"For those people the only black stories are those familiar to them."
August 19, 2015 12:55 PM   Subscribe

What the mainstream would seem to want from black writers are only stories of blackness written from a marginal position, on one hand to serve as witness and on the other to affirm for mainstream readers that they remain white, and so privileged. They want affirmation that the inner life of black folks is more or less the way black folks exist in the white imagination.
"Color Blind: A Pocket Guide to Race in America," by Calvin Baker, author of Grace [.pdf excerpt] and Dominion
posted by nebulawindphone (13 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
Morrison only gets a passing reference in relation to her novel Beloved, which Baker notes is about slavery. It should be noted, though, that she was one of the first major African-American writers to write about Black experience not primarily in relation to White Americans. Song of Solomon, probably her second most famous novel, has almost no white characters. Sure, a lot of it is about Black experience specifically, but it also covers dreams, love (and lack of love), misogyny, class, and more.

Toni Morrison repeatedly emphasizes this point in interviews, because mid-20th century African-American writing (Invisible Man, Black Boy) often has white racism in the background and in the foreground.
posted by kozad at 1:22 PM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is so beautiful. Thanks nebulawindphone.
posted by emjaybee at 1:32 PM on August 19, 2015


I should get my wife on here to comment on this because her whole degree is in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance and particularly minority women, but what immediately jumped to my mind as weird and shallow as it is - Cosby.

One of the great many things I lament about the whole discovery that it turns out that Cosby is a disgusting pig of the lowest depths, is the loss of the Huxtable family as an example of pop culture blackness that wasn't rooted in despair and wasn't just a pigment swap of a white family sitcom.

Oh and the fact that Cosby was the one thing that jumped to mind immediately tells me I need to do more exploring and broaden my pool that I draw from (as well as reinforcing the author's point)
posted by drewbage1847 at 1:34 PM on August 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


Black characters are not permitted to respond to existential crises by going to a psychiatrist instead of the local bar, gun store, or Santeria priestess; they seldom travel for work or pleasure, date anyone of another race without self-consciousness, or go out to eat without it becoming a moment of microaggression. Romantic love as a theme scarcely exists. Families are unhappy because of history, not because parents are self-involved actors bumbling along like everyone else.

...

“When it comes to literary people,” says one of the few African-American editors working at a major publisher, “in terms of the people who buy and edit, it’s almost a white genre. For those people the only black stories are those familiar to them. They can’t get away from the novelty. They expect black people to play that part of writing the kind of black books they know. When we write about America, it becomes marginalized.”

Yes, yes, YES. This is the single-story problem, but it's more than that - it's white people wanting only to see themselves through a minority's eyes.

I say this not to make this about me, but to speak about the problem from the perspective I know: I've long been frustrated that my very favorite works of Asian American literature - works that address deep conflicts within our own communities as well as our complicated relationships with other minorities - are practically unknown, shunted off to the side for Joy Luck Club garbage, because the gatekeepers of culture don't care what we think about ourselves or about other minorities; they just want to see how much we want to be white. The idea that we could have any kind of an inner life (or community life) revolving around something other than cultural conflicts between immigrant parents and their American-born kids is totally foreign.

I will be taking a look at Calvin Baker's work, and I would welcome recommendations for black (and other PoC) fiction that doesn't care what the majority wants from it.
posted by sunset in snow country at 1:44 PM on August 19, 2015 [10 favorites]


One thing which struck me in the wake of The Secret Life of Bees being read in my graduate school as a way to increase diversity (It's a story about a white girl and how her becoming part of a black family makes her better and special in Jim Crow era USA) is that the other purpose this book, and books like it, serve is to allow white people the fantasy of being "one of the good ones" at a time when we'd all most likely be NOT one of the good ones - to be right in retrospect, so to speak. It's a peculiar power fantasy played out as if it's illuminating something about the black experience which is really all about the white experience of racism - and only white people of a particular type of color blindness are fooled.
posted by Deoridhe at 1:56 PM on August 19, 2015 [17 favorites]


Deoridhe, that's like the genre of books/movies where White Person is adopted by a group of nonwhite folks who teach him/her their Secret Nonwhite Wisdom, and then he/she becomes better at all the things they can do than they ever were. See: Lone Ranger, the Phantom, etc. etc.

