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He sneers out from the book cover, his eyes masked by sunglasses, his naked and muscular chest tattooed with gang markings, an assault weapon gripped firmly in his right hand. If the picture were flashed during one of those word-association tests, the response might be: Violent. Criminal. Your own impending death at the hands of an African-American man.
The author is “Monster” Kody Scott (aka Sanyika Shakur); his book is 1993’s best-selling autobiography Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member, and the persona projected by Scott accurately represents the man he has become: Unabashedly, he confesses in his book to having spent 16 of his 29 years as a member of the notorious Los Angeles gang Eight-Tray Crips, and acknowledges that he is currently serving seven years for beating Roderick Saunders—a black man—to within an inch of his life on Jan. 27, 1991.
“I have pushed people violently out of this existence and have fathered three children,” Scott boasts. “I have felt completely free and have sat in total solitary confinement in San Quentin state prison. I have shot numerous people and have been shot seven times myself. I have been in gunfights in South Central and knife fights in Folsom state prison. Today, I languish at the bottom of one of the strictest maximum-security state prisons in this country.”
But despite this unvarnished display of brutality, Kody Scott wants his readers to think of him as an innocent whose life in the ghetto turned him into a savage. The book, for which he was paid a $150,000 advance, has parlayed his blood lust into minor celebrity and made him a part-time spokesperson for the race; Scott’s publisher at Grove/Atlantic Monthly Press—a white guy named Morgan Entrekin—calls him a “primary voice of the black experience.”
Scott is only one writer in the bountiful harvest of rapists, drug addicts, and criminals now offered by New York publishers to a gullible public as “primary voices of the black experience.” Disguised as victims and marketed like a new soap or soda, these writing thugs are trundled off to bookstores where they give readings, and to TV talk shows where they claim to represent the authentic African-American life. In the case of Scott, whose incarceration puts a crimp on speaking engagements, the publicity machine is stoked with a book excerpt in Esquire.
Among the genre’s latest practitioners is self-confessed thug-cum-victim Nathan McCall. He joins Scott in blaming white racism for his life of crime against blacks in this year’s best-selling Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America.
“After several clean hits, it became clear to me that I’d found my hustle,” writes McCall, a Washington Post reporter. “I was making good money and didn’t have to take hassles from whitey while doing it. The only downside to sticking up in black neighborhoods was that the people were so poor we had to rob several of them to get a hundred dollars. Shell Shock came up with an idea to remedy that: “Let’s take the niggahs’ clothes, too.’ ”
McCall’s fury at white racism leads him on a crime spree, to the near-murder of another black male, and to the serial sexual abuse of young African-American women. He also fathers several children out of wedlock, for whom he initially assumes no responsibility.
His emblematic life as a “young black man in America” earns him a ticket to prison at the age of 20, where he drapes his criminal escapades in a revolutionary cloak. He recasts himself as a political prisoner in the tradition of George Jackson, who was killed in the early ’70s during a prison break. He even equates life under white racism with life in prison by citing this Jackson quotation: “Being born a slave in a captive society and never experiencing any objective basis for expectation had the effect of preparing me for the progressively traumatic misfortunes that lead so many black men to the prison gate. I was prepared for prison. It required only minor psychic adjustments.”
The Post is the home of another perpetrator of this ongoing literary scam: reporter Patrice Gaines. Gaines wants to be considered a victim, too—of her stern Marine lifer father and the violent sexual predators who became her boyfriends. Her recently released autobiography, Laughing in the Dark: From Colored Girl to Woman of Color—A Journey From Prison to Power, recounts a grim tale of drug addiction, rape, sexual perversion, theft, and finally jail.
Gaines writes that one boyfriend, who later became the father of her daughter Andrea, controlled her life and coaxed her into stealing from her employers at a department store:
I was stealing from the capitalist pigs, performing a revolutionary deed, taking from a huge department store that was hardly distinguishable from any government building in the city, a representative of the white racists who owed me. But deep inside I harbored doubts, suspicions that it was wrong and that stealing is stealing, no matter the situation. But those doubts were not strong enough to stop me.
