We’ve never been perfect…
White Teeth, Channel 4, 2002
It’s true enough that my novels were once sunnier places and now the clouds have rolled in. Part of this I chalk up simply to the experience of middle age: I wrote White Teeth as a child, and have grown up alongside it. The art of midlife is surely always cloudier than the art of youth, as life itself gets cloudier. But it would be disingenuous to pretend it is only that. I am a citizen as well as an individual soul and one of the things citizenship teaches us, over the long stretch, is that there is no perfectibility in human affairs. This fact, still obscure to a twenty-one-year-old, is a little clearer to the woman of forty-one.
As my dear, soon-departing president well understood, in this world there is only incremental progress. Only the willfully blind can ignore that the history of human existence is simultaneously the history of pain: of brutality, murder, mass extinction, every form of venality and cyclical horror. No land is free of it; no people are without their bloodstain; no tribe entirely innocent. But there is still this redeeming matter of incremental progress. It might look small to those with apocalyptic perspectives, but to she who not so long ago could not vote, or drink from the same water fountain as her fellow citizens, or marry the person she chose, or live in a certain neighborhood, such incremental change feels enormous.
Meanwhile the dream of time travel—for new presidents, literary journalists, and writers alike—is just that: a dream. And one that only makes sense if the rights and privileges you are accorded currently were accorded to you back then, too. If some white men are more sentimental about history than anyone else right now it’s no big surprise: their rights and privileges stretch a long way back. For a black woman the expanse of livable history is so much shorter. What would I have been and what would I have done—or more to the point, what would have been done to me—in 1360, in 1760, in 1860, in 1960? I do not say this to claim some pedestal of perfect victimhood or historical innocence. I know very well how my West African ancestors sold and enslaved their tribal cousins and neighbors. I don’t believe in any political or personal identity of pure innocence and absolute rectitude.
But neither do I believe in time travel. I believe in human limitation, not out of any sense of fatalism but out of a learned caution, gleaned from both recent and distant history. We will never be perfect: that is our limitation. But we can have, and have had, moments in which we can take genuine pride. I took pride in my neighborhood, in my childhood, back in 1999. It was not perfect but it was filled with possibility. If the clouds have rolled in over my fiction it is not because what was perfect has been proved empty but because what was becoming possible—and is still experienced as possible by millions—is now denied as if it never did and never could exist.