The ‘Most Liveable City’ continues to push out local Black artists: My experience at the Pittsburgh Writers House Residency

By November 18, 2020 No Comments

Alona Williams

By Alona Williams
Special to the Pittsburgh Current

Walking in the door of the Writers House Pittsburgh founded this fall of 2020,I was the youngest resident at age 23. I was the only Black person. I was the only poet. And, I was the only Pittsburgh artist in the space. The residency calls itself “a physical home and support community for writers,” with an emphasis on nonfiction storytelling, “offering residencies to writers who are poorly served by MFA communities including writers of color and those identifying as LGBTQIA. Further, each resident will have a living and writing space of their own, be paired with a mentor appropriate for their work and goals, and will have teaching or public programming opportunities via the House.”

What I didn’t know when I arrived was that after 11 days, I’d leave in the middle of the night from this house because of how deeply microaggressively racist and violent it was toward me. The level of microaggressive surveillance via projection of “community” was so overwhelming that I could not do what I went there to do for myself. I left before I was even given a mentor and could start working.

My experience demonstrates how rich, white privileged “liberal” women create expectations and labor for Black people which is racist and violent. It demonstrates the laziness of whiteness and how it expects Black people to acquiesce to its every demand. It also demonstrates how whiteness can be careless and mediocre yet still have resources to enact this violence; whether they’re aware of it or not. Being isolated in more than one way was enough, but being Black and the only person born and raised on Pittsburgh soil was definitely the most obvious anomaly.

Local Black artists need efficient and substantial support that is not rooted in white supremacist parameters. We’re brought into these spaces because we have talent, but we are surveilled, scrutinized, questioned and treated differently than our white and white-adjacent counterparts.This is not an example of white supremacy extremism, but subtle and unconscious bias that is violent if not reflected on and adjusted. When these microaggressions build, they are no longer micro, and quite frankly they never were.

There was an immediate feeling of isolation in the house. It became clear that I was expected to acclimate to the climate and culture of this residency which was based around eating and doing activities together. I was the outsider because I already existed outside of this space, so I was very intentional about taking my time easing into this residency space and what I was there to do. Which is write. After all, I am the only person in this house like me. I have the right to say how I will exist in a space, especially one that was not even considering people like me. My boundaries were not respected.

It was clear from the beginning that there was no respect or regard for the full person I am outside of the space. The residency director assumed that I cared for her approval and that she was doing me a favor. The entitlement to my social energy with scheduled bi-weekly dinners and “field trips/road trips” — during a pandemic, no less — ultimately pushed me out of the space.

The first week there, the director planned a trip to Lake Chautauqua, in New York. We were expected to drive together in one car, and have lunch at a restaurant in a different state. I did not feel comfortable going with people I didn’t know much less during a pandemic. I did not respond to the invitation. The expectation of control that this woman thought she could have over my life was microaggressional at best and white supremacist surveillance at worst. When I tried to talk to her about my work and hopes for my time at the residency, she diverted the conversation to the necessity of me getting to know the other residents. It was clear she was not interested in how I wanted to exist in the space, which was my first red flag. Instead of listening to me, she emphasized how she hadn’t seen me around the house and how she thought that would shift, once again placing expectations on how I existed. I also want to note that out of 3 bathrooms in the house, there was only one that was ready and there were 4 residents. I guess I was supposed to bypass the minimal expectation of the house being finished upon arrival, as she got more comfortable in her expectation of having access to me whenever she wanted. A blatant example of placing unnecessary discomfort and labor on me.

Our first house meeting was overwhelming. It was clear the director was adamant about being a large part of our experience and curating a lot of what it would be socially. We were all required to do COVID testing before moving in. The director doesn’t live there, her children attended school, and participated in extracurriculars, and yet,  was in the home every day without a mask because her office is there. When I went home to spend time with my family(who had been quarantining), she said I was “making the bubble bigger.” I took this as another attempt to isolate me from my existing community.

The professor who recommended this program to me was my advocate. The director called this space an “intentional community” after I expressed my discomfort and stress in the house. The words were a white-savior shield, and I could only navigate this passive-aggressive white woman for so long before it wore on me. My professor acted as a bridge and ally for me and gave the director some feedback. This is her first time hosting a residency, after all, but it was clear she remained adamant in controlling the narrative about how people would exist in the space. In fact, she positioned me as the problem, saying she thinks I got “cold feet,” while also stating I was her best applicant.

In a Guardian interview with Leslie Lokko’s on why she left City College of New York, she said, “The Black woman arrives in an organization and everyone is so enthusiastic. It’s treated like the coming of the second messiah. Then she begins to question the organization and hold people accountable for their actions, and soon she’s targeted and made out to be the problem.”

Pittsburgh-based writer, and National Book Award Finalist Deesha Philyaw told me she was disappointed but not surprised by my experience. “Sadly, this is an old story, this expectation that we will accommodate white people’s expectations, feelings, and comfort, even when they are not in service of our art or our best interests in general. And our resistance and insistence on our autonomy is never welcomed. Authentic community shouldn’t have to be forced. It grows from mutual respect, and nothing about this residency sounds respectful to the life and work of an artist.”

