Black History Month Reading Challenge

As you may or probably don’t know, last February for Black History Month I resolved to read only books by black authors. I read Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Ibi Zoboi’s American Street, Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, as well as extensive selections of James Baldwin’s non-fiction writings, including The Fire Next Time.

It was, as you might expect, a very affecting experience. Each of the books, in its way, dealt explicitly with American racism, and the overall effect was so profound I spent a whole writer’s retreat writing something my dear friend and occasional sensitivity reader SB gave me a nice attaboy for attempting before very gently and sensibly steering me back toward my own wheelhouse. I say that not to reprise the attaboy, but to (hopefully) illustrate how moving an experience it was to connect with those voices.

UnknownSuffice to say, I’m doing it again this month. In fact, I started a little early, since I finished the last book I was reading (Tamsyn Muir’s delightful and deservedly praised Gideon the Ninth) a couple of days before February. I am currently reading Victor LaValle’s award-winning The Changeling, and though I’m not that far into it, I’m enjoying the shit out of it so far, and would recommend it to anyone on the strength of what I’ve read so far and his previous work.

I challenge you to join me. Especially if you’re not someone who reads black authors that much. It doesn’t have to be all month, doesn’t have to be work relating to American racism or even American blackness. It doesn’t have to be fiction or non-fiction. It can be whatever you like. Just read one book by a black author.

You’ll be glad you did.

Black History Month Book Report #4: The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

I hadn’t heard of this book before my lovely partner, Dr. Bae, bought a copy for me for Valentine’s Day (along with several other candidates for my BHM reading project and/or readerly delectation). “I’ll be really interested to see what you think about this,” she said, with both eagerness and trepidation in her voice.

I knew I was in for it when I read the back cover, which describes the (mostly) unnamed black narrator’s attempt to put his southern Californian town back on the map, by way of reinstating both slavery and segregation, landing him, as you might expect, in front of the Supreme Court of the United States, who don’t have any more of an idea of what to do with him than anyone else does.

Then I read the prologue, which was so fucking funny that I stopped and read it again, just to make sure I had properly enjoyed and appreciated it. Wow. Just… wow.

The Sellout is satire, yes, of the highest order. Satire which takes as its target not only these disUnited States of the twenty-first century, but skewers in particular what I can only describe as American Blackness, at least as presently constituted. It’s a particularly cogent way in to skewering America more generally, because we are defined – significantly if not solely – by our nation’s Original Sin of chattel slavery and, more deeply, by our persistent unwillingness to face the nature and consequences of that sin down through the ages to the present day. The cognitive dissonance that lies therein fucks with all of us, which is not great for our psychological health on a societal or individual level but constitutes a gold mine for the perspicacious satirist, and boy howdy is Paul Beatty that guy.

As the narrator tells us, everything that happens happens naturally. All he sets out to do is put his tiny hometown in the south end of the Los Angeles sprawl back on the map. Dickens is a bit of an anomaly, in that it’s a farming community in the middle of one of the world’s sprawling-est cities. What’s not anomalous is the racial character of its population, historically. Thanks to redlining and segregation, Dickens is black, or was til the powers that be saw fit to disincorporate the town, much to the dismay of the narrator and his friend Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal. As both faded child star and relic of a (mostly, supposedly) bygone era, Hominy plays an outsized role in what follows once our narrator, a farmer/surfer/soCal stoner raised and homeschooled by a controversial black sociologist, rescues him from an attempted self-lynching. Hominy is, for lack of a better term (and with apologies in advance for my inelegant language) a shuck-and-jive pickaninny who derives a weird but totally believable contentment, even serenity, from his bone-deep belief in whites’ racial superiority. He’s a caricature, yes, but no more so than the other, opposing pole in The Sellout’s satire/critique of contemporary blackness, Foy Cheshire, a self-important do-gooderish Black Scholar and racial activist who spends his time penning uplifting, ridiculous updates of canonical literary texts (think ‘Tom Soarer’) and scheming to take over the Dum Dum Donuts Intellectuals, who meet in Dickens’ donut shop to debate contemporary blackness and partake of the credibility associated with doing so in the ”Hood.’

It would be easy to misread Beatty’s accomplishment and (I suspect) intent. After all, in the world of the Sellout, bringing back overt racism and segregation has only positive effects. ‘Whites only’ stickers on the bus driven by our narrator’s one true love bring crime down. The local middle school’s performance improves significantly after a fake charter school serving white students is announced and the narrator convinces the principal to segregate the school. A shallow interpretation might read Beatty as implying that racism and segregation were good for black folks in America, and maybe we ought to go back to that, for everyone’s sake.

I don’t read it that way, though. What I take from the novel is that it’s not so much a return to segregation Beatty might be calling for, but simply a return to honesty about racism and segregation. That white America’s tendency to believe that what writer Charlie Pierce calls the Day of Jubilee has come, in which the Problem of Racism is Solved (thanks in no small part to our first black President) and that it’s All Good Now, and the pretense that our Original Sin has been, if not redeemed, then resolved, only serves to obfuscate the painful truth that things are not so much better than they used to be and may in fact be worse, since America is almost as racist as it used to be but won’t cop to it anymore. When the narrator and his friends cordon off a space to be theirs, it’s not so much the edification and uplift of black folks they’re seeking, but simply a space where they can be themselves, on their own terms.

I don’t know. I’m just an old white guy. But that’s what I got out of it. Either way, you should totally read this book, because even if you don’t come away with any big lessons, it’s goddamned funny as hell, and so deftly and expertly edgy that it shows the internet’s ‘edgelord’ boys for the whingey, overprivileged twerps that they are. Seriously. Don’t be like me and sleep on this one.

