Daniel Black, BLACK ON BLACK: On Our Resilience and Brilliance in America

Daniel Black, BLACK ON BLACK: On Our Resilience and Brilliance in America

Zibby interviews acclaimed novelist, scholar, and repeat MDHTTRB guest Daniel Black about Black on Black: On Our Resilience and Brilliance in America, a piercing, vulnerable collection of essays about being black in America and the ongoing fight for change. Daniel reveals what inspired him to be so raw and vulnerable for this new project. He also talks about his journey to accepting and embracing his sexuality, his relationship with the church and God, and his thoughts on the Bible (which, he admits, he might just have to rewrite!). Zibby included Black on Black in her 2023 Most Anticipated Books of the Year, and it didn’t disappoint!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Daniel. Thank you so much for coming back for a second time on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” this time to discuss Black on Black: On Our Resilience and Brilliance in America. Maybe I should say Black on Black five times because that’s what it says on the cover. It’s actually called Black on Black, Black on Black, Black on Black, Black on Black.

Daniel Black: That’s right, or Black on Black on Black on Black on Black.

Zibby: Okay, that too. Welcome.

Daniel: I’m glad to be here. Thank you, Zibby, for having me. So honored.

Zibby: Your last book was a really tender, beautiful novel, Don’t Cry For Me, which we discussed. Now you’re back with a very personal, very raw and open and almost painful and yet hopeful, all mixed into one, collection of thoughts and feelings and essays and all of that. Tell me a little bit about when you decided to write this, why you decided to write this, how it came to be, and what you want readers to take away.

Daniel: Zibby, I think there are two reasons I decided to write this essay collection. One of those was when everything was happening with George Floyd, I just got to the place where I said, at some point, enough has to be enough. Something just has to give. We just cannot keep burying Black men over and over and over and saying, oh, my god, this is bad. Oh, my god, this is bad. Oh, my god, how awful. Oh, isn’t this terrible? At some point, we have to stop this. I decided that I wanted to say some things very directly to America. That’s why I decided I wanted to write this book. If the pen is in fact as powerful as the sword, which I believe it is, then at this point, I’m literally fighting for the life of Black men. I’m a Black man. I just decided I needed to speak to America unfiltered.

Zibby: I love it. You started out with a really powerful introduction, which I would love to read a little bit of.

Daniel: Yes, please.

Zibby: We can talk about some of the themes that you went into, everything from your own sexuality and how you owned that over time and the role of the church and how you feel about prayer and what the church can do and so much. You basically set the stage for us in all of your experiences with this introduction, which you call a sermon, which feels like you could be standing up. I’m not going to do this. Maybe I shouldn’t even read it. Maybe you should be reading it. I’m going to give it my best shot as a white woman here in New York City reading your sermon. Do with this what you will. “I write because I believed I was ugly. Then I wrote myself into beauty. I write because I hated who I was. Then God told me I was divine, and shame had no place in a divine soul. In exchange, I promised God to tell the truth, the real, naked, glorious truth that we are all God’s, made in the image of a perfect, marvelous creator.” I’m going to jump around a little bit. “I promised to tell that God is not concerned with flesh and blood, but with spiritual ecstasy shared between the living and the ought-to-be living. So with pen and paper, I set about the duty of setting the world free. I write because we rape. I write because we hurt. I write because some pain can’t be described. It can only be felt in the marrow of a story or the lyrics of a song. I write for the boy who wanted to be a man but couldn’t figure out how or the girl who dreamed of beauty but inherited brilliance instead. I write that they might not give up the fight, that they might know that failure is in other’s eyes, not their being. It is in other’s judgmental hearts, not that sacred difference. I write that they might live, that their stories might be holy and sacred, read by others standing at the cliff, weeping, trembling. I write to soothe wounds too deep to heal.”

