Spotlighting Black Authors: Celebrating Black History Month with Kathryn Ross
By Emily Morris
As part of our Black History Month series, we are spotlighting the words and works of Kathryn H. Ross, author of Black Was Not a Label. Kathryn H. Ross lives and writes in Southern California. She works as a professional freelance copywriter and consultant, an adjunct professor of English, and a writer and editor with Hallmark Mahogany. Kathryn is a lover of great stories and writes to get to the heart of the relationships and connections we create in life.
Black Was Not a Label is a collection of essays that explores the intersection of faith and racial trauma and the attempt to come to terms with instances of otherness, isolation, racism, erasure, anger, and lost love. A look at life within the “veil” W.E.B. Du Bois spoke of in his work, The Souls of Black Folk, this collection is both catharsis and lamentation to God for the self and all who have felt trapped within this (sometimes impenetrable) veil.
Emily Morris: What are some authors or artists that inspire your work?
Kathryn Ross: For Black Was Not A Label, six titles/authors directly influenced its creation and development. These are The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson, The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois, The Metamorphosis by Ovid, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. I first read these books in college; each dealt with identity and understanding one’s self, culture, and history in ways I hadn’t seen before. They pushed me to look at myself and specifically my race in a way I never had before, and gave me new lenses through which to view my past and present experiences and how my skin color and the assumptions and stereotypes around it influenced (and would continue to influence) so much of my life. The depth of honesty in each work was as inspiring as it was devastating and showed me that not everything one writes about oneself must be from the “bright side.” Sometimes, it’s just discovery and then mourning.
EM: When did you begin writing, and why?
KR: I began writing at a very young age, but I didn’t write seriously until high school. Before then, I wrote lots of short stories, poems, and kept journals for fun, and thought publishing a book would be a cool but unattainable thing. When I was a sophomore in high school, I was confronted with how much I loved English and how good I was in my English classes, and not just with grammar, but with reading comprehension and insight. I felt I was able to really see the heart of the works we read and understand them on this empathetic level that just felt natural and inherent. My freshman English teacher first pointed out my talents in English to me, but it wasn’t until sophomore year and reading Ray Bradbury (who quickly became one of my favorite authors) for the first time that I realized writing and storytelling was not just an interest, but a calling. From then on, writing became much more serious to me and I felt I could see a future in it.
EM: What do we not discuss enough during Black History Month?
KR: I think the thing we don’t discuss enough during Black History Month is the erasure during the rest of the year. While Black History Month is a start for recognition and celebration, it also welcomes a lot of racism and pushback. For example, the other day I saw “white history month” trending on Twitter and someone made the point that you don’t see such a hashtag on Twitter at any other time of the year — not during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month or Hispanic Heritage Month. And I think the reason for that is that hatred runs so deep in this country that while we have time to acknowledge Black history (which is American History), it’s clearly something the masses don’t want to think about and don’t want to really acknowledge at all, let alone during the designated time. Black history has always been on the fringes of our American society historically because so much of it is atrocious and horrible and inhumane and the powers that be don’t want to remember or acknowledge that, but that’s not all Black history is. There is triumph and love and innovation and goodness, too and both sides — Black joy and Black devastation — need to be taught and seen. And I think that while we have these efforts and ways to recognize Black history and heritage today, it’s more like being given a snack to keep the stomach quiet when what the body needs is a consistent meal that nourishes and builds strength to stop it from starving. So while we talk about Black history, we don’t talk about how many don’t want to talk about Black history, and why that is.
EM: Your essay collection, Black Was Not a Label, navigates the tenuous relationship between religion, race, and self-discovery. What do you hope readers will take away from your stories? Which aspects of yourself and your history have been most challenging to share?
KR: I hope that readers will just be enlightened by my stories. I hope they’ll learn that my experiences didn’t happen in a vacuum and the Black people they know have likely experienced something similar, if not exactly the same. I want them to be able to see the unseen, peek behind the veil, and gain a deeper understanding of something they can’t fully appreciate if no one points it out to them. I then hope they would go forward and change their behavior and the behavior of those in their circles, whether that’s at work or in their friend groups, or in their families. So many microaggressions are committed because of ignorance, but ignorance is not much of an excuse. There are resources, and my book is one of them. I just hope it will be picked up so that people who want to do better can learn how. Regarding how much of myself I’ve shared in my work, it’s all been challenging to put out into the world. Sometimes it feels like a spotlight has been put on me and it brings pity and shock, which isn’t what I want. I’m sharing my experiences because they haven’t just happened to me. Everyone who looks like me can relate in some way and maybe they need words to help voice their own experiences to the people in their lives who love them but maybe aren’t listening or seeing. It’s challenging to share that Blackness and the negativity attached to it affects who loves you and who doesn’t, who finds you attractive and who doesn’t, who sees you and who doesn’t, who deems you worthy and who doesn’t. Basically, it’s acknowledging how many people out there don’t see me as a full person and calling them out in a gentle way and reminding them that I am, and we are, all human.
Black Was Not a Label (2nd edition) will be available soon! More info at Red Hen.