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By Lisa Guerrero
James Baldwin brought me here. Not just here to this meditation, but here to this place in my life as a scholar. It was the works of James Baldwin, along with those of Ralph Ellison and Paul Beatty that compelled me to become a scholar of race and African American literature and culture. There were other thinkers, authors, and artists whose works helped me stick to my academic journey with their startling ideas and wondrous writing, but my desire to make sure people read, heard, and really understood where Baldwin, Ellison, and Beatty were coming from was my true motivation for becoming a scholar.
Now, you might be wondering to yourself how could Beatty be included on such a vaunted list when his works have had such a short life relative to the two other authors, and when, in fact, at the time that he made my list he had only just published his first novel, The White Boy Shuffle? It’s a fair point, though one to which I’m not sure I can sufficiently respond. All I can say is that I understood the world both more and less after reading Beatty, as I did after reading Baldwin and Ellison, which was a state of rupture that has had a lasting effect on me. And if one can ever say that they love a writer or his work, I love him, and them. This love seemed enough to put them in a category together; maybe it still is. But, at the time I had considered them all part of a singular whole of black male literary tradition, itself a part of a singular whole of black literary tradition. More recently, however, I have begun to think differently about their connections to one another and to black literary traditions; I’ve begun to wonder about the conditions of literary tradition, and especially how black male writers and black literary masculinities are positioned within, without, and against notions of tradition. And I’ve begun to question how the answers to these questions might reshape our thinking about writings by black male authors in the 21st century?
I began my African American literature course this term with Baldwin’s Just Above My Head. Beyond the wonderful discussions around love, trauma, and memory that it generated in my class, it also made me wonder, “who was the new/next Baldwin?” So, as we are apt to do in this era of social media, I posed the following question to my beloved and learned Facebook family: Who is a current black male fiction writer who you think is having a huge impact on literature nowadays? Are you a fan of someone writing now whose work you think will have an important longevity? The responses validated my own love for several contemporary black male authors. People mentioned Walter Mosley, Edward P. Jones, Percival Everett, Colson Whitehead, and Paul Beatty…a lot.
There were points made about how do we define “impact”? And can we measure “longevity” in any useful ways? But then the conversation went somewhere unexpected. One of my friends, an author himself, with a lush literary voice and a new novel coming out later this year, said that in having conversations with some other contemporary black male authors, some well-known, he had discovered that many of them don’t locate themselves within a black literary tradition. This was a surprising notion to many on the thread, including myself. This revelation made me ask questions I hadn’t thought about in any critical way before. Mainly, do we get to choose our traditions, especially as people of color? If we honor or do not honor those who went before in our creative works will we still be considered part of a particular tradition, for better or worse? A myriad people and their works influence artists, but does that have any effect on the ways in which an artist’s work is read through a particular tradition of which they are assumed to be a part? As the old saying goes, “You get to choose your friends. You don’t get to choose your family.” Additionally, what is the impulse that makes us want to know who the “next one” is? The next Baldwin or Ellison? The next Wright or Himes? The next Hemphill? Even the next Beatty? What defines the yearning to identify, definitively, the legacies? To me, these are critical questions to ponder when considering black literary masculinities in the 21st century.
In our desire to locate the “next one,” the one whose languages, images, and representations are recognizable to us, even as they appear to us for the first time, we create a kind of shibboleth that is meant to preserve not just the integrity of a “tradition,” but also the materiality of experiences, the truth of which are denied on a daily basis. For black literary masculinities this becomes a crucial role to be played in a world that constantly reiterates the disposability of black men. And while we can acknowledge this as a critical job of black literary masculinities, how might we better conceive of what tradition, in this case, a black literary tradition, means, and what role it has in shaping our understanding of the impact of black literary masculinities?
If we think about tradition in the specific case I have set up with the juxtaposition between Baldwin, Ellison, and their generation of late-20th century black male writers, and Beatty and his generation of early 21st century black male writers, we are forced to consider how the contextual shift may be responsible for the shift in black male writers’ relationship to notions of tradition. The conditions that bore Baldwin, Ellison, and their generation are clearly not the conditions out of which Beatty, Whitehead, Everett, and their generation are writing. And while this may be an obvious point, it isn’t one to be taken lightly. While Baldwin, Ellison, Wright, et al., were writing toward a multidimensional black humanity and black manhood in the face of a hyper-invisibility in American society, Beatty, Whitehead, Everett, et al. are writing toward a similar sense of multidimensionality, especially of black manhood, in the face of a hypervisibility in a global society. This is the difference between being a black man living in a Jim Crow America where society denied the fact of your manhood based on your race, and being a black man living in a fantastical, “post-racial” America where society denies the significance of your race in the manhood they have prescribed for you.
For both generations of writers it is about creating a legible black manhood, but the legibilities they strove for and are striving for are dislocated from one another in important ways. Baldwin’s generation were, in essence, writing to put a name to black manhood during a time where black men had “no name in the street.” Meanwhile, Beatty’s generation is writing inside of the rampant sociocultural “knowability” of black men; the paradoxical state of being both desired as a commodity-identity and erased as a citizen-subject has black male writers in the 21st century trying to relearn the names of black manhood for themselves. In these differences, how might we begin to understand the reasons why some contemporary black male writers don’t place themselves within a black literary tradition? How might we also reconsider the terms and conditions of black literary tradition to accommodate the instabilities introduced by the postmodern, globalized, consumer, commodity, techno culture we find ourselves in today? Answers to these questions are for other days and longer projects, but the time to ask them is clearly upon us.
In “When My Brother Fell,” his elegy to his friend and brother, Joseph Beam, Essex Hemphill wrote: “When my brother fell/I picked up his weapons/and never once questioned/whether I could carry/the weight and grief,/the responsibility he shouldered./I never questioned/whether I could aim/or be as precise as he./He had fallen,/and the passing ceremonies/marking his death/did not stop the war.” For contemporary black male writers, the “passing ceremonies marking” the “deaths” of their literary predecessors and the countless black men sacrificed every day to socioeconomic inequalities, the prison industrial complex, racist institutions, and senseless violence, have, in fact, not stopped the war…but they may have changed the rules of engagement.
Lisa Guerrero is Associate Professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University Pullman, editor of Teaching Race in the 21st Century: College Professors Talk About Their Fears, Risks, and Rewards (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and co-author of African Americans in Television, co-authored with David J. Leonard. (Praeger Publishing, 2009).