Arts and Humanities Events

Kathryn H. Ross: Pivoting in the State of the World and Seeing Goodness out of that

Ross will delivered the 2020 Ray Bradbury Visiting Writer Lecture on Thursday, Oct. 29. This essay has simultaneously been published in NUVO.

Ray Bradbury, for Kathryn H. Ross, is no ordinary science fiction writer. Of his short stories involving African Americans, she says “He writes, not about us but for us; he sees us as people. I think that’s a really big deal for a writer who was writing in the 50s and 60s.”  

Having read a sample of her poetry, essays, and short stories, I think Ross is also a really big deal, and that she will be one of the most listened to literary voices of the next decade.  

Of her debut book Black was not a Label, New Books Network’s Athena Dixon writes, “Through the lenses of natural hair, faith, and microaggressions, she lights a path to what it means to seek self while still honoring the past lives, personal and historical, that connect us all.”

You can see her at the 2020 Ray Bradbury Visiting Writer Lecture, an online event hosted by the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies and the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute, Thursday, Oct 29 at 7 PM.  Sign up here.  Read about The Center for Bradbury Studies here.

Kathryn H. Ross

I interviewed Ross on October 26. Our conversation took place on Zoom, and has been edited for clarity and length.

DAN GROSSMAN: You have a column, “It matters” in the online journal Pasadena Now and one of those columns is titled “We are tired,” and it was written right after the killing of George Floyd. Could you talk a little bit about that?

KATHRYN H. ROSS: I think it stems before George Floyd because I remember I had just written about Ahmaud Arbury before that […] And then in May, George Floyd was killed, and I was reeling from the compacted tragedies back to back, and then thinking of Breonna Taylor and everything that’s been going on. I think what really pushed me over the edge was getting a lot of my news from Twitter and seeing a lot of news on Twitter that I wasn’t seeing on main news sites and main news channels like Fox or CNN. […] There were people who were actually out there in the streets seeing things —  you just never saw that stuff on the news. And so, in addition to that, I saw people were reacting to what they were seeing on Twitter. A lot of people were just saying really awful things. They were saying things like, “Black people deserve this because if they didn’t act like thugs, it wouldn’t be this way.” Or, “They’re subhumans; what did they expect?” And these were just normal everyday people, a lot of them, in their bios, they said they were Christians or “God first” and they’re out there calling image-bearers of God animals and what do they expect, trying to integrate into normal society? It really scared me that it’s 2020 and there are people out here with lives and jobs and children and spouses and they believe this rhetoric and they pass it on. And so, in that moment, I was feeling tired. I was like “I feel so hopeless.” I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to think because these things keep happening. And then, of course, since George Floyd there’s been more murders and more protests and more police brutality so it’s like that wasn’t even a tipping point […]

There’s just this feeling of fatigue and disillusionment that I’ve been struggling with and so when I wrote that I wanted to be more open about that feeling, especially because so many of my non-Black friends were coming to me asking me to explain the cultural moment, and I’m just like, “I’m trying to process it myself and I don’t have time to teach you about what you should be feeling or shouldn’t be feeling” so I just gave it the very truthful title “We are tired” because I was tired I still am tired but at that moment I really felt exhausted.

GROSSMAN: In that essay you mentioned Ray Bradbury and in the context of people seeing George Floyd on their screens and comparing it to Fahrenheit 451 and the telescreens that are everywhere in that novel. I thought that was very interesting.

Kathryn H. Ross’s debut collection

ROSS: I have written about Ray Bradbury once before, maybe twice before, but once for sure. In that essay I had written for Black History Month, I wrote that in February of this year, I was talking about two of his stories that are centered on Black characters, and how he portrayed them and the crux of what I was talking about was how he portrayed Black people in the future and how he kind of made a point to show that Black will survive and thrive and that even though racism is still very rampant like in his story “Way up in the Middle of the Air” […]

It’s talking about how in the early 2000s, people are still living like in the Jim Crow era and so the Black people just decided to get on a rocket and go away. And then the next story “On the Other Foot” […] the Black people on Earth came to Mars and they have their own colony and they learned that the white people are coming and their first thought was like ‘Oh we should just treat them how they treat us all these years,’ but by this time, there are children who’ve never seen a white man before. There are children who don’t know what race is because all they’ve known is their Black community. By the end of the story, the Black people decide that’s not right; that happened to us but we shouldn’t do it to them. So really, I’ve always really loved how Bradbury portrays Black people.