What Monster Kody Scott, Nathan McCall, and Patrice Gaines all share—besides a sense of victimhood and hot-selling books—is a solid middle-class upbringing, one that should have tempered them from all but our culture’s most egregious racism. (McCall and Gaines are candid about their middle-class backgrounds. More later on how Scott’s memoir conveniently erases his largely positive and comfortable childhood.)
By definition, the publishing industry is interested in what sells, and if a movable feast of victims is what the readers want, the Atlantic Monthlys and Random Houses are all too happy to oblige. But we need to understand that these confessionals and “woe is me” tales do little to inspire the development of character for future generations of African-Americans. Instead, they perpetuatean overwrought myth of African-Americans as powerless creatures who must descend into degradation and traverse the bowels of society before they can make a valuable contribution.
It’s been nearly 130 years since the Emancipation Proclamation reportedly freed blacks from bondage; it’s been nearly 40 years since the landmark of Brown vs. Board of Education; and it’s been 30 years since the first national civil rights bill was signed into law. No one can reasonably deny the fact that vestiges of institutional racism still choke the human spirit, but that doesn’t answer the question of why so many African-Americans clutch the legacy of victimization. Why “woe is me” sounds through African-American letters like a mantra, a mantra that has brought little mental, economic, social, or spiritual relief. Or why book reviewers routinely embrace first-person narratives of gunfights as “authentic” black experiences, as if the toiling millions who deliver car parts and fix Xerox machines and butcher hogs and answer phones and submit their invoices and pay their bills and keep their noses clean are black impostors.
I submit that the popularity of the victim autobiography bespeaks a low level of imagination on the part of the authors and the publishers of these books, as well as a black culture that appears addicted to a thoroughly exhausted literary form: the narrative of the runaway slave.
Not all African-American critics share my critique of the new victim literature, saying that these books should be regarded as “popular” literature that encourages the masses to read and expands the market for African-American authors. The belief that blacks don’t read was shattered by the blockbuster success of Terry McMillan’s “treatises” on black male/female relationships (which only the unstudied regard as novels). The hunt is now on for any black body that can write a story tarted up with drama, especially crime and sex.
What I and others find offensive and dangerous about these books is the misappropriation of the black legacy. By promoting the dark side of African-American life, these authors use the symbols and language of liberation to advance their petty criminal lives.
Taking exception to this view is E. Ethelbert Miller, executive director of the Afro-American Resource Center at Howard University. Many of the original slave narratives served as “guides for the race,” and Miller says that these new books by McCall, Gaines, Scott, and others play a similar role in today’s culture.
“Black men who have survived the community’s hard times can use their lives as instruction,” Miller says. “Their lives become a test tube where you can examine it. Pretty much, they are success stories.”
David Nicholson, assistant editor of the Post‘s Book World section, damns the genre, saying that the publishing industry and many African-American readers have become entranced by victim literature. The appeal of these books to authors and readers, he says, is a desire to be innocent.
“If you’re innocent, it means you don’t have to bear any responsibility for your actions,” Nicholson says, adding that the books “insist on this very limited view of what it is to be black.”
Writing in the April 25 issue of the Nation, former Post writer Jill Nelson claims that too many of today’s sociologists, writers, editors, and intellectuals are hogging in the “Trough of Black Pathology.”
“The Trough,” she writes, has “spawned a lucrative cottage industry whose central tenet is the pervasiveness of the African-American pathology.
“It is not surprising that some African-American writers have responded to being labeled the problem and pathological with works that are essentially confessional in nature,” Nelson continues. “Too often, the belief that black people are inherently pathological, coupled with black self-hatred, defines and indelibly colors the ways in which black writers of nonfiction look at their lives. The expectation of black pathology on the part of editors, readers, and opinion-makers insinuates itself, however subtly, into the writer’s consciousness.”