I’m just going to jump around. “I write that troubled Black youth might happen past a mirror, then dance at what they see. I write that elders might know their lives were not in vain. I write to tell gay brothers they’re straight too, to shed light on the power of love and everyone’s right to have it. I write to give readers permission to take it back, to tell the world to kiss your asses if it thinks you’re going to die to satisfy other people’s outdated, antiquated beliefs. So I write, and I’m going to write until the wind outsings my pen. If there’s no paper, I shall use the wall. If there is no wall, I shall use my hand. If I must relinquish my hand, I shall use the very earth upon which we stand and scratch into the dust, the sentiments of liberty.” Then you go on. Then at the end, you say, “Then we’ll rise like the sun and comfort like an evening breeze and satisfied like a shading tree and be finally whatever God is. This is why I write. All you have to do is read.” Oh, my gosh, wow, powerful, powerful. I feel like if you were reading this and I was sitting there, I would be crying, is how I feel. I did not do it justice. How do you feel with all this stirring up? Your siren call for everybody to basically wake up and pay attention, it’s so emotional.

Daniel: It is emotional. It’s exhilarating, I must admit. It’s exhilarating. Zibby, I had no notion that this book would come out of the gate sprinting the way it’s doing right now. I’m so humbled. I’m so excited. I’m so thrilled. Very much like you, everyone who’s read it thus far has — I get hundreds of emails every day now. Oh, my god, this book was so raw. Everyone used the word raw, interestingly enough. I’ve seen raw thirty times.

Zibby: Sorry, I’ll come up with another word.

Daniel: No, no, no. In fact, it’s a confirmation of something, which is really wonderful. Folks seem to really love the honesty of this book, the vulnerability of it. That’s what I want to invite all of us into, a kind of vulnerability where we stand in our truth unashamed. That’s what I’m praying this book will do. I read from it practically every day now, sometimes two and three times a day. You know how that goes. People always ask, oh, my god, you’ve got to read from that first essay. You must read from that first essay. I do. You’re right, I probably sound different from you reading it.

Zibby: You sound a lot better, I am sure. I should’ve asked you to read.

Daniel: No, it’s fine. In fact, I kind of liked it in your voice because I’ve never heard it . This was great. It really is exhilarating. Really, what’s most fantastic is the number of people who are reading it of all races, all creeds, all genders. It’s just been fantastic to get the kind of adulation and praise from segments of the entirety of society. That’s been a beautiful thing.

Zibby: Wow. I think when we bare our most elemental parts of our nature, it enables everyone — underneath it all, there are so many of the same thoughts and feelings. When we strip everything else and let the inside show, we all recognize each other. Tell me a little bit — you made a little joke. You were like, there was no being in the closet for me as I was in middle grade singing and dancing and doing my thing. It was always somewhat obvious. Even when you think back to parts of the time when you were smoking weed and trying to be all “masculine” and getting some praise for that, you realized that is a square peg, round hole type of thing. Tell me a little bit about coming into your own identity and your own sexuality in addition to race.

Daniel: That essay about the closet was one of the most difficult to write, not so much for the personal, but because I know the closet is really a very complicated space. Some people, quite frankly, are in the closet for safety in terms of the ways in which others in our society deal with people who are different, especially in terms of sexuality. One of the things for me is that, Zibby, I was always so unbelievably expressive. I was always, always so unbelievably dramatic. I was always unbelievably artistic. I did theater. I did dance. I did poetry. I was the choir director. I played the piano. All of these things that put me squarely in the middle of expressive culture but that landed me completely outside of anybody’s construct of masculinity. When I was ten, twelve in rural Arkansas, I didn’t know categories of sexuality. I didn’t know terms like heteronormativity. There was no such thing as fluid. This is the seventies. There was no such thing as LGBT. We didn’t have any of that. You were just funny. It’s funny how far we’ve come in terms of terminology and giving a certain kind of level of honor to levels of difference.

At the time, what I knew was that I was quickly evolving into the kind of boy no one wanted. I knew that instinctively. I was very, very, very much aware of that. People were telling me things — I don’t know how explicit I can be here. People were telling me things about ways I should treat girls and women that seemed so unbelievably abusive to me. I just didn’t want to do that. I had a sister to whom I was very, very close. When I imagined a boy doing that to her, I was like, oh, hell no. I’m not doing that. It was what boys not only were expected to do, encouraged to do. Men would ask me questions about very almost assaulting kinds of things. You’ve never felt a woman’s this? I was like, how would I have done that? What I realized, Zibby, quite frankly, is if that’s what manhood is, I don’t want it. I don’t want it. The problem, though, was I had no other category because I never wanted to be a girl either. I was like, then what the hell am I? What do I get to do? What do I get to be? I just kind of had to flounder in the dark and be nothing. For years and years and years, I did no sexual anything because I was afraid to be abusive and ugly. I was afraid I was against God, the whole thing.