I think that in that column I wrote that he writes not about us but for us where he sees us as people. I think that’s a really big deal for a writer who was writing in the 50s and 60s, an older white man who was in the midst of when it was normal to be outright racist and he wasn’t. And so when the thing when George Floyd happened, when he was murdered, I was thinking about Fahrenheit 451. I wrote two papers, on Bradbury when I was in college and in grad school, and about how he predicts the future in some ways in his writing and it really struck me that he was writing about Black people in this very positive human way —  that you don’t really see in a lot of old white authors’ work. And then he was also pairing this with science fiction where he was like looking into the future and in Fahrenheit 451 televised executions were just a pastime. And I was connecting that to today where —  it’s not like they’re intentionally televised —  but because of social media people recording these things, they just pop up on your feed. That was actually how I saw George Floyd. He just popped up on my Twitter timeline, and I had no context for what it was. I was very shocked. It happened again with one of my dear friends, where he was on Twitter and he saw another Black man being gunned down, just unsolicited on Twitter, and how people reshare these videos. They go viral and they reshare them but they never put a trigger [warning to say be] careful; this is a human being —  being hurt, being shot, being killed. They just share it and then they have their rhetoric about whether or not the person deserved it. And so, that level of disconnect and that lack of empathy really made me think that the sterilized society that Bradbury was writing about in Fahrenheit 451 where people just lacked empathy and lacked basic human connection because we were so far removed from each other and so into technology. It’s not quite the same, because it’s not the technology that is making us unempathetic; it’s just lack of empathy. But it’s a weird pairing that I think echoes Fahrenheit 451, so that’s why I added that in there because it just felt so eerie deja vu from a dystopian novel I read.”

GROSSMAN: Tell me about your collection Black was not a Label  that just came out. Is that going to form the basis for your lecture for the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies on the 29th?

ROSS: Yes. So that is my memoir. It’s a collection of essays —  personal nonfiction essays —  and poetry. I actually wrote it as my thesis for my master’s program. I had a few of the essays published in different journals between 2017 and 2019 and in April of 2019, I met up with a publisher and signed a contract and so that came out and it’s just been really crazy since it’s really weird to have a work that’s so vulnerable and personal being my first work and it’s just kind of out and people are reading it in classes and things like that, but it’s gotten a really good response, people are really learning a lot from it.

Just like reading some of the reviews I’ve gotten like on Amazon and Goodreads people are very kind and very sweet and they’re very honest and open about what they’re learning from my story. So the way I got plugged into the Ray Bradbury lecture was from that column I wrote about Bradbury in February […] And then somehow, by way of England, I think we got connected to Indiana University and I got connected with Jason Auckerman and the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies and so Jason read my book. He has assigned it to a lot of his classes, and just from us connecting he learned more about my connection with Bradbury, my love for science fiction, and some of the other writing I do and so he just invited me to speak. It was very serendipitous.

GROSSMAN: Who are some of the other writers who have influenced you that you carry with you? 

ROSS: That’s a very good question. I will say that when I was a kid, the writers that really pushed me to want to be a writer: First was Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Those books really kind of whetted my appetite for English and literature. I especially loved how in those books they would give you a big word and then teach you what it means, as I was actively building my vocabulary when I was reading those. I read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe as a kid as well. And when I got into college and grad school I was opened up to a lot more writers of color […] One of my favorite books is the autobiography of an ex-colored man by James Weldon Johnson. I feel a lot of my story is in his story and so reading him has always felt very personal and very connected. The same with Nella Larson. And many of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, a lot of them are just these glittery loves I found later in my life […]  When I was a teenager in high school I didn’t come across them until college and grad school and I wish I had known them when I was a kid. But having encountered them now I’m learning so much about writing about my culture, writing about myself, writing about racism, basically. 

I took an ethnic literature class, my last year of college, and that exposed me to a ton of writers of color like Sherman Alexie, I read Joy Luck Club [by Amy Tan], Jhumpa Lahiri, so just a lot of different people of color and their stories and what I learned from that is how to write about my story and how to write about my personal ethnicity and heritage, and write a story in that realm. Because I grew up reading a lot of the classic white authors I really loved. First of all, I do still love Steinbeck. Steinbeck was lone of my big things when I was in high school. I used to love Fitzgerald and then after I read some of his later stories, I didn’t like him so much anymore. Same with Hemingway. It wasn’t lost on me that these were that writers I was exposed to, that  these were like these were the cannon, these were the cream of the crop, and the other writers, the Harlem Renaissance writers, they were saved for like survey classes, they were saved for little electives, they weren’t part of American literature, which just really frustrated me. 

