The Optics of Opportunity

The story of a literary fellowship that maybe wasn’t so strange at all

Hafizah Geter
Jun 19, 2019 · 13 min read
Illustration: George Peters / Getty Images

“Hey, nigger, nigger, nigger,” Jackson Taylor, the writing instructor, called out, pointing his finger at me from across the Chelsea loft that had been renovated into our classroom. I and 13 writers had been invited to participate in a mysterious writing fellowship funded by the Barnes & Noble founder, Len Riggio. For our writing assignment, we had been tasked to complete the thought, “I remember…” A young black poet in his 20s had written and shared a syncopated poem whose rhythms bounced around the room. Buried in his poem, he’d quoted a title from a 1935 poem by Wallace Stevens, “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery.” Taylor demanded to know why he, a white person, couldn’t use the n-word if this black writer could.

The Springing Center, as the fellowship would be called, had invited a group of emerging writers to use our work to engage and interrogate structures of power. We were Black, African, Indian-American, Asian-American, along with seven white writers from America, Russia and Portugal, and we had all been drawn together by the prestige of the Barnes & Noble name. Though the fellowship would run twice a week for a full six-weeks before disappearing in a puff of smoke, it was clear from the first class that, though we’d been tasked to examine power, questioning white power was forbidden.

With the n-word hanging in the air, the room froze. “I could hear that word on the street,” Taylor said, trying to cover his tracks as though pointing the n-word in my direction was merely in service of pedagogy and a class exercise. Daniel Gross, an Asian-American participant in the fellowship who recently reported on the workshop for the New Yorker in his piece, The Strange Story of a Secret Literary Fellowship, volunteered that, in the English language, the n-word has no equivalent. I pointed Taylor to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ video on the subject, reminding him that whiteness cannot be separated from the historical context of the n-word. Unoriginally, Taylor would not be swayed. He wanted to vote on whether he could use the word. “Absolutely not,” I said. A white woman on my left named Stephanie was visibly angry. Though, from the first day — like a scene out of a poorly scripted spy novel — we’d been forbidden introductions and last names, a few sessions into the fellowship — my suspicions up — I learned that Stephanie’s maiden name was Riggio. She was the daughter of the Barnes and Noble, Inc. founder, and had been a writing student of Taylor’s while at The New School. More than just a walk down memory lane, this fellowship was her brainchild and she was posing as a fellow while simultaneously pulling the strings. This, along with the fact that Taylor’s boyfriend was also posing as a fellow, was the reason behind the secrecy — why Taylor had refused us introductions and full names.

He wanted to vote on whether he could use the word. “Absolutely not,” I said. A white woman on my left named Stephanie was visibly angry.

Though the instructor’s use of the n-word had been the most flagrant performance of his racism, the weeks in the fellowship had been marked by Taylor and I consistently butting heads over his outrage at any conversation that confronted white privilege, white supremacy, or racism. On the first day of the mysterious fellowship, Taylor, in his attempt to explain why we had been brought together, ranted on about his previous employer PEN America, the dangers of power and how the executive director got her job. It was a loose and liberal tangent — PEN pens protest letters on behalf of writers and Taylor’s point, essentially, was: know who’s writing or representing on your behalf, to recognize and interrogate power, as long as the power under the microscope wasn’t his. Later in that first class, as we argued about the existence and qualities of white privilege — the room raveling itself into a hornet’s nest — the people of color exchanged uncertain and unbelieving glances. Our hackles were up. After class, the people of color lingered towards each other and in hushed whispers, tried to figure out what this was. Taylor, overhearing, sauntered over to join our conversation. I suggested that for the next class, it might be good for us to take a beat and have a conversation that focused on unpacking privilege and defining power, but Taylor replied that we should trust the pedagogy, before lamenting that in a world like ours, no one wanted to hear what he had to say on the subject, and that at least as people of color, we had each other.

In a later class, during a discussion about gerunds, Taylor, who had brought in a beautiful, oversized edition of the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary from the early 20th century, asked Gross to look up the term and read the sample phrase, which happened to be a quote excerpted from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: “Reason for the savages preferring many kinds of food.” As Gross completed the sentence, his back towards the room, we watched his head slowly pan up and pause before turning back to return to his seat, both surprised and frustrated. Taylor tried to gloss over the sentence’s impact, but another person of color interrupted, calling out the uncomfortable tension of what the class had just heard. Taylor, who didn’t seem to believe that language and race were intertwined, had not considered the possibility that a dictionary published barely after slavery ended would be problematic. And he would not take context clues or the history of the word, or Thoreau’s well documented use of it in reference to Native peoples, as proof. He said we “didn’t have enough information” and tasked us to go home and look up the source. The following class, I presented him with the full paragraph that confirmed the obvious: it was racist. In response, Taylor claimed he’d always known it was racist, but wanted to discourage “us” from “assuming.”

