Black Literature is a Mirror to America

Issue 257

Over the years of teaching, I found some books on their own, or in odd pairs really spoke to students. So, you’ll find here authors who never met, holding hands. Or new ways of reading familiar names.

Nicholas Powers Nov 20, 2020

The author. Photo: Timothy Krause.

Black literature saved my life. It made the deadly, or just weird power dynamics around me instantly readable. I could see myself and my world clearly. Turn the pages of say Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies or Percival Everette’s 2001 novel Erasure and you’ll find a mirror. Black writers more accurately reflect our reality, in part because they are less burdened by loyalty to our patriotic myths.

So instead of assuming America is the “City on a Hill,” you can see it as open air prison in Harriet Jacob’s 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl? Rather than repeat that America is the “Land of the Free” read how it faces the apocalypses in James Baldwin’s 1963 The Fire Next Time.

Black literature reflects the shadow of the American Dream. And then it holds a mirror to the mirror. The infinite space that appears is the reality of the human spirit.

Black writers more accurately reflect our reality, in part because they are less burdened by loyalty to our patriotic myths.

In light of that tradition, let me introduce you to parts of my syllabus. Over the years of teaching, I found some books on their own, or in odd pairs really spoke to students. So, you’ll find here authors who never met, holding hands. Or new ways of reading familiar names. 

Our first pairing is the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass and 50 Cent’s 2005 From Pieces to Weight. The first is a foundational classic of the African American canon. The second is decidedly not. Read them back to back. See the same obsession with freedom. See the backdrop leap from Southern antebellum plantation to New York Queens in the midst of the Crack Era. See emancipation redefined from a communal act to an individual one. See the NYCHA projects remake the violence and confinement of the plantation but now drug dealers are the chemical overseers, doing the work of snuffing out Black consciousness. See gold chains, replace slave chains.

Next read Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved. See the granular details of domestic life that has scar tissue from slavery. Told and inhabited mostly by women characters it redirects history to the feminine inheritance, and transformation of trauma into the sublime. Leaving behind social realism, or autobiography, Morrison filled in the silences of the original slave narratives with magic realism, and let its sorcery lift the truth to the surface.

Next read Ann Petry’s 1946 novel The Street. Meet Lutie. She’s a single Black working class mother. And she believes in the American Dream. Clawing her way, paycheck by paycheck, to a middle class life for her son Bub, she is tripped up by men who want to fuck her. It is a masterful novel that has yet to get the credit it deserves. Long before the term “intersectionality”, Petry shined a light on the crisscrossing of racism, sexism, and classism into a barbed wire knot that choked Lutie’s dream. See again the Structuralist analysis implicit in the plot. Her panicked launch out of the Harlem ghetto shows a moment she almost achieved it, a brief glimpse of the panorama of American life.

Next read Contempt and Pity: Social Policy and Image of the Damaged Black Psyche 1880 to 1996 by Daryl Michael Scott. He defines the use of “damage imagery”, or the image of Black people damaged psychologically by racism, and how it was used by Black radicals to argue for nationalism, liberals for reform, and conservatives for racial quarantine of the “inferior races.” The imagery was politically useful but was also warped reflection of the complex reality of Black life. The stereotype of broken Black people remained to this day a bottomless mine that politicians and artists tap for easy-to-consume characters. Reagan vilified the “welfare queen” and Malcolm X exhorted the “lost Black man.”

Our next pairing is the 1996 novel Push by Sapphire, and the 2001 satire Erasure by Percival Everette. In Push, meet Precious Jones a kind of Frankenstein character stitched into a whole by the author from the stories of traumatized youth she met as a social worker. Imagine Celie from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple born in 1980’s Crack Era Harlem. Celie and Precious had been raped, molested, abused for being dark skinned. Add to that Precious is obese, and has A.I.D.S. Both find liberation in literacy. Damage imagery hits Middle Passage level in this novel. Five year later, Everett published Erasure that satirizes Push. In it we meet Monk, a middle class Black writer who finds no audience for his Post-Modernist books, decides to write a fake ghetto novel. It sells mountains of copies, making him wealthy but readers don’t realize it’s a joke but think it’s a real “voice from the streets”. The satire hits hard as one realizes the hidden appetite for Black suffering that drives too much of liberal culture.

The next pairing is Piri Thomas 1967 classic Down These Mean Streets and Junot Diaz 2007 magnum opus A Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Both Thomas and Diaz crafted New York/New Jersey/Long Island based coming-of-age stories, the former an autobiography, the latter a novel that map the fluid landscape of Blackness. They both bridge the Pan Latino and Pan African Diasporas. They both show protagonists struggling under the mask of masculinity. They both challenge the current fashionable idea of racial essentialism by following characters who are Black and Latinx but pick up the flotsam of cultural debris to beat, and solder a new identity in the vortex of poverty, and violence.

Our next pair is conservative writer Ayaa Hirsi Ali’s 2006 autobiography Infidel, and Jamaica Kincaid’s 1997 memoir My Brother. The shared center of gravity is male supremacy. In Infidel Ali comes to maturity in a family on the move from Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopi and Kenya. She chafes against the patriarchy, and religious fundamentalism of her clan. She has her genitals mutilated as part of tradition. She is married off to a stranger. And she escapes. Scarred but tenacious Ali embraces the liberalism of the Netherlands. In that autobiography the victim of patriarchy was Ali, an African woman. In Kincaid’s My Brother, the victim is her gay brother Devon. He hides his homosexuality by chasing after women, even as he secretly goes to a gay meeting house on the island of Antigua. When he contracts H.I.V. which blows up to A.I.D.S. he dies with his secret. Only later, afterwards does Kincaid realize who her brother truly was, and eulogizes his passing with the book. Read them back to back, and again Blackness becomes a dynamic geography, that has at its center the shibboleth of patriarchy that these women bear witness to by reading the scars it left on their lives like fingertips on braille.

The last pairing is a fivesome. Read Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good by Adrienne Maree Brown, Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans, and Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn. Yeah I know. I just went full professor. Just gave you a semester’s worth of books, but bear with me. Of course five books are a lot but they are a beginner’s guide to how women of color have safeguarded their bodies from patriarchy, survived violence, and exploited blind-spots in a capitalism that trades on youth and beauty. You will read about sex traffickers imprisoning poor village girls in the brothels of cities in the Global South. You will walk the halls of Hollywood and rap videos where fame, money, and power distorts sexuality into a farce. You will hear how women healed themselves with sensual joy.

My own book is much better back than Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Finally, read Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Lecture, and my 2014 memoir The Ground Below Zero: 9/11 to Burning Man, New Orleans to Darfur, Haiti to Occupy Wall Street. I know, I know. My own book? First it’s my fucking list. Two, it’s a much better back than Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. The politics are clearer. The writing is more crisp, and inventive. The power of the book is the portrayal of the torrential force of history, pouring into the body – 9/11 to Occupy Wall Street – and cleansing the author’s soul. In that clarity, the voice yields to a prophetic vision of a larger freedom for all of us. It came at a great cost. But the reader can have it for $15!

Or go protest. Forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it. Save a life. And write your own book!

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