28 Days of Black Excellence
An ongoing series for the entire 28 days of Black History Month that showcases the inventions, the people, and culture that makes people of the African diaspora so excellent.
[/vc_column_text][vc_separator color=”green” border_width=”3″][vc_column_text]I stood there, in front of one of my greatest and most influential idols, just in tremendous reverence and fanboy awe. This woman whose work I’d grown up reading. The passion in her words was like fire for my soul and gave me a bit of righteous anger for the people who would dismiss the history of my ancestors. She’d given me a passion for reading, a love for writing, and a desire to better myself through education. Not just the mere words, but also the connections between the words, real life, and the power dynamic, or absence of, I saw between the community I was born into, and the world outside telling me why I’d be better off accepting someone else’s culture.
Born Elaine Potter Richardson on May 25, 1949, in St. John, Antigua, Kincaid began life torn between the worlds that would one day give her the words leading to her freedom. Not only freedom of thought, but also freedom from want. There was the one world, where she went to school, surrounded by forced Catholicism, notions of white, Anglo-beauty; then there was the world of the poverty that birthed generations of people absent of hope, still under the oppressive rule of the British crown.
Where she grew up, there was no running water, no electricity, and no toilet. She had to call Public Works each Wednesday in order to get the “night soil men” to empty her family’s full tub and replace it with a new one. And then her real problems began.
Once her brothers were born, her needs fell by the wayside. As she described it: “our family money remained the same, but there were more people to feed and to clothe, and so everything got sort of shortened, not only material things but emotional things. The good emotional things, I got a short end of that. But then I got more of things I didn’t have, like a certain kind of cruelty and neglect.”
As times got harder, Kincaid’s mother decided it was best for her daughter to start earning money for the entire family. She was flown to New York, at the age of 17, and began work as an au pair. She wouldn’t return until she was 37.
Once in the States, Kincaid worked as an au pair for a few years, years of “basically being a slave.” As her formal training at the Antiguan schools wasn’t up to par in America, she had to take night classes. She got her high school diploma. Then she started college. She took photography classes at The New School, then left her job as an au pair to work for a photography studio.
As her career progressed, she began to feel more unfulfilled. Her writing was her true calling, but she wasn’t getting the work she desired. Then, in 1973, she began writing interviews for teenage girls for magazines. One step closer to her true calling.
She also met George Trow, who was a regular contributor to The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town section. “Jamaica wore jodhpurs. And her hair was dyed blond and cut very short,” he recalled. “She would sometimes wear a tam-o’-shanter and a kind of red, red lipstick, a very vibrant lipstick. It was just as extreme a statement as a person could make that this was someone who did not necessarily fit anyone’s conventional idea of who she should be.” Trow began to take her with him when he researched his Talk pieces, and then he began to quote her, calling her “our friend Jamaica Kincaid,” or sometimes “our sassy black friend.” From there, she had a way in, a calling to be heard, and a truer purpose than she’d ever had previously.
She opted for a name change because it was “a way for [her] to do things without being the same person who couldn’t do them—the same person who had all these weights.”
Renowned writer Susan Sontag once said that Kincaid’s work is “poignant, but it’s poignant because it’s so truthful and it’s so complicated. She doesn’t treat these things in a sentimental or facile way.”
Since then, Ms. Kincaid has become the author of 5 fiction books, including Annie John and Lucy, 5 non-fiction books, including my favorite, Small Place, on top of numerous other essays, collections, and uncollected work.
She’s received multiple honorary doctorates, the 1984 Morton Dauwen Zabel Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for At the Bottom of the River,the 1985 Guggenheim Award for Fiction, and the 2017 Dan David Prize in Literature, to name just a few.
When I met Ms. Kincaid, it was during PEN Week in 2013, and my college, The New School, had her speaking for a panel. Then, during the question and answer portion of the panel, I ran up to the mic near the stage and, out of air, partly because of the run, partly because my brain and heart had switched places due to the anxiety of speaking to a living legend, I just blurted out a bunch of stuff that I can’t remember. My diarrhea of the mouth and the brain that once was in my head, made me ask, what I now think is a ridiculous question: “Why are you so mad?”
She thought this was a humorous question, as did the audience: “I’m not angry. I only speak the truth. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife, and nobody thinks he was angry.” That shut me right up. With that, I was satisfied, and very lucky. To ask one of my idols a question. To be in the presence of greatness—and it gave my life a stronger purpose, honestly. A true example of black excellence, she’s the sweetest person you’d ever want to meet, despite all the horrors her people have endured, despite all the anger in her prose. What an amazing human being.
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