Following a year filled with anti-racist reading lists and proclamations to “listen to Black women,” novelists Brit Bennett, Jasmine Guillory and Jacqueline Woodson reflected on what what it means to be a Black writer today on the Feb. 5 “Black in America” episode of TIME100 Talks. In a roundtable conversation, also part of TIME and Ibram X. Kendi’s Black Renaissance project, the novelists and moderator Rebecca Carroll emphasized the longstanding contributions of Black women writers.
Guillory, author of best-selling romance novels for and about Black women, remarked that there’s nothing new about Black women writing and buying great books. “It’s that the books are in the marketplace and they’re getting the power behind them,” she said, “so that the whole world can see how great we are.” Bennett, the author of the hugely popular 2020 novel The Vanishing Half, spoke about the impact of seeing writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Terry McMillan find success while she was growing up. “The idea that as a Black woman I could write something about Black women and achieve some type of mainstream success was never foreign to me,” she said, but she added, “At the same time, I agree that our work suddenly has been conferred this additional value because white people are now paying attention.”
Bennett described the conflicted feelings she experienced when her novel came out right as the Black Lives Matter movement was surging and she saw her work being touted on anti-racist reading lists. She questioned whether all the people who bought The Vanishing Half off of those lists actually read and engaged with it. And Carroll, author of Surviving the White Gaze, challenged the idea of lists in the first place. “Whenever anybody asks me what they should be reading I continue to say: Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Jackie Woodson, Brit Bennett,” she said. “Even though we’re not spelling it out for you, what you need to know about Blackness and living within a white-supremacist country, it’s right there. You do the work.”
Woodson, who has written award-winning young adult books and adult novels like Red at the Bone, expressed a sense of determined optimism about the future. “We know our stories matter because the writers who came before us have showed us how we’ve been silenced and we have a right to speak,” Woodson said. “We’re not going to shut up. And in this, in the writing, we’re teaching our daughters.”