Toni Ann Johnson explores Black identity and belonging in ‘Light Skin Gone to Waste’

L.A.-based author Toni Ann Johnson began her creative career with hopes of being an actress. But when she went up for parts, she says she always heard the same thing: “People would say, ‘Well, what are you? You don’t look Black. You don’t look White. We don’t know what to do with you.”

For the record, Johnson is light-skinned but not biracial; both her parents identify as Black Americans.

And why is this important to talk about here?

Because this concept of Black identity – its nuances and complications within the Black community, as well as society at large – is central to her newly-released novel-in-stories, “Light Skin Gone to Waste.” Class, colorism and the pain families inflict on each other provide the fuel for the bracing, and at times heartbreaking, tales. Published by the University of Georgia Press, the book was edited by author and New York Times opinion columnist Roxane Gay, who also picked it as the winner of the 2021 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.

Toni Ann Johnson’s “Light Skin Gone to Waste,” published in October 2022 by the University of Georgia Press, features stories that delve into how racist ideas burrow intoBlack and White families and infect them for generations. (Cover image courtesy University of Georgia Press)

The book’s stories track the Arringtons over a couple of decades. They are an upper-middle-class Black family who moves to the White, working-class town of Monroe in Upstate New York in the early ’60s. The father, Phil, is a psychologist and the mother, Velma, owns an upscale antique store. But it’s their daughter, Maddie, who serves as the emotional core of the book. One of the only Black kids in Monroe, she absorbs the brunt of the racism that her family’s money, education, and light skin can’t protect them from as well as her family’s own dysfunction. Not to mention the subtle – and sometimes not-so-subtle – class judgments between the blue-collar and white-collar worlds.

Johnson is the first to say that the stories are not more than a stone’s throw away from the dynamics in her actual family and her life experience growing up in Monroe.

“I am Maddie,” she says, then stops herself to qualify that response: “She is me, but she’s also a character. She’s probably more articulate than I was, maybe a little bit more sophisticated than I was because I’m writing her from the lens of being a middle-aged woman. I think there that there are some observations that she makes that I probably didn’t make until I was past that situation.”

Nonetheless, both author and character struggled to find their place in a world that seeks the comfort of labels.

“In some cases, it is easier to be light [skinned] if you’re trying to be in a White world, but I still got called the N-word. I was light, but I still wasn’t White. It’s not like just because you’re light you’re immediately embraced, but it’s just that if you’re really light, you might not be as quickly rejected as somebody who’s identifiably Black immediately. And then I have White friends say, ‘Why do you say you’re Black? You’re not really Black.’”

Constructing a novel like this with so many layers of meaning and so many forms of conflict among the characters took Johnson years – even though she’s a seasoned writer. She earned a 2015 NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author with her novel “Remedy for a Broken Angel,” and has also published a novella, “Homegoing.” She is also an experienced screenwriter, having written movies for Lifetime, Showtime and Fox Television.

Johnson began this work as her thesis project for her Master of Fine Arts degree at Antioch University which she decided to pursue only after publishing her first novel.

“I didn’t really have a prose style,” she explains. “I just didn’t really understand what that was. I didn’t understand the art of fiction. I had never studied it. I had studied dramatic writing – screenwriting and playwriting – but I had not studied fiction. So then I figured out, okay, well I need to study.”

At Antioch, Johnson “immersed myself in fiction and did a ton of reading, and really tried to read with an understanding of what the writing was doing, which I hadn’t really done before.”

The stories that would eventually become “Light Skin” emerged from her studies, but some negative feedback in her Antioch courses caused her to shelve it for a time. When she picked it up again, she was waylaid again by some bad advice from an agent who directed her to change the focus of the work.

“It went out as a 500-page novel to editors [at publishing houses],” she recalls.

The response? Not so good.

“Some said nice things, but every last one passed. And so then I was kind of angry because I felt like I had done everything that I was asked to do and it still didn’t work. Then I was wallowing and, you know, I was just feeling so sorry for myself because it had taken years. From 2017 to 2021, all I had been doing was working on this book.”

Johnson credits friend and fellow writer Cynthia Bond (author of the bestselling novel “Ruby”) for getting her out of the doldrums and on the path to publishing.

“She said, ‘You should look through ‘Poets & Writers’ Magazine and see if there’s someplace else you could submit it.’ So I did, and that’s when I saw the Flannery O’Connor Award and I saw that Roxane Gay was the judge. But I didn’t think I would have any chance of winning.”

For starters, the word count limit on submissions was 75,000 words; her bloated manuscript came in at 150,000 words. There was just one thing to do: Strip out all the stuff agents and workshops had told her was needed and return the manuscript to its original core story of the Arrington family.

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The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

As for where Johnson goes from here, she says something crystallized for her when she watched a documentary on the artist Charles White. “According to one of his students, every semester he would ask the new students with regard to their art, ‘Where do you come from? Why are you writing about what you’re writing about, and how do you know who you are?’ And when I saw those questions, I was like, I have been trying to answer those questions for myself throughout my entire career. That’s always what I’ve been writing about.”

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