Taylor, who didn’t seem to believe that language and race were intertwined, had not considered the possibility that a dictionary published barely after slavery ended would be problematic.

Miraculously, we managed whole classes discussing for-profit prisons without discussing race. In fact, when black participants brought it up, we were accused of lacking objectivity. On more than one occasion, in response to my pushback, Taylor threatened to cancel the fellowship.

Once, he dared me to teach the class. But all the people of color in that room had, at one point or another, tried to teach him. One day, after finding out Taylor hadn’t read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a fellow brought it into class, many of us hoping it could breach the chasm. “You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there,” Rankine writes — a passage that compelled Taylor to wring his hands and complain how difficult it is to hire the best faculty in universities because of diversity mandates. In response to me pointing out the Springing Center was staffed by three white men, Taylor implied you couldn’t get people of color to stay on the job for so little money. I would later find out that Taylor was being compensated with a six-figure salary and health insurance as the fellowship’s Artistic Director.

By the time Taylor hurtled the n-word my way, I had been told to quit by my partner, my friends, my therapist, my father. We could all hear the sound of the train crash coming. White power, we all knew from experience, doubles down. But, not only as an emerging writer, but also as a black, queer woman I am aware of how much harder people of color have to labor in order to be allowed to reap our fruits. I am no stranger to how often opportunity has a racial cost. And wasn’t this an opportunity? — every writer in the room was thinking — though for the writers of color, like it too often is, it was opportunity at a cost.

By the time Taylor hurtled the n-word my way, I had been told to quit by my partner, my friends, my therapist, my father. We could all hear the sound of the train crash coming.

The exchange the people of color at the Springing Center made for the “opportunity” was in granting favorable optics — after all, among the people of color, we carried most of the notable bylines that gave the room prestige — The New Yorker, Tin House, books forthcoming from Knopf and Graywolf. But our admission into white spaces is never free, even when we are the ones carrying the room.

For people of color, for the marginalized, the cost of any opportunity can often be more real than the opportunity itself. I am not talking about the emotional costs alone. Too often, we are forced to participate in our own gaslighting and the denial of our stories and communities. Our emotional pain and erasure translates into economic and professional losses and corners us into moral compromises. It is Muslim actor Mahershala Ali, waking up to anti-Muslim tweets from Nick Vallelonga after Ali’s Golden Globe-winning performance in Vallelonga’s white savior film, Green Book. It is Matt Damon’s flaccid and indignant apology after telling Effie Brown, a black female producer on his show Project Greenlight, that diversity behind the camera wasn’t the point.

But our admission into white spaces is never free, even when we are the ones carrying the room.

At its core, what transpired in the fellowship was a power struggle over who gets to tell the story and who gets to own the narrative of public perception. In the world that Taylor built, power had nothing to do with race, and so when, in the n-word conversation, I said we live in a racialized and patriarchal world, Taylor said, “prove it,” before declaring to the room that I had a problem with generalizations — a problem which he said, “curiously, mainly occurs when you talk about race.” With the sleight of hand of a second grade magician, Taylor was crafting the narrative — the public perception — of who I was inside that room, asserting that I was a black woman whose opinion on race could not be trusted. And more insidiously, his message cast whiteness as an innocent bystander, and the world as we know it, happenstance.

And more insidiously, his message cast whiteness as an innocent bystander and the world as we know it, happenstance.

An all too familiar battle, it is one that plays out daily in classrooms, offices, political arenas, and in newsrooms across the country. America has a talent for telling the wrong story. On social media, the #MeToo movement is marginalized into “call-out culture,” Black Lives Matter disregarded as anti-police, criticism as censorship. What was formerly known as the scourge of drugs and blamed on the black community is now the tragic story of white children targeted by big pharma. But, perhaps, our American sickness plays out most visibly with Donald Trump and the current administration. The Republican anti-immigrant and Islamophobic agenda is reframed as border security and job protection, the ideology of white power as patriotism. Our penchant for the wrong story is most acutely present whenever the story is about anti-black racism.

