photo by Alex Lear
THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC
Black writers write White. This is inevitable for those of us of the African Diaspora who unavoidably use the language of our historic captivity as though it were our mother tongue when in actually English (Spanish, French, Portuguese or whatever European language) is our father tongue, the language of the alien patriarch who negated our mothers' tongues and mandated we use an other tongue; a white tongue in black mouths.
I believe our music is our mother tongue when it comes to representing the full and most honest spectrum of our thoughts and feelings, our responses and aspirations, our dreams and nightmares concerning who we are and the conditions with which we struggle. At the same time, the father tongue/imposed language is the lingua franca of our daily existence. This mother tongue/father tongue dichotomy represents the articulation of our classic double consciousness. When we make our music, we are our own authorities and our own creators and innovators. When we write the English language, the social authority of the language is vested in the dominant culture.
The language of our dominating step-father is a language that has not only historically degraded us but is also a language which demands conformity to alien values. Moreover, the words of the “King's English” are often incapable of expressing the complexities of our values and realities, especially those values of positive “otherness.” For example, what English words are there that give a positive description for spiritual beliefs outside of the “great religions of the world” (all of which, incidentally, are male-centered, if not outright patriarchal—think of bhudda, krisna, allah and his prophet muhammad, etc. not to mention jehovah and god the father, son and holy ghost)? All of other terms, e.g. animism, ancestor worship, voo-doo, traditional beliefs, all of them have a negative or “less than” connotation.
When we consider the specifics of our history in the Western hemisphere, the negativity is increased in terms of words to describe our reality. There are literally no English words for important segments of our lives. But beyond the negative of our resistance to exploitation and oppression, significant aspects of our existence are “undefined” in standard English, either because similar concepts do not exist or because our concepts are oppositional. In this regard, the Black tendency to coin new words is not just slang, creating words is a necessity if we are to reflect not simply our reality, but also our worldview and our aspirations.
At the same time, Black culture is by nature adoptive and adaptive. We can take anything and make use of it in our own unique way. Thus, the fact that English is a foreign language does not stop us from shaping and literally re-structuring how we use the language to make it work for us. This adaptation of a language we have been forced to adopt is however for the most part an oral activity. When it comes to writing, there is less latitude in the restructuring process. If we wrote the way we talk, few people would be able to read it, sometimes not even the authors, partially because the standards for writing are much more rigidly enforced than the standards for talking, but also because although we can make sounds and use gestures when we talk to give specificity to our utterances, this specificity is lost in the translation to text.
Just as there is no way to accurately notate Black music using standard western notation, there is no way to accurately translate all aspects of Black life into text because, in the words of musician Charles Lloyd, "words don't go there." For technical and/or social reasons, writing the way we speak is then: either impractical, impermissible or just plain impossible.
Yet, this impossible dream—writing Black in a White language—is precisely the task of the Black writer. The limitations of language are merely that: limitations to be overcome. Indeed, although undeniable in their negativity, the limitations of language are actually the least of our problems with writing.
The more we learn about writing, the dumber we get about ourselves.Unless accompanied by a critical consciousness, the formal act of learning to write at the college and graduate level alienates us from the majority of our people. An overwhelming percentage of the examples we are given of great writing inevitably come not only from outside of our cultural realities, many of those examples are often literally apologia for racism, sexism and capitalism (or colonialism). The very process of learning to write well is a process of not simply studying others but indeed a process of adopting the methodologies and values of an alien culture, a culture that has generally been antagonistic to Black existence. As a result, almost by definition, anyone the mainstream considers a good Black writer is either culturally schizophrenic or at the very least ambivalent about the values exhibited by the majority of Black people not only in the United States, but indeed in the whole world.
If any of us spends six or more years intensely studying how to write in an alien language, then, to one degree or another, we can not help but be alienated from our origins if our origins are outside of the culture that we have been taught to master as a writer. One sure indicator of this bi-polar state is the references we use in our work. In general three groupings will stand out: 1. Greek mythology, 2. western canonical writers (Shakespeare to Raymond Carver), and 3. western philosophy (with a notable emphasis on modernity in terms of Freudian psychology, existentialism, and post-modern individualism).
While I do not argue that any of these three groupings are irrelevant to our daily lives—after all we are partially a social product of western culture even as we are marginalized or otherwise shunned by the American mainstream, nevertheless, I do argue that to elevate these cultural references to the major tropes, images and structural devices of our writing implicitly alienates us from those aspects of our own existence that are based on other cultural values and realities.
