Happy Aging is a unique series focused on how to help you age well. These stories have been created in cooperation with AARP and Word In Black.
Pain is often at the center of compelling Black literature. Poems written by former slaves tell of wretched living conditions. Memoirs by civil rights activists of the 1960s detail harrowing encounters with fellow citizens. Essays by today’s thinkers recount quotidian violence. “The experience we’ve been through is unique, and there are unique ways in which we express our pain,” says Marita Golden, who recently authored The New Black Woman. Golden is also founder of the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. She says writing is a powerful healing tool.
WIB: When did you start writing?
Golden: I wrote as a kid. I was always writing, always imagining.
WIB: Now, what’s guiding you?
Golden: It’s imagination, as well as curiosity about the world. I’m interested in being able to have a commentary on the world. I’ve written books about violence in the Black community. I’ve written about colorism. And so I’m interested in being able to comment on what’s going on in the world, particularly the things that are affecting Black people.
WIB: How has writing helped you work through uncomfortable emotions?
Golden: Writing is a very powerful tool. It’s really helped me understand some of the difficult, challenging things that have happened to me in my life, and the process of writing unleashes thoughts and revelations and understanding and wisdom that come from a very deep place. Oftentimes, when you’re writing, you’re writing with a sense that you’re not being censored or you’re not being judged and you’re kind of on a journey to find answers.
WIB: Have you ever walked into a project holding pain in your hand and saying, “I want to do something with this”? Or does it naturally flow?
Golden: Well, when I wrote my book, Don’t Play in the Sun, One Woman’s Journey through the Color Complex, I wanted to, specifically, write about my experience as a victim of colorism and the way that it impacted society, so I did a lot of research. I did a lot of interviews. But, in the end, I had to be willing to go to a very deep place in terms of my own pain around that and the complexity of my feelings, and that takes time. It’s not something that comes to you in the first draft. It usually takes several drafts and a commitment to be willing to go that deep.
WIB: What techniques do you recommend for people writing about painful moments?
Golden: It’s good to be in a workshop or class because you can find community. You want to find a mentor. You want to have an attitude of humility about writing. It’s difficult to write. It takes a long time to learn how to write well. That community and those mentors can be very supportive of what can sometimes be a very long and difficult journey.
WIB: The Hurston/Wright Foundation is named after two prolific writers. What can you say about how they processed the pain of their era?
Golden: Richard Wright, of course, wrote groundbreaking works about the experience of being Black from the perspective of Black men. He gave voice to the ways in which oppression had damaged the psyche of Black men. That was really important. Zora Neale Hurston wrote stories that emphasized the way in which, despite pain and racism, Black people did remain intact; that we had resilience and important folk tradition to hold onto. They both wrote about Black pain in different ways, but ways that were complementary. I think you need both to understand the totality of the Black experience.
WIB: What about the role of a writer in today’s society? How has that role changed?
Golden: I don’t think the role of the writer really has changed. The role of the writer is always to be that person who goes where the reader is, maybe, afraid to go; to be daring, to be bold, to be audacious. I don’t have any expectations of writers today that are different from when I was 17 years old. I expect to be radically changed when I read a piece of literature and hope that I will be.
WIB: Are there any other words you’d like to share?
Golden: Even though we’re living in a society right now that’s banning a lot of books, that’s not new. It’s always happened, and we’ll get through this. If you want to write, write. Believe in your voice. Believe in your story.