In late May 2020, at the very beginning of the George Floyd protests, Niela Orr, one of The Believer‘s deputy editors, asked Ismail Muhammad, the magazine’s criticism editor, for advice on an essay she was writing. Ismail provided helpful feedback. Feeling a complicated range of emotions, including terror, hope, anxiety, and despair, but also heartened by their intellectual kinship, the pair decided to organize a series of roundtables between Black writers in different disciplines. (The first two of those talks are now up on the Logger.) In early July, Ismail and Niela corresponded about their feelings and experiences as Black writers and editors during this tumultuous period. An edited and condensed version of those conversations can be read here.
NIELA ORR: You’ve been sharing some really amazing essays with me over the past six weeks, including new work by Saidiya Hartman and Hortense Spillers. What have you been gleaning from these pieces?
ISMAIL MUHAMMAD: Writers like Hartman, Spillers, and Imani Perry always remind me to look past this moment—that the important work is in imagining a future we can live in, and that diagnosis and critique alone will not get us there. They help me remember that there is an urgent need for slow thought. That feels important at a time when the media and various social pressures can make it feel like not saying something right now, not taking immediate action, is a dereliction of duty. But there is so much about this moment that—and this is very exciting—feels incredibly new and unprecedented. Even as George Floyd’s death and COVID drew people’s attention to long-running social injustices, they’ve unleashed new forms of solidarity, new modes of organizing, new experiences of the social, and new state tactics for quashing all of that. All of those things require some slow thinking so we can parse and accurately describe what’s happening, what kind of world is taking shape around us right now.
NIELA ORR: How are you feeling right now?
ISMAIL MUHAMMAD: I feel alternately hopeful and anxiety-ridden. It goes back to what I was saying about Saidiya Hartman and Hortense Spillers—hope is kind of the precondition of imagination, right? I feel hopeful because it feels like we’re at a juncture in our history where political and artistic imagination can fundamentally reshape our society. The work we do as writers and editors feels more important than ever. But it’s hard not to be anxious as well. Anxiety pervades everything for me right now, maybe more than usual.
Because of the pandemic, the height of my social life these summer days is taking walks, by myself and with other people. I walk around North Oakland, up into Berkeley, south toward downtown. Even though these walks can’t be thought of apart from the danger that my body is perpetually in—the danger that once again came into relief with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd—they can’t be reduced to that danger either. I can walk for a long time because the summer has been mostly mild, even though on some days the weather does that Bay Area thing where two seasons happen within one day. I walk by my neighbor’s gardens, people sitting on their front porches, stray neighborhood cats, the murals that local artists put up after the protests, shops figuring out how to operate in our new reality, houseless-people camps that have blossomed into communities of mutual aid. There’s a public fridge program that Oaklanders have begun, to provide food for food-insecure people. This all reminds me that there’s an entire social world that exceeds our writing and editing and thinking, that exceeds control, and I have to be very hopeful about all of these social forms because they will be what save us.
How are you feeling?
NO: I’m feeling somewhat hopeful for the future, but, like you, still anxious. The best way to articulate this sensation is to describe how it’s felt for me to look outside my porch door any day during the spring and summer of quarantine. The sun is shining, the birds are chattering in the trees near my house, and the air, especially before 10 a.m., is just warm enough without being stifling. The outside is really inviting. But right as I’m about to step out, I notice a sense of psychic dread hemming me in. When I think of actually getting out there, I don’t always trust the environment I’m stepping into. As a woman, it’s nerve-wracking to be hyper-aware of my surroundings as I traverse, because there is less foot traffic now. That’s how I’m feeling now about both the outdoors and the future—I’m extremely curious and hopeful that things will be OK, and bolstered by the small progress that’s coming out of this moment. But I’m also reserving judgment, staying inside myself, thinking skeptically, looking for a sign that things are truly safe. It’s a vexing feeling.
ISMAIL MUHAMMAD: You’ve been writing so much as of late—doing so much imagining. I wonder what your writing practice looks like right now. How have the uprisings and the spectacle of police violence affected your ability to write?
NIELA ORR: My craft has been essential during such a brutal time. I can’t process the world without funneling my anxieties into the writing machine and hoping that whatever comes out on the other side of the process is helpful and useful to people, and clarifies something super-complex, or otherwise purposefully complicates discourse that’s not nuanced enough. When I’m not writing, I don’t feel fully present in the world; I feel muzzled, or on the nonreflective side of a two-way mirror. I can see outside myself, but people can’t really see into me. When I’m not writing—well, I always feel like I’m wearing one of those visor masks worn by V. Stiviano. Remember her? She’s the woman who kicked off the Donald Sterling scandal by leaking his racist tapes to the press. When she appeared in public, she’d wear these elaborate reflective visor masks that kept people from looking at her face. It was like a contemporary version of the mysterious garb referenced in the title of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil.”
