America's Black Writers Shouldn't Be Pigeonholed
Several black writers won National Book Awards so why aren't more people talking about them?
Last month at the 62nd annual National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner in downtown Manhattan, actor John Lithgow presided over an event tantamount to the Academy Awards of literature. Walter Mosley was on hand to present the organization’s special Literarian Award, and National Book Award winners were announced for fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s lit. In a welcome recognition of great African-American literary work, 34-year-old Jesmyn Ward won the fiction award for her Gulf Coast drama, Salvage the Bones, while the award for poetry went to the dreadlocked Nikki Finney for Head Off & Split. Still, Ward and Finney’s victories raise the question of whether there’s a place for acknowledging black writers whose work steps outside of the African-American experience.
Author Colson Whitehead, shortlisted in 2001 for a Pulitzer in fiction for John Henry Days, released a novel last summer about zombies in post-apocalyptic New York City called Zone One. Reviews for Whitehead’s ode to the disaster films of his youth were positive, but the book went absent from the New York Times list of 100 Notable Books this year. Of the black writers on the Times list, both Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’s Harlem Is Nowhere scored kudos, along with the late Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Taking nothing away from those excellent works, one still draws the conclusion that, for acceptance from the powers that be, black writers are obliged to tackle black subject matter.
The conundrum of the pigeonholed black writer is something author Percival Everett cleverly considered back in his 2001 novel, Erasure. Everett’s book centered on Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a bourgeois black novelist whose work is summarily ignored until he adopts the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh and pens Fuck (a book satirically similar to Sapphire’s Push), which finally gets him commercial success. Only, Fuck is full of broken vernacular and faux black pathos intentionally written to appeal to a white gaze of the black experience. Prior to Fuck, Ellison gets no love for his experimental avant-garde fiction that has nothing to do with black folks.
There’s a reason for the persistence of the web conspiracy about black author Sophia Stewart winning a copyright case against producers of The Matrix trilogy. (For the record once again: not true.) A large segment of African-American readers are starved for some acknowledgement that black writers are capable of fantastic writing that falls outside the purview of blackness. Author Octavia Butler eventually won top honors in science-fiction literature—both a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award—for speculative fiction like Bloodchild and Parable of the Talents before her untimely passing in 2006. But Hollywood hasn’t come knocking to crown Butler with anything like the regard afforded the late Philip K. Dick, whose short stories have been adapted into big-budget movies like Blade Runner and Minority Report 10 times already.
Time magazine also named Dick’s Ubik one of the 100 greatest novels published since the 1920s. Predictably, black writers on the list wrote about the life of black people: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain; Richard Wright’s Native Son; Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; Toni Morrison’s Beloved. (Zadie Smith’s White Teeth deservedly made the list too, and though it isn’t primarily concerned with blackness, it does deal with race and multiculturalism in the UK.)
James Baldwin famously rejected being designated a spokesman for black America (“I have never seen myself as a spokesman,” he said, “I am a witness”), and yet a large part of his canonization had to do with him fulfilling just that role. In 2011, the white world at large knows infinitely more about the black experience than in Baldwin’s day, thanks to Hip Hop, The Cosby Show, Oprah, the Internet, and decades of black literature from the slave narratives to President Obama’s Dreams from My Father. Writers of color in the modern era are freer than ever to write on all kinds of things, but critical acclaim for such work remains rare and elusive.
Of course, the challenge of busting out the black box isn’t limited to literature. Very nearly any African-American filmmaker you could name—Tyler Perry, Spike Lee, John Singleton—deals exclusively with blackness. Director Tim Story was handed the reins of 20th Century Fox’s Fantastic Four superhero franchise twice, and both films’ disappointments had nothing to do with Story being better suited to black subject matter like Barbershop. (The films suffered from weak stories and weaker actors.)
And yet, at least the heavies of literature celebrate black scribes like Jesmyn Ward and Nikki Finney when they delve into the experience of their own communities. The Academy Awards wouldn’t reward Spike Lee for either of his best works (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X), and Tyler Perry has even less of a chance, for arguably obvious reasons.