Black male writers for our time

Jeremy O. Harris and Ishmael Reed

These American men, and their peers, are producing literature that is essential to how we understand our country and its place in the world right now.



Last April, Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for music. That’s old news, but it’ll never get old to me: Black male rappers have been so maligned as to render his award almost unimaginable to those of us who have loved the music for decades. At the ceremony, the prize’s administrator, Dana Canedy, greeted Lamar on the steps of Columbia University. “We’re both making history right now,” she said. And so they were: Canedy is the first black woman to hold her post, and Lamar – or “Pulitzer Kenny,” as he now delightfully, and delightedly, calls himself – is the first hip-hop artist to win the award. On the same day, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins was nominated for the prize for drama (he was also nominated in 2016). Last spring, ‘Black Panther’,” with its nearly all-black cast, surpassed a billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales. In May, Sean “Diddy” Combs outbid a rival to purchase a Kerry James Marshall painting for $21.1 million at Sotheby’s. The sale was a triumph: A black multimillionaire bought a black artist’s painting for the highest sum ever paid for the work of a living African-American artist.

What matters here, what’s more striking than the sums exchanged or the awards received, is the intense focus on works by African-American men in America’s artistic landscape, even as the problems of race and racial violence continue to plague the nation.

Jericho Brown and George C. Wolfe

The last decade has seen a burgeoning multiplicity in America’s literature, with gifted black men writing novels, poems and plays of great import. Some of them have even come to the attention of the literary establishment. Here follows a woefully incomplete roll call: Gregory Pardlo, Pulitzer, 2015. Colson Whitehead, National Book Award, 2016; Pulitzer, 2017. Tyehimba Jess, Pulitzer, 2017. Terrance Hayes, National Book Award, 2010. James McBride, National Book Award, 2013. Ross Gay, Danez Smith, Fred Moten and Yusef Komunyakaa, National Book Award finalists. The list goes on, and I have not touched on the writers who are not yet household names, whose arrival I await in the manner of James Baldwin’s loving anticipation of his nephew’s birth in his essay ‘A Letter to My Nephew’ (1962), in which he wrote: “Here you were to be loved. To be loved … hard at once and forever to strengthen you against the loveless world.”

In that same essay, Baldwin also wrote: “This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” Now, in 2018, blackness is as lethal to black people as it ever was. Four days before Lamar received his Pulitzer, a white man in a Michigan suburb opened fire on a 14-year-old black boy when he knocked on his door to ask for directions after missing the school bus. Hysterical racism throughout the country has spawned an epidemic of police violence so unbearable, so ongoing, that if I listed the names of the dead today, it would likely be incomplete by next month. Even as African-American writing currently experiences unprecedented mainstream appeal and critical recognition, the focus on black expression has another, uglier face: a deadly obsession with black bodies. Thus, it is possible for the Sacramento police to murder a black man holding a cellphone in his grandmother’s backyard and for Whitehead to win the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award within a year. How are we to reconcile these truths? Is the attention to black male writing merely a fleeting moment, or is it a revolution?

To be sure, there is much to celebrate, but these recent developments are not without complication. “I can’t help but think this comes out of the eight years of Barack Obama … and the backlash against him,” says Farah Griffin, an author and scholar of black literature at Columbia University. “And also the way in which black males have been seen as targets; we know there were women, too, but the people we can name are men.” This raises a crucial question about black women and (in)visibility, but more on that later.

To the subject at hand: It is safe to say that Barack Obama may be the most famous African-American man who has ever lived. He represents an erudite, sophisticated blackness that mainstream culture has historically derided or dismissed. But that omnipresent image of a powerful, untouchable black man reinvigorated a rage and fear of blackness as old as the nation itself. Slavery-era fixations and caricatures still titillate and terrify: Black men are a threat to order and the status quo, physically imposing and possessed of exaggerated sexual ability. Therefore, they must be contained. The poet Jericho Brown says black people don’t have the luxury of being quiet: Every black behavior, no matter how banal – getting out of a car, walking down the street – draws attention or ire. Black bodies, by their very existence, are turned up to the highest volume at all times. All of this is exacerbated by the fact of maleness in our sexist society: Men, even vilified men, outrank women in the hierarchy of being; they are more seen. It is in this charged reality that the work of black male writers finds itself in the spotlight.

