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“I’m going to give you some ammunition.” These are the first words out of Ralph Wiley’s mouth. The essayist has just taken the microphone on the stage of a tiny auditorium at Spauldings Branch Library in Prince George’s County, and a hundred admirers peer back at him, expectant.
They wait. And wait. Wiley fixes his gaze on the audience. The expression he wears is the same one that appears on the dust jacket of his latest book, What Black People Should Do Now. His face fills the cover in a silvery close-up that embraces the rough, nicked skin of his face, the stubble of his nascent beard, and eyes flashing angrily over a mouth on the edge of frowning. That’s The Gaze—confrontational, resolute—and Wiley rakes it across his audience tonight.
“Pimp,” he says.
The audience is quiet. Wiley asks what image the word calls to mind. No one replies, so he describes the creature everyone saw: a black man in a flashy suit with broad lapels, gold jewelry, maybe a purple hat. A real street dude.
Again, the same test: Didn’t we see a young black woman clutching a baby in some public-housing project?
There’s a problem with these images,Wiley explains. They are fiction. None of us has ever seen a pimp like that. And most single mothers are white. The images in our heads are not our own, and they are not random. They were fed to us by Hollywood and the media, images selected for us, by others, for a reason. These images place black people at the center of every social problem, every pathology, every crisis. Eventually, we begin to believe what we are told.
“It becomes your reality,” Wiley says.
Now a few members of the audience nod. The room is filled to overflowing—literally—with middle-class professionals, Howard undergraduates, devoted parents promoting the literary education of their children, strivers and self-taught scholars, all of them black. They are here to learn from a man the librarian just introduced as “a thinker within the realm of Malcolm X,” an author of four books that have pushed black America’s hot buttons. Wiley writes about racism, of course, but also the failure of integration, the perjury of black feminists, the need for economic separatism, and most of all, the self-loathing that black people learn from a culture that blames them for everything from crime to loud music.
Wiley tells a story about William and Ardelia, a married couple who may or may not reside here in P.G. County. Ardelia is hard-working and faithful, but William suspects her of cheating. She denies it; he grows more suspicious. She follows her normal routine, but he starts to spy on her, constantly accusing her of various liaisons, first menacing and then threatening her outright. Ardelia cowers and retreats, her protestations of innocence ignored.
“What’s going on here?” Wiley suddenly asks. He waits.
Shuffling in the audience. Wiley doesn’t move. The silence stretches to the breaking point, but Wiley remains frozen. Then he speaks for Ardelia:
“I’m not doing nothing wrong. What you doing?”
Aha. More people nod and look around the room. “That’s right,” a voice says.
William is accusing Ardelia because he himself is guilty. He’s throwing his own guilt onto her. Ardelia’s been good. It’s William who is running around.
“African-American people in America,” Wiley says, “are Ardelia.”
It’s not a new idea. Malcolm himself said that white America shoved all its fears and failures onto black shoulders, and other contemporary black writers like Ishmael Reed have scrolled through long lists of examples: Crack is called a “black” problem, though the typical user is a married white suburbanite; the LA uprising was called a race riot, even though many Hispanics and some whites joined in; the poverty of values in black America is why so many folks are on welfare, though most welfare recipients are white; and on and on.
In varied ways, with a touch of dry satire, a visit to Hollywood, and side trips to consider Mike Tyson, Oprah Winfrey, ancient Egypt, and present-day Anacostia, that’s the message that Wiley brings to this audience tonight. You do not have to accept the blame for everything that goes wrong in America. You are strong, you are smart, you can see through the tricks being played on you. You are Ardelia, and it is time to ask not what you have done wrong, but what they are doing wrong.
There are two things Wiley doesn’t do. One is say who they are, because everyone—even the one white man in the room—knows. The other thing Wiley doesn’t do is open his book. He doesn’t read a word from any of his angry, perceptive, and sometimes funny essays. This is Wiley Unplugged, an argument of ideas between the audience and the author where both parties are thinking aloud.
After the talk and a question-and-answer session, almost no one leaves. Most wait patiently to have their newly purchased copies of What Black People Should Do Now autographed. Quite a few in the line present dog-eared copies of Wiley’s earlier collection of essays, Why Black People Tend to Shout, and several present hardbacks of his first book, Serenity, on boxing, or the paperback By Any Means Necessary, a guide to the making of Malcolm X that Wiley co-authored with Spike Lee. Wiley gives quiet words of thanks and encouragement as he signs the books with a fat-tip marker. He stops frowning.
