The Rumpus Interview with Emily Raboteau

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The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race is a collection of essays and poetry that takes its name from James Baldwin’s classic, The Fire Next Time. Jesmyn Ward, the collection’s editor and author of the National Book Award-winning novel, Salvage the Bones, was inspired to create the collection after finding solace in reading Baldwin in the wake of the seemingly never-ending killings of young black men covered by the media over the last few years.

In her introduction, Jesmyn writes “I needed words. The ephemera of Twitter, the way the voices of the outraged public rose and sank so quickly, flitting from topic to topic, disappointed me. I wanted to hold these words to my chest, take comfort in the fact that others were angry, others were agitating for justice, others could not get Trayvon’s baby face out of their heads.”

This slim collection achieves its intended purpose of both comforting its readers and expressing the pain and complexity of what it means to be black in the United States. It brings together a talented group of astute black writers, including Edwidge Danticat, Kiese Laymon, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, and Isabel Wilkerson. Their pieces, in turn, are reflective, angry, somber, humorous, informational, and cautiously hopeful. It is a necessary and beautiful collection, the kind of book that when you finish it, you are full of gratitude for its existence, bring it to your chest as Jesmyn hoped, and think, “Thank you, Thank you.”

Over email, I had the opportunity to interview one of the contributors, Emily Raboteau, author of the novel The Professor’s Daughter and the memoir Searching for Zion. Emily’s essay, “Know Your Rights!,” is about her struggle to determine when and how she should discuss police brutality and race with her two young children. She finds her answer in a series of murals and in the rehabilitation of the High Bridge.

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The Rumpus: Tell me something that you love about being a mother.

Emily Raboteau: I love the challenge of trying to answer my kids’ tough questions. Where is the earth? Will I go to the land of the remembered when I die? What’s slavery? Was I an alien before I was a sperm in my dad’s balls? Why is that man homeless? I don’t usually have satisfactory answers, so I take them to the children’s floor of our local public library to do research. I love reading to them at bedtime.

Rumpus: Jesmyn has stated that she was very broad when she solicited pieces, explaining that she wanted to keep it open. Can you describe your experience receiving Jesmyn’s invitation to write something for this collection. Did you know right away what you wanted to write about or was it overwhelming?

Raboteau: Initially, I planned to write a letter to my kids to prepare them for the tough stuff they’ll encounter as black Americans, just as Baldwin did by writing The Fire Next Time as a love letter to his nephew, James. I felt honored that Jesmyn asked me to participate in this project, but also overwhelmed by the assignment, not least of all because nobody writes as powerfully as Baldwin. More than that, I didn’t know what to say. The massacre in Charleston had just happened and the uprising in Ferguson was going on. My kids were, are, still really little. I felt and feel scared for their well-being—my son in particular had already been pathologized. He’s not yet in kindergarten. I felt helpless, angry, and tongue-tied. Then I ran across this mural in my neighborhood while walking with my family, and it felt like a small gift. Once I discovered that it was part of a larger series of murals in neighborhoods most plagued by police brutality, I decided to photograph them and structure my piece as a photo essay rather than a letter. The murals jogged me out of my stasis. Good art has the power to do that for us.

Rumpus: I am so sad to hear about your son. If you don’t mind, can you talk about some of the things people have done?

Raboteau: I can do better than that; I can talk about some of the things I feel people should be doing. They should learn to pronounce my son’s name instead of imposing a nickname upon him that they think is easier to pronounce. If they are helping to educate him, they should figure out how to challenge him instead of automatically thinking of him as a challenge. They should raise their expectations of him. They should stop disproportionately enforcing harsh disciplinary tactics upon him which may crush his self-confidence and spirit. They should listen to him respectfully instead of telling him that he is a bad listener and/or a problem child. Same goes for my daughter, and they should refrain from touching her hair without asking for her permission—actually, from touching it at all, and from making weird remarks about her skin tone and physical appearance.

