A Pocket Guide to Race in America
Why aren’t African-American artists allowed to show the fullness of African-American experience?
By Calvin Baker
A few years after I graduated college, and was still figuring out what kind of writer I wanted to be, I found myself at a party in New York talking to Gregory Hines. The virtuosic dancer, who I later learned had a reputation for taking an interest in younger artists, described an adventure he had had early in his career, in 1970s California, involving Venice Beach, free love, and hallucinogens. It all sounded to me spectacularly ill-advised, and not only because I was a bigger nerd than I knew. When I asked what had led him to such a thing, he exhaled evenly from the Gloria Cubana cigar he was smoking and replied, “I wanted to go on a journey.”
That same message was echoed a few weeks later in St. Louis, at a dinner where I was seated next to Gerald Early, then the head of African Studies at Washington University. He was working at the time on a Sammy Davis Jr. reader. Early is a brilliant, deeply serious man. Sammy Davis Jr. was, well, I thought dismissively, Sammy Davis Jr. I asked whether he was doing it for money. “He was the first black man in public life,” Early schooled me, “to demonstrate it was okay to go on a journey.”
At the time I understood both conversations as a message from the universe about the life of an artist. Specifically that black artists were denied the opportunity to express the full compass of their talents and interests unless they rejected racial conventions. Nearly 20 years later I understand it as a broader message from my father’s and grandfather’s generations about what it means to be a black man in America, where we are defined in the public (white) gaze as first the color of our skin, which threatens the general white imagination, and next our gender, which threatens white maleness.
In private you were a man, a husband, a father, whatever your job, your strengths and foibles of character. In public there was a vested interest in reducing you to a clown, a monster, an infant. The ways in which we are portrayed in the media, as well as daily experience, still reinforce this. As with any bully, ignoring it takes away a certain amount of its power. But when the Charleston shooter proclaimed “You rape our women,” he was repeating an ancient, deep-seated slur, and the actions compelled by this willful misinformation are impossible to ignore. We know that in a slaveholding society white males did what they would to the black body. The inability to do so undermined the conception instilled in them of what it was to be white and male, as it still does for many.
In the days after the Civil War and emancipation — as black men filled the roads searching for their families — this desire, which one could argue was plagued by guilt and shame, was soon projected onto black folks in the popular imagery of Aunt Jemimas, Uncle Toms, coons, bucks and harlots. It was an attempt to control through media what they could no longer by law. The same iconography was not as prevalent before the war. It was not necessary: The law did the lynching. And as anyone who studies history knows, there is nothing in it that was unique to America or colored people. The same slurs and imagery have been repeated throughout European history whenever a dominant group felt threatened and wished to dehumanize a minority population in order to exert its political will. It is an overwhelmingly effective tactic. We continue to live with it in the form of stereotypes, often sublimated, just as often overt, because fear of blackness — “taking over,” in the words of the Charleston shooter — remains, because many still cannot imagine what life in America would be like as a truly equal society.
While there has been change in my lifetime (whose memorable events so far include the election of an African-American president, the Rodney King riots, and the recent killings), like most black people I am often struck by how much this colonial paradigm still holds true. How much the roles and limitations of previous generations of African-Americans have become ours as well, in an eons-old cycle of hope, struggle (incremental progress, majority clawback), hope deferred. And into this same perverse cosmology comes a new generation. As Ta-Nehisi Coates’s public love letter to his son made clear, my generation is already having the exact same conversation with our children.
The most popular black music is rife with ancient stereotypes performed for white consumption. Beyond that, however, it also covers as much ground as any canon in history. The same cannot be said for the visual arts, or for literature. In the movies, the public record of our collective unconscious, only a handful of actors (Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Halle Berry) are permitted roles that showcase them in contexts that are not defined by their race. And while novels like Black Boy and Invisible Man continue to speak to the separate and unequal reality of black life in this country, they do not tell the full story of black life, let alone reveal the full capacity of black writers, so much as they propagate a well-worn and, by this late date, safe genre in the marketplace.
Nor are black writers allowed creative freedom to shrug off the mantle of race to create as any other writer, presumably from the fullness of their experience, imagination, and erudition. As James Baldwin wrote: “I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negroe; or, even, merely a Negroe writer.” What the mainstream would seem to want from black writers are only stories of blackness written from a marginal position, on one hand to serve as witness and on the other to affirm for mainstream readers that they remain white, and so privileged. They want affirmation that the inner life of black folks is more or less the way black folks exist in the white imagination. On the narrative level it means the books presented seldom tackle the deeper complexities of 21st-century life, in which human experiences are ever more varied, all identity in flux, even as we as a nation continue to pay interest on our original, colonial sin.
