments of the 40s, of how Kiri Davis recreated them in 2006 to find that black girls still preferred the white doll. Later in the book you dissect how black women are other-ized into mammies or jezebels, Sapphires or tragic mulattas. Do you think that writing this book has helped you process the shame? What can we do as a culture right now to help counteract this racism, internalized and externalized, especially in children?
LM: Writing the book has helped make me see more of how the iterations of these stereotypes are ingrained in our society, and it’s helped to make me recognize my own behaviors in response to these depictions.
Another example of this is my name. I often informally go by “Tanya”. My mother used to call me that, but sometime over the years I started going by that in more formal interactions, and I realized I was doing that in response to how, quite often, people constantly misspelled my name and by doing this I was circumventing the awkwardness of having to deal with correcting others. I shouldn’t be attempting to accommodate others lack of effort to correctly get my name right, and yet here I was doing it anyway.
Also, I think I recognized that my full name was “black sounding” and was trying in some way to erase that. Maybe that was why my mother called me “Tanya” too, I don’t know.
A couple years ago someone wrote me to say they were looking at the notable entries in the Best American series and found my name, my full name, and had gone to find out who I was because it surprised them to see a black name in this anthology, surprised them that black work could be recognized in such a way, and he had to know who I was. I have thought a lot about that since, about how powerful representation can be to see.
For me, things began to change when I found other contemporary black writers, particularly black women writers, who were writing about varied experiences of their identity. Twitter, for all its problems, has been invaluable in this way for me. When I saw these writers, it really opened me up to not just writing this book but writing it in the way I wanted. I thanked a lot of them in the acknowledgements.
As a country we need to try and understand the history of how we got here, not revise or erase it, while also understanding the present-day connections.
DS: Who are some of your favorite black writers? I’m originally from Mississippi and am thankful for Jesmyn Ward’s work every day of my life.
LM: A writer I’ve been excited about recently is Dantiel W. Moniz. I read her story “Milk Blood Heat” in Ploughshares that I loved, and she has some others in Pleiades and Apogee Journal. I’m really grateful for writers like Leesa Cross Smith and Tiana Clark (who also write about the South), as well as Morgan Jerkins and Ashley Ford. One of my favorite novels is Oreo by Fran Ross, a book I’ve read multiple times and am always blown away by. Lastly, the writer who has had the biggest influence is Roxane Gay.
DS: In one of the final essays you say, “To be black in this world and not be filled with hate means at times having an unlimited amount of grace, because still so many of us continue to forgive…. Later on you go onto say, “It is these stories of survival I hold onto, these moments in which these women reclaim their agency. They are a reminder to me of the strength of women, the same strength, I hope, that runs through me.”
Can you discuss the importance of holding onto survival? How did it help you while writing this book? How do you hold on?
LM: Part of your question seems to be one about forgiveness — how do you forgive others who have and continue to do you harm? How do you forgive people who don’t even want your forgiveness? It’s difficult, and it can seem easier to hold on to hate instead, but the thing about forgiveness is it’s not about the other person, it’s about you and being able to move on. There are a million ways in which this world and the people in it can break you, but you have to find a way to focus on the work that needs to be done and let go of what will hold you back. Forgiveness, for me, is about that.
At the time I started this book my godmother was finishing one of her own, a book that took her close to twenty years to write. Throughout those years she would often say how she wasn’t sure if she was doing the subject matter justice, she was very worried about it, but she told herself she would do the best she could and hoped it would be enough. I knew that this story about Leanna would disappear if I didn’t write about it. I felt like I had to at least try, and so I began it with the same sentiment as my godmother. I would do the best I could with what I had and hoped in the end it would be enough.
What kept me going in writing this book, what has always kept me going, is the work of other writers. This book is why representation matters because I wouldn’t have written it if not for these black women who made me feel seen, who made me feel as if my own story could ever matter. Finding them has opened me up, made me feel braver, more honest.
I remember I went to AWP the spring after Trump was elected. At the time I was about to graduate from my program, on the job market, and facing what felt like the very real possibility of unemployment. AWP can sometimes seem as if everyone everywhere is celebrating something, and here I was terrified about my future, feeling as if I’d wasted my life and was this failure. So I left the conference and on a whim managed to get in to the African American Museum of History and Culture. There’s this huge space inside where you have to wait to take an elevator down to the history section of the museum, and the room quickly filled up with rows and rows of people waiting to get in.
I looked around the room and saw it was filled with mostly black people who were filled with such joy to be there. We were cloistered together waiting to experience this museum, to see the history of how this country has enslaved and subjugated us, while also facing a future that would further inflict damage, and yet they still managed to find joy, hope even, and that’s when I remembered — black people survive. Despite everything, time and time again, we find a way to keep going in the hope of something larger than ourselves.
I do not know what the world has in store for you, for me, for any of us, I don’t know. I know at times it can all look bleak. My own life has had some bleak moments, but you keep going anyway. You have to keep going in the hope of what could be.