Rumpus: One of the reasons I connected so deeply with your essay is because we are both mothers of young children. And, like you, I am concerned with how and when to discuss race with my children. Also, like you, I want my children to go at life with curiosity and passion and kindness. I want them to be thoughtful, but not fearful. However, there is a difference between us: my children are white and yours are black. Any discussions regarding race, police brutality, and safety are going to be very different, because, sadly, race still defines how much a person matters and is treated in this country. Or as Claudia Rankine states matter-of-factly in her essay, “The Condition of Black Is One of Mourning”:

Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black.

I agree wholeheartedly. I believe it’s an important and necessary distinction to acknowledge. Yet, I feel like many people balk at an assessment like that one. Why do you think people get so upset when this fact is acknowledged?

Raboteau: My guess is that it may challenge some people’s received wisdom about American exceptionalism and racial progress to confront the ongoing legacy of white supremacy. Maybe they feel accused or blamed. Acknowledging the realities of structural and institutional racism is hard for conscionable white people. It might ask them to consider how they’re personally implicated, or have gained from systems that have oppressed and rejected others. It might require them to take a next step. It’s easier to say, “I don’t see race,” or to dismiss the Black Lives Matter movement as structureless and theatrical than to embrace and promote its most basic premise, which is to believe that black lives have worth. Your average white liberal might agree with this in principle, and yet live quite comfortably as a “winner” in a nation whose social institutions—characterized by political exclusion, exploitation, and unequal access to resources—have systematically made others lose out. But here’s the thing. Maybe it’s time to get uncomfortable and upset. Maybe those feelings can be acted upon.

Rumpus: You don’t discuss in your essay how racial violence and police brutality was handled in your family growing up. Was it something that was specifically discussed? How has that influenced you?

Raboteau: I was ten when my father revealed to me that his father had been murdered in Mississippi by a white man who was never brought to trial. I’m still processing that information, that loss, that grief, which is both personal and historical. I’ve attempted this through the act of writing. It can’t have been the same conversation, but I also remember my dad reciting the first eighteen lines of The Canterbury Tales. He’d committed that passage to memory in college, and later, so would I. In my memory, he narrated the two tales on the same night—my grandfather’s murder and Chaucer’s prologue, “And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes.” There’s probably another essay in that. This is what I enjoy about essay writing—the challenge of drawing together idiosyncratic associations, not to solve a problem by arriving at a conclusion, but rather to work hard on a puzzle. In this essay, I tried to draw together the successful rehabilitation of a physical infrastructure I’d traversed, the High Bridge, with the need to reform policing tactics that routinely discriminate against people of color.

Rumpus: One of the things I love so much of your essay is that at the heart of it, you discover that you want to give your children practical tools. Or, more specifically, you want to connect lofty ideals to practical tools. On its broadest level, I see your essay as a love letter to pragmatism. The murals you photographed state legal rights that are guaranteed to all citizens. Do you think of yourself as pragmatist, rather than an idealist?

Raboteau: Thank you. I think of myself as someone, like my son, who feels safest and most confident when I understand the way things work. I do appreciate these murals for imparting concrete legal information, like the Miranda rights, and the 4th amendment, in a beautiful manner. But I’m an artist, too, and as such, a dreamer.

Rumpus: Talking to our children about a difficult subject matter is typically considered a private act. However, the murals you photographed are public acts. Also, the way you framed the pictures, with a person always in it—many times the person is looking at or on a phone—denotes action, awareness, and choice. What is it about a public acts and action that you believe is necessary for any discussion on race?

Raboteau: Yes, in the context of the murals, which promote the use of cell phone technology to film and record unlawful police activity, it does appear like the passersby in my pictures are armed. From another perspective, they could also be viewed as more vulnerable in their surroundings because they’re distracted by their phones, not fully present. Cell phones both connect and disconnect us. But none of us operates discretely. We belong to communities, social networks, civil societies that can promote peace, good governance, dialogue, caring, cooperation, and public discourse that leads to public policy.

Rumpus: In the end, you photographed six murals. Out of all the murals, did you end up having a favorite that meant the most to you?