I have been noticing this thing where the group at fault (usually white people, sometimes men) angrily lay claim to being the true wounded party and accuse the people they are oppressing of being the real oppressors. Some of it is just blatant cynical politics ala Karl Rove, but I think there is something to that feeling that if there is a "hero" or even an underdog/sympathetic figure/victim, it must always be the white and/or male person. Because everything belongs to them, even the experience of being unfairly oppressed. I assume it's just another form of power-grab; having a legitimate grievance is a form of power, therefore, they will try to snatch it back.
posted by emjaybee at 2:15 PM on August 19, 2015 [13 favorites]


I don't think Samuel R. Delany particularly cares about the majority's opinion.
posted by mrdaneri at 2:30 PM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Deoridhe, that's like the genre of books/movies where White Person is adopted by a group of nonwhite folks who teach him/her their Secret Nonwhite Wisdom, and then he/she becomes better at all the things they can do than they ever were.

Some years ago, I went to a panel at Wiscon named after that trope: the panel was called "What These People Need is a Honky". It was awesome.
posted by suelac at 2:51 PM on August 19, 2015 [11 favorites]


I don't think Samuel R. Delany particularly cares about the majority's opinion.

I look at "Aye, and Gomorrah", I look at the current state of SF that the Sad Puppies feel they must rebel against, I weep.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:05 PM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


This was a really good essay, thanks for posting it.
posted by klangklangston at 3:48 PM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Deoridhe, that's like the genre of books/movies where White Person is adopted by a group of nonwhite folks who teach him/her their Secret Nonwhite Wisdom, and then he/she becomes better at all the things they can do than they ever were. See: Lone Ranger, the Phantom, etc. etc.

I'm ashamed to admit it, but I feel the draw of those stories. I'm the good one. I'm the right one. I'm the one who will, of course, modestly demure at being recognized as awesome by [insert other community] and then be talked into it because, of course, I'm doing everything right.

It's a really pernicious, internalized racism/colonialism narrative because the reality is that I am trying to be the best person I can be, based on variable criteria, but that should be the basic assumption of my behavior, not something I get lauded and admired for. But those stories - the stories where white people elevate others - they so often get never thought of, or even destroyed.

I got to see excerpts from the first Avatar movie script, where the Planet was already defending herself (in the movie, a white man had to tell her to), and where the white man was one of many warriors on larger steeds, and where he ruled not all of the people on the planet, but his group of human/native hybrids. It neatly avoided all of the colonialist critique that came to the later modifications to add the White Man's Burden, and was a better story for it. It was killed in rewrites.
posted by Deoridhe at 4:23 PM on August 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


I liked the single story link. This, and the main post, reminds me of the stories I hear from gay black friends, except in their cases they are always described as a version of Lafayette (True Blood) or Ru Paul, despite the fact that not a single one of my friends acts like either. One was actually the subject of a magazine article, and the article had him snapping and sashaying and calling people darling, except that in real life he's a quiet vegan bodybuilder who has never fucking sashayed in his life.

It's as if some people can't even see.

I have been noticing this thing where the group at fault (usually white people, sometimes men) angrily lay claim to being the true wounded party and accuse the people they are oppressing of being the real oppressors.

I'm still struggling to understand this one. I live in a community that is 80% non-white, and a significant proportion of Caucasian new comers are convinced that they are being discriminated against all the time. The thing is, these are usually "good" liberals rather than your stereotypical angry conservative white guy.
posted by kanewai at 6:46 PM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Very good post, thanks.

I'm reminded of another recent piece in the NYT, The Misadventures of Issa Rae, about the writer/comedian Rae (linked her for her hit YouTube series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl) trying to put together a series for HBO that doesn't automatically partake of the tropes called out in this piece. It's a lighter piece overall, but another facet of the same issue.
posted by Miko at 8:03 PM on August 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


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