Very last in line is a family, two proud parents who push forward their daughter, perhaps 9 years old. She shows Wiley a sheaf of carefully typed short stories. Wiley looks the nervous girl right in the eye.
“What are you going to do if I tell you these aren’t any good? That you can’t be a writer?” Wiley asks.
The girl frowns, staring at the famous author. “I’ll keep writing,” she says.
“That’s right,” Wiley replies.
A few days later, Wiley is killing some time in the back of a chauffeur-driven car outside the studios of ABC News. He isn’t thinking about the radio interview ahead, or another appointment this afternoon with National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. He’s thinking about that little girl, and why there aren’t more African-Americans like her: persistent, dauntless, undiscourageable.
In his four books, the 41-year-old author has always asked this question in one form or another, whether in the gently inquisitive Serenity, where he profiled the sport of prize fighting with detours into autobiography and African-American culture, or in his current What Black People Should Do Now, where his polemical dissection of American racism flits between anger and humor.
Or, more often, combines both. Take the sarcastic, Swiftian titles that Wiley gives his essays—titles like “Why Black People Have No Culture,” “On The Natural Superiority of Black Athletes,” and “White People’s Most Admirable Trait.” While calling his work “satire,” Wiley seems to stretch the word to cover almost anything—including his rear end. Some of his most bitter or offensive suggestions hide behind a mask of wit—like his assertion in three of his books that AIDS is a genocidal plot, a “political” disease designed to kill undesirables like blacks and homosexuals. And is it “dry and mordant” humor (his words) when Wiley writes about a world filled with white politicians and pundits whose every statement conceals a frothing racism?:
When they want to say “niggers” they say “crime.” When they want to say “niggers” they say “drugs.” When they want to say “niggers” they say anything but “niggers,” because nice and good and fair people don’t say “niggers.” (What Black People Should Do Now)
Implicit in the essays is Wiley’s own opinion on why so few African-Americans are not as quick as the little girl to assert their own interests. Like Ardelia, they’ve been cowed. They’ve been taught to be their own harshest critics. Of course, white people have helped: In an essay on Georgetown University basketball Coach John Thompson, Wiley insists that white people “nearly universally despise” Thompson. Even Thompson finds this notion bizarre—at the end of the essay, the coach is quoted as telling Wiley that it is black fans, not white, who have attacked him most. But Wiley doesn’t shut up when his thesis is upended—if African-Americans attack Thompson, he says, that’s just another result of white racism, which has taught blacks self-loathing.
He also blames black writers—especially black women writers. In an essay from Why Black People Tend to Shout, “Purple With a Purpose,” Wiley first pays tribute to Alice Walker (“you can’t take anything away from Alice Walker”) and her “masterpiece,” The Color Purple, then trashes both by making a lengthy comparison of Walker with Janet Cooke, the infamous Washington Post Metro reporter who fabricated her way to a Pulitzer. Cooke invented her 8-year-old heroin addict to pander to white editors and readers, Wiley says, charging that Walker did something similar by giving the world a book full of black men who are all philandering scoundrels or child-abusing villains with no “redeeming qualities, other than the fact that some of them died.” Wiley bitches about the poor image of the black male, and goes on to suggest that Toni Morrison take a lesson from Walker and include more male ogres in her next book.
“He’s willing to speak his mind and not say, “On the one hand this, on the other hand that,’ ” says George Curry, editor of Emerge magazine. “Usually, African-American journalists working for the so-called mainstream press…rise to prominence because they are eager to denigrate blacks or other black leaders,” Curry says. Wiley has avoided this co-optation and remains “a very gutsy writer [who] doesn’t mind speaking his mind.”
“I think Ralph is trying to provoke and confront,” says Jill Nelson, author of Volunteer Slavery, which chronicles her life as a black woman at the Washington Post. Nelson admits to being “pissed off” by some ofWiley’s essays—notably his “Mister Justice Thomas,” in which he seems to imply that both Anita and Clarence were liars—but she still praises him highly, saying that he is a “pleasure to argue with.” Wiley is helping expand the borders of argument within black literature, turning a once-uniform field into a vast and rowdy dialogue. Not everyone likes their literature that way, she notes.
“We kind of assume that culture should affirm us or make us comfortable. That’s not what art should do,” Nelson says. “It should mess with us. This isn’t television. If you don’t want to be fucked with, watch television.”