Remarkably, even the most sophisticated writers rarely create characters whose lives are as rich and complex as their own. Black characters are not permitted to respond to existential crises by going to a psychiatrist instead of the local bar, gun store, or Santeria priestess; they seldom travel for work or pleasure, date anyone of another race without self-consciousness, or go out to eat without it becoming a moment of microaggression. Romantic love as a theme scarcely exists. Families are unhappy because of history, not because parents are self-involved actors bumbling along like everyone else.
The Pilgrim narrative of salvation is ever and always the story of redemption from racism and its effects. Transcendence is overcoming self-hatred, not the false ways of seeing that encumber every society. No one has ever sought knowledge, art, or enlightenment as worthwhile ends unto themselves without it turning into a cautionary tale. A character’s actions are not only tied up in race, they are tied up in the race. And where white readers looking for stories that mirror their lived experiences may choose from any number of titles, African-American readers are confined to scant few. For all the advances in the country at large (superficial and real), the bookstore, the publishing house, the university literature or history course is still segregated space.
“When it comes to literary people,” says one of the few African-American editors working at a major publisher, “in terms of the people who buy and edit, it’s almost a white genre. For those people the only black stories are those familiar to them. They can’t get away from the novelty. They expect black people to play that part of writing the kind of black books they know. When we write about America, it becomes marginalized.”
I’ve witnessed such shortsightedness firsthand on more than one occasion. Perhaps most memorably after writing a novel about a mostly free, mostly black family in colonial America, inspired in part by The Aeneid. During the production process, when my editors told me they wanted to put a historical image on the cover, I told them there weren’t any from the period that suited their goals, other than a handful of famous people. Weeks later, they presented a proposed cover with a painting of a formidable-looking black man astride a horse. “You do know,” I said, “that’s Toussaint L’Ouverture.” To my mind it was so far off the mark, it might as well have been Simon Bolivar or Thomas Jefferson. But all they needed, all they saw, was a black guy in period dress. And they didn’t understand why such portraits might be in short supply.
Battles over book covers are not exactly the most pressing problem in America or its race relations. Most covers are crummy. It’s not like my white friends were getting gorgeous, thoughtful covers and only mine was lazy and wack. But by focusing on race and not understanding its nuances — how it matters and how it doesn’t — perfectly intelligent, well-intentioned folks had conspired to offer me an especially bad deal. All I wanted was a cover that was fucked-up like everyone else’s, not some special kind of fucked-up.
Doubtless I expect too much. Although it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask an educated American to know Toussaint L’Overture, or at least — and this is the telling part — to find out whose portrait it is. Race, however, remains the third rail of American life. The prejudices and blindness associated with it continue to define individuals and their possibilities in the world. And in ways most of us continue to be unaware of. As such, it is a perfect topic for the novel. But when writers of color may deal only with race, it becomes a prison for their talent. The last great breakout success by an African-American writer, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, was over 25 years ago. Every African-American novel to win a major award since has been about slavery, with the exception of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, which is set during Hurricane Katrina. All are well deserved. But our culture deserves other visions of the world given us by artists of color. To deny them this is to continue to force them to make greatness from a fraction (three-fifths) of their available material. It says everything about the artists capable of this generation over generation. It says an equal amount about the culture that continues to impose such conditions. I believe Morrison’s best work to be among the best ever produced in America. I also can’t help being struck at times, in complex ways, that she is my grandmother’s age.
This is not idle bridge-burning. Representation, of course, matters. That is why white people do all they can to hold that power as closely as possible. However, we — particularly those of us born after the civil rights movement — live in a global, multiracial society. At least many of us do. The people we love, admire, or bear some responsibility to (our friends, classmates, colleagues, mentors, students, lovers, spouses, neighbors, teammates, children) sometimes experience the social world differently than we do, no matter their private realities. In real life we are, or should be, increasingly aware of the lives of those who do not look like us. Sometimes it’s confusing.
When Du Bois coined the famous term “double-consciousness” in The Souls of Black Folk in the early 20th century, he treated it as a kind of liminal nervous condition, not knowing that by the 21st century it would become the condition of a world in which most people have access to, and must balance the claims of, more than one culture, and somehow harmonize them internally.
One accepts Du Bois’s claim, though, that black folk have uniquely black souls. I certainly hope I do. But as everyone knows, or should, the inner phenomenon we call soul has a soul of its own, and that is the color of infinity.
As a black person in America, and especially a black artist in America, one’s fate is to engage, in one form or other, in the same social struggle as preceding generations to have the fullness of one’s humanity accepted in an often hostile environment. In the allegedly liberal world of American letters, that hostility has translated into a ceiling under which one is expected to toil in the same manner as generations past. What one still does not do, as each generation has been asked to reckon with in turn, is define one’s own roles by one’s own creative, moral, and intellectual compass. That is to say: Go on a journey. When I go back now and listen to Sammy Davis Jr., what I hear is not a sellout, but a sublimely gifted man, going his own way into the dark unknown of what life would be like if he lived it according to his own talents and genius as a man.