In a 1973 review of Sula by Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison, New York Times Critic Sara Blackburn wrote, “Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain just a marvelous recorder on the dark side of American provincial life. reality.”
More than a decade later, in 1988, journalist Jana Wendt asked Morrison if she would ever change and incorporate white life substantially into her work. “You can’t understand how powerfully racist this question is, can you?” Morrisson replied “You could never ask a white writer, ‘When are you going to write about black people?’ Whether he did it or not, or whether she did it or not, even the investigation comes from a position of being at the center.
The same questions were raised in an interview Morrison did with Charlie Rose in 1998 and onwards in his career.
The attitudes Morrison faced — the same lack of value toward non-white narratives — continue today, on both sides of the Atlantic. Writes Booker Prize-winning British author Bernardine Evaristo in her new memoir Manifesto: Never Give Up: “I was asked, very seriously, when I was going to progress beyond writing about black people, as if it was a step to take on the way to the next level of human enlightenment.”
Yet, as Morrison noted so long ago, this question of racial representation of characters is not posed to white writers who do not include people of color in their writing, even when writing about contemporary multiracial societies. Instead, the ignorance faced by writers of color includes assumptions that writing stories about black lives must mean the work is only about racism or identity; the assumption that “only white narratives are considered capable of exploring universality in fiction.”
This is perhaps what fueled the literary activism detailed in manifesto in which Evaristo engaged throughout her life. Evaristo’s work to support inclusivity in the literary arts is legendary. It includes the commission of a Free verse report, which found that less than 1% of poetry books in the UK were published by poets of color, then creating a mentorship scheme, The Complete Works, do something about it; This program mentored 30 poets for two years. Evaristo’s advocacy work also established the Brunel Prize for Poetry for African Writers, the first and largest prize of its kind, and led her to work alongside Kwame Dawes to situate the African Poetry Book Fund. as a force that has changed the shape of contemporary publishing. More recently, as curator of Black Britain: Writing Black, Evaristo has republished neglected books by black authors such as mint alley, by CLR James originally published in 1936.
manifesto, which we could otherwise call Portrait of the artist as a young black woman, is an indispensable tale of a black woman’s coming of age through the journey of creating a deeply authentic creative life. “As a woman, working class, and a person of color, boundaries had been set for me even before I opened my mouth to cry in shock at being kicked out of my mother’s comfortable amniotic womb,” Evaristo writes. From her youth as a struggling unpublished poet working odd jobs to survive, to her status today as an award-winning author and teacher, Evaristo’s life as detailed in manifesto is the story of dreams made real by an unshakeable belief in oneself despite the negative noise of the world.
manifesto resonates with lovingly drawn stories from Evaristo’s family history – starting with grieving the grandmother she never met and trying to find a connection with her Nigerian family, a familiar story of Africans caught up in the rapacious capitalist project of European colonization. Evaristo’s father, of Nigerian and Afro-Brazilian descent, had been raised in Lagos; his mother was an Englishwoman whose “roots in Britain go back over three hundred years to 1704”. As a brown-skinned, biracial woman, Evaristo, along with her seven siblings, experienced racism throughout her childhood. “My family endured name-calling from children who replicated their parents’ racism, as well as violent assaults on our family home by thugs who threw bricks at our windows,” she wrote. There was also the pain of how Evaristo’s mother was cut off from her family, which was white, after marrying Evaristo’s father because he was black – despite a family member who escaped to the violence of the Nazi persecution. “It was a first lesson for me as a child, to see how oppressed people can become oppressors themselves.”
This personal reflection allows Evaristo to delve into an incisive analysis of class and race in the UK – whether questioning her own privilege as a fair-skinned woman and the role of colorism, or how his mother, an only daughter of working-class parents, was about to rise to the middle class through her teaching profession only to be “quickly demoted to the bottom of the scale by her marriage to an African”. Yet both of Evaristo’s parents would not let racism drown out their voices and engaged in lifelong political activism, which Evaristo cites as informing his own.
In manifesto, there’s also an exploration of the terrifying, eponymous nature or sexual assault and violence that haunts young women – from Evaristo’s tale of being suffocated by a former ex-boyfriend to hearing the stories of assault other friends. Not much has changed in half a century since she was a teenager, Evaristo thought. “Bad things happened to women and girls, who had to endure them in silence.”
What sustains Evaristo throughout is this: a dedication to the art of writing and an astute awareness of the importance of community. Evaristo understood that for black artists, whose art was outside the mainstream conversation, creating art also required creating community. To this end, a young Evaristo and two friends founded the Black Women’s Theater. Here was the birthplace of Evaristo the playwright. It was this theater – both the artistic expression and the community with other black female artists that laid the foundation for Evaristo’s literary genius. The pieces she wrote were rooted in the musicality of language, showing how poetry has long been at the center of her work, whether it was her first collection of poetry Isle of Abraham, published in 1993, or his most recent Booker Prize-winning work: The Incredibly Lyrical Girl, Woman, Other.
Evaristo’s preoccupation with history is central to his work; a turning point in her writing came when she began learning about the history of Africans in England, which had been absent from her earlier education – quoting Peter Fryer Staying in Power: Black History in Britain as particularly revealing. Writing about a legion of Moors stationed near Scotland at Hadrian’s Wall as part of the Roman army in AD 211, Fryer said: “There were Africans in Britain before the Britons come here.” Evaristo began to tap into this story to inform his writing; the result was his 2004 book The emperor’s baby the story of an African girl growing up in London during Roman times.
“As a writer, my project has been to explore the African diaspora – past, present, real, imagined – from many angles,” writes Evaristo. manifesto revels in the stories behind Evaristo’s writing – the formation of each book as well as the formation of the artist engaged in the act of creation. Here, one of the greatest writers of the time unfolds his career and his life. In doing so, she has given us a nonfiction bildungsroman that is a towering monument to the creative lives of black women.
Hope Wabuke is a poet, writer, and assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.