Rita Coburn Whack is a Random House author, three-time Emmy winning television and radio producer, and an on-air radio contributor. Her latest work, Meant to Be, is reminiscent of the storytelling fullness of Maya Angelou with the unfiltered emotion of Alice Walker.
The book follows a surefooted spiritual sister, Jan, who experiences an unspeakable tragedy that steals her voice and causes her to lose her way. Broken down and out, Jan prays for the assistance of her deceased grandmother Hannah, who died before Jan was born. But Jan is unaware that her prayers have been answered.
Meant to Be sets the stage for Jan’s quest for authenticity and a spiritual, emotional and sexual awakening that the author, who is married with two children, would like to occur more often in real life.
Rita Coburn Whack spoke with rolling out about her book and her mission.
Why was it necessary to depict a two-parent home, but an unhappily married couple?
It’s a reality that we struggle in families, that marriage is hard. I’ve been married for 28 years, I’ve had 15 good ones, and I don’t think we tell that story. It’s important to tell the truth of why they didn’t get along; the fact that they tried to change one another. The fact that they were selfish at different points, and the fact that they came together somewhere at the end, and it was quite late in the game that they did that. My hope is that as a culture, as a people, especially for African Americans because we were disrupted as families, that we learn how to come together and treat each other well.
Do you feel that Black men and women are treating each other well in relationships?
In one line of the book, Jessie talks about her husband and says that when he had the opportunity not to put his foot on her neck … [he did it anyway]. During the time that they lived in, (there was racism and prejudice and so white men and white institutions broke him down), so did he have to come home and do that to her?
So where is the kindness? How do we become one in relationships? Sometimes it takes time and sometimes, we can circumvent some of that time just by realizing how human we are. How important it is to try to love someone really. It’s important for me to look at their relationship because people spend years in pain for absolutely no reason.
That doesn’t mean you have to divorce, you have to grow up. And a lot of times people say to me, ‘this is happening to me,’ and I say ‘hmmm, that’s sounds like marriage, so you have to work it out. ‘
Are we getting that message to be kinder to one another?
Not by the statistics, not if we’re divorcing at a rapid rates. With few exceptions, we either don’t make good decisions in the first place, or we don’t want to do the work to get through the hard parts. I’m always hopeful, but I don’t think we’re getting it right now. We’ve diluted the process.
What is your truth about marriage?
A marriage counts when your mother dies. A marriage counts when you’re sick. A marriage counts when you’re lonely and when you just want to have fun and find your own truth in the presence of someone who really cares. A marriage counts when you just come home from work and no one really cares about you there, but you come in a house that is a sanctuary and there’s love there. There’s somebody when you scoot behind them at night, you know that you can get in that spot, in a second, but you just go on and take a minute or two to work that thing out.
That’s when it counts, it counts when you have some things that you want to make happen in the world.
How necessary was it to break Jessie down the way that you did in the book? Was it to illustrate how women are losing their power in relationships? Women are mute far too often. They get into a marriage … my mother used to say, if you get in that thing bending over backwards, you’ll never stand straight up. So the woman gets in trying to get somebody to love her, and in that course she loses her voice.
How important is it for a woman to keep her voice in a relationship?
Voice is extremely important to me, the Black female voice, in all of its tones, this is something that we will have to come to reckon with because there will be people who will lose their lives and never truly speak. A lot of people speak on their deathbed; a lot of people speak in their later years.
But what would it look like if we really started to speak our truth all along? I think that’s important that she had to lose her voice to find it.
Some people will break you down, and that’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world.
Is there an hidden blessing that occurs when someone breaks you down?
In the Bible, first chapter of Samuel, Elkanah had two wives, Hannah and Peninnah.
Peninnah can have children and Hannah can’t. Peninnah teases Hannah and breaks her down, Hannah can’t eat, and so she prays. When she prays, the priest thinks that she’s drunk because she’s so fervently praying, and he says, ‘woman get rid of your wine.’ And Hannah responds, ‘I am making a request,’ and the priest says, ‘then your request is granted.’
Once Peninnah broke Hannah down, Hannah birthed Samuel. And look at the history of that.
We all have Peninnahs, those sandpaper things in our life, and some of us need that to be broken down. So we need to be broken down, if you don’t break down on your own, if you can’t do it for yourself, God will send somebody to break you. That’s fine with me, break me down, so I can be built up into what you would want me to be and that’s what I want for our people, that’s what I want for women, and that’s goes across cultures.
I want us all to have that reckoning that happens when you really get to know yourself and get to release the God in you.
Rita Coburn Whack is on Facebook.