Mychal Denzel Smith's memoir reckons with racial injustice, and tells the story of his political education.
Colson Whitehead ’91 has written a zombie-apocalypse novel, a coming-of-age novel set in the world of the black elite, a satiric allegory following a nomenclature consultant, a sprawling epic tracing the legend of the African American folk hero John Henry, a suite of lyrical essays in honor of New York City, and an account of drear and self-loathing in Las Vegas while losing $10,000 at the World Poker Series. That work has won him critical acclaim. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002, and has been a finalist for almost every major literary award; he won the Dos Passos Prize in 2012 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2013. In an era when commercial pressure reinforces the writerly instinct to cultivate a recognizable “voice,” his astonishingly varied output, coupled with highly polished, virtuosic prose, makes Whitehead one of the most ambitious and unpredictable authors working today.
He has gained a reputation as a literary chameleon, deftly blurring the lines between literary and genre fiction, and using his uncanny abilities to inhabit and reinvent conventional frames in order to explore the themes of race, technology, history, and popular culture that continually resurface in his work. In a country where reading habits and reading publics are still more segregated than we often care to admit, his books enjoy a rare crossover appeal. His first novel, The Intuitionist, is a detective story that regularly turns up in college courses; the zombie thriller Zone One drew praise from literary critics and genre fiction fans alike; Sag Harbor, about black privileged kids coming of age in the 1980s, was a surprise bestseller.
Beyond the books, Whitehead swims effortlessly in the hyper-connected moment: he maintains an active presence on Twitter, where his sly and dyspeptic observations on the curious and the mundane have gained him a devoted following. A sampling includes sagacious tips for the aspiring writer — “Epigraphs are always better than what follows. Pick crappy epigraphs so you don’t look bad” — and riffs on Ezra Pound: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet, black bough / Probably hasn’t been gentrified though.” In the pages of The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker, he has wryly dissected contemporary mores and the light-speed metamorphoses of language in the age of social media. In a widely shared essay from last year, he parsed the current attachment to the “tautophrase,” as in “you do you” and “it is what it is.” Or Taylor Swift’s popularization of “Haters gonna hate.” Swift makes an easy target, of course, but Whitehead takes aim at the rhetoric of those in power too, and the narcissism in our culture more generally. He’s more gadfly than moralist, but there is a Voltaire-like venom to his sarcasms. “The modern tautophrase empowers the individual,” he observes, “regardless of how shallow that individual is.”
Rutherford B. Hayes (James Albert Wales/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.)
The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide
By Carol Anderson
246 pp. Bloomsbury. $26.
As the Obama presidency draws to a close, it is clear that the post-racial democracy it was supposed to inaugurate has not materialized. But over the last eight years something very important has emerged in the way race gets discussed in America: the foregrounding of whiteness. From discussions of diversity on campus and white appropriation of black culture to #OscarsSoWhite, “whiteness” as a cultural and social category has become a subject for scrutiny and criticism in ways that “blackness” was in years past.
The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact. It does not touch anyone in particular; “I” am not threatened by it, but spared, left aside. It is in this way that I am threatened…
—Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster
I. THE ENDS OF HISTORIES
The Bataclan is one of the oldest music venues in Paris. Situated on the Boulevard Voltaire and named after an 1855 operetta by Jacques Offenbach, it has operated as an entertainment venue more or less continuously since its opening in 1865 under the Second Empire. After a period of decline in the Sixties and Seventies it was reopened in 1983 with a particular emphasis on providing a platform for post-punk and rock on the Parisian scene. Perhaps befitting its name, onomatopoetic for a sonorous cacophony, it has long maintained a reputation for eclecticism.
Offenbach’s 1855 Ba-ta-clan is an orientalist comic operetta about a Chinese emperor whose subjects are ostensibly in a conspiracy to revolt and overthrow him. It turns out, however, that the emperor and the conspirators are all French aristocrats who share a desperate homesickness for the gay life of Paris that they enjoyed in their youth. It’s a light satire spoofing Napoleon III and the hapless members of the courtier class around him. But it also suggests a pervasive French fantasy: that cultural differences are really more like costumes, and that underneath those exotic garbs, which are amusing but insubstantial, all people want to be French — or at least to live the life of pleasure as the French conceive it. When things are set aright, as they must be at the end of any comic play, all will sing together as one. All will be dissolved in the irresistible cheer of a French republican chorus.
