Sometimes, I imagine what it would have been like to be back in the Harlem Renaissance. Having all of those writers breathing the same air, walking down the same streets, and hunched over their typewriters seems like a magical, inspirational time to be a writer. You know that your contemporaries are just around the corner, and perhaps you can meet them for coffee. But you might be too busy working on a manuscript, or making a living by working for other people so you can support your own work.
I know that all the writers of that era were not friends. I also know that Black writers have been writing long before Harlem and will be writing long after. They come from all corners of the earth, and they all have beautiful and tragic (and even ordinary) experiences that influence their writing. Despite the world moving around them, they chose to write. Maybe they didn’t write every day, or publish often, but what they did was leave behind their legacy.
Through their writing, we’ve learned about relationships, work, and love. From their typed pages we can see the faded ink which could indicate struggle, especially if you couldn’t afford a new ribbon for the typewriter and had to re-ink it. Looking at their handwritten letters, you can see confidence, frustration, and self-worth. Their words not only tell a story but the media does too. Are there dark pencil marks? Are there blotchy ink droppings on the paper? What did they have to go through to get their writing on paper?
I know that many of these writers wrote through periods of divorce, bankruptcy, social-alienation and loneliness. While writers may have been alive and writing at the same time, there’s a very good chance that they were very isolated. After all, writing during times of slavery, after escaping for freedom, during war and times of unemployment, during the civil right movement are all difficult situations that these writers persevered through. They often had little to rely on, but they’ve paved the way for writers like me.
I want my other fellow contemporaries to know that I hear you. I understand what you’re going through, and likely, I’m going through it too. It is a difficult thing to do, but writing about our experiences in an uplifting way is a good way to empower others and pay homage to the writers that came before us. By taking our writing seriously, and paying attention to the quality of writing that we put out, we can honor our heritage and validate their experiences.