Indeed, at one level, to engage in intellectual argument via writing reductively requires us to drag into our text words of Latin origin. We can not even restrict our word choice to simple Anglo-origin words, but are forced instead to use multi-syllabic words whose origin is twice removed from our reality. (A quick perusal of the vocabulary used in this essay will illustrate that point.) In any case, the upshot of all of this is that the more we master literacy, the more non-Black our expression becomes because the formal mastery of literacy is synonymous with covert indoctrination in western views and values. This is the dilemma of academic study that all writers of color face.
So profound is this dilemma that many of us who have mastered writing become so alienated from our "native" selves that we are unable to move an audience of working class Black people whether the audience members are reading our books or listening to us recite. How odd then, for example, to be a Black poet with an MFA in creative writing and be unable to rock a Black audience. But then one of the purposes of our education was to teach us to act like and fit in with people who historically achieved their success by excluding and/or oppressing and exploiting us.
Please do not construe this as an argument against MFA writing programs or against studying writing in college. I strongly believe in the value of study both formal and informal. The question is do we go to school to learn how to do what we want to do, ever mindful of the institutional objective, which is to make us like them, or do we go to school to prepare ourselves simply to fit in, to get a good job, to be recognized by the mainstream as a good writer? Or, to put it in other terms (community to student): "we sent you there to bring back some fire, not to become mesmerized by the light show!”
This brings us face to face with a profound fact of the Black literary tradition—almost without exception, those Black writers who have made the greatest contribution to our national literature were either self-taught or were consciously oppositional to the mainstream in both their content as well as in their use of language. Think of a Dunbar despondent that he was never accepted for writing in straight English; other than dialect poems his most lasting contribution are poems such as The Caged Bird Sings and We Wear The Mask, poems which focus on the dilemma of alienation. Think of highly educated W. E. B. DuBois whose great body of work is a veritable arsenal of charges against the west and is a celebration of Black life and resistance to oppression. Think of Langston Hughes, Richard Wight, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka—all of them self taught. Think of Francis Ellen Harper, an activist author; Ida B. Wells, an activist author; Toni Cade Bambara, an activist author; all of them autodidacts. Or if we want to consider those who were specifically educated as writers think of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, Pultizer prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks, or Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander; all of whom focused their magnificent and often iconoclastic work on the lives and struggles of working class Black people. These and many others are the great writers of our literary tradition.
Just as not one great musical innovator within the realms of blues, jazz, gospel and Black popular music has become a great creator primarily as a result of formal musical education, in a similar vein not one major Black writer who has been college educated has made a profound impact on our literature (or in American literature as a whole for that matter) unless that writer has consciously taken an oppositional stance. This is no accident. Indeed, throughout our history thus far in America, opposition to the mainstream has been a prerequisite of Black greatness in any social/cultural endeavor. Whether this will continue to be the case remains to be seen.
It is too soon to tell whether what is sometimes referred to as the "New Black Renaissance" in Black literature will produce major contributions to the historic continuum of Black literature. While it is true that popular production is at an all time high, as the case of romance writer Frank Yerby demonstrates, there is a big difference between popularity and profundity, between best sellers and classic contributions to the tradition. Frank Yerby dominated the bestseller lists for romance in the fifties, yet his work is hardly read and seldom referred to today. Will many of today's bestsellers be subject to the same popularity vs. profundity syndrome?
Capitalism materially rewards commercial success and, in the process, emphasizes the entertainment values and minimalizes the political values of the work. Art becomes a spectacle and/or product for distribution and sale, rather than a process and/or ritual for community upliftment. Indeed, there are those who argue that that an emphasis on political relevance is an artistic straight jacket. My response is that the diminution, if not total negation, of relevance is a hallmark of commercialism, a philosophy that is best summed up in the adage: everything is for sale. I am not arguing against entertainment. I am arguing for relevance and for the elevation of people before profits, community before commercialism. Or to borrow a phrase from Jamaica's Michael Manley: "We are not for sale."
When the Bible asserts, What profits it a man to win the world and loose his soul?, a fundamental truth is raise. Do we understand that soul is a social concept, that our existence as individuals is directly dependent on social interactions? The writer who is alienated from self, invariably argues for the supremacy of the individual, the right to write and do whatever he or she wants to do without reference to one person's affect on or relationship with others. Whether pushed as good old American, rugged individualism or post-modern self-referentialism, the outcome remains the same: alienation from community and schizophrenia of the personal self.
Unless we consciously deal with the question of alienation, we as writers will find ourselves unconsciously and subconsciously at odds not only within our individual psyches but with our native (i.e. childhood) and ethnic community howsoever that community may be defined. This fundamental fact is not a problem peculiar or exclusive to Black writers, it is a problem for all writers in America.