I did all that for years until I went to graduate school and learned conceptions and terms and all of that and saw how I could construct my own freedom and all of that. Then I realized that even the way I understood my own sexuality was in a very fluid way. I never knew that I had to be only one thing forever and always, that even if I had the thought of having sex with a girl or had the thought of having sex with a woman, it took you out of the other category. I didn’t know the categories were completely absolute. I began to think of myself and wonder what it was or what description I could grab ahold of that really explained the complexity of the way I had evolved. I was a reader also. All of these complications. Very simply, I got to the point by twenty-five or so when I said, you know, I’m a sexual being. That’s what I’m clear about. I’m just going to take the right to be sexual with anyone I choose to. It doesn’t have to be absolute. Yes, I can be sexual with men. Yes, I’m attracted to men, all that. Sure, sure, sure, but there were some women I could imagine having sex with too. I said, I don’t have to erase that. I don’t have to erase that truth in order for me to be clear about myself.

The beauty, I feel like, of that essay is I’m really simply trying to say that the closet is as narrow, the closet is as narrowly conceived, the closet is as problematic as what people understand to be freedom in some instances. In other words, I realized that people in the closet were hiding. Freedom wasn’t in the closet. I was looking for freedom. If freedom wasn’t in the closet, then I don’t want it. Then I can’t go there. Where do I get to be free? Where can I be my full self, my full Black, fluid, expressive — where can I be that? What I realized is that most people in America were saying, you can’t be all of that. You’ve got to choose one of them and stick with that. I was like, hell, that’s why God is invisible, because God doesn’t believe in this bullshit we doing. This is how my thinking began. Quite frankly, I just got to the place where I decided that to write this essay collection, I was going to stand in my fullest authenticity. Whoever could handle it could stand with me. Those who could not, I’ll let you live with your limitation.

Zibby: I’m here. I’m standing. We’re talking.

Daniel: We’re talking.

Zibby: Bring it on. I can take it. Let’s talk about God for a little bit because you do have a whole essay on the role of the church and how you view that and what they should and shouldn’t do. Talk a little bit about that and your relationship with God now.

Daniel: God and I are best, best, best friends now. God is my homie. Listen, God is my being. I will say that I grew up in the church. I’ve always, always, always loved church. I generally hated the theology of the church, but I loved the culture of the church. Black church music is going to be hard to beat. It’s going to be hard to beat Black church music. It’s going to be hard to beat Black church ritual. There’s a way that Black people, Zibby, do ritual when we go to church in terms of rhythm, in terms of cadence — you’ve certainly experienced it — that is authentically a part of what Africans brought to this country called America. That is something I will absolutely never ever, ever, ever relinquish. I also love the Black church for the role it played in the Civil Rights Movement. There is no Civil Rights Movement without the Black church. For those reasons, I hold onto the Black church. My biggest thing is I want us to get rid of this debilitating theology. I want us to get rid of this theology that tells us to hate ourselves, that tells us that the gay people are going to hell, that tells men that they should govern women, that a man is a woman’s head, and all of this. Even this thing in the Bible, “Slaves, obey your masters,” what?

Zibby: I’m sorry to laugh. I just want to say for people listening, Daniel keeps coming really close into the camera and being like, what? All of a sudden, his face is in my office.

Daniel: Zibby, you have to forgive me. If you think about it, what God would say that? I have a PhD in African studies. I’ve studied this. You would tell my ancestors they should’ve obeyed those people in that system? No way. No way. No way, which means, then, I’m questioning the authenticity of this book. I am. I absolutely am. That is against Christianity as a religion and, quite frankly, that’s against my own people in so many ways because my own people believe in that book. Some of them believe in it without question. I think that is absolutely problematic. I think it counters Black freedom in so many ways and in so many instances. In fact, I’m voting for a Black Bible, quite frankly. I’m voting for a new Bible that somebody, some bold person, might have the guts to write one day.

