ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
My mother and I have always had a good relationship, very forthright, and whenever I used to ask
her why she married my father, she would offer only one answer: So you would be light-skinned.
Beyond the Skin Trade
How does black nationalism stay relevant in the age of Barack Obama?
By Victor Lavalle
When I was a boy, I prayed for straight hair. You have to understand, I grew up on heavy metal. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest to start. Then Anthrax and Exodus, Megadeth and Metallica. My friends and I gathered in living rooms and basements and empty lots and banged our heads to Damage, Inc. and I Am the Law. If you nearly snapped your neck, you were doing something right. We were a pretty wild mix: a Persian kid, a Korean, a couple of white guys, and methe only one with a tight, curly Afro. The rest had straight hair, grown long, and when they thrashed to the music, their hair bounced and whipped like it was supposed to. Id watch them pull off this casual magic and wish Id been so blessed. But I was black, and there was no enchantment in that. It actually felt like a kind of curse. Im so embarrassed to admit any of this.
Now, heavy metal may be to blame for any number of ills (my tinnitus, for instance), but I cant really say it spawned my self-loathing. Instead, lets head upstairs, to my familys apartment in Flushing, Queens. We wont meet the guilty party there, just another link in a long chain.
My mom grew up in East Africa. Uganda. A member of a tribe called the Baganda, the largest ethnic group in the country. Daughter of a proud and courageous mother and father. They worked to eject the British colonial powers; they were one small part of the Pan-African movement. My grandfather helped oust the British and set up schools in rural Uganda. He made sure his own kids were educated. For college, my mother packed off to Canada. In Kitchener-Waterloo, she was denied housing, mistreated and maligned in school and on the street. Finally, she moved to America to escape the racism. That poor womanshe didnt understand what was happening to her. What had already happened. Somewhere, flying over the Atlantic Ocean maybe, shed stopped being a Muganda, a Ugandan, or even African. She had become black.
The original American slaves werent black, either. They were Ashanti and Ewe and Fanti, among others. The slaves path to Christianity has been told and retold as the great conversion story of Africans in the Americas. But thats not the only conversion story. Theres the legal conversion: from humans being into chattel. And theres the cultural conversion: A wealth of ethnicities became one black race. This must have shocked those Africans as much as it did my mother.
With the earliest instances of rebellion against the slave systemwhether armed insurrection or covert escape or the liberation of literacyblack nationalism was born. Even before it had a name, it was a practice. Just staying alive was an act of defiance. Thus every black person was a part of the resistance. Up, you mighty race!
My father is white.
As the decades passed, black nationalism created and re-created itself in this country. David Walker and Harriet Tubmans role in shaping abolitionism; Marcus Garveys model of separate but formidable black entrepreneurship; the civil rights struggle; Black Power; the Nation of Islam; the Nation of Gods and Earths. Each can be categorized as a form of black nationalism. But no matter which era or organization, whether they were capitalists or Marxists or advocates of repatriation, they all seemed to assume one basic truth: Were all in this together.
Rich or poor, southerner or northerner, dark skinned or light, black folks are on the same side. Remember Marcus Garveys call: Africa for the Africans! And Malcolm Xs line: When I speak of the South, I mean south of Canada. The whole US is the South. (Though my mother couldve schooled him on that.) Our own schools, our own churches; maybe someday even our own state. But check out the sleight-of-hand America had managed. What really held us together besides the system we opposed? What would black nationalism be without a common enemy?
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It seems all Americans are now contractually required to bring up Barack Obama at least once a week. In either wonder or disgust, cynicism or cloudy-eyed glee. As a black person, its actually common courtesy to mention my man at least once a day. But right now, Im more concerned with Obamas mother, Ann Dunham Soetoro. The white woman from Kansas reminds me of my own mother, the black woman from Uganda. Its not the wanderlust or the tenacity (though those are comparable, too). Instead, its a choice each woman made. About who would father her child. And why.
In Dreams from My Father, Obama recounts going to see Black Orpheus with his mother. Halfway through the movie, hes pretty tired of it, the depiction of black folks being far from complex or interesting. But then he looks at his mother: Her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment, I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrads dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.
My own mothers life strikes me as a fair capsule summary of the black experience in America. Reaching these shores as an African, not so much proud of this fact as unaware she should feel ashamed. Then made aware. While she didnt take over any buildings or arm herself, my mother did bring my ailing grandmother over from Uganda to care for her. She worked as a legal secretary while helping her brother get through college. I count these as her years of resistance. But eventually her resistance ran out.
My mother and I have always had a good relationship, very forthright, and whenever I used to ask her why she married my father, she would offer only one answer: So you would be light-skinned.