I communicated with the residency director the best way I could and so did my professor. But once I saw that the director was not open to critique, I decided to leave without a word. I had zero labor left for her. This is another example of what Lokko expressed in her piece when she said, “There is a deeply embedded idea in America of the figure of the caring Black female who will simply pick up all the work.”

On the night I left the residency, months after being accepted into the Writers House, I received a “contract” from the director via email. The language reiterates community over and over with a slight mention of writing, something I have never seen a real residency make secondary. The contract used language like, “you were seeking time in an intentional community bound by writing”, while the next sentence says “whether your reason to apply and accept were personal, professional, or financial the nature of the house —considering mission—alone means each resident is here to navigate this time in a supportive communal setting.”

A contract by definition is “an agreement between two parties which defines expectations and obligations.” I’ve never seen a contract that told me what I was looking for in an experience before. The director was never clear about what the “intentional community” was intentional about. A residency by definition is, “A program that gives artists the opportunity to live and work outside of their usual environments, providing them with time to reflect, research, or produce work. During a residency, artists can explore new locations, different cultures, and experiment with different materials.”  The Writers House contract did not have a direct or thorough mission statement that centered the artists’ work. Instead of the focus being the work, the focus was on hanging out together.

The Writers House advisory committee is comprised of the director’s husband, and she was not forthcoming about whether there are more board members and if so, who they are. These are people who should be holding this director accountable. The local community needs to hold her accountable.

Within the past month, new language has been added to the Writers House website, regarding the advisory committee, “We’re currently establishing an advisory committee of writers, librarians, and others with the aim of including a balance of team members based in Pittsburgh and across the country with an emphasis on the Rust Belt and Appalachia.”

Perhaps this change in language is a result of my leaving and the concerns I’ve raised. However, this is an attempt at saving face after people had already explained the systemic issues within the organization.

A Writers House should not center around frivolous buzzwords that have nothing to do with participants’ actual writing. Language was not sacred in that space and was used carelessly.

This experience has taught me a lot about assumptions. I assumed when I wrote my blurb about coming into the house (featured on the website) that there was an understanding that when I said I wanted to “create a stable community that could support writers,” that they knew I was talking about Black writers and Black community. I’m no one’s token and being in a space where that is put on me made me feel obligated to bring more people like me in the space before I even got there. The director also had many assumptions about me and how this program would go for me. She acted like I needed her.

When my professor recommended the Writers House residency to me, I initially thought it would be a beneficial opportunity. I was fresh out of undergrad. My goal was to revive a writing project centered on gentrification. I had planned to revise and write new poems about the changing dynamics of Pittsburgh and where that leaves me, and my community.  I came into the Writers House, a young Black woman writer, from a heavily gentrified neighborhood, who still carries the spirit of her community with her. I wanted time and space to carry out this mission. Instead, I experienced nothing but rampant, ignorant and microaggressive racism and white supremacy. This carelessness and lack of intention is exactly what pushes Black artists out of Pittsburgh.

Local multidisciplinary artist Christina Springer also commented on her experience navigating her artistic autonomy in Pittsburgh, “The organization Christiane Leach and I co-founded, Sun Crumbs, closed our doors because it had been made clear to us increased funding was impossible without micro-management and surveillance, and also, that it would be ludicrous to expect to receive compensation for our labor.  A tried and true aberration traditionally inflicted on non-White femmes. Microaggressions have always forcefully reminded me to go make and find my own opportunities.”

Not all is lost though. I will continue on my artistic journey with the same confidence and will continue my writing journey with excitement. Toni Morrison famously said, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again your reason for being.” This experience was a very serious distraction indeed, but I know space is my birthright. Trying to micromanage and surveil me is a disservice, and I will not be rushed. This is what I deserve.

The director has since then opened up another application to the residency, hoping to fill my space. Philyaw publicly expressed this was not a safe space on social media, and the one other non-white resident took it upon herself to send Philyaw an email trying to gas light and discredit my experience. In a residency centered on creating the best work, residents wouldn’t even be privy enough to think this was acceptable. From this action alone I know I made the right choice. I could not make my highest quality art if I couldn’t be my whole self safely. Nor could I be authentically in “community” with women that would attempt to discredit my authentic perspective.

I want Black artists to know that this is not a space created with you in mind. We deserve control over our time and space. Black artists, young Black artists of all intersections deserve to have spaces molded to fit us, or at the very least be safe from the violence of racism and white supremacy in these creative spaces. Take this as a call to action for pouring into the spaces that are built for young Black local artists to exist in without violence. They exist and need support. I am blessed to have a support system of seasoned Black local artists with dignity and authenticity who supported me through this. You can find out more about their work below. Let this be a lesson in control of the creative process for all of my peers. May you always exist in the space of your deep worth and authenticity when navigating a creative career in this city and beyond.

ALONA WILLIAMS is a poet and Pittsburgh native. She is a 2020 graduate of Chatham University where she earned a BFA in Creative Writing with a Minor in Music. She participated in the Winter Tangerine’s 2018 workshop, and has been published (or has work forthcoming) in 1839 Magazine, The Minor Bird, MoonStone Arts Center’s Philadelphia Says: Resisting Arrest, and Femme Literati: Mixtape. She is a contributing author in two anthologies, the forthcoming Pittsburgh Neighborhood Guidebook and the recently released Tenderness – a Literary Anthology and Book of Spells: Evidence

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