I recently had the pleasure of reading SOMEDAY. It is a beautiful collection of essays constructed with a wonderfully poetic sensibility full of insightful, saddening, uplifting, and ultimately powerful commentary on race relations in our country and throughout the world. The author, Cyrus Aaron, was kind enough to answer a few questions that I thought would help to contextualize the marvelous work, and hopefully serve as an introduction to your careful reading of it. Enjoy the interview below and go out and buy the book. Become a part of a conversation that matters.
Q: In one of your essays, you tackle the use of the n-word used by African boys which you had met, in which you seemed to look down upon their use of the phrase. I was curious whether or not you believe that the word is negative, regardless of its context. Many political movements have argued both sides of this question, some claiming that the word belongs to the African-American community that has reclaimed it as a term all their own, while others view it as internalized racism that never evolved from the hurtful slur it was originally intended as.
Cyrus Aaron: The N-word has grown out of the black communities control; it is a better question to ask if we ever had control of it. I speak to this dilemma within the essay. I purposely use varied styles of the word (niggers, niggas, n-word) to show this conflict both culturally and individually for Black people. There is no consensus, and chances are there never will be. What we have to understand is that in a world that still oppresses people of color there is no right or wrong answer to if it’s okay for a black person to use the word.
The reeducation of Americans and the eradication of the N-word should’ve been a national mandate at the end of the 19th century. But the leaders of our country at that time were only concerned with moving forward from slavery as opposed to making up for slavery. There is no question the word is negative. Its roots are hate and oppression. However, the power of language especially within a cultural or even geographical lens is evident in how words can be reshaped and redefined by groups of people.
As a black person today the first time you ever hear the N-word may be from a family member or a friend. Your first interaction may be a positive one of love and affirmation, or it may be said in a social setting free of ill intent.
On the flip side someone outside of your familiar space will call you a nigger, and if not properly taught, you have no context to explain the hate or malice behind this unique delivery of the word. This is the moment a black parent must sit with their child and explain their own interpretation of racism and white supremacy and the modern day effects. This is the day the bubble bursts and a black girl or boy must figure out their place in life and where they will choose to stand on this matter. What matters more to me is that America as a whole is educated and enlightened about its history and effects, and no one is comfortable with hearing or saying the n-word. But if a black person does say it, they are allowed the space to figure out what they choose to do with the word.
Q: The poetic formatting in some of the pieces is very unique, as is the prose layout for that matter. What was the intention behind some of those decisions?
CA: The style of the book falls in line with the overall theme of the play. It’s an extension of the theatrical performance. The reader is discovering the chambers and many layers in my mind that surround this sensitive and painful subject matter. We all share a diverse way in how our thoughts come to us – broken, complete, rushed, slow, detailed, sporadic – I believe my designer Helen Koh accomplished presenting this organized noise without distracting or lessening the thought. We didn’t want it to be a traditional format, because of the existing nuances. There are subtleties in the layout that make this work so powerful. Consider the names outside the lines of the poem “These Names They Have” or even the book cover and it’s spacing and shape. It’s a beautiful work.
Q: Your essays seem to speak to me as an individual of color, a heart to heart, as opposed to the community at large. I think the intimacy helped me to understand the subtleties of the phenomena which you address. Was that the intended effect; was the intimacy a form of cathartic writing or was it to engage readers in a direct human dialogue?
CA: What better way to engage in direct human dialogue than to speak freely and intimately? This body of work from the play to the campaign to the book is a sincere attempt to have a conversation. I present no answers or solutions in this work, I simply present what I know as I know it, and I want the reader to consider what I’m saying and how they respond to it. There are so many factors in the world that separate us and place us in different pockets. We can very well be the same, but there’s something socially constructed that walls us off from one another. My purpose here is to pull a brick out of that wall, reach my hand through and let you know I’m here. I’m saying it doesn’t have to be this way, and if I can remove a barrier that’s preventing you from hearing and seeing me, then we may have a chance after all. You may remove the next brick, not necessarily because we see eye to eye right away, but maybe you’ve never heard a voice like mine and you’re curious. I wanted to reach every reader where they are and find somewhere in the work where we can have a human-to-human interaction.
Q: Have you seen any progress or regression with regards to race relations since writing this book?
CA: If only it were that easy. There are over 300 million people in America and over seven billion people in the world and we are still trying to grasp diversity and inclusion. You can build a sound argument that slavery and its residuals have spanned the entire existence of America. The oppression of black people is older than the country we live in. We have to consider our national efforts to ensure equality. The harsh reality is we’re waiting on oppression and racism to die of natural causes instead of killing it ourselves. There is no progress, there is only time and this has been one hell of a process.
Q: The comparison between athlete and slave is one I hear often and have struggled to come to terms with. Athletes are heroes in our culture and having Black heroes is important. Athletes are judged on their physical performance and then auctioned off to teams, however. How would you suggest a parent explain this dichotomy to a child looking up to basketball players as opposed to black CEO’s or presidents?
CA: The effect of enslavement and subjugation is that it boxes you in. It conditions you to live within a limited space and think with a limited perspective. If I tell you that you can only work in the field, or you can’t sit at all counters or drink from all fountains, your perspective is shaped by lack. You will police yourself even absent of the system policing you because it is all you know. Your choices will tend to come from the options wanted for you instead of what you want for yourself.
The hyper promotion of the black body and the deprivation of the black mind are not new. The parallels between sports and slavery exists because the motive of industry is the same. A lot of these young men and women are being coached only to make a physical contribution to society and make people in power a lot of money, and the greater culture is not concerned with their well being. Most black heroes are entertainers and sports figures because those are the main industries that sought after and promoted black people. The bright light of celebrity seduces everyone, but the allure is far greater when most of the people on the court or on the field look like you. I ask, is this what we want or what is wanted for us? Of all the black athletes over time, how many were encouraged or invited into the owners or management box during their career?
We can’t be naïve and believe just because a platform endorses us, that it won’t also exploit us. There are millions of kids in the public school system that are moving toward their diploma, while going nowhere at the same time. As adults in a country like America that is permeated with bias and prejudice we must promote the full picture to our young people of color. We have to do our best collectively to expose black and brown youth to the entire world of options, not just the corners we anticipate for them.
In conclusion to our dialogue Cyrus sent some final thoughts. Synthesizing a struggle is difficult, especially when speaking to those who do not live it. I can only hope that our reader can internalize the message therein and begin to help our society move towards a universal love and respect which we all deserve:
“People of color share a burden. We share the burden of living in a world that has been conditioned to favor white skin. Our society has raised its white children as its own, while it has only been responsible for its colored children. There is a troubling difference in the type of care and commitment allocated, and our history tells us white people are loved for who they are, while people of color are loved for what they can do. There’s always something to be earned, another level to be reached. There’s always an act. There has to be a thing: a song, a dance, a food, an intellect, a muscle — this is our shared struggle.”