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Writing is a Democratic Art/We all can and should do our part to leave a record of our lives behind

by Imani Perry, (excerpts from The Atlantic Magazine article)


Writing leaves a record. Even if imperfect, wrong, or even downright upsetting in retrospect, written works are something to set forth so that the future will know us. Writing also allows us to better understand from whence we come and who we are.


A little over one year ago I began to write this weekly newsletter. At first, it was daunting. I’m not a journalist by training or habit. I was accustomed to letting my ideas cook for long spells, to jotting notes to myself when they came and not returning to them for weeks, months, or even years. This endeavor was something wholly new.


Thinking and writing at a faster pace stretched me and gave me greater confidence. Sometimes I changed my mind about what I’d written a day later. But that was okay; a newsletter is a moment in time. Writing it each week gave me a lovely rhythm in what has otherwise been a difficult and disorienting season in history. Feeling stuck can get you stuck. But writing can, and should, inspire deeds.


I knew I wanted to be a writer from a young age. But the word writer is so capacious that I don’t even know if it means anything on its own without modifiers. Although I’ve been publishing literally since I was 15 years old, only in the past couple of years have I achieved what I meant when I first said I wanted to be a writer. For me, the vocation has always comprised a combination of research, intellectual endeavor, craft, and creativity in an emotionally laden gumbo.


On the path to being able to write the way I aspired to, the discipline imposed by others (teachers, professors, editors) was helpful, even if sometimes frustrating. The form of a scholarly article or monograph can feel confining, but it is at best a beautifully stern discipline of composition. The same can be said of journalism.

Every form has its lessons, its causal links, its evidentiary norms, its necessary elegance and silly jargon. As I’ve been adjacent to journalism over the past year, I have added many of its principles to my trick bag. And by trick bag, I’m making reference to hoodoo or conjure: an African American folk tradition that is a sort of spiritual bricolage, pulling together elements from various African, Indigenous, and—to a lesser extent—European roots to negotiate the cruel world that our ancestors encountered.


Writing leaves a record. Even if imperfect, wrong, or even downright upsetting in retrospect, written works are something to set forth so that the future will know us. Writing also allows us to better understand from whence we come and who we are. If I can leave a record, I’ve done something meaningful. And so must you.


Writing is a fine art, but it is a democratic one too. So, I hope whoever reads this, whether you write like Joyce or an ornery grader, that you claim the mantle of writing without hesitation. Leave a record for your families, loves, and communities. Consider all who will cherish hearing from you. Take up space in the archives of the future. We need it. It will be a long time before this period in history will be halfway understood. You can and should play a part in aiding our descendants.


To that point, my grandmother wrote letters. I keep the ones she sent me on my ancestor altar. I can’t imagine what I would have missed out on if she had hesitated. It is her sloping script and words of love that give me courage. I hope I can offer you some in kind.


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