I'd like to say thank you to everyone who has supported me on my journey to completing my first novel. To those of you who don't know me or my work and are visiting this page for the first time, welcome.

Over the next few weeks, I hope to share with you a little of my progress as I begin research on my new book -- a yet-to-be titled historical novel, set in the 1920s and involving the founding and establishment of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the predominently African-American labor union, led by A. Philip Randolph. Sleeping car porters worked on the railroads, cleaning and preparing sleeping cars and acting as valets and waiters for passengers. The union struggled for more than a decade before they received recognition and equity from the Pullman Company.

As part of my research, I'll be traveling by train from Oakland to New York City, following the path of those porters from years ago. This trip will include a visit to the A. Philip Randolph Museum in Chicago. Along the way, I'll be sharing with you what I learn and experience. Thank you for coming along.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Charles Johnson and the Literature of Victimhood

It was with great interest that I read Charles Johnson's essay entitled "The End of the Black American Narrative" which was published recently in The American Scholar. In his essay, Johnson argues that the black narrative must begin to focus on "stories grounded in the present, leaving behind the painful history of slavery and its consequences." Johnson labels the body of works written by African Americans as the "story of group victimization" in which the antagonist is always racism and the protagonist is always black. This story, Johnson writes, became archaic in 1963, with the March on Washington and passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Since that time, Johnson says that we have held onto to images of ourselves as victims that is no longer relevant and, in fact, is ahistorical. Johnson further states that black people today are "complex multifaceted people who defy easy categorization" and that what is called for is a literature that "captures...a fraction of our rich diversity" and that is based upon "the unexplored present...understanding that each is...a provisional reading of reality... that must be tested everyday in the depths of our own experience."

On many levels, that isn't such a bad idea. I agree with Johnson, the complexity and diversity of African American life is one that it often overlooked and quite possibly denied. I recall, before the election of Barrack Obama, black publications, such as Ebony, having written articles which questioned whether or not Obama could or should be called African American! I hope they are ashamed of it now but it does illustrate a point that Johnson makes about the way in which the definition of who is and what it takes to be black has often been constricted to this one particular ancestral history. I only raise this point because I think we need to be aware that there are multiple histories of the African presence in America. This isn't intended to diminish the history or the legacy of slavery in any way; only to point out that the African American identity is as plural as the languages Africans spoke when they reached this shore, regardless of the century in which they reached it. When we ignore that, we actually handicap our ability to understand our shared problems and our shared destiny.

I also think back on my years in college when so many upper and middle class black students felt that in order to be authentically black that they had to embrace a image that was the antithesis of themselves, which as Cornell West points out "highlight histories of black abuse and black struggle." To illustrate this, in one my classes, I reminded my students of the climatic scene in the movie, 8 Mile, in which Rabbit, played by white rapper Eminem outs his opponent by telling the predominantly black crowd that his real name is Clarence, attends private school and has two parents! Clarence stands dumbfounded at apparently being found out and Rabbit wins the competition. So I asked my class, what is wrong with having two parents and attending private school (or being named Clarence). Nothing, except that the underlying assumption is that those experiences makes one privileged and those privileges are outside of the black experience; therefore, those who have had those experiences (i.e. growing up in a two-parent family, attending private schools, etc.) are not black or not black enough.

I point this out only to demonstrate that it has been a assumption,(I would argue with Charles Johnson, that it is relatively new, say the past twenty years or so) that limits black identity to one experience. All others have been largely ignored or belittled, as either atypical or unimportant since the vast majority of black people did not share those same experiences.(Remember those who wouldn't watch The Cosby Show because they didn't believe a black family with a lawyer and a doctor was real. It seems, to me, important that we, at least, allow ourselves the luxury of believing that it could be.) I, like Johnson, find this problematic because it limits our vision of who we are and what we can dream possible for ourselves. Vision and imagination is nurtured, I believe, not just by an understanding of what was but also what is and what is possible. So, yes, it is important that we begin to write a literature that "captures our diversity."

But I take issue with anyone telling another artist what they must or must not write. An artist should only be subject to the dictates of her own conscience. Further, I take strong issue with the characterization of African American literature as one of group victimization, one in which one's destiny is based on color. The literature that I read, that nurtured me and articulated my own history, was not about victimization; it was about identity, human relationships, alienation, and the American Dream. The first three are themes in literature of all people. The last unique to those of us living here in the United States. It seems to me to label African American literature as of victimhood betrays Johnson's own myopia. Racism was the context, not the story.The story was and always will be who are we and what are we doing here. Those questions do not occur in a vacuum; they occur in the context of a particular history, whether your grandfather was brought here in a slave ship hundreds of years ago or flew here in a plane, with a ticket paid for by a grandmother from the islands, some thirty years ago.

I also take issue with the assumption that only way we can create a literature that is diverse is by ignoring the legacy of slavery and racism. (No doubt I must now confess my own bias, since I am not only a African American woman, whose own family history is rooted in the legacy of slavery but also because my own interest as a writer always cause me to look back). I do believe that, as the adage goes, that those who do not learn from there history is destined to repeat it. I also believe that our understanding of the present is made possible by our understanding of the past. The past is always relevant, not just collectively but individually.

Slavery and its consequences is always on the table, even in the 21st century. Johnson writes that "at this moment Senator Barrack Obama holds us in suspense with the possibility that he may be selected as the Democratic Party's first biracial, black American candidate for president..." and concludes that, that historic milestone, along with the successes of a myriad of blacks in entertainment, politics, and industry means that "black Americans don't have social problems and cultural problems in 2008." Really? Their success has not guaranteed that black men and women are paid the same wages for the same job. It has not removed the glass ceiling that many middle and upper class blacks find themselves fighting against daily. The triumph of Barrack Obama is meaningful, in part, because of slavery, and its consequence of Jim Crow, lynching, segregation, and institutional racism. Thousands of people -- black, white, Latino, Asian -- cried, yes, because Barrack Obama is a charismatic and dynamic political figure but also because they understood history. The moment was great because of the moments, great and small, horrific and triumphant that came before it. It provided the context for his victory.

Johnson is right when he writes:
A good story always has a meaning(and sometimes layers of meaning); it also has an epistemological mission: namely, to show us something. It is an effort to make the best sense we can of human experience and I believe that we base our lives, actions, and judgments as often on the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves (even if they are less empirically sound or verifiable) as we do on severe rigor of reasons.
Stories do have meaning and they do show us something. They do help us to make sense of our lives. I ask how can we do so without the an examination of what lead us to the present? Our understanding of the past is not fixed, either. Even our understanding of the past has to be changed and revised in view of our changing future. There are still stories there that are relevant to our present and our future.

Please note that I am not arguing against stories that are set in the present or that deal with our changing identity and our changing history. To the contrary, I am in favor of it. It was when I was watching CNN, a few nights before the election and I heard one of the commentators remark that Obama's election would signal a change in consciousness for many Black Americans (I would argue all Americans, but...) who believed that white Americans would never vote for a black man. It is the change in consciousness, I think, that Johnson is asking us to reach for in the new African American narrative, one that embraces the complexity of a changing America. However, wholesale dismissal of the past is shortsighted and dangerous. It is only through embracing our past and a willingness to re-examine it, re-interpret, if necessary, as well as documenting our present can we create a body of literature that is reflective of our experience.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post a comment. Thank you.

DailyLit: What I'm Reading Now


© 2008 L. Rebecca Harris