Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Where Are The Black Novelists?

I went to Powell's last night to see
Thomas Chatterton Williams read from his new memoir, Losing My Cool. Williams is young (29) and black (like Obama, he is of demonstrable mixed race descent, and, like Obama, he identifies primarily as black). The book was billed as an attack on hip-hop by one of its own. "Williams," its product description reads, "is the first of his generation to measure the seductive power of hip-hop against its restrictive worldview, which ultimately leaves those who live it powerless."

No full-frontal attack, however, ever emerged in the passages Williams read. Instead, I heard repeated homages to Williams' father--an undoubtedly impressive man; he escaped the repression of Jim Crow-era Texas for a liberating adulthood of literature, eventually coming to own nearly 15,000 books--and a series of reflections on Williams own struggle to overcome the "narrowness" of his hip-hop adolescence. Interesting stuff, but I left feeling underwhelmed.

At home, however, I came across an article Williams wrote a few years back for
N + 1 (a magazine I genuinely respect). Entitled "What Have We Who Are Slaves and Black To Do with Art?" (a question originally posed by W.E.B. Dubois in 1926), the piece begins as a review of the biography of author Ralph Ellison, then departs into a discussion of black culture at large. I found the piece much more compelling--and much more subtle--than what I heard at Powell's. Williams' critique seems to be less about hip-hop and more about materialism, acknowledging, as many of hip-hop's critics don't, that the chauvinism, casual violence, and overt greed so often found in rap music have their analogues (and antecedents) in mainstream white culture, as well.

The difference, William argues, is that "whereas white America has produced its William Faulkners, Frank Lloyd Wrights, [and] Ralph Waldo Emersons...to serve as hefty counterbalances to the Lindsay Lohans, Donald Trumps, and John D. Rockefellers...black America is all too skewed in the direction of P Diddy and the vulgar, without the benefit of adequate opposing forces."

More than attacking rap, Williams seems to be arguing for more black novelists, more black poets, more black painters. Which sounds good to me.


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:African_American_novelists


  2. Williams' point, I think, was not that blacks don't write or make art (which is obviously untrue) but that within black culture, entertainment ("the vulgar," as Williams has it) trumps more high-minded pursuits like art or literature. For example, Williams says that nearly every one of his high school peers could tell you where they were when Biggie Smalls was shot. Yet none of them had ever heard of James Baldwin. Or Ralph Ellison. Or had read Malcolm X or Martin Luther King. He is arguing (in my understanding) for a broad-based return to scholarship, to art, to literature, and a departure from hip hop.

    Read the article, though. It's interesting stuff.