(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight.com)
My first taste of online publishing, in 2005, was inspired by a now-defunct blog written by a teacher in Chicago. She wrote about her classroom and her students, and even though I hadn’t been there, she brought her surroundings to life in a way that felt so familiar. As a longtime educator myself, I could relate. Eventually, we would meet in person and become good friends. In that time we experienced marriage, a divorce, and children. Her writing opened my world up to freely express myself as a writer.
In one post, she wrote in detail about one of her students, a reluctant reader, to try a book that she suggested. She clearly cared about her students and spoke of them in a way not often seen by those outside the profession. It reminded me of how I tried so hard to find something palatable for my students.
Within a year, I decided that I wanted to do the same thing, share my own stories in a blog. So, I purchased my own domain name and got to it.
I wanted to write about being a teen mom, about living on welfare and in Section 8 housing and surviving on food stamps, and about how I earned a college degree to break out of a life that was seemingly going nowhere. Fairly quickly, those topics evolved into exploring class and race in ways that I hadn’t anticipated.
There was just one problem: No one wanted to talk about race.
Most of my contemporaries in the blogging space were “mommy bloggers” or women who were childless but still had stories to tell. I monitored how fashion bloggers were able to make financially-successful strides and what Pinterest and Instagram did for their platforms, and it made me feel isolated.
Freedom is messy, and what we’re left with often comes with an uncomfortable amount of cynicism and sadness.
Telling stories had always been a part of my biological makeup, and it wasn’t until I truly thought about it that I realized that everyone in my family told stories. They did so to show where we came from and what struggles we’d been through. It was refreshing and freeing to be with my people and sit at their feet to listen. But, I discovered, that freedom wasn’t always so easily translated to the blogging world. I felt like the response was crickets whenever I discussed something as controversial as racism in America.
Parts of my own path began to mimic what I felt in the world of blogging. I divorced my husband, but that was taboo to discuss because of the children involved. It also didn’t feel fair to paint myself as the righteous party since I was the one telling the story. I felt free, but gloating wasn’t a pretty color on me.
I was free to write whatever I wanted online—whether in forums or in a status update or on Tumblr—but I couldn’t break away from the pressure I felt to tell a nice, neat story wrapped up in a pretty bow.When I first spoke of detesting Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, I got a lot of pushback from people who loved the book. I couldn’t help but think of how much freedom she stole from the narrative of the very people she claimed to write about. Her story presented one more White Savior that I couldn’t abide. Friends who liked the book told me I didn’t know what good writing was and assumed that I was nit-picking a work of fiction in an unfair way. I vehemently disagreed.
I learned it means that you can’t make people happy all the time. Not just because you’re telling an unflattering story about them or have skirted the rules of libel. It just means that you’ve stepped back and told a more universal story. The freedom in that actually expands the world instead of contracting our views. It puts the narrative back where it should rest: with the primary source.
Recently, in discussing Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who portrayed herself as black, I found that freedom, once again, comes with pushback. People don’t like talking about race, and they certainly don’t like discussing it in terms of their own culpability in the systemic racist history of America. But that seems to go against the spirit of what we celebrate on the 4th of July each year.
Isn’t this the holiday where we gained independence from an oppressive system? Sure, but it also meant we were building another one and pretending we weren’t. Wasn’t colonialism meant to give religious freedom to those first Europeans who came here? Certainly. But with that came the unjust treatment of the Native Americans who lived here already.
Freedom is messy, and what we’re left with often comes with an uncomfortable amount of cynicism and sadness. But when we have the freedom to share our stories, the ones we own, we give voice to a history that doesn’t have to box us in. Freedom means that our pasts don’t have to define us. We’re living in a time when we have multiple platforms on which to tell our stories, and, even when all you hear are crickets from your audience, there will be loud booms of fireworks reminding us that this is a celebration of a kind of freedom that allows for liberation and autonomy.
So I’ll keep writing the stories and harnessing my own narrative. The fireworks will be there anyway.