Wednesday, January 17, 2007

cannonize me

I have really gotta get back to my former reading habits. Lately, I haven't read much outside of the stuff I've been teaching, and we all know about required high school reading--canonical, but not necessarily relevant or panoptic. So yeah, I think I'll actually finish my Octavia Butler (RIP) anthology.

I'd be interested in finding out who read what in high school and college in the way of black authors. I have this theory, but it can't be validated until I gather evidence. Myself, I recall Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, and Jamaica Kincaid--the last being a hint of cultural partiality on part of my afrophile undergrad professor. It seems to me that predominately white universities and perhaps black ones (I wouldn't know, I didn't go to an HBCU) tend to cling to those books that describe the black experience in glaringly dramatic ways. Bigger, Sethe, Lucy--all tragic figures that were representative of blackness predominately by virtue of the tragic circumstances of their lives. Now I'm sure that there is more to the black authors-worthy of-academic-study equation, but people tend to cling to very extreme depictions of black life as the most authentic, and feel as if they can finally humanize us because they've found a bit of sympathy for our downtrodden characters. (Bigger Thomas is no more the prototypical black man than Peter Keating is the prototypical white man.) I think this phenomenon is more hurtful than helpful in that whites can point to these extreme portrayals and say, "Now THAT is racism. Clearly black people do not go through these things anymore and therefore do not experience racism anymore."

The thing is, though, that these representations have never been comprehensive. One of my favorite books by Morrison, Paradise, while still dealing with racism, is much more subtle in the handling of the subject and uses it as a parenthetical remark on the lives of the book's characters. Also, because I am absolutely obsessed with gender roles, this books appeals to me for its focus on the tension between men and women when the traditional order is broken. (When are we gonna start dealing with that bullshit, huh?) I think Paradise is every bit as good as Beloved and every bit as worthy of literary consideration; and though I know I'd get a lot of argument from many, because Beloved is almost universally considered the best thing Morrison's ever written, I stand by my assessment. But it is not about Paradise or even Morrison specifically, it's about including more comprehensive representations of black life in the mainstream.

It seems as if black people always have to be struggling for there to be an emotive response from the mainstream culture. If we're not stuck in "hood movies," we're being saved from that same hood by a benevolent white with a heart of gold (hello Hilary Swank). The truth is that we laugh too, and sometimes the struggle isn't as acute as having to kill some muthaphuckas (though we should and more often), but often the struggle is how to react to an underhandedly racist comment without appearing "bitter" or when and how to express ourselves without "offending" more entitled and oblivious people with delicate sensibilities. Black people experience little dilemmas and large ones, and they are all important. There are a zillion authors who know this and deal with the many shades of us delicately and with an intimate knowledge and gift that should be supported. Check the slideshow above. All of those people knew and know that we're nasty and mean and above repute and angelic and conflicted and funny and boring and gay and straight and transgendered too. It's about time we stop allowing the media to vilify or romanticize us; we are just human after all.

Good Reads:

The Farming of Bones
(or anything, really) by Edwidge Danticat

Eva's Man by Gayl Jones

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Another Country (again, almost anything) by James Baldwin

The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara

If any of you would like to tell me about your school-related literary experiences, I'd be grateful. Also, if you've read any good books lately, let me know. I'm always looking for a new book.


Ridwan Laher said...

I have enjoyed reading through your posts. I returned to make a plug for Paul Beatty's "White Boy Shuffle: A Novel" (2001) as a recommended read.

Unlike the "tragic" constructions that sells Blackness in some classics, Beatty adds the existensial angst of living Black and 'acting' Black by convention.

See at:

I would like to add you to my notable blog list - with your permission. And maybe you will consider doing same for my blog:

Best wishes and congrats on the new job.

Peace and struggle,
Ridwan Laher

atrackbrown said...

thanks for the congrats; at this point, however, i just need spring break to arrive. notice my infrequent posting.

Anonymous said...

In school, we read "the classics" Richard Wright, Claude Brown, Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, etc.

As an adult, you know america went through that whole "Black Pop Fiction" phase, which sucked, but I've found a few good black books lately. Thanks for your reccomendations! White Boy Shuffle was pretty good. I have it if you wanna borrow. I don't know if Monica gave you Child of God by Lolita Hines, but it was pretty good too...there is the issue of the benevolent whites, but still a good read.