Doing the research my writing requires helps to focus my mind, gives me something to do, helps me feel active in the protests. This is what I will put my energies into: writing essays and tinkering with some long-gestating fiction. The act of bearing witness is extremely important right now, as Nikky and Jericho’s interview attests to. My version of witnessing is quiet, as I’m composing, and it feels like when you publish anything in the world—whether on social media or in a publication—the work makes a sound of some kind. I’m trying to be really intentional about the pitch and timbre of the work I’m putting out there. Recently, my writing has taken me back to a memory of an encounter I had with police ten years ago, when I was harassed and stopped three times in one hour by Texas cops. I wasn’t prepared to write about the harassment at the time, but now, in this moment, I’ve been able to address what I’d been holding in for a while, to testify along with so many other Black people who have been mistreated by police. Talk about slow thought; maybe slow is not the right descriptor for the feelings that long-ago encounter evoked, since I felt all of the feelings I wrote about from that incident instantaneously, in the moment it happened. On a daily basis, I’m noticing so much, jotting down ideas in my Notes app and in my notebook, and then, once the novelty or excitement of the idea wears off, wondering, What now? Do I proceed, pick up this notion later, or discard this thought?I’ve been trying to be really intentional about categorizing ideas, too, like, Is this thought a punch line, a passing reference, or an essay? Maybe what I’m after now is slow, measured articulation, and the space to figure out what really matters to me.
NIELA ORR: In this moment when Black writing is so fetishized, what kind of work are you interested in assigning?
ISMAIL MUHAMMAD: We’ve talked about this before—I’m interested in work that is by Black writers, but not necessarily about the sorts of topics so many Black writers are being asked to write about right now. I want perspectives that are more attuned to the rhythms, pleasures, contradictions, affordances, hypocrisies, and surprises that characterize Black social life. Essays on the experience of being a mother, son, father, or daughter; about contemporary music; the video games people are playing right now; the experience of dating during a pandemic and an uprising; not being able to get a haircut or hang out in a barbershop or salon; the movies and TV shows that are sustaining us through this historical moment—that’s the kind of stuff I want to see right now.
I don’t want essays about the vulnerability of Black bodies. I don’t want to read about encounters with police. I don’t want to read about microaggressions. Nothing about cultural appropriation. It’s not that those topics have been exhausted or are not important. It’s just that they sometimes seem to be all that gets assigned these days, and it contributes to a distorted sense of Black life. Of course, all of that stuff I just said I don’t want will undoubtedly find itself into the essays I do want, because it’s part of the reality of how we live in this world. But it’s not the entirety of how we live, and I want writing that reflects our reality.
What kind of writing are you interested in assigning? I guess another way of putting it is: What do you want to read?
NO: I want to read whatever Black writers and other writers of color want to publish right now, as long as it’s made in good faith. I want to say: Here’s some money. What do you want to say? What’s driving your curiosity? Maybe we get more essays on birdsong, or protest music, or the meditative benefits of coloring, or doing sudoku, or weird, arcane essays about television, or stand-up comedy, or a reassessment of Walter Mercado. I don’t know. But the potential to field a multiplicity of ideas is beautiful to me. That’s the way we gainsay the fetishization, and force media companies and publications to change their institutional structures: we model a different way and continue to function as a place where writers do work they’re proud of. What do I want to read? I guess I really just want to be surprised. I want writing that engages my heart and causes my gut to jump in recognition of a fact or a feeling. I want to laugh at the humor in a piece I assign. I want my brain to tingle at the revelation of a new way to look at things. I want to be awed by a writer’s surprise turns, and their technical skill, and be wowed by their articulation of some really basic, relatable truths in ways I wasn’t expecting. Clive Davis has talked about the moment he first heard Whitney Houston sing. He remembers feeling a tingle slowly creeping up his spine. I want to feel that when I read.
NIELA ORR: We’ve been moderating and editing roundtable discussions with Black writers. What does it mean for you to commune with other writers right now?
ISMAIL MUHAMMAD: Speaking with other writers is always about learning—about books I haven’t read, ideas I haven’t considered, perspectives I haven’t thought about. The conversations I’ve been having with you, with the roundtable participants, and just my regular, everyday friends, have been about getting back to thinking alongside others. If all of the loneliness of the pandemic has been good for anything, it’s been that I’ve had so much more time to do that kind of thinking.
What have these sorts of conversations meant for you?
NO: I’ve also enjoyed learning from the folks we’ve spoken to, and have been thrilled in so many ways to encounter their very different points of view. I’ve written down quite a few books to buy or borrow. On an intellectually edifying level, they’ve made me so happy, and on an emotional level, I’ve been relieved to hear Danielle Jackson and Cassie Owens and Brontez Purnell and Harmony Holiday, for instance, talk about what their lives are like now. Sometimes I feel it’s therapeutic just to listen to other people. On the level of corny nostalgia, our roundtable conversations have provided a chance to imagine what it might’ve been like to be a Black writer during the Black arts movement, or something, but in a certain circumscribed way. All of those ’60s and ’70s protest actions, community-education classes, workshops, and mimeographing marathons were balanced by house parties and make-rent shindigs. Now the conversations are happening on the Zoom, Hangout, and Houseparty apps, and it doesn’t feel like I imagined it would, but it shouldn’t, right? How could it? The conversations we’ve been having with other Black writers have also given me a point of comparison for the conversations I’m having with my friends and family. I’m asking myself a litany of questions. Am I having the same talks with everybody? If I am: good. If not: Why not? What am I holding back from either of the groups of folks I converse—conversate—with? Am I more or less vulnerable? Do I show up the same? I hope so. Mostly I feel grateful to be alive and to be able to be processing this moment with you, and with everyone else.