But Nelson is no stranger to the pathological: She expropriates her family’s history in her best-seller Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience (1993), a memoir of her brief rise and extended fall as a writer at the Post. The stories of Nelson’s sister’s mental illness and her brother’s crack habit are recruited to add spice to her own public confession. More victimizer than victim in Volunteer Slavery, Nelson attacks former colleagues without regard to color.
Victim-by-proxy John Edgar Wideman similarly exploits his brother’s imprisonment, his son’s imprisonment for murder, and his father’s absence in his latest memoir, Fatheralong. These tragedies fuel his eloquent though ancillary discussion on racism in America.
African-Americans were not always so obsessive about their victim status. During the black power era of the ’60s, a relentlessly positive black worldview was cultivated, celebrating every aspect of African-American culture. Black poetry, fiction, plays, and even nonfiction sang songs of praise to the beauty of being black—nappy hair, full hips of some black women, the range of brown hues, and glorious African ancestry. No one in the culture dared to speak ill of black people.
“Defining itself against the Harlem Renaissance and deeply rooted in black cultural nationalism, the Black Arts writers imagined themselves as the artistic wing of the Black Power movement,” writes Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the Oct. 10 issue of Time. “[Writers] Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal and Sonia Sanchez viewed black art as a matter less of aesthetics than protest; its function was to serve the political liberation of black people from racism.”
Nikki Giovanni’s poem from the era, “Nikki Rosa,” captured the underlying message, mood, and dreams of the literature of the Black Arts movement:
…and I really hope no white person ever has cause to write about me?
because they never understand black love is black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy.
The Black Arts movement stimulated pop and political culture, and awakened the hunger of African-Americans for black heroes and images of themselves in the media. Consequently, they accepted with few questions almost any movement, entertainment, or art that challenged the old ways. This helps explain the enthusiasm for the Black Panthers, who exemplified self-determination, never mind their violent excesses. Meanwhile, Hollywood, sensing the hunger pangs and discovering the Negro wallet, invented the blaxploitation film, featuring supertough, sagacious criminals looking for the big score. Slaughter, Shaft, Superfly, and scores of other blax-flicks glamorized these bad dudes.
McCall heeded the message.
“Superfly also inspired a major fashion revolution,” recalls McCall in his book. “Almost overnight, brothers shifted from Black Power chic to gangster buffoon. Suddenly, cats who had been sporting dashikis and monster Afros broke out in platform shoes and crushed-velvet outfits that made them look like clownish imitations of the flamboyant Priest [Superfly‘s protagonist]….I thought I was the cat’s meow when I got my first pair of platforms. They made me look a full foot taller and the heels were so high I had to adjust my pimp [walk] to keep from breaking my ankle. But I knew I was cool.”
Joseph Jordan, chair of the African/African-American Studies Department at Antioch College, remembers he thought those movies were “wonderful.”
“But then I grew tired of them,” he says.
Actually, everyone grew tired of the lopsided blaxploitation view of African-Americans until the resurgence of gangsta rap and gangsta literature.
“What is it about our lives that make it so we have to have one of these every generation—Bigger Thomas, Soul on Ice, Nathan McCall?” asks Nicholson, who has yet to read Gaines’ book.
Cultural critic Stanley Crouch thinks he has the answer.
“There is an appetite for the pulp of the Negro that is dominant in all of this,” Crouch says, calling McCall and Scott’s books the “blackface version of the terrible tales of the slums.”
“Black Americans are always discussed as though they are some separate part of American culture,” says Crouch. But he sees little difference between gangstas and gangsters, noting that McCall and his victimized cohorts are extensions of the smart-mouthed, rough character James Cagney used to play.
“[Cagney’s tale in Public Enemy is] an American slums tale; that’s not a racial tale,” says Crouch. “These people want to say the reason they were doing that is because “I was a black boy without any direction.’ That’s bull. The reason they were doing it was because they were knuckleheads. There is no difference between Nathan McCall and Tommy in Goodfellas. He did what he did because he could get away with it; because he was a thug, not because he was Italian. It’s not about being Italian, it’s about being scum.”