Zibby: Is that you?

Daniel: I’m not going to say anything else yet, but I’m telling you, the day is coming very, very soon. You and I will meet again.

Zibby: So you’re secretly rewriting the Bible. That is big stuff.

Daniel: It’s huge.

Zibby: It’s huge.

Daniel: It’s absolutely huge. The truth of the matter is it’s long overdue. All it’s really saying is, if you can speak for God, I can too. Nobody can own God. You can’t own God’s thoughts. You can’t own God’s voice. No person can. No people can. Listen, human beings wrote the Bible as we know it. It was not God. Human beings wrote that. I’m not mad about that. Human beings can write something else also.

Zibby: I can’t wait to discuss that. Not that this is not an interesting project. That is a Biblical scale of a project.

Daniel: It is. It’s gargantuan. That’s why I wrote Black on Black. The point of Black on Black is, in many instances, to trouble the waters here in America, to stir, if you will, what we think of as the comfort of oppression, to disrupt ways in which we are okay with each other’s bondage. I’m praying that this book will, in fact, do that work.

Zibby: Wow, oh, my goodness. Tell me one story from your tour so far. I know it’s still early days, but one connection you’ve made, some conversation you’ve had since someone’s read the book that you’ll never forget.

Daniel: There’s so many. The book has only been out a couple of weeks now, but just the most amazing stories. Probably, the most poignant one was — I teach at a Black college, Clark Atlanta University. I was on campus maybe a week ago. A young man approached me and said, “Hey, Dr. Black. Dr. Black, I got your book.” I said, “Son, thank you. Thank you.” He said, “Listen, I actually read the whole thing.” I was like, “Oh, my god, I’m so appreciative.” He said, “I have to tell you something, Dr. Black.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “I never knew that, like, like…” He hesitated. I said, “Son, just say it.” He said, “It never crossed my mind that Black people could actually write something God said.” I said, “Wow.” He said, “I just didn’t know that you could write something and say that God said it.” I said, “How do you think we got a thing called the Bible? It was not God’s hand that came down from the sky and wrote on these pages. What are you talking about?” He said, “Yeah, but they weren’t Black.”

Zibby: Not that it — was he Black?

Daniel: Yes. I said, “Son, then I’m so glad you’ve read Black on Black because the question of spiritual authority and who gets to construct that authority, you absolutely need to know that that is a human question.” The truth of the matter is every culture on the planet has said what God said. Native Americans have a notion of what God said. Jews have a notion of what God said. Europeans have a notion of what God said. Africans have a notion of what God said. It can’t be more or less legitimate based upon people’s preference of people. One has to really understand that everybody gets to construct God because God is a construct. God is not really a person. God is a construct. That doesn’t mean God is not real. It just means that we’re applying the name and the idea to this thing, this entity. We had the most amazing conversation. I just saw in his eyes, Zibby, this enlightenment. I too get to participate. It was just the most remarkable thing.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, look at you, going around changing lives.

Daniel: Listen, I’m certainly trying.

Zibby: Now I feel bad calling you Daniel. Dr. Black, thank you so much. Thank you so much for sharing all of this in your book, with listeners. This is — I don’t want to use the word raw again because I hate to be —

Daniel: No, please use it.

Zibby: — reductive or whatever. I really think it’s just so — let’s see, another word aside from raw — so true, so unfiltered, and so passionate all at the same time. That is a really great combination for a book. I will be watching you soar. Congratulations.

Daniel: I appreciate it. Thank you for having me. To all the viewers and all the listeners, I’m so, so humbled to be included in this space. It’s a sacred space. It feels so safe. Zibby, I thank you for this creation.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Next time, the Bible. Bye.

Daniel: Take care.

Daniel Black, BLACK ON BLACK: On Our Resilience and Brilliance in America

BLACK ON BLACK: On Our Resilience and Brilliance in America by Daniel Black

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