Black History Month Book Report #3: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

So, unlike many if not most spec fic writers, I never had a Lovecraft phase. I mean, I knew the name. But if I read anything until much later in life, it didn’t stick. So I hadn’t read The Horror at Red Hook, of which The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle is a retelling from the point of view of a black man.

Not that it’s required to enjoy this page-turner of a dark mystery novella set in ’20s-era Harlem and New York. Which is good, because I’m about three decades past the point where Lovecraft’s turgid prose and particular brand of cosmic horror was going to land. Victor LaValle, I’ll be reading more of.

Tommy Tester is a hustler and musician living in Harlem with his father, who makes his living playing music for white people and doing the odd odd job for them, too. When Robert Suydam, a mysterious and wealthy white man with a very strange plan to liberate New York’s poor and marginalized, hires him to play a party in his mansion, it opens the door (alright, eldritch portal) to a whole new (horrific) world for Tommy. Continue reading “Black History Month Book Report #3: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle”

Black History Month Book Report #1: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

First off, this is a great book that succeeds on just about every level. If good books is your jam, here is one.

A woman escapes slavery in the Gold Coast in the late 18th Century. She leaves behind one daughter, goes inland to freedom, has another. One daughter marries an Englishman, and lives out her life in a castle by the ocean. The other is captured, and taken there as a slave, to be sold on to the American South. The novel follows their children and grandchildren down the generations, alternating between the lines, as they live their lives embedded in our history, both African and American, until more or less the present day.

It’s a worthy conceit to hang the novel’s structure on, though not without its dangers. Characters rarely appear in more than two or three successive chapters, and each chapter has a new protagonist moving through a significant chunk of their lives. Each has their arc, though thanks to the history we’re following, arcs do not so much as close as find a way to keep going under immense and unfair restrictions. In less deft hands, a novel like this might fail to resonate, but Gyasi does such a good job with her characters that most all of the chapters are satisfying, to the reader if not the protagonist, and when characters reappear in their children’s lives we can see what those children can’t, that their parents were people in their own right, trapped in unkind history, and doing what best they could under the circumstances, even if that best wasn’t great.

Gyasi’s gorgeous, evocative prose helps the project along immensely. She has a knack for framing that conveys a rich, deep world in the background, the kind of world you could wander off and get lost in if you weren’t careful. But you never do, because the narrative carries you forward, through decades and centuries of lived history, of heartbreak and small victories just great enough to keep it all going, all of it rendered with flawless grace and economy.

My intent is to keep things spoiler-free, so I won’t go into individual characters and arcs. Telling truth, I think it best to encounter them with fresh eyes, even if you know your history well. What Homegoing excels at is melding that history with story, with the stories of lives lived swimming in history’s currents in the wake of the African slave trade. It is, all of it, complicated, with sympathetic villains and humanizing moments to spare, and Gyasi doesn’t spare the reader that complexity in the service of easy answers. This is a work of art, not polemic, after all.

I’m disinclined toward numerical rating, or trying to give my subjective experience a gloss of objectivity. Suffice to say, if you are a person who enjoys moving, beautifully written, well-constructed literature (with or without a capital ‘L’), you will find Homegoing to be all that and more. If you have the interest (and fortitude) to take a long and often painful look at the ramifications of human chattel slavery, in a well-researched  and -rendered (albeit fictional) form, you could do a lot worse than read Homegoing.

It’s one thing to know something intellectually, say that Jim Crow laws in the post-Civil War South led to all manner of abuses. It’s another to engage with a firsthand account, or a first-rate artistic engagement, one that plays to the full human spectrum, rather than seek emotionless shelter in facts. To my mind, it’s one of the highest purposes of human creative endeavor, an accomplishment of serious magnitude when well-executed. Yaa Gyasi has done that, and then some, with Homegoing.

You should read it.

I Know Why Nero Fiddled

I also know that that probably didn’t happen. But whatever its authenticity, the image of the emperor playing the fiddle while Rome burned endures. In common usage, it means ‘to occupy oneself with unimportant matters and neglect priorities during a crisis.’ Like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But it’s not rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s more like the band playing on as the ship upended and sank. It’s making art in the face of ongoing or oncoming catastrophe.

Half the people I know have some kind of creative pursuit as a way of making meaning in their lives. From what social media tells me, most of them are having problems working. It makes sense. Why bother making things when the whole world is going to shit? Is that really the best use of your time? What even is the best use of your time? Which fire should you be helping to put out? Or should you lay stores in and plan for the aftermath, look out for you and yours?

I don’t know the answers to those questions. Telling truth I have the opposite problem. I get up everyday and work on my novel, however I’m feeling, whether I want to or not. I can’t even imagine stopping, even though I think there’s a solid and growing chance that it’s pointless, at least in terms of getting it published and out into the reading world. Who even reads anymore, right? Who has time, what with Rome burning all around us?

There’s people who say making art’s more important than ever, times like these. Whether you’re offering distraction or insight or just putting our anxious and angst-ridden zeitgeist to words or images or music, what matters is the human spirit striving to make beauty and sense from a world sorely lacking in both.

That may be. But it’s not why I show up to work in the morning. I do it because it feeds me. Because it gives my life meaning and shape. Because I’ve known my whole life this is what I was meant for, whether I chose it or it chose me.

Because without it, I don’t know how I’d go on.