McCall and Scott are today’s minstrel performers, whose primary goal is to entertain, says Crouch. Their gangsta poses and disrespect for humanity are no less degrading than the dancing, watermelon-eating minstrel of yore.
The books are cause for concern only, says Crouch, if the “trend of re-electing people like Marion Barry cannot be stopped.” The greater danger he sees is that readers will begin to think that McCall and his ilk represent all that is black.
“White Southerners have never been subjected to the sustained barrage of being defined by rednecks,” Crouch says. “Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, William Styron…those people weren’t made to think that because they were not of redneck persuasion, they were unauthentic white Southerners.”
The expansive view of white America provided by New York publishers has no counterpart in black America. Mostly, publishers present the same story with minor variations on the theme of bondage and helplessness, even in the fictional worlds of novels and short stories. (See Dessa Rose by Shirley Anne Williams; Beloved by Toni Morrison; and more recently Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan.)
Autobiography is one of civilization’s oldest literary forms, offering at its best artful and honest introspection on interesting lives. In practice, autobiographers often abandon their high literary goals to engage in self-aggrandizement, self-pity, and outright fabrication. Nowhere is this tendency more pronounced than in the autobiographies of younger people. Once perceived as a literary form of the mature, autobiography is increasingly the domain of younger adults like Scott and middle-agers like McCall and Gaines. Such meager portions leave the reader half-starved. These are books without depth, without wisdom, without art.
“More and more, we live in a society where the entertainment culture is youth-oriented. So it is not surprising to see a 35-year-old or 45-year-old person publish his or her autobiography,” Nicholson says of the midlife autobiography. “The impetus to write these books is that in the middle of your life is…when people ask those questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? I’m not sure you know enough at the middle of your life to answer those questions.”
The legacy of African-American victimhood is rooted in slavery, and from that soil grew the slave narratives that abolitionists gathered and published to document this sordid crime. The slave narrative is the earliest African-American autobiography, with works by Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown among the best known.
The formula was fairly simple: recollection of being snatched from the Eden of Africa; of being transported like animals across the sea; of bondage and subhuman treatment in the deep South; of toiling for a bustling agricultural economy; of finally escaping to freedom.
As the abolitionist movement gathered momentum, so did the popularity and number of slave narratives published. The stories capture all the horrors of slavery—the number of times a slave was beaten; the number of times a slave was raped; the number of times a slave was used as a stud for breeding; the life of depravation (meals, shelter, clothing) the slave endured. Since birth records were incomplete, not all of the slave narratives were accurate, but as propaganda in the good war against slavery, these books succeeded in inciting political passions.
Critic Nicholson contrasts the old story with the new, calling the recent spate of books “neoslave narratives.”
“Whereas a slave narrative was a story of leaving or escaping bondage through one’s courage, one’s intelligence, one’s ability to be tricky, these books are actually stories of failure,” he says. “Here are these writers who for the most part have opportunities to enter American society that are unparalleled in the history of blacks in America, and it is almost as if instead of being willing to make that journey from slavery to freedom, they make the reverse journey from freedom to slavery of drugs, of promiscuity, of violent crime. These are really stories of self-enslavement.
“It’s not a coincidence,” Nicholson continues, “that Jill Nelson’s [book] is called Volunteer Slavery. We have a genre that encompasses the feeling that it’s tough to be black in America or that black people are oppressed people or we’re victims. Like the slave narrative, the choice of what books by black people are going to be read by black people are being made by whites.”
Gaines and her editor at Crown Publishers, David Groff, reject the idea that her book is victim literature.
“I always looked at [Laughing in the Dark] as being empowering,” says Gaines. “I tried to make it clear and I tried to be careful in the writing that I never considered myself as a victim. I don’t know that I ever thought to use the word “victim.’ I certainly felt bad about myself….Up until my young adult life, I had the feeling there were certain things I couldn’t do because of racism or certain things I couldn’t do because I was a woman.
“I see this as a real start to acknowledge the fact that black people have had all kinds of experiences; middle-class doesn’t always equal success, and poverty doesn’t always equal horrible outcomes or jail. [Between the two] are all kinds of variables and we’ve lived them all,” she says.
