Author Makayla Mattocks is in her third year at Oakwood University, where she is working toward her goal of becoming a New York Times bestselling author. Last year, she published her first book called What We Fight For, available on Amazon. She tells Spectrum about the inspiration behind the book and why she wrote it with both a Black and a white audience in mind.
But a brother can only dream,
Just to wake up to a nightmare of,
back of the bus,
back of the line,
And the white drinking fountain just looks so much better than mine,
So, I find myself getting thirsty from time to time,
Please, just a little sip,
Please, just one foot in the door of a country I built for free,
I am angry at the way you depict me,
Scared of living in my own skin because you are scared of me”
(Excerpt from “I Am a Man” by Makayla Mattocks)
Question: In January 2021, you self-published a book called What We Fight For, a collection of poems and essays highlighting different aspects of the Black experience in America. Your book is available on Amazon. What made you want to create this book?
Answer: What led me to create this book was the Black community mourning George Floyd. I vividly remember watching the video footage of his murder at the hands of law enforcement, and while white America was in shock, I found the horrible events that took place to be of no surprise.
I was angry. I was angry that another Black brother had been ripped from my community and angry at white people for being surprised about this happening. It has always happened—they just didn't pay enough attention before.
I have always turned to writing to process my thoughts and emotions, and this time was no different. I put my anger into the stanzas, my sorrow in words, and my hope between the lines.
Soon after writing one of the first pieces of my book called “Why I’m Numb,” I performed it for a memorial service my church was having for George Floyd and the many others we have lost to police brutality. After the performance, people asked me if they could purchase the poem or if it was published. I took this as a sign from God to create What We Fight For.
Over what time frame did you write the eight poems included in the book?
I wrote the eight poems that make up the core of my book over about two weeks. The poems were written in such a short amount of time because I was full of emotion when I wrote them. I was simply venting about many experiences, social constructs, and injustices I have faced or witnessed others face due to being Black in America. Every poem touches on an aspect of the African American experience that I had not voiced before.
My voice matters and I am glad that my book gave me the opportunity to share it.
You published stories of real-life experiences to go along with the poems. Did you interview people that you know? Where did you find these stories?
To find the stories that I included in my book, I simply turned to my community. I took the time to go through each poem and pick who I thought would best offer real-life points of view on the issues each poem discussed. I interviewed cousins, neighbors, friends, and church leaders, some of whom I had never had a conversation with before. I even interviewed people that I did not necessarily agree with, because everyone should be heard and who am I to censor the feelings of my community?
My main goal in including real-life experiences was to put faces to the problems my book tries to address. You may be able to ignore my words, but can you ignore the picture of Allen with his two sons as he tells you how he fears for them, or Makenah as she tells you how she was dismissed by boys on account of her darker skin complexion?
I wanted to make it impossible for the reader to run from what I was presenting—I wanted to make the reader uncomfortable because it is only in discomfort that people begin to fight for change.
You have called your publication a "chapbook," usually defined as a small publication of up to about 40 pages, often with soft covers bound by stitching. I believe chapbooks were a way for people to distribute pamphlets and literature in the early days of printing in the 16th century, and in these days of self-publishing, the term has had a resurgence. What were you thinking when you decided to publish a chapbook? What traditions are you following?
Before tackling the project of creating my book, I researched what others in the poetry world had done before me. I read articles, blogs, and poetry books. This is what helped me determine the best way to present my book. Most poetry books are much longer than mine, so when I came across the concept of a chapbook, it just felt right, especially since my book includes things that most poetry books do not, like real-life accounts.
I felt as if this was the correct course of action for me as I entered the world of publication, since I plan to publish another book on another important and under-addressed topic.
What was your primary objective in writing this book?
Writing What We Fight For was a form of therapy for me, as it helped me to get a lot of things off my chest. I am sure that everyone in the Black community can relate to something—if not most things—my book touches on.
Despite this, my book discusses things that African Americans already know, feel, and experience. This is why when writing my book, I wanted it to not only be a read for Black people but for white people as well. The objective of this book is to educate white people on what their Black counterparts are forced to endure. I did not sugarcoat the Black experience to make it more palatable for those who enjoy the privileges that Black people do not, but instead, I bring forward the cold hard truths and couple them with real people who look you in the eye from the page and ask, “Will you ignore me?”
What feedback have you received on the book?
One woman who purchased my book told me she shared it with her white peers. She reported that it made them uncomfortable but that they saw it as necessary to face. This made me proud and hopeful that if enough people are willing to face ugly truths, we may be able to make a much-needed change.
How many people have bought your book? How many have read it?
I have received so much support and love from many people for my book. I have been supported by the church, the Oakwood University English Department, family, friends, and strangers who all see the value in What We Fight For.
My book has sold a little over 200 copies and all the proceeds go toward paying my college tuition. The book has also received 14 5-star ratings and three reviews. It is my goal to reach a wider audience, as the contents of What We Fight For remain relevant today.
What are you studying at Oakwood? What do you like about Oakwood or anything you wish might be different?
I am a professional writing major and broadcast journalism minor in my third year. I can honestly say that I love the faculty of both of my departments, as it feels like family and a place where I can be pushed to continue to grow in my educational work and walk with God. I have learned a lot from my teachers in and outside the classroom. It is this intimate and supportive learning environment that led me to choose Oakwood for my higher education.
Can you tell us a little about your growing-up experience?
I spent my childhood in Kansas and then in Cleveland, Ohio. In Kansas, I had a lot of family around me so I had a lot of love, which I believe sheltered my two younger brothers and me from most things. The only negative experience I can recall while living in Kansas was when two girls at summer camp told me that I could not play with them because I was Black. This was the first time that I was fully aware of what my skin color meant in this world, and I felt small. After this experience, I began to notice that my surroundings outside of my family and church were predominantly white. Not even love could shelter me from that.
My family moved to Cleveland when I was about 9 years old. This was a major culture shock because Cleveland is predominately Black. I was often called “white girl” because I came from Kansas, which my peers assumed meant that I grew up on a farm with cows, instead of cable. Despite the rough transition, kids are resilient, and my brothers and I eventually adjusted to our environment and lived there for 11 years.
One event during my time in Cleveland that I feel is worth mentioning is the killing of Trayvon Martin. Before Trayvon Martin, I did not know much about how police treat Black people aside from the sick feeling I, like most African Americans, got whenever law enforcement was around. My young mind was certain that Trayvon’s killer would suffer consequences matching the severity of his crime. This did not happen. I was very disappointed in the judicial system, law enforcement, and America. This is the first time that I knew that America did not love me and would never be on my side. I was 10.
What do you plan to do after you graduate? What are your goals for the future?
My life goal is to be a New York Times bestselling author. This has been my dream for as long as I can remember, and I am working toward that every day.
Do you feel that you will build on your What We Fight For book in the future?
I see myself building on What We Fight For in the future because the fight for justice is one that lasts a lifetime. There is always more to be said and more to be done.
Alita Byrd is the interviews editor for Spectrum.
Image credit: Makayla Mattocks.
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