Raboteau: Probably the first one I encountered—the Washington Heights mural next to the laundromat on 175th and Wadsworth. Because it was in my neighborhood I grew to feel about it like you would a piece of artwork in your living room. It’s no longer there, so I’m glad I photographed it when I did. At least there’s a permanent record of what it looked like. Someone painted over it after my essay was published. There’s an American flag hanging there now. I don’t know what to make of this, or whether the other murals are still up.

Rumpus: How did you feel when you saw that it had been painted over, especially since you saw it “as an act of love” and “a salve, to reclaim physical and psychic space”?

Raboteau: I felt saddened and confused to discover it gone, but also hopeful that another one may be in the works. Street art is mysterious and impermanent like that. It can appear or disappear overnight. Murals like these are at risk of desecration, transformation, erasure. Someone’s gonna piss on it, draw a mustache on it, tag it. The weather’s going to make it fade. That’s part of the beauty, I think. Murals have value without being precious.

Rumpus: There has been a historical problem with administering the law fairly and equally. Outside of court rulings and better administration practices, one of the solutions that is argued within the legal community is that more black people need to become lawyers and judges. Many people believe that until more black people enter the legal field, change won’t happen on the scale that needs to occur. What do you think about this solution? Do you agree and if so, do have theory why black people don’t enter the legal field?

Raboteau: Well, some black people do enter the legal field. Shout out to my cousin Lorraine over at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe! But you make an important point, as did the Washington Post in this recent op-ed: Law is the least diverse profession in the nation. And lawyers aren’t doing enough to change that. Being outside the field, I can’t offer a terribly well-informed theory about why this is the case, but if it’s anything like the white-dominated world of publishing, which is my arena, I’d guess there could be real structural and economic barriers to more widespread black participation in law, as well as unconscious bias in firms against making diverse hires. Does that sound like a fair guess to you, as someone with a legal background?

Rumpus: Yes, it does. The only difference is that I think it’s especially damaging for the law to be associated with mistreatment, because it is supposed to protect all people. In theory in this country, the law is the great equalizer. This problem isn’t exclusive to the black community, minorities in general can claim damaging experiences with the legal field, and it creates a warranted distrust of its members. How we feel about a field or a group affects are desire to be associated with it. That’s why I think it’s valuable to hear the views of people outside of the legal field on this issue—especially when it’s someone like you, who is civic-minded and thinks very critically about race in our society—and how they think this problem can be solved.

Raboteau: Mentorships, diversity policies, paid internships, and scholarships can help. For point of comparison, we have a Publishing Certificate Program at City College, where I teach creative writing. It was started by one of our more esteemed graduates, Walter Mosley, in an effort to try to get more people of color in publishing, and by extension, more diverse and representative stories being published. There’s a powerful We Need Diverse Books movement afoot, which is related to calls for more diversity in Hollywood with #OscarsSoWhite. Shaming tactics with hard data, like the annual count used by VIDA to show the disproportionate numbers of men being published in literary magazines as compared to women, can also create positive change over time. These may be creative exemplars for people concerned about achieving more diverse representation in the legal field but I bet there are already solid movements afoot. Lorraine told me about this one: Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession. You probably know of others.

Rumpus: There is the Law and Leadership Institute in Ohio, which is a mentorship and academic program that teaches high school students about the law as well as general advocacy skills. It was modeled after New York City’s successful and wonderful Legal Outreach. You also mention the Center for Constitutional Rights in your essay. There are groups working hard on this issue and its feels good to give some of them shout-outs, because I don’t think they get the appreciation they deserve.

Going back to your essay and talking more specifically about changes in the law itself, you state that “the Constitution is just another lofty infrastructure in need of rehabilitation.” Have you thought about specific changes that need to happen for it to be rehabilitated?