“The idea of a black male resurgence feels like a bit of an illusion,” says the playwright Jacobs-Jenkins. “Really, it feels like people are just suddenly noticing that there are black people in the room.” Most of the writers I spoke with shared some iteration of his sentiment: Black men have been producing rich and varied work for a long time, but folks are paying a lot more attention than they used to. John Edgar Wideman has been published to great acclaim for almost 40 years. Edward P. Jones, the author of two critically adored short story collections, won a Pulitzer for his novel ‘The Known World’ in 2004. Percival Everett has written nearly 30 books since 1983, but wide recognition didn’t come until he published ‘Erasure,’ in 2001, a sharp satire about a failing black writer who becomes the next hot thing when he parodies another character’s book called “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.” Such recognition typically sparks in that instant when white literary influencers tune the dial to a station that’s been playing for a long, long time. “There’s a dynamic [black literary] conversation that has no beginning and no end,” says the poet Saeed Jones.

If this moment is, at least in part, about heightened awareness of black male writers, it may well vanish when the social climate changes – which it inevitably will. A surge of mainstream attention to blackness and its literature isn’t unprecedented in periods of American crisis. The first strains of the Harlem Renaissance began at the tail end of World War I and gained momentum in the 1920s, as the racial makeup of American cities metamorphosed through the Great Migration. The Harlem of the 1930s became home to a concentration of black writers whose work piqued white interest. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Black Arts Movement erupted during the turbulent years of America’s freedom protests. Black voices received heightened attention then, too.

Through the institutional  cultural cache garnered during these many moments, our literary ancestors carved pathways to success. Harlem Renaissance writers parlayed white patronage to create inroads to the apparatus of publishing. The Black Arts Movement brought about radical changes in university curriculums. New institutions were founded, including New York City’s Medgar Evers College, providing black writers with access to the support and stability of academia. The poet Gregory Pardlo points to the rise of the New York and Chicago slam poetry scenes in the ’80s as a conduit for many writers, including the novelist Paul Beatty. Jacobs-Jenkins discusses ’90s-era evolutions in black writing that produced “an incredible sea change of influence,” when writers like August Wilson and Toni Morrison “achieved black arts excellence and major status in the same breath.”

When I was 15, in 1988, a friend’s father gave me a copy of Sonia Sanchez’s ‘Under a Soprano Sky.’ I didn’t know living black people wrote poetry. After, I read books by Gloria Naylor, Paule Marshall and Toni Cade Bambara as if my life depended on it. Here, I must confess to an unease with any gendered division of contemporary literature: When I was asked to consider the particularities of the current landscape, I wondered if a focus on male achievement might obscure the equally unprecedented successes of African-American women. And does that question undermine this extraordinary moment for black male writers? I have not found an answer that is entirely sufficient, but I do know that the work of black women writers presents a ferocious challenge to old sexist perceptions; as Griffin says, “the difference between this moment and others is that, in the past, to be a black writer was to be a man.” Robin Coste Lewis, Tracy K. Smith, Lynn Nottage, Jacqueline Woodson, Patricia Smith and Jesmyn Ward, to name just a few, disprove those old gendered ideas.

contemporary African-American literature is formally sophisticated, irreducibly nuanced and highly individualized. The writers in these pages may be a cohort of sorts, yet their work is distinguished by a great variety of voices and aesthetics. And certainly our conversations about the current literature by black men ought to include as much consideration of how writers say things as what they’re saying.

The poet Claudia Rankine said of her 2016 MacArthur Fellowship that the prize was being awarded “to the subject of race.” Race may indeed be having “a moment,” and I can’t help but wonder if some gatekeepers expect black authors to focus primarily on racism and oppression. Pardlo has similar reservations about writing that might “pander to white fears and assumptions and resentments.” It’s an old, and valid, concern. Among his eight novels, Whitehead’s well-received ‘The Colossus of New York’ (2003) is an ode to that city, and ‘Zone One’ (2011) is a post-apocalyptic zombie novel that was nicely reviewed – yet it’s his book about slavery, ‘The Underground Railroad’ (2016), that received such clamorous acclaim.

Source: The New York Times

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