Looking for Black Literature?
I first understood what people meant when they spoke of intangible white privilege when I realized that I read differently than other people. Literature had often asked me to identify with characters who were not only unlike me in terms of their experience of race, but were often actively hostile to women, or to Black people or to Black women. The strangeness of this identification didn’t occur to me until I heard my white classmates complain about having to do the same when we read books by Black authors. Years later, I would read DuBois and wonder whether my ability to identify with authors and protagonists who would despise me was evidence of a fractured self. But at the time, the inability to read outside, or even against, the self seemed as much a limitation as a privilege.
Often, it still does. I have noticed a certain resistance to stories featuring Black protagonists. Sometimes the complaint is vague—an accusation of “unrelatability.” Sometimes the complaint is more precise: the mention of race made them uncomfortable. Fiction that is explicit about race—even when it is good, subtle, complex fiction—seems to cross some invisible line for many readers.
Sometimes I wonder when and where these lines were drawn, and sometimes the lines seem alarmingly concrete. A few years ago, I was working at a bookstore in Wisconsin, trying to find a customer a copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The computer claimed we had three copies left, but none presented themselves on the literature shelves. I radioed a co-worker for assistance, and was immediately embarrassed when she reminded me to check the Black literature shelf. I’d forgotten it existed.
What had happened to me? The first time I noticed an African-American literature section in a bookstore, I was about twelve, and immediately grateful. I had outgrown the young adult section, and the African-American section seemed my logical next home. It was the first place I found books about contemporary Black characters; it was the first place I looked for literature in which I might encounter some version of myself. Contemporary literature, in all of its forms, was still new to me—something I try to keep in mind before begrudging any reader their thirst for “relatability.”
The Black literature section of my adolescence was somewhat different in nature than the shelf where I found Beloved. Commercial Black fiction is now dominated by “gangster lit” and erotica. I have no interest in playing culture police about the existence of these genres—I read my share of romance novels and drug store mysteries and turned out okay; I watch enough bad TV to believe that multiple forms of cultural expression can peacefully coexist, and like any self-respecting child of the 90’s, there are days when I consider Lil’ Kim aspirational. But was “Blackness,” like romance, a genre? Would someone expecting Zane not know the difference between Zane and Toni Morrison? If Black authors were shelved with other Black authors in the interest of sales, since Black literature is a burgeoning market, why didn’t we see titles by Philip Roth or John Updike nestled next to the Harlequin novels that populate the best-selling romance section? The issue seemed to be a fundamental failure of categorization.
Categorization, of course, has consequences. I am teaching African-American literature now. My students have raised smart questions about why we teach these texts primarily in relation to each other, and less often as part of the broader landscape of U.S literature. One answer is that there is a certain call and response between the texts; they are speaking to each other, and often revisiting the same questions. Another equally true answer is that U.S literature often can’t be counted on to teach African-American literature or the nuanced and complicated history behind it. This need to see African-American history as a separate category, to think that it speaks only to and about itself, is not only a marginalization of the African-American experience, but a fundamental failure to teach and understand American history.
In some ways, the African-American literature section of the bookstore seems to reinforce this problematic separation: here is something “other”; here is a narrow and sociological subset of books, books set apart from those that will allow you to understand the human condition in general, books you will not stumble upon casually, but must make a concerted effort to seek out. To that end, the section is doing us no good. Maybe it meant something to my adolescent self, but perhaps in a world with less inscribed distinctions between literature and Black literature, I wouldn’t have needed a bookstore to supplement what a more integrated and more honestly discussed curriculum might have done for me. Yet, to argue against the Black literature section is to risk dismissing that twelve-year old—to dismiss her need to see herself, to revoke in some sense, her formal invitation to a world she could reasonably conclude aimed to exclude her.
The first African-American woman to publish a book was Phillis Wheatley, named Phillis after the slave ship that brought her to Massachusetts when she was seven—her age determined by the condition of her teeth. She began writing the poetry that made her famous, shortly after she turned twelve—eloquent poems praising slavery and the founding fathers, and equally elegant poems praising Black art and mourning the loss of her homeland. Wheatley’s work was briefly trumpeted as proof of African equality, but after gaining her freedom, she died alone and penniless, and left behind a legacy so problematic that African-American literature, as a discipline, still struggles to handle her. One could say that, insofar as the African-American literary tradition begins with Phillis Wheatley, it begins with the sacrifice of daughters, begins with the erasure of the self in order to prove that one belongs to the American whole. Or, one could say that it begins with the reclamation of that story, with the recognition that it’s a story all of us should know, and a voice all of us need to contend with, that not in spite of, but because of all its contradictions, all of the questions it leaves us, and all of the discomfort and accusation it carries, Wheatley’s is a fundamentally and essentially American voice, allowing for the projection of so many disappointments and desires.
It is not clear to me what to do with the Black literature section, but it is clear that much of the work within it raises questions that need to be part of a larger, pre-post-racial conversation—one that doesn’t shy away from work that implicates the reader—not because it is polite or tolerant to do so, but because it is ignorant not to.