Flies in the Buttermilk: The Literary World Can Be a Minefield For Black Writers

Home Identities Flies in the Buttermilk: The Literary World Can Be a Minefield For Black Writers

How did we get to the point of fighting our way into the literary world as Black writers, seeking out mentors only to be confronted by the damaged and traumatized souls of the Black folk who tread before us?

By M Shelly Conner

I was excited to hear from Deborah Ann Jenkins (a pseudonym for soon-to-be obvious reasons), the successful Black writer whom I had befriended before my move from Chicago to central Arkansas. We had met at a workshop she led and became fast friends after she accepted my invite to attend a farewell event for my wife (then fiance’) and I.

In the short time before my relocation, Deborah had crashed at our home overnight, dined at my mother’s house, and hung out with my friends. For her part, she shared writing advice, told me how to pitch her agent, and had agreed to read my manuscript and offer notes.

So I was pleasantly surprised to receive her call a few days after our move. Sure, she’d agreed to read the manuscript, but so had several others throughout the years that I hadn’t heard back from.

When her name flashed on my phone, I squealed with delight. “It’s Deborah Ann Jenkins,” I whispered to my wife who nodded her understanding. I grabbed a notebook and pen and retreated to the bedroom for what I hoped was a helpful review of my manuscript.

We exchanged the usual pleasantries and I answered all of her questions regarding our move. And there were a lot of questions regarding the move. She wanted to know where we were living, our actual move-in date, and the name of the university and department where I’d been hired. I prattled off the information, my excitement waning to match her very measured questions. I thought maybe she hadn’t liked the manuscript.

But that wasn’t it at all. Deborah Ann Jenkins told me that months prior, someone gained access to her financial accounts and had been digitally stalking her to upend her world. She said that she was working with the F.B.I. to catch the person and was supplying them with all the new and out of the ordinary occurrences in her life. Like our friendship.

Then Deborah Ann Jenkins said, “I don’t think that this person is you, but I want to tell you that I have a friend listening to this call and I’m also recording it to give to the F.B.I.”

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How in the hell did we get here? 

I’m not talking about the F.B.I. threat and that absurd but true scenario. Deborah Ann Jenkins left a message an hour after the call (there was no way I was going to or will ever answer a call from her again) apologizing and saying she wasn’t going to send her bizarre inquisition call to the F.B.I. (a recording I held on to for my own safety). I’m wondering how the hell did we get to the point of fighting our way into the literary world as Black writers, seeking out other Black writers as mentors only to be confronted by the damaged and traumatized souls of the Black folk who tread before us?

I’m reminded of Kiese Laymon’s poignant essay, You Are the Second Person, that recounts his toxic relationship with his first editor—a Black man named Brandon Farley (a pseudonym)—who berated the now Carnegie Award-winning, best-selling author and questioned his authenticity as a Black writer. Following his admirable trail of transparency, I’ve learned about flies in the buttermilk, the speckles of Black folks in the predominantly white fields of writing and publishing. This is not about all of the very few of us (I now count myself among the few), but certainly about the skinfolk who ain’t kinfolk, the Brandon Farleys and Deborah Ann Jenkinses whose actions are so harmful and grievous that they derail the tradition of Black literature. 

Brandon Farley strung along Laymon, one of our greatest contemporary Black writers, for five years. Of course Laymon, with his talent for sharing immense vulnerability in prose that rivals the best of Baldwin (Jimmy can handle it), would probably rephrase this to place the onus of the abuse on himself, as he does in the concluding paragraphs of You Are the Second Person. He writes to Farley, “…I’ve got to take my life back and move to a place where I no longer blame you for failure.” I only had a few months with Deborah Ann Jenkins, but her strange behavior emerged fairly early. She was a six-figure advance, multi-book author who didn’t seem to have any money for bar admission, drinks, or even an Uber home. I was a newly-hired-but-not-yet-working professor pitching a novel manuscript into the publishing abyss and I was all too eager to supply what she seemed to be missing at the time. Money.

I thought about all of this in the mental and emotional spiral that ensued after her phone call. How could I be accused of theft when I had been so generous? What would her accusation mean for me in the literary world? In the professoriate? I had poured a full decade of struggle, a Ph.D. , and countless rejections and revisions into my novel. Three years on the academic job market had exacted its pound of flesh as academia’s final hazing stage. I thought of that night, where friends gathered to say their farewells to me and my wife; where they congratulated us on our engagement, and me on my tenure-track assistant professorship. I thought of how, even with the expense of our move and upcoming wedding resting largely on my wife’s shoulders until I started working, my wife kissed my cheek and told me which credit card to use to pay for Deborah Ann Jenkins’ bar admission, drinks, and the Uber to our house where we allowed Deborah Ann Jenkins to stay overnight in our guest room after the party.