My mom is going to beat my ass if she ever sees this. I cant imagine anything that would embarrass her more. Its not that she never said it, not that it isnt true, but to say it out loud. To print it. And in a place where white folks might read it! These expressions of self-loathing go on, but you dont admit them in mixed company. If you do, well, what the hell kind of black person are you?
And heres why Ann Dunham Soetoro reminds me of my mother: Blackness was more of an idea than a reality for both, yet one of the most important choices of each womans life was based on it. One woman yearned for it, while the other wished to escape. Either way, blackness (and whiteness) defined them.
Im not saying my mother, or Obamas, made her choice consciously. My mothers answer to my paternity question always seemed like insight shed gained after the fact. Maybe a way to recast loss as a kind of victory. But consciously or not, she wanted her child to be lighter than she was. She believed my life in America would be easier that way. And she was right. It has been.
Faced with her lifes evidence, she couldnt have imagined a rat-fuck, heartless, shit-stain system like this countrys would ever die. Resist or surrender: Those were a black persons only choices in these United States. That would never change.
But then it did.
I remember watching Obamas victory speech on a JumboTron out on 125th Street. I watched him at that podium in Grant Park while I stood in a mixed-race crowd in the middle of a revitalized Harlem. What world is this? I wondered even as I hooted and hollered. Who couldve imagined such sights and wonders? When I finally reached my mother on the phone, she sounded even more awestruck than I was.
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Im sick of discussing black nationalism. Im tired of all the dourness and doomsaying; of the grimace thats required whenever we discuss it and blackness in general; of the countless humorless men and women who scold every impulse toward comfort or laughter or, dare I say it, optimism. Im sick of the same old forecast for blackness: gloom followed by clouds of hail.
On January 20, 2009, the president of the United States was a black man, or blackish if you want to nitpick. On January 30, 2009, the head of the Republican National Committee was a black man. And in the 2008 election race, a black woman ran as the presidential nominee of the Green Party. What is black nationalism to make of all this? A system of thought, a method of living, that sought empowerment through opposition now looks a lot like the leaders of the system it opposed. Im not suggesting that the existence of these few black leaders indicates the end of hard times for black Americans. What Im wondering is this: If a disempowered black person opposes an empowered black person, which one is the black nationalist?
This essay was supposed to be an obituary, a eulogy, for black nationalism, but Ive spent a good deal of it going on about my mother. She might not believe me, but I mean all these admissions and revelations as a testament to her and, by extension, to black nationalism. Who can judge what he cant understand? Not me. And our elders battled through some genuinely incomprehensible shit.
But if the final goal of black nationalism is freedom and autonomy for black folks, then maybe that even means becoming liberated from our debts to our forebears. Not to forget them, but to bury them with honor. Then maybe well get to devise new solutions to old problems. Even my silly little headbanging woes turned out to have a pretty simple solution, one I figured out only years later. I didnt need straight hair to thrash, I just grew dreadlocks. Voilàfree to be a black metalhead.
I imagine telling all this to my mother. I can see us in her living room, on her powder-blue couch. She listens to my desire, my need, to think differently about our place in the world. To set the old burdens down. She nods, and when Im done, she reaches out to touch my cheek. She smiles, but not with joy, just wistfulness. I see the back of her dark brown hand in contrast to the side of my honey-colored face. She sighs. Then she speaks. Only five words: Easy for you to say.
Victor LaValle is the author of the novel The Ecstatic (Crown, 2002).
Source: Bookforum. Apr/May 2009
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Literature from the Edgeby Jeffrey Trachtenberg24 July 2009Despite the advance acclaim, Big Machine faces major hurdles in finding a broad audience. Mr. Jackson says that it has always been difficult to market black literary fiction. Black writers dont have a support network that helps them publish their short stories, and the encouragement they get is often for familiar material, he says.
In recent years, some black literary writers have managed to garner critical acclaim and mainstream sales, including Colson Whitehead, Edward P. Jones and Edwidge Danticat, but they are the exceptions, Mr. Jackson says.
Ishmael Reed, the veteran author of Mumbo Jumbo and Reckless Eyeballing, said in an email that Mr. LaValle is part of a group of African-American writers that has reintroduced a fiction with comic possibilities, entertaining fantastical situations without losing a sharp social message. As a stylist, Mr. LaValle employs a sly wit and deadpan humor. Heroin, like I said before, robs you of your empathy, he writes in Big Machine. And thats a problem, because empathy is what separates human beings from teenage boys.Online.WSJ
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By Victor LaValle
By Edward P. Jones
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Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”
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By Melissa V. Harris-Perry
According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless Mammys behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own familys needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.
As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.
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posted 9 March 2011