Raboteau: Hey, I’m not the only one who thinks this. The document’s already had to be amended twenty-seven times! My point here was really just to remind the reader that our constitution and our nation are works in progress, and that progress does occur in big and small ways. For example, we should be cautiously optimistic about the recent news of the possible slow phasing out of federal private prisons. Though the vast majority of—disproportionately black—incarcerated persons in the US are in state prisons, we can hope that the states will imitate the move. The problem remains that the rights outlined in the Constitution don’t extend equally to all citizens, and nowhere is this more visible than in our criminal justice system, except perhaps, in our schools. Presumably black people stopped counting as three-fifths of a person a long time ago, but you’ll find a lot of folks on Black Twitter today joking that they wished we counted for that much. There’s dark humor for you. But seriously, here’s just one of many changes I’d like to see, as proposed on the platform of The Movement for Black Lives: “The federal government should reallocate funding currently dedicated to policing and incarceration and instead invest those funds in long-term safety strategies such as educational, community restorative justice and employment programs that have been shown to improve community safety.”

Rumpus: Is there another piece or pieces in the collection that you really love?

Raboteau: Yes, the one you mentioned by Claudia Rankine is excellent. I so admire her precision, complexity, and clarity. I also respect the rhetorical strategy behind “Black and Blue,” an essay about walking while black by my friend, Garnette Cadogan, which you can read here at Lit Hub. Garnette’s essay invites the reader to walk companionably with him, and to witness how his body is endangered, threatened, and assaulted in certain settings, how his freedom of movement is at times restricted by his race.

Rumpus: Going along with the collection as a whole, was there a theme throughout the pieces that you were particularly drawn to, brought you solace, or that surprised you?

Raboteau: Reading the collection front to back, I was pleased to feel seated around a table having a conversation with family. I think that’s what Jesmyn was after. The sort of solace she herself claims to have found on Black Twitter after Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin, but in a different platform.

Rumpus: The collection is inspired by James Baldwin’s classic, The Fire Next Time, and was released on what would have been his 92nd birthday. What is your relationship to Baldwin? Do you have a favorite work or quote that you enjoy and turn to?

Raboteau: Here’s one of about 300 diamond-cut zingers from The Fire Next Time: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” I took a Baldwin seminar in college that was formative for me, taught by an amazing professor named Maurice Wallace. He assigned us just about everything Baldwin ever wrote in that class. I credit that syllabus and that professor with making me a writer. I learned from Baldwin that one can be a novelist, essayist, and activist, combined. That being critical of one’s country is a way of loving it. That travel is crucial for perspective. That faith needn’t be confined to organized religion. I studied the rhythm of his sentences. My favorite work of James Baldwin’s remains the eponymous personal essay in his first essay collection, Notes of a Native Son.

Rumpus: Outside of Baldwin, do you have another writer that brings you comfort or inspires you?

Raboteau: If I have to pick just one, it’s W.G. Sebald for the indirect pathway that wrestles with history and the integration of images.

Rumpus: Oh no, feel free to choose more than one.

Raboteau: Twain for humor, Cervantes for experimentation, and Zora Neale Hurston for defining her own trajectory. I’m drawn to writers who defy easy categorization, like Maggie Nelson. Among other living writers, I’m inspired by the proliferating oeuvre of Alejandro Zambra as translated by Megan McDowell, and Percival Everett, who was my mentor. Victor LaValle is not half bad either. [Laughs]

Rumpus: What was the last book or piece writing that you really loved?

Raboteau: Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape by Raja Shehadeh. I read it before traveling to the West Bank this summer for research and fell in love with his contemplative yet angry voice.

Rumpus: Can you describe your writing process?

Raboteau: It involves both caffeine and weightlifting to help with focus. I try to write for at least three hours a day, usually in the morning. If I’m stuck, I write by hand, read, go for a run, or out to shoot pictures on the street. After I had my second kid and lost my interior life, I had to hire a work coach to help me balance things such that writing took precedence, and I didn’t lose my mind. She gave me useful assignments like, “Say no to ten things a week.” That really helped me at the time. I have a writing partner I share pages with every other Friday. I’m married to a writer. We discuss matters of plot in our work pretty much every night before we turn in.

Rumpus: How do you deal with rejection?

Raboteau: I don’t think of it as rejection, just a bad fit. Then I seek out other avenues of acceptance.

