The act of writing is a kind of catharsis, a liberation, but I never really concerned myself with that. I write because it interests me. — Nathalie Sarraute (1900-1999), a French Lawyer and Writer
Writing a personal memoir from an African-American experience, in my opinion, is an act of liberation. As one of the sons of a Black preacher, and the youngest of five brothers and sisters, I can offer—from my viewpoint and perspective—a firsthand account of the Black Church, family, and preacher as I experienced it. I am not the only voice but one of many hoping to make a contribution to the broader conversation and discussion of the Black Church, the Black family, and Black preacher.
The Black Church both reflects and legitimates black culture, and still remains as the nucleus of the black community. While much has already been said and written on these subjects, they are still a wealth of knowledge and information yet to be researched and discovered. My story, like so many others, was a liberating experience for me. There were many hard and difficult times growing up as a child, however, my parents love, strength, and courage was able to shield and protect my siblings and me from many of the day-to-day vicissitudes of daily life.
After I finished writing my memoir, my editor looked at me and jokingly said, “Are you sure you want to say that? Your family and church denomination may not like you afterwards.” To which I replied, “My family and denomination doesn’t like me that much anyway, so I’m not too worried.” In fact, I didn’t write my memoir for my family or church. I wrote it, first for me; secondly, for my beloved sister, Deane (who passed away in 2010); and lastly, for the purpose of reaching a much wider and more inclusive audience outside of the margins of those I know or have known. It is my sincere hope and desire to be introduced to new readers—Christian and non-Christians alike—who may be interested in the social and spiritual formation of the Black Church, the Black Family, and Black preacher.
Much has been written recently about the Black Church, family, and preacher by the popular media—and by some Christian writers—often in glaring negative terms. Black men in particular, have been painted with a broad brush as being violent, absent from our families, lacking ambition and initiative, uneducated, at-risk, lazy, drug addicts, abusers of women, and the list goes on. We have been made the scapegoat of politicians and society at-large. Painfully, our indictment has come from many within the Christian community without redemption or forgiveness. While I agree that the statistics are astoundingly convincing, I think it is unfair to place every African-American experience in the same boat as a pandemic plague on society.
A good friend and author advised me that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a Christian writer I would have to be able to see the world beyond my religious community and immediate circle of friends and influence. It’s easy to sing to the choir where everyone knows you, and generally agrees with you. It’s a totally different world, however, when the audience is unfamiliar with your voice and have never heard of you. People will respond differently.
Readers can be harsh and critical. They have no problem telling you what they think, particularly when they don’t like something you’ve written or said. Some will critique your work as having nothing of value to contribute to the subject at hand, or lacking scholarship, or not even being worthy of literary criticism. Rejection is a painful reality in becoming a writer, and if you’re not prepared for rejection then writing may not be your calling. The field of writers is large and one may have to shout loudly in order to be heard among the crowd.
I believe the goal of every writer, musician, and artist should be to become a prophet. A prophet is not looking for the approval, rewards, or accolades of people to validate him or her nor their work. A prophet must speak truth to power, and be fearless, and unapologetic. It means being willing to take the blows of rejection and criticism, and still be able to get up—whenever knocked down—and still have something to say. A prophet does not keep silent even when the majority disagrees with him or her. It may cost everything, but that’s the risk one must be willing to take if one is called to write.
It is quite natural for new writers, musicians, and artists to anticipate or expect support from family and friends. We want to them to congratulate us and we feel disappointed and hurt when they don’t. But in my opinion that shouldn’t be the only reason why we want to share our gifts and talents with the world. As a matter of fact, since the release of my book, I’ve received marginal and very little support from churches and family. However, I have been able to garner a wealth of support from friends, associates, some academicians, and non-affiliate clergy persons who encouraged me throughout the writing process toward completion.
Had I listened to my critics and to those who questioned my love for writing I would have never written my memoir. Even worse I probably would have dissected my narrative down to a single introductory page that would have included only my name, and title of the book. It is easy to succumb to the opinions and criticisms of others who may think they know you and insist they are only trying to help you. The truth is sometimes those most closest to you may be your biggest hindrance.
My encouragement to anyone who wants to venture into anything new is to first believe in yourself, and second, believe in your gift or vision. If you don’t love what you do, don’t expect anyone else to appreciate your work.
On occasions I’ve watch American Idol, The Voice, and other talent competition TV shows, and I’m always amazed at the many thousands of contestants who try out for an opportunity to showcase their talents. Some legitimately audition with the intent of being selected or chosen to be one of the participants—and ultimately the winner. Why do they do it? Because they believe in themselves and their gift. The contestant believes he or she has the voice or talent the world wants to hear. Viewers however, sit at home in disbelief, shaking their heads in criticism, wondering who ever told them they had talent. Critics will always be around, but one shouldn’t waste too much time listening to what they have to say or to their opinions. If you let them, they will destroy your dream.
Suzanne Sherman said, “Good memoir writing is beautiful hard work. You’re taking a significant situation from your experience and creating a story from it that is truthful and has the qualities that bridge the gap between prosaic fact and creative nonfiction.” It takes creativity and discipline to be able to sit still for long hours—sometimes days, weeks, and months—long enough to hear your inner writer’s voice prompting you to write. I can’t begin to tell you the joy I feel each time I overcome writer’s block and see a sentence or paragraph on paper or computer screen.
There are always risks when writing about one’s personal life. For anyone who has and will take the time to read my memoir I hope will listen to the voices of those speaking and to their stories. My family and church—although a major part of the story—are not the entire story. There are no hidden meanings or subtle messages embedded in the text. There are no secrets to be exposed nor is it a “tell-all” book of lies and gossip. Any attempt to read into something that isn’t there the reader will be sorely disappointed, and will have missed my purpose for writing my memoir completely.
I willingly confess that I am guilty of a godly reverence for my Dad who I felt deserved so much more in life than he received. I am also certain that feeling is not unique to me. I know there are pastors’ children who share the same admiration and respect for their clergy parents as I do mine. So I’ll share this final bit of advice: When writing about the people you love be careful not to turn their memory into ghosts where one returns to the grave and never leaves. Memory is liberating; never an obsession.