"Me. We." There it is in the Studio Museum atrium, the Muhammad Ali poem on demand as conceived by Glenn Ligon, his Me on top of We. This is Glenn Ligon, so this is also a light show. First, the Me is lit. Then the We. Then the Me. The We. Tick tock, back forth. The extinguishing of one while the other shines brightly. The moment when neither is lit at all.
I live near the Studio Museum, so I see this piece often. I think about what the me/we dynamic means for the black community, what it means for the many communities we call our own. The yin and yang that we must always be negotiating. For me, I belong to my race, which is both black and white. My family. My hometown of Detroit. My Catholicism. My schools. My friends. My block. So many circuits that brighten or dim, depending on the moment. So many collectives I claim, even though some in those groups might not claim me back. Like the man at the corner who once yelled at me "Go back downtown" though I have never ever lived downtown, and his accent revealed that he was no native to Harlem either.
We want to belong. We want others to belong to us. We want the "we" to give us meaning, to define us, just as we define ourselves against it.
Five years after arriving in Harlem, I am married, and I have a son. We live in a brownstone apartment, in a building that has been home to many Harlem emigrants. We are trying to make our way. I write when I can. And along with my writer friends who live here, I think about what it means to be here, to be us, in this place, and in this time. We think about the "we." And sometimes, we write from that POV.
It is one thing to claim a group. It is another thing to write for that group, to assume the "we" on the page and speak for everyone else. But intrepid writers do this. Recent wonderful efforts include Peter Markus's mythic We Make Mud and Justin Torres's affecting We the Animals, both told from the perspective of brothers. Then there's Julie Otsuka's National Book Award-nominated The Buddha in the Attic, which speaks in the voice of early 21st- century Japanese picture brides; I read passages and I have to stop to breathe, and sometimes to shudder, thinking about what these women went through as they made their new lives in America.
Writers may be daunted when attempting the first person plural voice. Hard enough to get individual character voices right. But the collective? Especially when audience members know what it's like to be misrepresented, to have others speak on their behalf without any true knowledge of their interior or exterior lives, especially if they may never get their story told elsewhere. When what one writes becomes the permanent record.
Yet, there are times we need leaders and artists to speak on our behalf. To witness and explain what we haven't articulated, to reveal the hurts that bleed us but may be hidden from us.
Wendy S. Walters, Amy Benson and I have spent the last year contemplating "we" and what it means to write in first person plural. We are now introducing the First Person Plural Reading Series, which will take place quarterly in Harlem at Shrine music venue. Our opening reading is on Monday, March 5, 2012.
We've invited four renowned writers, Pulitzer-prize winner Margo Jefferson, celebrated novelist Sam Lipsyte, and groundbreaking cross-genre artists Mendi + Keith Obadike, to write short pieces in first person plural and share them with our audience. They will also read from their body of work. If you are in or near NYC, I encourage you to come join us.