Photo credit: Desdemone Bardin, IAM Fête de l’Humanité, courtesy of Sebastian Bardin-Greenberg. Originally published in Freestyle (1993).
In 1988 no one in France took the hip-hop movement seriously. It was the rec-room era. JoeyStarr and Kool Shen were just two kids from Seine-Saint-Denis, the 93rd ward, a neglected tract of housing projects on the northern outskirts of Paris. One black, the other white, they shared a love and talent for breakdancing and got together practicing moves in bleak lots and house parties. They started crews and listened to Doug E. Fresh, Masta Ace, Grandmaster Flash and Marley Marl. DJs played the breaks looped over jazzy horn riffs, cats sported Kangol hats and Cosby sweaters, and they tagged the walls of the city with their calling card: NTM, an acronym for Nique Ta Mère (Fuck Your Mother). There were no labels, no official concerts or shows, and the only airplay was after midnight on Radio Nova, a station dedicated to underground and avant-garde music, created and directed by French countercultural hero Jean-François Bizot.
I was at a house party in a spacious bourgeois apartment somewhere in the 16th arrondissement when I first heard DJ Cut Killer’s track “La Haine,” better known by its infamous refrain “Nique la police” (Fuck the police). I hadn’t yet seen the film La Haine (1995), which made the song famous, and which remains arguably the most important French film of the 1990s. I was at a boum, slang for a teenage house party and a tradition of Parisian coming of age that involves a great deal of slow dancing and emotional espionage. Sophie Marceau immortalized it as a mesmerizing ingénue in the greatest French teen romance ever produced, La Boum (1980). But I wasn’t dancing with Sophie Marceau. I was dancing with Caroline. A young dude interrupted Ace of Base and popped in a cassette he had brought in his jacket pocket. The party came to a jarring halt as everyone looked at everyone else trying to figure out what to do. The shock of hearing someone actually say “fuck the police” and repeat it again and again stunned me. The owner of the tape was bragging about how he got it. How it was banned, and you could only find it “underground.” This turned out to be true, though I didn’t believe it at the time. Caroline insisted she was impressed, but her body was limp, her eyes vacant. The song made a big impression on me. Even without fully understanding everything on the record, the exhilaration of open rebellion was palpable. Over an onslaught of breaks and scratches a voice shouted: “Who protects our rights? / Fuck the justice system / The last judge I saw was as bad as the dealer on my corner / Fuck the police / Fuck the police!” KRS-One samples collided with a looping of Édith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien.” We understood the symbolism perfectly. The difference between Sophie Marceau’s world and ours was the existence of the ghetto as an undeniable fact. The party was over.
Ta-Nehisi Coates (Gabriella Demczuk)
When people sometimes ask me whether I consider myself black, I have to tell them that I am, and I remind them that the possibility of the question is itself the answer. To be black in the United States can involve existing in a kind of special interrogative mode, which is like standing in the long shadow of a question mark. This point is not merely an abstract analogy. The “blackness” of skin means what it does in the United States not because of melanin, but rather because of the long shadow of the slave ship and Jim Crow. It is, to borrow James Baldwin’s words, “not a human or a personal reality” but “a political reality,” defined by the decisions and actions that have formed the history of the country we live in. Conversely, when white folks stammer that “white privilege” cannot possibly apply to them, I suggest that their very insistence is one small manifestation of that privilege, namely of not having to question or be questioned, of being able to choose to lead an unexamined life in this country.
Terrance Hayes at a Cave Canem reading at the Lensic Theater, Santa Fe, 2006 (Ben Oswest/Flickr)
Outside of poetry circles, few people have heard of the Dark Room Collective or Cave Canem, but over the last thirty years these two communities have nurtured a profound and ongoing transformation in American letters. Sharan Strange and Thomas Sayers Ellis, two black students who met at Harvard, founded Dark Room in 1987. As young fledgling poets they traveled together to New York to attend the funeral of one of their literary heroes, James Baldwin. They were inspired by the extraordinary sense of fellowship at that event and vowed to try and recreate it in their own lives.
