Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Black writer, white reader

We've all seen interviews with authors where they're asked what writers have influenced them.

Sometimes the answers are surprising, most often not.  I've seen very few interviews with white writers in which they say that one or more black writers influenced them.  A few--not many.

Have you?  If so, let me know.

Black writers sure have influenced me. 

Now, it would be lovely if, as the late African American poet, Robert Hayden, said, "There is no such thing as Black literature. There's good literature and bad. And that's all." That's the way it should be. That's not the way it is.  If not, why would Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage, write, in his book, Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing, “Since the 1960s whites dare not speak on black subjects, regardless of how much research they may have done, because they lack ‘the authority of experience’ that comes from being born and raised black.”  

I can't solve that problem.

I can talk about what African American writers have changed me.

I could start with Lawd Today! and Black Boy by Richard Wright.

Followed closely by

The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. The Big Sea, the Simple books and the poetry of Langston Hughes. Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The Color Purple by Alice Walker.


The Quality of Hurt by Chester Himes. The Sixteenth Round by Ruben "Hurricane" Carter. Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus. The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. The Blue Devils of Nada by Albert Murray. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin. An American Story by Debra Dickerson.  Jamaica Kincaid's garden writing. Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver.


Recently, let me add Hunger by Roxane Gay.  We Cast a Shadow by--ahem, friend--Maurice Carlos Ruffin.  Heavy by Kiese Laymon.  Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.


And a whole sub-genre of books that might not appear on anyone's favorite books list, but do on mine.  Including Pimp: The Story of My Life and Mama Black Widow by Iceberg Slim.  Invisible Life by E. Lynn Harris.  And Succeeding Against the Odds: The Autobiography of a Great American Businessman by John H. Johnson.

Yes, left many out, but this shouldn't just be a compilation, now should it?

In fact, the how and why of the influence will have to come with part II.  But I wouldn't be the writer, or person, I am without having read these black writers.

Let me close with a quote from Toni Morrison's (can't forget her) 1992 book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, "It is interesting, not surprising, that the arbiters of critical power in American literature seem to take pleasure in, indeed relish, their ignorance of African-American texts."

White writers, say it ain't so.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Books? Yes, we have books.

In the 1960 movie, The Time Machine, there's a memorable scene.

The hero, played by Rod Taylor, is an inventor who lives in late nineteenth century London.  He has built a time machine.  He uses it to journey 800,000 years into the future where he finds a world in which, at first glance, everything is a kind of paradise.  The people are docile and seemingly happy, wearing Roman-toga-like clothes and doing, basically, nothing.  Worry doesn't exist.  Strangely, all their food, in the form of oversized fruit, is provided for them.  By whom?

Taylor, fascinated and curious, seeks to find out more about these people, called the Eloi.  His questions are answered indifferently, in the most monosyllabic way:  "What kind of government rules your world?" Taylor asks.  "We have no government," an Eloi responds.

"Do you have books?" Taylor asks excitedly.

"Books? Yes, we have books." replies another Eloi.

The Eloi leads Taylor to an ancient library.  The place looks like Miss Havisham's house--ratty curtains, dust everywhere.  The Eloi points to a shelf of books.  Excitedly, Taylor pulls out a book.  At last, he will find out about this "civilization." He opens the book, and it crumbles in his hand. So does the next book.  He sweeps his hand across a row of books on the shelf, and they all disintegrate. (The whole scene is fantastic.  Check it out here.)


The Eloi, he realizes, are mindless.  Worse, they don't care.

When I saw this movie the year it came out, I viewed it as science fiction.  I've never been attracted to that genre, but now I see that H.G. Wells, who wrote the book, was a seer.

With the advent of the electronic age, with Kindle, tablets, smart phones, etc., books as actual artifacts are becoming less viable.  Walk onto any bus or subway, and see how many people are reading actual books versus reading from a device of some kind.  Libraries are buying less and less books, more electronic subscriptions.

I led a panel at a literary conference a few years ago in which an editor--yes, an editor--said that books had had a good run, but that run was over.

Is he right?  Will some Rod Taylor of the future walk into the Library of Congress and ask someone there, "Do you have books?"

And will that person say, "Books?  Yes, we have books."

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Thief of Dreams

With every new Donald Trump announcement or proclamation that draws on the worst in us, I think about my daughter.

She’s young, only twenty-six. Her life is really just beginning. She’s at the age where you make dreams about the future, think about the life you will lead, let your hopes and aspirations wander as they will. Anything is possible. All doors are open. This is a moment we cherish for our children and try our best to prepare them for. We had such moments when we were young. They only appear once, and they are glorious, full of exciting uncertainty and potential. In those moments, we can be anything, do anything. Why not?

I had that freedom to dream, that open chance at optimism, when I was young.  Now that I’m not young, I know well how precious that dreaming was.
But every morning I get up to some new haughty, unsettling declaration by Donald Trump that I know must infringe on those freshly minted dreams my daughter and others like her are making. His denial of climate change is possibly the most arrogant of his declarations.  With that, he commandeers the safety and well-being of our planet and its people.

WBUR in Boston reported on the growing problem of climate anxiety.  I have had conversations with younger people, some of whom have decided not to have children because of the precarious state of our future.  What about the many of us who do have children?    

It’s hard to build dreams, those most delicate of bridges, in such an atmosphere of darkness.  I am so angry at Trump. I am angry at him for many reasons, but mainly I am angry at him for stealing the future.

How dare he. How dare he pollute the ability for young people to plan their futures in serenity and peace and with hope. I’m calling him out for the thief he is.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Reclaiming Hope

A great depression has settled on us.  Not economic, but emotional, spiritual, psychic.  Whereas in the past, if you said the future looks bleak, you could dismiss that as someone's opinion.  That's not true anymore.  I needn't go into the details about climate change, which everyone knows by now, and the dire predictions emanating from scientists.  But it's real.

People do not know what to do.  Anything they think of doing seems futile.  No matter what, the inevitable will arrive, they say.   The has produced a kind a paralysis.  An inability to plan with any certainty.  Why bother?  And worst of all, it has caused the complete abandonment of hope.

Dante knew what he was talking about.  The words he decided to write on the gates of hell in his great poem say, "Abandon all hope, you who enter here."  What could be more devastating and more final than to deprive you of hope?

We have as our head of state a man who in everything he does crushes hope.  We know, in our hearts, that if we had a leader committed to saving us from the sins we have committed as humans in harming the earth, then hope, and its first cousin--optimism--could flourish.

I have talked to people in their twenties who are, quite simply, continually depressed.  They are in despair about the future.  Some have children and do not know how they can assure their children about their lives.  I have a daughter in her twenties.  Every day, I internally apologize to her.  I feel like crying all the time.

I've written about this before, in a post called The Thief of Dreams.  The thief of dreams is Donald Trump.  No person has the right to destroy someone's ability to hope and to dream.

Depression may be the most onerous of human emotions.  Its strength is incalculable.

Right now, right this minute, we are under the sway of this collective depression.  We have to summon all our will to combat it.  How?  We assume strength.  We fight.

With all our might.