Groff says Laughing in the Dark illustrates how one can overcome victimhood, adding that he “learned a lot from the fears Patrice overcame.”
“Every good narrative—fiction or nonfiction—requires drama, and drama means that a character starts at one place and ends up at another. The place where young Patrice Gaines started out was pretty arresting, and the place she ended up was ultimately quite triumphant. The path she took between those two things seems to be instructive for all readers of all sexes and all races,” adds Groff.
(Nathan McCall failed to respond to repeated requests through his representative for interviews for this article.)
Novelist David Bradley declines to categorize the self-pitying autobiographies so simply.
“The problem with calling these “slave narratives’ is that it requires you to be a slave,” he says. Yet Bradley recognizes the parallels between the old and the new genre.
“Publishers are more interested in the part that says you have suffered,” says Bradley, whose The Chaneysville Incident won a PEN/Faulkner Award. “They’re happy to see you triumph because that means triumph is possible. Right now, they’re substituting jail for slavery.
“It’s been my impression that there has never been a time when the white commercial publishing industry was comfortable with the concept of the black writer. They feel comfortable with a black witness, a black reporter, a black narrator—a slave narrator. But they are not comfortable with the notion that black people can have anything to do with the manipulation of reality,” Bradley adds.
It’s money, not culture or color, that drives the acquisition, sale, and promotion of books. Bridget Warren, owner of Dupont Circle’s Vertigo Books, which specializes in black literature, says the popularity of the genre is derived from reader identification.
“Somebody has a brother, a cousin, an ex-boyfriend, or the reader has had a portion of that experience. It’s almost visceral,” Warren says.
But publishers also promote the authors of victim literature far more aggressively, sometimes at the expense of other, more beautifully told stories, she says.
“Publishers just aren’t letting us see the full spectrum of African-American life….If some of these people in publishing had close friends or neighbors who were African-American, they would know their lives were something more than what’s being published,” says Warren. She hopes to address that point next month with a panel discussion at her store titled “Diversity in Publishing.”
New York literary agent Faith Childs also blames the proliferation of victim literature on the paucity of African-Americans in decision-making roles in publishing.
“Who is making the decisions at the publishing houses? What black people do they know, and what black people do they have on staff?” she asks. “The answer in most instances is next to none. For many white people, there is something very comforting about these trodden-down-Negro stories.”
Childs, who represented Nelson’s Volunteer Slavery, disputes the inclusion of that book in a list of victim literature.
“[Nelson’s book] wasn’t pathological enough,” Childs says. “People were afraid of this book because she’s this upper-class woman, and that’s not how we like our Negroes….We just don’t have a place in our cultural lexicon for a woman like this.”
Volunteer Slavery was rejected by nearly every publisher in New York until Childs took it to Noble Press—an African-American publishing company.
“If there is some sort of jail experience, violence pathology in a volume, one can expect to see that book see the light of day. With the mainstream publisher, someone trying to tell a more middle-class story or someone trying to break some literary ground will have a more difficult time,” says Childs.
Editor Groff defends the industry, and believes it is slaking readers’ thirst for literature.
“People don’t spend $22 on a book because they want to; I think they do it because they need to. There is an incredible urgency among African-Americans, among people of color, among women, to find stories that define them and explain them to themselves and help them to advance their own thing or their own position,” Groff says.
“I think that’s going to happen more through books than any other media because books are so focused. We are very aware we are publishing to an audience that reads with urgency and that’s the best possible way to publish,” he adds.
The black middle class, as Crouch has observed, is uncomfortable in its own skin, fearful of being called “Oreo” or attracting the smear of “Uncle Tom.” Hence the tendency of some black middle-class writers to produce stories they hope will reconnect them with what they consider to be the true black community, and the huge readership these books have garnered. Indeed, the caricatures offered in Gaines and McCall’s books seem to be saying, “Am I black enough for you?” to anyone who might accuse them of selling out to mainstream white publishers.
