We Deserve More Black Stories with Happy Endings
This country hasn’t shaken off its segregated past, but I want to help find a new narrative for the future
Slavery was legally abolished in 1865.
The segregation of blacks and whites was made illegal in 1954.
I have relatives who have had parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, that were no stranger to those times. These relatives are alive and well today. Like me, they are Mississippians.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how close I am to that time of segregation, to slavery. How close I am to that time, particularly, because I am a Mississippian, and I know all too well how stubborn this state is. How resistant it can be to adopt and enforce the laws needed to create a better, fuller, and more whole way of living for those who are outside of whiteness.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately, because as a writer, and as an idealistic person in general, I crave to write the happy endings for black characters, in black settings, in America — even though I am so close to those times. I am an infant, existing in the aftermath of America’s atrocities. I am new to this. I am the stranger. I am the test with no study guide, hoping that all goes well.
I crave the happy ending, though I still have relatives who teach, and who have taught me, the importance of never fully trusting a white person (lest they betray you). “They are snakes. They are devils,” they say with good intentions, as they recount past experiences at the hands of hate.
I crave the happy ending, though I am still self-conscious of being the only black person in an ultra-white setting. In restaurants. In stores. At school.
I crave it, though the presence of black lives is still thought of as problematic by those who find it so easy to take our lives. They are taken by people who shout, “Make America Great Again.” By people who burn and discard anything designed to challenge their way of thinking. By people who support idiotic leaders in order to hold on to their need for power and control.
I crave it, though the idea of freedom, and togetherness, and acceptance in America is still so very new.
The years that separate me from my ancestors who experienced slavery, segregation, and the worst period of American history, are so small, so short, that its proximity horrifies me. Did they ever dream of a happy ending? Was there ever any time to do so?
Yes, I want to write the happy endings despite all of the obstacles, and I am aware that happy endings for black people exist, but in many ways, they are simply conditional.
Conditional, until we are pulled over by the wrong kind of cop.
Conditional, until we walk into the wrong kind of restaurant.
Conditional, until happy endings that we have worked our ass off to obtain, are challenged by the despicable thoughts of others — “That house is too nice for a ________, I should call the cops.” or “There is no way this BLACK woman could be a doctor.”
Our happy endings are conditional until we say one wrong word, or do one wrong thing that could be deemed as rebellious or anti-American.
I want to write the happy black endings that exist fully without tragedy. Happy endings like the countless books that I have read by white authors, featuring white characters. But I want them to be written because they exist outside of fantasy. I want them to exist because they reflect reality.
I am asking. I am wondering. I am hoping for a day when that happy ending will be.
When will it be accepted with full trust, and not thrust away like something alien, like some sinister distraction created to make us believe in a false testimony that will equate to our inevitable end? An inevitable end that occurred because we trusted that happiness too much instead of conditionally like we’ve all been taught to.
In my research, I am attempting to approach blackness as if I have not lived a fully-black life in Mississippi. I am learning how to do this at the hands of my treasured teachers — Zora Neale Hurston, Anne Moody, W.E.B. Du Bois, Lawrence Otis Graham, and Michelle Wallace. There are many other teachers on my list, and Richard Wright is my latest one.
Native Son was a story that I was slow to accept. It took me four weeks to finish, twice as long as I anticipated, and that is because its end was already secured after the first few pages. I was not ready to go on and confirm what I already knew, that this black man would die. That this story would not be one that ended happily.
Richard Wright’s Native Son is a novel set during 1930’s Chicago. Its main protagonist is Bigger Thomas, a young African American man who receives the job of working for a very wealthy, and prominent white family as a chauffeur. Yes, there is violence, and yes there is death, but at its heart, it is a story about what happens to the dreamer, and the dream, when it becomes distorted by reality and seized by madness.
Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas represented everything that my other teachers had warned me, either directly or indirectly, about. He was dark. Wildly masculine. Angry. Reckless. And too smart for his black and bleak circumstances.
Not only was I reluctant, but I was also angry with Bigger Thomas. Angry for his stupid crimes. Angry because I knew there would be no surprise ending, no deus ex machina to save the day.
