Power to the Pen: The Importance of Writing Our Own Stories

By Lara Michele Witt @femmefeministe

My mother tells me stories about our family in Nairobi; I listen to her talk about the difficulties of moving away from all she knew to a predominantly white country after she married my father. She takes a sip from her chai and smiles when I ask her to tell me more. It wasn’t easy, she tells me, but she felt less alone once she had my sister and I. I crave the lessons of my ancestors because there is power in knowing our histories. As a writer, there is a comfort in supporting a woman who looks like me, who looks like my mother. I acknowledge that her struggle to become a paid writer may look similar to mine. Her perception of the world is honest; she sees the racism, she sees the injustice, she understands the misogyny, too.

We relay the messages of solidarity to each other, we band together against the oppressive forces. We boost each other's threads on Twitter, protect each other from white supremacists and misogynists who inevitably come our way. We write because it is our outlet for pain, it is also our outlet for joy. We write to register our histories and accomplishments because white supremacy has always tried to erase us.

What would this world have been like without Ida B. Wells and her investigations of lynchings and their causes? Would we have ever learned that white mobs would falsify claims of rape of white women by black men as an excuse to execute them? Would we have ever fully understood the malevolence of white supremacy if Wells hadn't exposed the reasons behind white violence? We’ve applied Well’s investigations to the current violence and the complicity of white women within white supremacy and racism. We’ll apply her research to the murder of Terence Crutcher by Officer Betty Shelby. History and current events are constantly joining hands.

And what would our world look like without Audre Lorde and her examination of black womanhood through a queer perspective? Where would we be without Angela Davis exploring the history of violence against black women as she put racism, sexism, and classism into historical context? Where would modern day feminists be without bell hooks and her analysis of the ways in which patriarchy and racism play devastating roles in our everyday lives and in the media we consume? I for one cannot imagine a world without Patricia Hill Collins, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, W. E. B Dubois and the revolutionary poetry of Langston Hughes.

On Thursday, the New York Times used a full page to publish one of Hughes’s poems, “I, Too” as the beginning of their review of the new National Museum of African American History. It was timely, we were mourning the murders of Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott. His words feel like a balm on our wounds.

I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.


We cannot yet read these words and feel like his words have come true.

Writing is a form of resistance and proof that our experiences are shared and valid. White supremacy often seeks to gaslight or derail our conversations around race and racism. White men and women have weaponized our history and attempted to discredit our activism and writing today. Most recently there has been an onslaught of white voices writing patronizing pieces about the football player, Colin Kaepernick and his protest kneel during the Department of Defense sponsored displays of patriotism through the national anthem.

These opinion pieces written by white men and women have the audacity of telling black and brown folks how to protest and the gall of saying that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King wouldn’t approve. Like within most oppressor and oppressed dynamics, they seek to distract us from the present by lying about the past. I am fairly certain if they had been adults when Parks and MLK were protesting, that they would have tried to derail and discredit their actions the same way their grandparents and parents did.

Our Civil Rights era activists were militant and honest about white supremacy; Parks and MLK have been mythologized and dehumanized and history has been whitewashed and sanitized by white supremacy. Racism does not disappear, it is taught; it has mutated and stained the foundation of our country.

The black and brown people who are writing today are helping us understand issues from a perspective that newsrooms all over the country have ignored unless it was to their benefit. Established newspapers will hire marginalized folks only to fill a quota, they'll point them out when accused of being racist. Even so, their reporting of black issues only covers our deaths. They publish pictures of black bodies bleeding in the streets and it seems more like voyeurism than activism.

Often I'm convinced they enjoy seeing black and brown folks in pain, especially if it will sell more papers. The most poignant example is when the New York Daily News published photographs of Alton Sterling’s bleeding body on their front page. I have a hard time understanding how our pain will alter white supremacy to the extent where white people will see black death and suddenly start caring about black lives. I feel empathy for others without needing proof of their pain.

White supremacy infiltrates so many aspects of our lives, especially with how we write about race and racism. The white gaze makes us coddle white people’s feelings about racism, it caters to their expectations and writes for their eyes. There is power in sharing our stories with each other without the white gaze and without the influence of white supremacy. It is an empowering response to oppression and a tool for liberation when we create our own spaces and uplift our voices.  

In 1926, Fire!! was published during the Harlem Renaissance in New York. The first and only issue explored topics many were still afraid to discuss within most communities such as queer identities, interracial relationships, and sex work. The issue featured two pieces by Zora Neale Hurston, one was a play called Color Struck about colorism within the black community, the other was a short story called Sweat about domestic abuse.

Richard Bruce Nugent featured a piece about bisexuality and interracial male desire in the titled, Smoke Lilies and Jade. These pieces live on today and are an essential contribution to our historical collection of literature. But they were ahead of their time, the headquarters of the magazine were burned down following the publication of the first issue.

The legacy of great black and brown writers has continued to the present. Resistance against the weight of white supremacy is powerful. In part, the democratization of writing through social media has certainly helped us create spaces for us to continue our work and some writers have carved out their spaces and pushed through with their unique voices. Some of these voices are vibrating with hope and brilliance and at the forefront are black women.

Sofiya Ballin, a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is one of the few black women writers on their staff. In Feb. 2016 she spearheaded and curated a collection of interviews called: Black History Month: What I Wish I Knew. Ballin interviewed over 20 different people including writers, artists, and activists who detailed their connections to Black History Month and illustrated the importance of a deeper education on our histories. In one of the featured stories Debora Charmelus, 22, described how learning the history of her native Haiti helped change the perspective she had once been taught, which was that Haiti was just poor and in need of foreign aid, "I had no desire to visit. Now, I'm proud to be Haitian. My ancestors led the way for slave revolts in the future. I know now how beautiful Haiti really is."

Reading our stories written and seen through the lens of other black and brown folks is powerful because it becomes a conversation rather than a telescope of whiteness looking in through our windows. We’re not on display, we’re connecting.

Some of the voices which have helped us connect to ourselves and to each other have become essential for black and brown readers, such as Ijeoma Oluo, Zoe Samudzi, Vann R. Newkirk II, Roxane Gay, Feminista Jones, Morgan Jerkins and Eve Ewing just to name a fraction. There is peace in seeing perspectives which carve out the truth within situations of extreme injustice. There is comfort in knowing that we will keep marching onwards with our stories which we will pass down for multiple generations until the peace we want is hopefully achieved. There is power in writing, there always will be.


Lara Witt is a Desi-Kenyan writer and feminist activist who focuses on highlighting the voices of women of color by exploring the intersections of racism and sexism. Witt uses social media platforms to critique pop culture and current events through a feminist lens and raises awareness about living with PTSD as a sexual assault survivor. After graduating from Temple University with a BA in journalism, she began writing freelance to establish her voice. Her pieces have been published in BUST, Blavity, Guerrilla Feminism, Rewire and the Philadelphia Daily News.

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