Nowhere is this struggle with identity more apparent than in Nelson’s book: Several passages reveal her angst about her privileged middle-class background with daddy dentist, mommy nurse, education at a private school, and a house on Martha’s Vineyard. The middle-class conflict intensifies during Nelson’s stay at the Post.
“Suddenly, I cannot remember if I am Claire Huxtable, Harriet Tubman, or someone else entirely. I have no idea of who I am or where I fit. Am I a freed black who has made it or a slave struggling to free herself and her people?” Nelson writes, describing her feelings after an encounter with the angry blacks who Cathy Hughes organized in 1986 to protest the unflattering treatment of African-Americans in the Washington Post Magazine.
But even before Nelson is hired at the Post, she is filled with anxiety about who she is: “There is a thin line between Uncle Tomming and Mau-Mauing. To fall off that line can mean disaster. On one side lies employment and self-hatred; on the other, the equally dubious honor of unemployment with integrity. Walking that line as if it were a tightrope results in something like employment with honor, although I’m not sure exactly how that works,” she writes.
Scott’s book is “plenty black,” but its tale of ghetto deprivation is also a lie. When journalist Mark Horowitz went looking for the real Monster, he found that Scott had deleted his middle-class upbringing from much of his autobiography. From interviews with Scott’s family, Horowitz learned that Monster’s testimonials about the economic destitution of his youth were a fiction. That his mother and father had fought violently, but that theirs was a working-class, middle-income family, and that Monster’s godparents were none other than singer Della Reese and musician Ray Charles. Scott only rarely mentions his sister and brothers, and writes very little about his mother. “They don’t fit in Monster’s version,” reports Horowitz in the December 1993 Atlantic Monthly.
Gaines records her early disdain for the middle-class values of her parents in her portrayal of her boyfriend Ben, the father of her daughter and later the man who would turn her on to heroin. She writes:
To my parents, I’m sure, Ben represented all they had worked to avoid. My father had run away from home to join the Marine Corps not only to make his life better, but so that he could lift his own wife and children from the almost certain poverty of the red clay country of North Carolina where he was raised. My mother, who dropped out of college to give birth to me, imagined her daughter would marry someone who had at least a high school degree. My parents were from the generation that lived in the heat of segregation and heard old people whisper about slavery. Their lives were dedicated to uplifting the race by uplifting their own family, and they did not believe Ben could raise one branch of our family tree. But I didn’t consider any of this; any hint of elitism turned my stomach.
McCall, too, abandons his family’s middle-class status after his stepfather, a retired military man, takes a job landscaping at an upscale white home outside Norfolk:
I began to pay close attention to other racial nuances in my stepfather’s interactions with people in Sterling Point. I didn’t like what I saw. I didn’t like the way he humbled himself and smiled when white folks were around. I grew to hate the sight of his big six-foot two-inch frame kneeling, with a wide-brimmed straw hat on his head, pulling up crabgrass while one of those privileged white people stood over him, supervising the menial work. It looked too much like pictures of downtrodden sharecroppers and field slaves I’d seen in books.
Stanley Crouch says blacks began to grow wary of their middle-class achievements and middle-class sophistication in the early ’70s.
“There is this tendency on the part of the black middle class to be terrified with the accusation of being an Oreo,” he says. “Now you have people like Ice-T, who thinks he could write a book that would attack Bryant Gumbel. And you have all of these middle- class kids walking around dressed like thugs and trying to act like thugs, because the thug has become the emblem of authenticity on the one hand and a sex symbol on the other hand for gullible black girls to swallow.”
“When [the writers] go to their cocktail parties with their middle-class friends, they feel fairly comfortable,” says Antioch’s Joseph Jordan. “But they feel a little discomfort when they have to go into the ‘hood.”
The same “who am I?” quest is found in today’s movies, says Jordan: “Look across the spectrum; in every genre, in every sphere, there is this phenomenon.”