Protesters carry posters depicting the eyes of Eric Garner, created by the artist JR for the MIllions March in New York City, December 13, 2014. (The All-Nite Images / Creative Commons)
On December 13, 2014, ten days after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict a New York City police officer in the killing of Eric Garner, as many as 50,000 people marched down Fifth Avenue from a rally in Washington Square Park to voice their anger, their dismay, and their resolution to end the reign of unchecked police brutality directed at black citizens. Leading the cortege was a line of protesters carrying black-and-white posters that formed a massive close-up of Eric Garner’s eyes. An image of the vigil was widely circulated by observers, the press, and organizers. It was powerful, spectral: the disembodied gaze of a dead man staring out at the city whose lawmen had needlessly and callously ended his life.
The poster assembly was the creation of a young French artist and unabashed humanitarian who goes by the moniker “JR,” and who has emerged in recent years as one of the most ambitious figures in the world of art. JR’s work blends protest and entertainment, high art and street art, the global and the local, the photograph and the guerrilla fly-poster, into one continuous and potentially open-ended project. In 2011, he was awarded a $100,000 TED prize to create his “Inside Out Project”: Participants take portraits of people in their own communities and send them to JR, who transforms them into posters and returns them to their “cocreators” for pasting on the streets, buildings, and sidewalks where they live. According to the Inside Out Project’s website, more than 230,000 posters have been printed and distributed in this way, to at least 124 countries around the world. Human faces a story tall and eyes the size of shipping containers have materialized in slums outside Nairobi and in favelas in Rio; on the Israeli separation wall in the West Bank; on buses and trucks in Sierra Leone; among peace activists in Juarez and gay-rights activists in Moscow; and on buildings in Tehran,
Medellín, Jaipur, and the South Bronx. A poster of a young girl designed to be visible to US drone pilots was unfurled in an undisclosed location in Pakistan. At the solidarity march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the eyes of the magazine’s murdered editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, like those of Eric Garner in New York, hovered over the crowd.
Paul Beatty (Hannah Assouline)
Paul Beatty’s latest novel, The Sellout (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $26), recounts the ordeals of a man who tries — and fails — to live up to his father’s, his community’s, and his country’s ideas of what it means to be black in America. But our narrator, nicknamed Sellout, does more than just fail: He threatens, as a certain saying goes, to set the race back 500 years, by landing himself a date before the US Supreme Court for owning a slave named Hominy (who refuses to work) and attempting to reinstate segregation in the deincorporated pastoral ghetto of Dickens in the greater Los Angeles area.
Beatty is smarter than most comic writers, and fearless: The Sellout at times seems to be based on a lost Dave Chappelle skit. Yet one fears that Beatty will be relegated to the Literary Negro League of comic novelists, with George Schuyler first up to bat and, awaiting their turn, Fran Ross, Cecil Brown, Ishmael Reed, William Melvin Kelley, and the recent call-ups Percival Everett and Mat Johnson. These writers find themselves in a perpetual search of an audience — not because of a lack of talent, but for the inexplicable reason that readers seem unwilling to have a “conversation” or “more dialogue” about race unless it is entirely sober, mostly cant, and, to judge by the state of things, perennially superficial. That’s unfortunate, because the novel has always been a good vehicle for dissecting the rhetorical essentialisms and mental shortcuts we live by.
There is a remarkable scene in Ava DuVernay’s ambitious new film, Selma, where Coretta Scott King (wonderfully played by Carmen Ejogo), fearing for the life of her family, describes being overcome by the “fog of death.” It’s an apt phrase, and all the more so for it’s subtle echo of the “fog of war,” that realm of deception and uncertainty that clouds our reading of human intentions under inhumane conditions. More than ever, one feels caught up in that “fog of death.” As the tragedies in New York City and Missouri among citizens and the police accumulate, and tensions escalate, so does the sense of an eerie fog of war.
For months a question mark hovered over the protests surrounding Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson and Eric Garner’s killing in New York City: Would the spontaneous and sporadic language of protest, anger, and injury become a sustained movement for equality and justice? Although the path forward remains murky and imperiled, there can no longer be any doubt: There is a social movement for racial justice in this country with a broader base and louder voice — particularly among millennials — than at any time since the late and tragic phase of the Civil Rights movement. Into this turbulence comes a film that sounds like a biopic, feels like a history lesson, and looks very much like an allegory of the present. But what exactly are the lessons today’s movement can draw from Selma?