Being Black in a small US town
Toni Ann Johnson’s latest book is called Light Skin Gone to Waste.
In the United States, the “collection of linked short stories” has won national praise. Ms Johnson is hoping people are just as interested here.
One of the characters is based on her grandmother, Artimeza Ward. The St Georgian was a descendant of James “Jemmy” Darrell, the Bermudian slave who was granted his freedom because of his skills as a ship’s pilot.
“The stories are based on my experience and my family's experience as one of the only Black families in a White town in upstate New York during the Sixties and Seventies; one of the only upper middle-class Black families in a community that was mostly working class and White,” she said.
Light Skin Gone to Waste begins with Philip and Velma Arrington’s move to a small town in 1962.
“After initial racist resistance, they settle in. Phil joins the tennis club, begins his private practice and soon has affairs with White women. Velma opens an antique shop and hires a White maid. They have a child, buy new homes, collect art, go skiing and have overseas adventures. It seems they’ve made it in the White world,” the synopsis reads.
“However, their daughter Maddie, one of the only Black kids in the town, faces the brunt of the racism her family’s money, education and light skin can’t protect her from.”
The title comes from an insult often thrown at people who have “light skin” as well as “features and/or a hair texture that announces Blackness”, the author explained.
“In the book, it is also used thematically to comment on this family and its members for whom light skin is not the great benefit some might expect it to be. It has also been used to insult a Black person who is not making proper use of their so-called light-skinned privilege or squandering it. One might also use it to disparage a light-skinned person who acts in a manner associated with undesirable behaviour typically associated with the lower class.”
Ms Johnson started writing as a teenager after her first love, acting, seemed like it was leading to a dead end.
“The way that I look, the way that I present, was never Black enough to play Black American roles and not White enough to play White roles,” she said. “And so I started writing roles specifically for myself until I began writing plays, and that evolved into screenwriting.”
She worked in Hollywood for more than a decade. Ruby Bridges, a Disney movie about the African American girl who integrated the New Orleans public school system, and a film in the Step Up dance franchise, are among her many works.
“I started to feel like I wasn't really using my literary chops while I was doing these Hollywood things. It's much more gratifying to write my own work, where nobody's telling me that I can't do it this way or I can't do it that way, which is what happens in screenwriting,” Ms Johnson said.
“When I'm writing for hire, I don't own the work. The source material is not mine. I'm writing to please a producer or a network or a studio or all of those and so I have to take their notes, and if I disagree, my opinion does not matter because they're paying so I have to write what they want me to write.”
She wrote a novel which “didn't sell right away” but led her to return to school for an MFA in creative writing.
The programme helped her with the rewrite of Remedy for a Broken Angel, a novel that was partly based in Bermuda and which brought her here for a book signing in 2014.
She followed that work with a novella. It won the Accents Publishing inaugural novella contest and was published by the company in 2021.
Ms Johnson was born in the US. As a child she and her family frequently visited relatives such as her great aunt, Annie Ward Meech, who lived in the former home of Ms Johnson’s great-grandmother, Clarissa Darrell Ward.
The island has a relatively minor role in her latest story.
“Artimeza does speak about being Bermudian, and her niece, who is also Bermudian, has a small part in the book, but none of the book takes place in Bermuda.”
There is “some interest” in the book which could see “films or television projects associated with it”, but at the moment Ms Johnson is concentrating on US signings and furthering her career as an author.
“I'm taking the book to places where I have an audience. So I have lots of appearances in Los Angeles. In New York, I'm going to be at The Centre for Fiction on November 10 — I’ll be there in person but it will also be live-streamed — and then a few days later, I'll be at Watchung bookstore in Montclair, New Jersey.”
A “virtual event” took place at The Writer’s Centre in Bethesda, Maryland yesterday and another at Antioch University on November 1.
Signings are planned through April, with Ms Johnson returning to Los Angeles and visiting Seattle, Washington and Detroit, Michigan.
“For me, even though literary fiction has, so far, been less lucrative, it's more artistically fulfilling. This is the work that I want to be known for, the work that I put my name on. I can say I've written this, I've created this, these are my characters as opposed to Step Up 2: The Streets when I was rewritten five times and I didn't recognise my voice when I watched the movie. But that is just the nature of the Hollywood screenwriting machine.”
Her hope is that members of her Bermudian family support her efforts and order a copy of the book off Amazon.
“If they want to get it at their local bookstore, they would probably have to call them and ask them to order it but I do hope that some of them remember me from 2014 when I was there to promote my first book. This is my third book, and I would just love to share it with them.”