The rigid determinism in McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler recalls the structure, tone, and style of the slave narratives. The book commences with the beating of an 18-year-old white boy bicycling through McCall’s neighborhood. He and his friends chase and capture the “intruder,” and the beating is a conscious metaphor for a slave revolt—blacks fed up with white dominance and racism. McCall writes:
THIS is for all the times you followed me round in stores….
And THIS is for the times you treated me like a nigger….
And THIS is for G.P.—General Principle—just ’cause you white.
The reader is supposed to understand that the assault is justified because McCall is a victim of racism. McCall’s mother, father, and brothers are also presented as victims of racism, stripped of their humanity. For McCall, the revolutionary act is the only escape to freedom. When he appears to be free of his bondage, and accepted on an equal footing with white reporters at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Washington Post, McCall still hints at disappointment with his status as a freedman and with the white folks he’s found up North.
The opening scenes of Gaines’ book replay one of the horrors of slavery—the separation of mother from child. The incarcerated Gaines waves from her jail-cell window to her daughter outside, but her daughter cannot find Gaines among the windows. The scene is powerful, reminiscent of slave auctions in which whole families were separated. Gaines’ struggle becomes a quest for family, a reunion with her child both physically and psychologically. Focusing on her drug habit and her relationships with men—the beatings and rapes they mete out—Gaines strives throughout the book to build a “traditional” family with a man who can stand up to the racism she experienced as a young girl. It is a tale familiar to anyone who has read the books of Shirley Anne Williams and Toni Morrison.
“There is a sort of Up From Slavery quality about a lot of the work you’re seeing published now,” says literary agent Childs. “It is very fashionable to seize upon and record black lives that are from the very disadvantaged sector of society and purvey those as the real thing.”
None of this is to argue that great literature can’t be plumbed from lives stung by racism, poverty, and suffering. Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965) is must reading for anyone who wants to know the ghetto world inhabited by a teen-age drug dealer and thief. Gordon Parks’ Choice of Weapons (1965) similarly charts his life from whorehouse piano player to toilet cleaner, from dope dealer to world-class photographer. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) recounts her life in the South, her rape by a man who was her mother’s lover, and her relationship with her son’s father. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)
But these are stories of ascent—not descent. So is the story of Jerrold Ladd, whose new autobiography tracks his young life in a Dallas public-housing project. Ladd isn’t the only victim in Out of the Madness: From the Projects to a Life of Hope. So is his mother, who was turned on to heroin by her mother (reminiscent of Post reporter Leon Dash’s chronicle of the wild and immoral adventures of Rosa Lee Cunningham, a 58-year-old petty thief, prostitute, heroin addict, and all-around horrible mother).
Ladd has a right to claim victimhood, not only because the conditions of his life are so dismal, but because his struggle to freedom is no less valiant than Douglass’ and Brown’s. He writes:
Like other project blacks, I never had time to concentrate on my studies. My morale stayed low. My diet was terrible—when I had a diet. The lack of food probably caused more problems than I ever discovered. The last thing I wanted to think about was studying when I had a three-day-old hunger headache. I had no family support—my mother was too busy battling her own culture shock to assist me. And I never got proper rest. As every day went on, I slipped farther and farther behind the white kids, widening the already huge gap I would have to close.
I grew up poor, too, spending part of my childhood in the notorious Desire Project in New Orleans. But I was no victim—my grandmother and mother saw to that. As an adolescent, I would pretend to be crippled or blind, and my mother would admonish me: “Keep doing that and one day God’s going to make it really happen.”
Mother and Grandmother knew that expectations, however limiting, have a way of being realized.
Roger Betsworth, a professor of religion at Simpson College, believes that a culture expresses and creates its deepest expectations in the cultural narratives—stories—that it tells.
“The narrative is one of the primary ways in which a culture patterns our lives. Through narrative, cultural communities communicate, perpetuate, and develop knowledge about and attitudes toward life. The cultural narrative establishes the world in which an ordinary story makes sense,” he writes in Social Ethics: An Examination of American Moral Traditions. “The history, scriptures, and literary narratives of a culture, the stories told of and in family and clan and the stories of popular culture all articulate and clarify the world of the cultural narrative in which they are set. Thus a cultural narrative is not directly told. The culture itself seems to be telling the cultural narratives.”