What the New Yorker story frames as a quirky tale of wealth and nepotism, is actually a story about real people of color’s pain (including Gross’s), a story of racism run amok. White wealth, like it often is, was simply the vehicle that allowed the racism to operate in the open, though the narrative of racism that unfolded is, in the New Yorker’s account, for the most part, written in invisible ink. If not for the brown bodies that left the room, I have no doubt the fellowship would have continued, that it would most likely be entering its second year. It is a tightrope to walk: having to rely on white platforms to tell brown stories. It is notable that the New Yorker’s story is a story made possible by the racism and brown bodies it de-centers in favor of the spectacle of white money.

White wealth, like it often is, was simply the vehicle that allowed the racism to operate in the open, though the narrative of racism that unfolded is, in the New Yorker’s account, for the most part, written in invisible ink.

How do we tell our stories? Open any textbook in America and those textbooks will tell you that we don’t. Ours is a history of lies and omission. A history that reminds us that when those who suffer at the hands of oppression do not tell the story, then no story will be told — that American history is the identical twin of American propaganda. As a person of color, one of the hard and early lessons you learn is how to simultaneously hold a lack of surprise next to disappointment. And as a black woman you learn the ways your gender and race place you in particular peril. It corners you, requiring that you see all — every inchof whatever room you are in. In the room of America, I am painfully aware of the way our miswritten history casts black women as one of the least credible demographics in our culture. As I pushed back against Taylor’s racism, I did so consciously held hostage by my silent white peers and their white perception and notions of respectability — who heard our objections to a racism they couldn’t muster the energy to see, and thus would not allow our concerns to hold water.

In the room of America, I am painfully aware of the way our miswritten history casts black women as one of the least credible demographics in our culture.

It is a particular predicament to live as a queer, black woman in world where whiteness so deeply cannot recognize itself. In a world where white people require racism be logical to be believed — though in racism, there is no logic, only predictable and well-documented patterns. Taylor was not a good white person caught in a few bad moments, he is a racist. Stephanie Riggio, and by extension, the family foundation who funded the operation, were not people who fell prey to their over-enthusiasm for a pet project, they were people who did not find much value in the lives, safety or personhoods of people of color, and so they didn’t mind working with a racist. The only complex thing about racism is the lengths our culture goes to deny it and the structures built to keep its systems running.

The only complex thing about racism is the lengths our culture goes to deny it and the structures built to keep its systems running.

The price people of color pay for opportunity is that too often we are threatened or coerced into surrendering control over our own stories. We are invited in as ornaments to white stories instead. There is not space enough in the world to hold black people’s disappointment in this country, a disappointment that is just as palatable in liberal and literary spaces. Like so many other people of color, I have paid an inflated entry fee for every white room I have entered since childhood: the resignation of myself is a price I have often been forced to pay to get into or be safe in the room. To operate in America. But the moment Taylor threw the n-word my way, I knew my time in the class was over. That no matter the consequences, I would never go back. Even if I might be blackballed by Barnes & Noble, just as Taylor had ridiculously threatened his administrative director (the one white ally we had in the room) the day he fired him.

For a majority of the workshop the white faces excused, ignored, defended, justified, and easily forgave Taylor’s behavior, while the people of color became mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and creatively exhausted. After the n-word incident, and my decision to walk out of the room for good, the class met only once more before two more people of color quit and the fellowship was disbanded by Taylor. We only received half the promised $10,000 stipend. Taylor fell out of favor with the Barnes & Noble family. And yet, still.

As someone who cut their teeth working for literary nonprofits, I’m well aware of how rooms like the Springing Center are made and of who gets to set the rules so that both the carrot and the goalposts are firmly lodged on the same stick. I know from experience that there is a danger to telling your story in a world that renders you unbelievable. Taylor and I butted heads so acutely because I would not sacrifice my story to him or his demand for gratitude that I had been allowed a seat at the table — a seat I had more than earned. But what of it, in the end, other than an opportunity lost and a pain gained? No recourse is ever offered to those of us who interrogate power daily with the sheer fact of our skin. Like many black people I have been called the n-word before, have had to hold the racial resentment of so many white liberals who had power over me. But this was a writing classroom, I thought, letting my work and identity as a writer fool me into thinking I was respected, my hope setting my guard down, letting me forget that once again, I was a number. All of the people of color were; a way to disguise that this was just another liberal white room liberally flexing its white power.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Hafizah Geter

Written by

Born in Zaria, Nigeria, Hafizah Geter‘s work has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Longreads, & Tin House. www.hafizahgeter.com

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Hafizah Geter

Written by

Born in Zaria, Nigeria, Hafizah Geter‘s work has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Longreads, & Tin House. www.hafizahgeter.com

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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