There is something about books like this that get under my skin. That make me mumble words that are not of my character with each passing page and escalating conflict. If only he had learned to smother his frustrations, I think, if only he had learned to be an unhappy black man in happy white surroundings.
I wanted to distance myself from Bigger Thomas because he was an irrevocable black fuck-up who was beyond saving. But I knew that I needed to embrace his story. For research. To Learn. To help.
By the end of the novel, I was left with emptiness, and tears. This fictional black man had died, and non-fictional black men, women, and children were dying unnatural deaths in a non-fictional, American world. There seemed to be no escape, acceptance, or reprieve for blackness. Not in fictional settings, and especially not in non-fictional settings.
Bigger Thomas was not a hero. He was not an admirable or a good man, and even knowing how it would end, and even learning who Bigger Thomas was, there were small parts of me that rooted for him.
In my research, I am learning that blackness often consists of encouraging it, and its need to thrive, under almost any circumstance. It is accepting every character, the hero and the villain, simply because it contributes to the pool of our suppressed population.
I am learning that blackness is love.
It is the continued cheering of all our champions, chosen ones, monsters, and meddlers because in doing so, we ensure our existence, as opposed to the much more frightening option, our nothingness.
In the midst of our love for one another, there can also exist pain. Without escape, that pain only grows, becoming something bitter that takes away our breathes, and obliterates whatever peace that we have entirely.
Escape is what we, black people, dream of. Escape is what I often cling too when I read fictional works or watch fantastical movies. Escape is what made Jordan Peele’s movie Get Out so delightfully entertaining. But even Peele knew that in some way, the ending that he had provided, the one that would go on to make it to the big screen, would be questionable.
A man who is black wins. He burns down a home that is not his. He survives a setting that has been put into place to ensure his failure. He kills more than one of the characters who, at every step, have tried to physically and mentally invaded him like some unwelcome explorer. A black man wins through all of this.
In response to that absurdity, an alternate ending was issued. It is an alternate ending that reflects the true reality of blackness in America when forced to survive, and defend its basic right to live.
Of course, we lose.
In my research, I am learning that the way to survive blackness is to distance yourself from all characteristics that are deemed too black for their own good. If I want to live, I must remove myself from skin that is too dark. From hair that is too nappy.
If I want to live, I must eliminate and shun all traces of my unknown, untraceable African origins.
In my research, I am learning that is best to do all of these survival tactics, and more, but if is often not a guarantee of a happy ending to come. I am discovering that I can read all of the books, obtain all of the degrees, and speak and act in the most pleasant, professional way, but there will still be a probability of bullets finding their way into my body, obliterating the very last of my blackness like something that I could not see. Some bit of blackness that I had forgotten or overlooked, and like a favor, is wiped away by my white neighbor.
I. Am. Not. White. No matter how close I am able to obtain its aesthetic, and culture.
I feel like I am asking for impossible things for this time that I live in. I am too close to the time of segregation. Too close to the time of slavery. Too close to an era where hate for the other still exists. But I ask these things in order to remember, and keep in my heart, what I can do, and what can be done, to make the happy black endings an unconditional reality.
Inside, the emptiness that I was left with after reading Native Son, had shifted. I am a happy, bubbly, too-damn-idealistic-for-my-own-good black girl, I cannot deny it, and it is often hard for me to stay upset. Like Bigger Thomas, there is some subconscious understanding of myself, an ending that I can clearly see. As hope begins to thrive again, I decide that I will write the happy black endings, despite what reality says. I have made up my mind that if I am going to die anyway, by natural causes or otherwise, I will create what I truly want to. I decide that I will offer no alternate, more plausible ending for myself or my audience.
This idealistic, and happy ending of mine won’t exist for my reality, possibly, for my time, possibly, but it will exist for my children, and my children’s children.
When I am old, and my life is nearly at an end, they will ask me how I knew to dream for more, how I dared to write the worlds that demanded the best from humanity despite all the opposing evidence that it would not come into fruition. In response, I will say that I was psychic. I will say that I saw the future, and it was bigger.