I once had a friend who left me in a strip club for eight hours. On a Tuesday afternoon/evening. 

I was once lured to North Carolina under the guise of friendship only to be used to make someone jealous. Unsuccessfully. 

I’ve had friends that have ghosted me throughout the years. I still think of them all as I still think of Deborah Ann Jenkins’ friendship. I don’t care if admitting to this reads as friendship desperation. I do, however, want it to stress that what Black writers like myself and many others are most desperate for is to be looked out for by the Black writers and publishing industry folks who have come before us. 

It matters that Farley was an older Black man that manipulated Laymon as a younger Black man. It matters that Deborah Ann Jenkins is an established Black queer woman writer and I am an emerging Black queer woman writer. 

I have an amazing friend circle comprised of an impressive amount of Black queer women for which I am profoundly grateful. To find someone with that particular intersectional masala who was also a successful writer? Of course, I paid Deborah Ann Jenkins’ way at the bar and opened our home, and my mother’s home, to her. Of course, I listened to her advice.

Of all the bullshit that Brandon Farley unloaded onto Kiese Laymon, I find the most egregious to be his claim that “real Black writers make the racial, class, gender, and sexual politics of their work implicit” and his false promise that if Laymon pulled out of a contract with a publisher, that Farley would pay him more at his new publisher. Laymon recounts a pattern of Farley questioning his authenticity as a Black writer. Presumably, as a Black editor, Farley would have great insight into Black writing, and it’s important to note that the beginning of You Are the Second Person depicts a defeated Laymon wearing a T-shirt with, “What’s a real Black writer?” on the front, while the back reads, “Fuck you. Pay me.” However, it’s Farley’s periodic carrot-dangling assertions that Laymon is “on his way to becoming a real Black writer,” not the promise of more money, that lures Laymon away from a bird-in-hand contract to Brandon Farley leading him to a bush. Apparently Farley had gotten fired and simply wanted to entice as many of his Black writers away from his former company as possible. It reminds me of that time that I got lured to North Carolina to make someone jealous. Unsuccessfully. By another Black queer woman writer. 

Deborah Ann Jenkins also gave what I now know, as a published writer with an agent, to be questionable advice. She encouraged me to pitch her agent and told me exactly how to do it: “My agent hates long emails. Just send her a quick note… a few lines and mention me.” 

I’d be remiss not to reflect on the moment in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man when the narrator is given several letters of recommendation on his behalf by the Black university president, Dr. Bledsoe. The narrator doesn’t hear back from anyone. Upon delivering the final letter, he learns that they aren’t recommendations at all. He’d been sent to deliver letters imploring the recipients against hiring him so that the narrator would “continue undisturbed in [his] vain hopes while remaining as far as possible from our midst.”

Ellison never names the university where Bledsoe serves as president in the novel, yet it bears striking descriptive resemblance to Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) where Ellison was finally admitted on his third attempt in 1933. Ellison also leaves his main character unnamed. In this way, the narrator serves as an everyman. Similarly, Kiese Laymon’s essay utilizes the second person in a manner that places the reader into the narrative. A portion of my own novel everyman is set at my alma mater, Tuskegee University, and a character that appears in it is one that was cut from Ellison’s original draft of Invisible Man

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I’m wondering why Ellison didn’t just use a pseudonym for the university.

I’m wondering why Laymon and I bothered to create names for those who’ve harmed us.

I wonder if resurrecting Ellison’s gay Black professor literally places Black queer folk into canonical literature that erased them. And if my Professor Woodbridge can hug Ellison’s as this essay attempts to hug Laymon’s.

I wonder if writing Black queer characters as a Black queer writer can somehow shield me from hearing “niggers and fairies” quotes like I heard at my campus interview dinner from Ned Novak (a pseudonym), the chair of an all white search committee for an all white English department.

I had hoped to have these discussions with a Black queer woman writer. Someone who at once understands the sting when Maya Angelou writes of the “world of the pervert” in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and the salve of Celie and Shug Avery’s romance in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.

I wonder why Deborah Ann Jenkins told me to drop her agent an informal note instead of talking to her agent on my behalf. I wonder if Deborah Ann Jenkins, not ever having read my manuscript, did in fact talk to her agent on my behalf. I wonder if I got Bledsoe’d. 

Mostly, I wonder why?  Of all the shenanigans that Deborah Ann Jenkins pulled on me—having me pay for her club entry and drinks, staying overnight and over morning and over afternoon then having me drive her to work, eating the last of the guacamole at my mom’s house when there was enough to share, and threatening to call the F.B.I. on me—why what hurts the most is the fact that she didn’t read my manuscript. She Brandon Farley Bledsoe’d me.

M Shelly Conner is a dapperqueer writer and assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. Her debut novel everyman will be released July 2021 from Blackstone Publishing. She is happily repped by Beth Marshea at Ladderbird Agency.

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