Writing While White

The story I stumbled upon last months goes like this:

Out driving around Brooklyn looking for a story, I came upon Gregory closing up a community garden for the day. I told him I was interested in writing about the neighborhood’s urban gardens. I didn’t tell him that I specifically chose East New York because, with the real possibility of our food supply being compromised by Covid 19, I wanted to see if areas that may be most affected might be helped through the city’s garden programs growing more food.

He replied:

“I said to myself, ‘either this white woman is coming around here to serve a summons for something I didn’t do or she’s a developer’s scout.’ Then I saw your notebook and I said, okay now, this is going to be interesting.”

We laughed over that and then he let me inside. We wandered about, talking about plants. Gregory explained his plans to teach local kids the value of fresh produce and showed off the benches under one of the fruit trees where neighbors could gather on hot summer evenings. He shared his personal history as a graffiti artist in the 70’s, his friendship with Keith Haring and how he helped hang Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings for his first gallery show.

A pretty great and straightforward story, one to celebrate the value of an urban garden and the character of the man who created and tends it.

Then he said, “I got to bring you over to the farm where I’m helping Ms. Johanna.”

The following week I met Ms. Johanna and spent the morning weeding and listening to her talk about everything in her life, an easy, fine conversation, the kind I’ve always been able to have and loved with women at least twenty years older than me. People stopped in–the Iman of the local mosque dropped off food pantry boxes; the leader of Community Board 5 wanted her and Gregory to know the latest local news; a young woman had information about the weekend’s protest route.

Writers don’t find stories. Stories find them. They fall on fertile ground, sprout, come alive, impossible to ignore and heartbreaking if allowed to die.

I came home and told the husband, “I have to write about this but can’t.”

The reason was woven into every conversation I have had so far, off-handed but present, starting with Gregory’s initial leeriness when he saw me. The white man who enforced the urban garden rules that almost shut the farm down; the white developer who wanted to buy Ms. J’s house; the famous white photographer who profited from Gregory’s art that he only heard of fourth hand. The white woman who probably was bringing trouble when she pulled up in front of a garden.

Brother Mohammad, the Iman of the local mosque, put it bluntly the day I met him: It’d be near impossible for me to feel the weight of over three hundred years of white people having power over the daily lives of Black people.

I know he is right. The simple fact is that I can do a ton of research and interviews; attend Community Board 5 meetings; investigate the program that has so adversely affected Ms. J’s garden. It wouldn’t be enough to see and feel all the afflicting layers of history surrounding them. In this national moment of reckoning with racial hatred and injustice, how can this white woman come in and write their story?

The story, though, won’t let go.

2 thoughts on “Writing While White

  1. It is a dilemma. There is so much talk now of white people, well-meaning or not, profiting off of the experiences of black people. That profit doesn’t need to be money — it could be virtue signaling, or just attention grabbing. I don’t have an answer. But I think I would ask your new friend what he thinks about the idea of your writing about the garden, and then I would respect his wishes. Just my $.02

    1. I did and he agreed that’d it be difficult for me to navigate not only through the issues but possible peoples’ reluctance to really open up to me. Ms. J was a little more open. She thinks I should stick with the garden. There’s enough to write about there. It is, indeed, a dilemma but I’ll keep at it….