Whom we are writing for determines what and how we write. Writing presupposes audience, assumes that the reader can understand or figure out the message or meaning of the text. Some writers write for the approval of other writers, others seek to impress critics, many attempt to capture a popular audience of book buyers. Those are but a few of the many audience segments that influence, if not outright determine, the nature of writing. In ways often transparent to or not consciously acknowledged by the writer, the tastes and interests of the presumed audience actually shape the writing. Choices of subject matter and vocabulary, style and genre are all interconnected to the interpretative abilities and desires of the presumed audience.
The authority of the audience as auditor is particularly important for writers who are peripheral to or marginalized from whatever is the mainstream of the language that the writer uses.
All writing also brings with it a tradition. Over time standards of literacy develop. The writer then may seem to be a Janus-figure: glancing in one direction at the audience and trying to shape the writing to appeal to or at least be understood by the assumed audience, and glancing in the opposite direction trying to match or exceed the prevailing literary standards. For writers of color in the United States the very act of writing alienates us from our native audience most of whom are not readers grounded in the literary traditions of the text's language.
I would argue that the truth is that every writer goes down to the crossroads—and not once or twice in a career, but each and every time we write, whether consciously by choice or de facto as a result of the particular spin we put on the style and contend of what we do. We choose between speaking to the truths of our individual and collective existence or serving mammon by scripting products for the commercial mill. We choose whether to pander to our audiences by concentrating on pleasure and thereby winning applause and popularity, or to prod and push our audiences to recognize the reality of our existence and to struggle to improve and beautify the world within which we live. In this regard, a more important metaphor for the Black writer is Elegba, the trickster Orisha of the crossroads.
In the final analysis, writing is a conversation, and even if we can not tell the pilgrim which way to go, certainly we should tell the pilgrim from whence we have come, what brought us here and what is the nature of the "here" where we now find ourselves. Moreover, the point is not simply the content. The point is also the conversation. Not just what we are saying, but also with whom we are speaking, to whom we are writing.
One of the sad truths of Black writing is that most of us are employed to be guides (some would say pimps) of Blackness. In order to succeed in mainstream terms, serving as a translator of Black life, explaining the exotica (inevitably with an erotic twist) to the non-Black mainstream is almost unavoidable. But who will explain Black life to Black people? Who will break down the whys and wherefores of our daily existence in a language that our mothers and fathers can understand and appreciate, that our children can embrace and learn from?
The question of audience is seldom raised directly in school but is implicitly dictated by the writings suggested as models. When was the last time our people were validated as the authority for our work, not simplistically as the consumers to buy our books or CDs, not duplicitously as the voters to determine a popularity contest, but sincerely as the validators who determine the ultimate relevance and value of our literary work?
I believe the question of audience is a dynamic rather than static question. I believe in audience development. I believe that we must both reach out to our people and we must teach our people, we must embrace our people and we must challenge our people, we must elevate our people and we must critique our people, and ditto for ourselves and our peers. I believe in cycles rather than linear development. I believe in constantly doing one's best rather than achieving perfection by creating a masterpiece or two. There will always be contradictions, but the motion of our work need not be in a negative direction.
Writing is often defined as a lonely profession. I do not believe it has to be that way. Part and parcel of developing audience is developing community—as writers we need to create networks and organizations of support for one another. We need to model audience development and not simply leave it to retailers and investors to market us while pitting one writer against another. In order to know what to write about in terms of defining, defending and developing our communities, we must actively be engaged in defining, defending and developing community. If we can not develop community among our colleagues, how then will we be in a position to realistically inspire and/or instruct our audiences?
The question of audience is the ultimate question in our quest to contribute to the development of a Black literary tradition. I do not believe in racial essentialism nor in racial proscriptions. Just because one is a Black who writes, that does not mean that one's work has to be part and parcel of the Black literary tradition. I believe that Blackness is color, culture and consciousness, and that color is the least important component. Cultural awareness and practice is important, but consciousness—choosing to identify with and work on behalf of Blackness—is the ultimate sine qua non.
Each of us can choose to reject an allegiance to Blackness howsoever “Blackness” might be defined. We have the right to identify with any one or even with a multiple of human social orders. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Blackness among African Americans is the rejection of Blackness as a defining marker of self-definition! Moreover, I do not denigrate those who choose social options that I reject—everybody has a right to define themselves. However, for those of us who are writers and choose Blackness, I suggest that we have chosen a difficult but exhilarating path. We have chosen to pass on the torch of that old Black magic, a firelight that started the saga of human history, a mighty burning whose bright Blackness continues to stress the sacredness of love, community and sharing.
—kalamu ya salaam