Betsworth suggests that American lives are told through four basic stories. The stories aren’t just entertainment: They are the mold into which a society pours itself, repeatedly. There is “the biblical story of covenant, the Enlightenment story of progress, the story of well-being, and the story of America’s mission in the world.” Encapsulated in these four forms are the expectations of most Americans—particularly white Americans. And because these expectations are wrapped in terms that are noble and powerful, Americans—particularly white Americans—expect no less of themselves and their lives.
Betsworth urges that we judge the stories a culture tells, since the stories are crucial to the image and self-esteem of a culture and its people.
“Each cultural narrative has a master image or central metaphor,” he writes. “…[T]he master image provides a distillation of the story; it enables us to grasp concretely and practically what the story means. The master image serves as metaphor with which to think about self and world.”
The mold African-Americans once poured themselves into praised and celebrated their lives with master images of success, despite racism and other barriers. Whenever one among them became a victim, the culture took a moment to soothe the injured, but admonished those who permitted themselves to be reduced by sorrow, suffering, or pain.
Reclaiming the African-American cultural narrative from victimhood will be a book-by-book, block-by-block battle. That fight could start with Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Colored People (1994).
Gates’ memoir is of a soft, colored, and segregated childhood in Piedmont, W.Va., where blacks couldn’t own land until well after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. While Gates shares incidences of racism in his town, he does not indulge himself in those sordid episodes.
The people of Piedmont are more familiar to me than the thugs of McCall’s book or the promiscuous women of Gaines’ book or the gangbangers of Scott’s, even though my brother was a thug, thief, and woman-abuser. His time ran out at the age of 27, but his path was not paved by racism or even the hard times visited upon my mother. He, like McCall, Gaines, and Scott, made bad choices. Too bad he didn’t live long enough to get a book contract.
My neighbors in Desire and later in New Orleans’ Pontchatrain Park were like the people Gates remembers: hard-working, hard-drinking colored folks, trying to carve a space for themselves and doing one damn good job. They would ignore white people, or note their untold limitations (can’t cook, can’t dance, can’t keep house…). For me and Gates, living in places where race and color always mattered, white people were insignificant. That coming from a Creole girl might be unbelievable. But Gates understands:
“Before 1955, most white people were only shadowy presences in our world, vague figures of power like remote bosses at the mill or tellers at the bank,” he writes. “There were exceptions, of course, the white people who would come into our world in ritualized, everyday ways we all understood. Mr. Mail Man, Mr. Insurance Man, Mr. White-and-Chocolate Milk Man, Mr. Landlord Man, Mr. Po-lice Man: we called white people by their trade, like allegorical characters in a mystery play.”
And that was fine with most colored people.
I can suggest a few companion volumes to Colored People. Lorene Cary’s Black Ice (1991) was only halfheartedly marketed, but it is a finely woven tale of coming of age and staying black at a white, private, elite New Hampshire school. Itabari Njeri’s Every Good-Bye Ain’t Gone (1990) is a witty memoir, painting vivid pictures of the cast of characters that is her family, while marking the sharp difference between native-born blacks and West Indian immigrants.
These three books provide a wholistic view of the story of black culture, releasing it from the bondage of the slave narrative while not completely forgetting its struggle for freedom. Since all of these books were published by New York houses, a great deal of the blame for the popularity of victim literature falls on readers.
Literary agent Childs seconds that idea: “Support the books by buying them, turning out at readings that are given for the author, and encourage the library [in your community] to buy these books.”
But the greatest potential may be in pure acts of imagination.
“If you want to know the varied possibilities of life, the fiction writer has to do that. Deeper insight in the black experience, the fiction writer has to do that,” says Howard University’s E. Ethelbert Miller. “The first person who ran from slavery told their story; they told their narrative. We have the luxury to begin to imagine other worlds, other things. We can divorce ourselves from color.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Donald Gates.