Cincinnati CityBeat writer Kathy Y. Wilson is on the road with her book Your Negro Tour Guide: Truths in Black and White, named after her recently self-canceled column. The award-winning writer, also featured on NPR's All Things Considered, writes loud, throwing hard elbows on the struggles of her race and her city. Most importantly she writes about liberation and love, and the fight to maintain them against those who'd prefer less of both.
How would you describe your growth from first column to last?
Probably in the way that I just [learned to] let people be, the same way I expect people to just let me be. Going in, I had all these crusading expectations that I'd be telling people about themselves and ripping people new assholes. But then I started seeing people for who they are, respecting that, even bigots. We didn't get where we are overnight, so one column isn't going to turn people away from hating gays, lesbians, blacks or white men running everything.
Explain your book's cover image.
I collect mammy dolls. The [mammy on the cover] is a cast-iron one on my kitchen mantle. I call it "Negrobilia." When we were thinking about cover designs, the publisher asked, "What about that mammy?" And I said, "What about that mammy, man?" It's just like the word "Negro" in the title -- it's offensive to some. People ask me all the time how dare I used the word "Negro" -- people who've lived through Jim Crow -- and I'm sensitive to that, but like the poet Jessica Caremore said, "All language is lethal." This is my attempt to own that image.
What criticisms have you read about your work?
I cannot recall any serious criticisms of the book. What happens in America for a black woman is very much like what happened to Zora Neale Hurston, where the people attack the person and personality when they can't find fault with the artistic endeavor. I've been attacked personally, but people can't fuck with my sentences. People say, "I can't stand your black ass, but your writing is brilliant." I'm like, "Cool, so kiss my black ass."
Between you and Kanye West, 2004 seemed to be the year of the college dropout.
I dropped out of college three times. I tell young black people all the time, "The shit is not set up for you, but that doesn't mean you don't deserve to be there. And if you find that your life work is outrunning that environment, like mine was, then it's OK to not be there." But that doesn't mean you get to go home and sit on the couch and watch TV all day. You better work to get your stuff out there. I come out of a family of college graduates.
You've called your work "print minstrelsy."
I said that specifically in response to the huge population of people who habitually read my column as naysayers. I've been accused almost my whole life of being a race traitor, pandering to white people, Uncle Tom. I thought it was minstrelsy. Sometimes I did feel like I was out there dancing around, hitting you with a whole lot of absurdity and extreme language and then at the end landing on something sublime. Minstrelsy did that also. I have no shame in any of these columns -- as long as I'm responsible for that print minstrelsy and not my white boss. Some readers think there's some white guy standing beside me telling me what to write and do, but, no, I ran that column, and I killed it.
You've dealt with depression and drinking. What should people learn from your experience?
When I was at the Hamilton-Journal News, I had a nervous breakdown as a direct result of the environment, the management and the city, and seeing shit that was always there [and] being too young to be able to articulate it. Then I had to work in this shit and separate it all out, and still be creative and productive. I have not felt that at CityBeat, but that's because now I have the mental and spiritual tools to rail against that whenever it bubbles up. I think black people, now, with our new black middle class, we're killing ourselves softly. We do a lot of self-medicating like Talib Kweli said, "Just to get by," and we don't even realize it and it's because we're running this race that we're never gonna win.
Was your column's death homicide, suicide or euthanasia?
Homicide, man. I'm like Margaret Garner, the slave that killed her children in the [novel Beloved]. I couldn't let my baby go on like that -- she said all she had to say, so I had to put the pillow over her head and sing her the lullaby.