This is no. 66 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
—1 Corinthians 13:11
At some point while putting together the manuscript that would become my debut poetry collection, Horsepower, I got it into my mind that I was writing a bildungsroman—a bildungsroman in poems. Maybe someone used this term when my poem was up in workshop, or maybe one of my MFA professors suggested it in office hours. Before this point, I’d been talking about it for several years as “an escape narrative,” but it was, specifically, the escape narrative of a child.
The coming-of-age story, as we know it in the American literary canon, usually depicts a white boy-child—possessed of naïveté and mischief, prone to being punished—who sets off on a literal or figurative journey, during which he is presented with a series of lessons and, through them, reaches a stage of maturity or young adulthood. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer likely comes to mind.
Originally a German literary genre, the word bildungsroman translates to “novel of education” or “novel of formation.” “Coming of age” is a derivative of this genre, but similarly signals to a process of maturation or the development of a character. This genre was—and still is—seen as a useful way to teach children what “childish things” they should leave behind, to what character and behavior they should aspire. But when the genre developed in the American tradition, it took on America’s subconscious anxieties.
What has white U.S. society historically seen as “childish”? Are the lessons of the traditional canon useful for everyone? Harmful to some? Not too long ago—and still in some instances and places—adult Black men were referred to as “boy” by white citizens, adult and child alike, and Black people and traditions are often still not seen as “sophisticated.”
As a poet, I spend a lot of time trying to recover what I’ve been encouraged to leave in childhood—imagination and wonder, but also, as a Black person, certain aspects of my identity. Because of this double-consciousness, I’m inclined to peel back the dogma of adulthood, and I have found one of the layers of this education to be an assimilation project. Inherent in this assimilation project is a belief in the superiority of white things: customs, canons, behavior, hairstyles, speaking and writing styles.
Is a genre in this tradition useful for non-white children if to become an adult in our society is to adopt white customs, while certain features of Black culture (the way we wear our hair or dress or speak or communicate) are seen as “childish” or “unsophisticated”? What is the relationship between Black culture and “professionalism”? What is “sophisticated” literature? What do these standards of adulthood teach Black children about themselves, about what they should aspire to and what they should leave behind? But, more important, what would a Black child’s coming-of-age story reveal or teach us about our society?
Bring on the children, imitate the children. Not childish, but child-like.
—“Swagger Jackson’s Revenge,” Jay Electronica
I remember a particular experience in workshop around a poem in my manuscript now titled “Self-Portrait as Disney Princess.” In the poem, the speaker speaks directly to her child-self who is galivanting around the urban-pastoral of her backyard. The direct address performs two functions. The first is description—the speaker describes the scene in which she finds her child-self in memory: “You are green / as the colonial Pippins piling beneath a neighbor’s Newtown.” The second function is recovery—rather than merely describing the fixed scene that the child inhabits, the adult-speaker contextualizes the scene with the wisdom of hindsight, or, in other words, the adult-speaker speaks from the other side of the lessons that have led her to this matured vantage: “Never a child with other children. Dead summer, so dark / The bottoms of your feet look as if you’ve skipped through ash.”
During the workshop, most of my cohort read the poem as tragic—there was a sense of pity around the child, who they felt was trapped in the household of her racist grandfather. What bothered me the most was their feeling that she was doomed. But one person, another Black woman at the table, recognized the poem’s nuanced, complex emotional tones, which held a simultaneity—survival but also exploration, subjugation but also Black joy. Some of these plot-outcomes and behaviors of the child-speaker might be read as failure via a white canonical understanding of the bildungsroman because some of the necessary lessons and strategies for a Black child’s survival and arrival at adulthood—escape, waywardness, the rejection of a hero or savior complex—directly conflict with the values of a white-supremacist society.
After this workshop, I began to look at my work-in-progress as part of a distinct genre with its own respective conventions: the Black bildungsroman. During the revision stage, I asked myself: What are some of the distinguishing features characteristic of Black childhood that are illegible in the traditional bildungsroman? What did I want to honor, recover, rescue?
Once I had this framework, I could transform the work; I could craft what would normally be seen as tragic as triumphant. Escape could be skilled and elusive. Waywardness could be aspirational. The Black child didn’t have to return to society and the status quo, fitting in better. The Black child could be celebrated as a perpetual runaway.
In the Black bildungsroman, the narrative arc does not result in the child arriving at maturity or adulthood because the Black child lacks the freedom to come of age naively, and must, from the beginning, possess a wisdom of the conflicts and dangers inherent to adulthood, namely the violence that results from a societal creed of white superiority. The Black bildungsroman presents an arc at the end of which the Black child has become adept at surviving such a society. Rather than a “novel of education” or a “novel of formation,” the Black bildungsroman is a collection of preservation or a collection of survival, the preservation and survival of the Black child in the world created by the poet, and in the sensibility and memory of the adult-speaker.
When I was a child, I spoke not, I learned to understand the adults around me, to think like them, I lived with an adult’s awareness: but when I became an adult, I went back to rescue the child, to encourage the child, to honor the child.
Joy Priest is the author of Horsepower, which won the 2019 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press in September. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in numerous publications, including BOAAT, Connotation Press, Four Way Review, espnW, Gulf Coast, Mississippi Review, and Poetry Northwest, and have been anthologized in The Louisville Anthology (Belt Publishing, September 2020), A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South (Hub City Press, October 2020) and Best New Poets 2014, 2016, and 2019. A doctoral student in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston, Priest has also been a journalist, a theater attendant, a waitress, and a fast food worker. She has facilitated writing workshops and arbitration programs with adult and juvenile incarcerated women, and has taught composition, rhetoric, comedy, and African American arts and culture at the university level.