Rumpus: Is there anything you are currently working on?

Raboteau: I seem to be one important essay away from a collection of essays that deal overtly with matters of social justice and obliquely with parenthood. I’m also completing a big, sprawling new novel, which is about the intersecting lives and problems of the residents of an apartment building in the gentrifying NYC neighborhood of Washington Heights, as seen through the eyes of the building’s live-in superintendent.

Rumpus: Outside of your writing, do you engage in any kind of advocacy?

Raboteau: Writing is my main tool for activism because it’s what I’m most talented at, but my teaching job at CUNY, which is a kind of Bolshevik University, also appeals to my social justice streak.

Rumpus: As a professor, how much do you feel a responsibility to discuss race with your students? Do you make a conscious effort to do that?

Raboteau: Most of my undergraduate City College students are people of color. I do consciously assign literature that is relevant to our experience. The subject of race comes up organically, not merely because it’s been assigned, but because it’s being subjectively lived and breathed. I teach creative writing, so my job is really to help my students validate their own experiences through writing. When the writing is good, I try my hardest to get it into print.

Rumpus: The Pew Research Center just released new data that shows white people are less likely to discuss race on social media. This issue has been discussed a lot recently, and I have heard many theories explaining why it occurs. Do you have any theories why white people aren’t as vocal about race and if so, do you have an idea about how it can be changed?

Raboteau: You know, I shared a news item about that study last month on Facebook and it reached something like 10,000 views. Clearly, the information struck a nerve, though I’m not certain with whom. Most of my social media network is black and much of what we post about is related to race in some way or another. I can tell you that at times this summer, and last, while uprisings against police brutality have been sweeping the nation, I have felt personally disappointed when white friends posted about where to find a good latte. The silence is deafening. Look, it’s my general feeling that not a lot of white people have a lot of black friends. And believe me, it takes a lot of work to be white people’s one black friend. I’m a safe black friend for many white people because I’m half white myself—it’s not such a psychological leap for them to relate to me as it is for them to relate to say, Philando Castile. I don’t always mind being a cultural translator. Maybe that comes with the territory of being mixed race, and with being a writer. But for me, it takes a great deal of patience to keep trying to answer this question. Forgive me for being tired, but this is a conversation you must also be having with each other. You must theorize your own behaviors.

Rumpus: One of my favorite recent interviews was with Toni Morrison. The interview occurred after the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, which she was asked about. At one point, after arguing powerfully, beautifully about it being wrong to focus on the Baltimore riots and damaged property, rather than the death of Freddie Gray, Morrison says, “I don’t have any solutions I can tell. I just have wonder and not despair. Because that’s the way evil wins is when you think, Oh my god, this is terrible, nothing can be done. That is not the way to go inside. It can be painful—it should hurt, it should do that, but you can’t despair.” How do you keep from despairing?

Raboteau: I don’t keep from despairing. I let myself despair. I just don’t linger there for too long. There’s too much to laugh about, two knuckleheads I have to feed, and a lot of really excellent television to watch. I think the mess we’re in deserves the full range of human feeling, from despair to its opposite, which I would say is not hope, happiness, or peace, but freedom. Toni Morrison talked about something else on Oprah once that resonated with me. She asks, does your face light up when a child walks in the room— your child, or any child. Do you smile at them? That’s what they’re looking for, she says, our love on display. Validation, that’s all any of us wants. Can we start there, from the premise of love? Here is a pragmatic and idealistic suggestion, White America! When you see my kids on the playground, on the street, can you remember to smile at them as you would smile at your own? Because believe me (as your better angel already does) they are every bit as lovable.

Rumpus: Last question, what has been making you happy recently?

Raboteau: Simone Biles’s performance at the Olympics had me grinning ear to ear this summer when it seemed otherwise like human civilization was coming unstitched. You think you understand the human body’s limitations on earth, and then someone like Simone Biles comes along and defies gravity.


Gina H. Prescott is a writer and attorney living in Durham, NC with her three cats, two children, and one handsome and kind husband. You can find her on Instagram @therootingpig. More from this author →