So when I took that ethnic literature class I saw other writers of color rejecting that the white narrative is the normal narrative and writing about themselves and saying “This is normal too, because we also live here on Earth and we have stories and we have American stories” and so I was like, “I need to write from the inside out,” instead of the outside in where I was kind of absorbing all of the white stories, the white normalcy, the white supremacy. And I don’t mean that in a hateful and violent way. It’s just that white supremacy can be so normalized. That’s what I mean.

GROSSMAN: It’s not something that’s in people’s hearts, necessarily, or it could be, but it’s more that the system that’s out there and what we deal with every day is that kind of what you’re saying?

ROSS: Yeah. It just looks like the normal standard for America. You don’t see a movie with an all white cast and call it a white movie but you would see, Crazy Rich Asians, or Black Panther people were calling those Asian and Black movies just because they had an all Asian and Black cast. So it’s just that level of normalcy like, “Why can’t those movies just be movies as well? Why do they have to be differentiated because of the people who are in the movies?”  And it’s just because the people who are in the movies are not white. Ethnic literature was really eye-opening for me to see that this isn’t the norm and it doesn’t have to be the norm. And America is such a small bubble … It’s funny to think that whiteness is the norm. I mean, it makes sense; it’s so prevalent here. But it doesn’t have to be and globally it isn’t.

GROSSMAN: Would it be better if, say, it was all mixed up if people would read. Toni Morrison next to Steinbeck, say, or is it better you think, to have critical survey classes? What’s your idea on that? Have you thought of that at all?

ROSS: I have, yeah. I think, in August, I bought a ton of books in an online bookshop at work. I was just marveling at some of the names I’d never read before. Octavia Butler, is a very prolific writer and I’ve never read her before. So I’m making a point to read her. Now, I just bought The Parable of the Sower and I’m going to be reading that in December and also doing a chat on it on my Instagram, but in school I never read her. I was never assigned her. I’m not saying that we should have less of the white writers because like I said I love Steinbeck, I love Edith Wharton. There are many white writers I admire and helped me become the writer I am. But I think what you just said like Toni Morrison, alongside Steinbeck, Nella Larson alongside Hemingway. Just getting those perspectives, alongside the “classics,” is just more of an accurate portrayal of American life. So that people, students, are given access to writers of color, so that they don’t have to intentionally choose a critical survey class because outside of that there’s really no exposure.

GROSSMAN: How does that notion of double consciousness figure into your work?

ROSS: The double consciousness; that was W.E.B. Dubois … in The Souls of Black Folk, and when I first came across that, it was an awakening for me because it put words to something I’d always experienced but I didn’t know what it was. Basically, double consciousness is just who you are, and knowing that and then knowing how the world sees you. I think anyone can relate to the double consciousness, but especially for Black people and people of color. It stems from stereotypes and stigmas put on different races. 

So you know yourself to just be a normal person. You have a family, you have pets, you enjoy movies and books and then on the outside they think, “Oh no, that person’s a thug, they’re not educated, they’re not good enough.” They’re all these all of these negative things. But the double consciousness basically is […] knowing that people look at you that way. And I think my writing became heavily influenced by that after a while. When I was in college and I started dating because I was shown by a couple different people that they had expectations and biases about dating a Black woman that I had never encountered before, and I guess I should say I had encountered it in high school, but I didn’t really date in high school. But I was also kind of in a space of my own denial back in high school so when I was in college [I found myself being] turned down from people who do like me or I’m being turned down from people who think I’m cool or I’m pretty, but [they say] “Oh I can’t date a Black girl and my family wouldn’t like it. I don’t know if I’m ready for it.” I’m just like, What does that mean to you? I’m just a person. You’re just dating another person, the same way I’m dating you. And that was when I was awakened to it. I was this young twentysomething; I’m an English major. I like these films, I like these books, I like these shows, and I can connect on all of that with a guy, and he will still look at me and think all these other things about me because I’m Black, even if he’s gotten to know me and knows me as a person. His stigmas and society’s stigmas color how he sees me, and that colors his decisions and how he wants to approach me —  if we’re friends, if we date, if we’re not friends […]. It just happens. It happened one time that was very very significant and impactful but it’s happened, other times as well. I was like okay I can’t ignore this. This is a societal ill. This is something that I’m experiencing because of how society in America is.

