Africa Writes have teamed up with Myriad Editions to bring you a moving excerpt from the newly published paperback edition of Margaret Busby’s New Daughters of Africa. This excerpt is written by author and essayist Zadie Smith. Zadie Smith wrote the following speech when accepting The City College of New York’s Langston Hughes Medal (in 2017) which has been published for the first time in New Daughters of Africa. We hope you enjoy this treat and grab a copy of the anthology for your library.
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Born in London to an English father and Jamaican mother (Yvonne Bailey-Smith), she published her first novel, White Teeth, aged 24 in the year 2000. The book went on to win a number of awards and prizes, including The Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Overall Winner, Best First Book). It has been translated into more than 20 languages, was adapted for Channel 4 television in 2002, and in 2018 became a stage play, premiering at the Kiln Theatre. She is also the author of The Autograph Man (2002), On Beauty (2005), Changing My Mind (2009), The Embassy of Cambodia (2013), NW (2012), Swing Time (2016) and a 2018 collection of essays, Feel Free. She has been a tenured Professor in the Creative Writing faculty of New York University since 2010. She made the following speech when receiving the Langston Hughes Medal in November 2017.
Speech for Langston
I am so moved to be here this evening that I knew I couldn’t trust myself to speak off the cuff, so I’ve written it down. If you’ll indulge me I want to tell you two anecdotes that I hope will explain what this prize means to me.
I came to the States about ten years ago. It was before my daughter was in school so I used to come for six months to New York to teach and then back to London again. This one time, I got off a plane at Heathrow very early in the morning, headed to Willesden, and reaching our house, found it dusty, cold and silent—as houses are liable to be if you leave them long enough. I put on the heating and the lights and the radio and started tidying up. On the radio I could hear four older white gentlemen having a conversation. They sounded pretty learned, like they were experts in something or another. And they were having a learned conversation about who gets to be British—who, in the final analysis, is really British. They spent a long time discussing this question: I’d filled the dishwasher, done a wash of towels and bed linen, and gone through all the unopened mail before they were done. But as I passed a cloth over my kitchen table they finally reached their learned conclusion. Turned out, you were only truly British if all four of your great-grandparents were born in Britain. That was their expert view. And I sat down, exhausted, and just started to laugh. It was sort of a crazy laugh—a mixture of laughter and tears, and if you’d heard it you probably would have thought it sounded unhinged. I sat there in my old neighborhood, in my new-ish house, and thought of all those years I’d spent as a child in England trying to prove that I was both Black and British; that I knew their plays and poems and history, that I could get into the finest institutions of education they had to offer, that I could perhaps even add a few words to the history of their literature—that I, too, was England. But something turned in me that morning and I realized I just didn’t care anymore. The whole thing seemed totally absurd. The British could argue amongst themselves about who was or wasn’t British but it just didn’t matter to me any longer whether or not they included me in their narrow, claustrophobic self-definitions. And for the first time in a long time I felt free.
Six months later I flew back to New York, and one of the first things I did was visit that old Barnes and Noble on Sixth Avenue that’s been closed now for about five years as no one can afford to pay the rent on that space, not even Barnes and Noble. Anyway, I was browsing in there, in the African-American corner of the store, when I spotted a book of mine, On Beauty, sitting snug in that corner, after Ms Morrison but before Ms Walker. And I started to laugh-cry again. I thought: well look at this. In England, they’re still trying to decide if a person like me is really English at all. Meanwhile, over here in New York, I’ve been adopted! I’m in the wrong part of the bookstore, sitting alongside writers who have meant so much to me, and even though everybody probably knows it’s not quite right, I’m still here on this shelf, a kissing cousin, an interloper, an admirer from across the sea, and nobody’s demanding to see my passport, and no-one cares where my goddamn great-grandfather came from. Because in that corner of the bookstore, American wasn’t the operative word. African was. That’s also why, when I came to America, for the first time I heard people call me sister in the street, sister in the supermarket, sister in the airport or the bar. I had entered a broader consciousness in which national borders had little meaning. I was part of a historical and geographic diaspora that has penetrated every corner of this globe, and which no single passport can contain or express.
Receiving this prize makes me want to laugh-cry. With pride and amazement. I don’t know what I am doing on a list of names that includes James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott and Octavia Butler, but I am so grateful to find myself in their company. Growing up in England, in the eighties, these were some of the writers my mother gave me, to remind me that no country has the power to decide whether or not it will “tolerate” a black child or decide on her true identity, for the black child’s inheritance is borderless and enormous and needs no such external authentication. Nor is it a monolith. At the root of blackness lies Africa, but from that rich soil spreads innumerable branches, each with its own character, own style, own struggles and victories. A diaspora is always by definition E pluribus unum, and that which spread from Africa is uniquely flexible, able to fit into its oneness a dazzling plurality while at the same time recognizing a sibling relation across time and space. My sister. My brother.
Despite all contrasts of history and nation Langston Hughes is also my brother.
He was a mixed-up sort of person, of the kind I can relate to. He had black ancestry and white ancestry, native American ancestry and Jewish ancestry, he had men in his life and women, he was a communist and a capitalist, he was a poet and a playwright and a novelist, a believer in the uptown working man, and a lover of downtown intellectuals. He was always conflicted. He could write of the “eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul” and he could also write: “I was a victim of a stereotype. There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everyone knows—except us—that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me class poet.” He expressed these beautiful conflicts in everything he wrote. Are we truly a people of rhythm? Or is all that a myth? Are we a people? Are middle-class negroes still negroes? What does it even mean to be a negro? These are the kinds of questions he asked himself, and he was beautifully inconsistent in his answers, being a poet and not a politician. But the thing I really love about Langston is his insistence, from the very start, that black lives not only matter but are beautiful, ugly, sad, happy, angry, joyful, and finally undefinable because so complex and so various, just as white lives are understood to be. That’s knowledge we need right now. In our benighted present it feels natural and necessary to reach back into the past for guidance. Jimmy Baldwin reminds us how to fight the threat we’re facing. Langston reminds us what we’re fighting for. The freedom to be ourselves, in all our wonderful variety. Langston put his arms around the whole diaspora, no matter how distant or mongrel, no matter how unlike we all may be in history or culture, and in this way he inspired diaspora artists of every subsequent generation and all around the world. In Langston’s worldview black sibling-hood stretched the earth. And I am so thankful that tonight it has stretched far enough to include a Black-British woman like me, a freckle-faced woman like me, a mixed-marriage woman like me, a green-card holder like me, an immigrant like me, a second-generation Jamaican like me, a distant but not forgotten daughter of Africa, like me. Thank you.
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Image of Zadie Smith: Linda Brownlee