I devoured Michelle Obama’s Becoming during the recent holidays. What gripped me wasn’t the political drama or the rare insight into White House life. It was the Former First Lady’s journey to believing in herself, and the intrinsic value of her perspective. For me, it is no coincidence that we are only hearing from Obama following the “incredible platform” gained through her husband’s presidency.
And yet Obama’s story – even without the inclusion of the Former President’s political exploits – has much to offer people from social groups with less status. An accomplished black woman from modest beginnings, her personal journey is important one. She moved from a working class home, through the elitist academic spaces of Princeton and Harvard, to influential positions in the Chicago mayoral office, a youth voluntary organization and in community health. I found her burgeoning sense of her own power, and the contribution she could make to society, without being twee, life affirming. I want to read more stories like this. But are ordinary women of colour with similarly luminous tales but much less of a ‘profile’ being given the same opportunities?
Black British working class people arguably struggle to find and amplify their voices as artists. Speaking personally, I initially thought I wanted to be a journalist, and younger me spent a lot of time pouring over British newspapers and magazines. Glancing at bylines and studying contributor pages, the faces of white creatives stared back at me. When you don’t see people like yourself succeeding in your profession, it can reinforce your sense of invisibility, reducing your sense of your own value.
My social location as a raced/gendered/class subject has undoubtedly shaped my experience of trying to become a writer. The fact that it takes courage to be creative has gone unexplored. You need to possess a belief in your own credibility, and feel reasonably confident that people will have some interest in what you have to say. You also want to communicate as your authentic self, but question if you will be taken seriously, understood or undermined. For some, self-belief may have to be built along the way. I was recently struck by a comment by the incredible writer and commentator Roxane Gay. “I’ve never waited for the confidence to do anything,” she said, “because if I was waiting for confidence, I would still be waiting.”
Without my long and gradual accumulation of degrees and a dogged determination fuelled by my circumstances as a single parent, I’m not sure you’d be reading me right now. I wouldn’t have the (false?) sense of entitlement and a hunger borne of many years of silence while studying and parenting. It says something about our society that it takes an experience as rare as Obama’s, as First Lady, for a black woman to have the world’s ear. In this moment, with relatively more spaces and opportunities available for communicating, let us find the courage to be louder.