GROSSMAN: Another essay that you wrote that I really enjoyed was “Hair”. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

ROSS: That is one that’s included in my book. “Hair” was a very therapeutic essay for me to write. Up until I was 19, I had really long hair, I had it chemically straightened, as you read in the essay. My scalp was very tender because I had so much hair and because it is very thick. It was a lot of work for my mom to tame it everyday because it was just so much. And so she got me a relaxer because that relaxes the curls, into just a straight pattern and it makes it just easier to handle. And so I got my relaxer when I was about 11 I think and I had that up until I was 19, and just in between those years, I had a lot of trauma around it, which is really painful because I know my mom was only doing it to make it easier on me and herself to deal with my hair. But on the outside people were saying that I was trying to be white, or that I wasn’t really Black or that my hair was too nice to be a black person, and people wouldn’t believe me, and they would ask me what my race was and I would tell them and they would say no: you’re too good looking or your hair is too nice looking, you can’t be Black, which was the message that Black people are ugly and they have bad hair, and that was very damaging for me.

When I got to the end of high school, I wasn’t straightening my hair as much because I was really tired of people asking me questions and assuming it was a wig and things like that. So I would braid it up that night so it would have more texture because the relaxer would make it naturally straight after I would wash it. So I would braid it up at night so it had more texture so that staved off some of the questions. But people were still so nosy and so were asking me all the time and by the time I got into college, I was tired. Literally, because it’s a lot of work to do the relaxing. It was a lot of money, and I was just very tired of staying up at night to braid my hair; I was very tired of having to go to a salon every three months. Also I came to a place where I was letting my hair grow out a little because I wanted to be a certain length before I cut it and so I was trying to let it grow out. And whenever I washed my hair I would see how my natural curls were so pretty I was like “Why am I been doing this all these years? Why have I been hiding this?” And so, I actually cut my hair short still with the relaxer. And then I got too antsy and then I just cut off all the hair. So it was really, really short close cropped curls. And I’ve just had it that way since. So I just have never had anything, no chemicals, no color, no straightening. I don’t really know how long my hair is now because I haven’t straightened it in six or seven years. So yeah so “Hair” was very therapeutic for me to write because I think a lot of Black girls can relate to that story, and relate to wanting to be their natural selves, but part of it is […]  ease and cutting my hair was very liberating for me. It was also just reclaiming my natural self and actually claiming ease because wearing my hair naturally is a lot easier than the relaxer ever was.

GROSSMAN: Well thank you for sharing that. Appreciate it. Is there anything else I should know about you and your work?

ROSS: I will say that this year has been really crazy. I was supposed to go on a book tour this past spring. And it all got cancelled because of COVID. And while that was very painful, it worked out really well because I did all of my events online. And I reached way more people than I ever would have if I was going to just local bookstores.

So by putting my book tour virtual, a lot more people could be reached. A lot more tuned in, a lot more people learned about me, a lot more people picked up my book and have followed me and my journey. And again, it’s kind of crazy because my story is so personal to have a global reach, but it’s also really cool because as I said earlier, it’s really opening people’s eyes and they’re learning about their own racial biases and how they might be contributing to harmful moments in the lives of people of color that they might not even notice. And I don’t mean just white people. People of color do it sideways as well. I take care to mention that in my book I had my own moments where I would do and say things that were not okay and not right and they were the product of growing up in America and seeing white as standard and seeing everything else as less than, and just having to unlearn that as you go along. So, even though it’s been so very vulnerable and very personal, it’s also been really cool to reach so many people and to have such a positive response. I was very afraid, before I published this with my publisher, because I thought I might get some backlash or people might send me hate mail or something. That has not happened. I don’t know if it still could, but it hasn’t yet so it’s been really nice. I’m having to pivot in the state of the world and seeing goodness come out of that.

GROSSMAN: Thank you so much, Kathryn, for sharing all that. I really appreciate it. I’ll be sure to tune in on the 29th, I guess it’s a really good thing to be on a telescreen, as you’ll be at the Bradbury lecture, and do something constructive. I really appreciate it.

ROSS: Thank you. Have a great rest of your day.

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