And Wiley does fuck with us. In Why Black People Tend to Shout, he argues that integration has basically failed—and this from someone who lives in Prince George’s County, a relatively harmonious melting pot of races and classes. Wiley backs formal desegregation—that is to say, court decisions that abolished Jim Crow. However, he is no fan of willy-nilly integration, arguing that the only institutions in society that must realize full integration are schools and the media, because both teach images, expectations, and attitudes. Black opposition to integration is nothing new (“The only thing I like integrated is my coffee,” Malcolm X said) but among most people of all races the principle remains a simple standard of justice, a sacred cow. Wiley kicked the cow right over with Why Black People Tend to Shout: It got him on Donahue and Larry King, and sold a lot of books.
So what really matters? Wiley’s answer is M-O-N-E-Y. The real battle for black self-determination is business, and blacks should concentrate on building “an economic monolith” of their own. Perhaps his favorite example of this is Cathy Hughes, owner of D.C.’s WOL-AM, WMMJ-FM, and two Baltimore stations. In What Black People Should Do Now, Wiley fills 18 pages with flattering prose, calling Hughes a “warrior” who has put black people in charge of their own lives.
Arguing for economic separatism doesn’t make Wiley a maverick. Everybody from Jesse Jackson to Louis Farrakhan to Spike Lee to the NAACP is boosting black-owned businesses, self-reliance, and some degree of disengagement from the mainstream.
“He’s part of a movement of black writers and artists who are coming from a nationalistic kind of perspective,” says DavidNicholson, associate editor of the Washington Post‘s Book World.
Nicholson says publishing houses are mining the movement with volumes of nonfiction by black male authors (Wiley, Reed, and Gerald Early, among others). This movement is a result, Nicholson suggests, of what Shelby Steele calls “integration shock,” the widespread and profound disappointment that many African-Americans feel upon waking up in the ’90s to find that racial, social, and economic progress have stagnated. The near-unity of the civil rights era is over. The modern fashion is to favor Malcolm over Martin, separation over assimilation. In the new dawn of disappointment, writers like Wiley have capitalized on that audience.
In such a climate, the really radical thinker might be one who champions integration, nonviolent civil disobedience, and judging people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. But Wiley still insists that his brand of Malcolm-derived agitation is the cutting edge—or at least close to it. With equal parts hubris and humility, Wiley subtitled his current book Dispatches From Near the Vanguard.
But Nicholson doesn’t think Wiley even approaches the vanguard. “I don’t see the thoughtfulness of it,” he says, calling Wiley an example of the new “party line” on race relations. “I think that Ralph is preaching to the choir.”
And the choir—in this case the black middle class—is loving it. Why Black People Tend to Shout sold 50,000 hardback copies and nearly as many in paper since 1991, a respectable showing for a book of essays. What Black People Should Do Now is selling almost as well. That’s not enough to make the best-seller list—Wiley claims he couldn’t stand to be on the same list with Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh anyway—but it does give him a perch as a “name” black intellectual.
Wiley’s role as agent provocateur is clearly one he relishes. Sitting outside the ABC News studios in the back of a Lincoln Town Car, sometimes joking with the driver, sometimes staring out the window, Wiley defends his urge to hurl bricks at integration and Alice Walker and conventional AIDS theories and anyone else who gets in his way.
Asked to explain his AIDS suspicions, Wiley looks smug. “I love it,” he says. “People always ask me about that. Always.” In Serenity, he gently advises his son to grow up with an independent mind and “find out where AIDS really got started.” Shout contains a similar hint of conspiracy, and in Now, Wiley finds a soul mate in Steven Seagal, the B-movie action hero who is outspoken about his conviction that AIDS didn’t start with green monkeys.
This isn’t disinformation to Wiley, just useful provocation. “I hate lock-step thinking. Do you know where AIDS comes from? Do you? Shouldn’t we be asking?”
African-Americans need, like Ardelia, to start asking some hard questions. Brick throwers aren’t always appreciated, but like the girl at the library, Wiley has learned to put forward his own sheaf of stories, and ignore the critics and naysayers.
“This is honesty as I see it from this lens,” he says, tapping his own head. “I can’t change that lens. This is my attempt at artistic integrity.”
If people don’t like the books, he says, then they are free to “tell me where I fall down.”
“At least I’m honest and say, “This is my perspective,’ ” he concludes. “I do bring honesty to the work. Art, we’ll have to see.”
Such defiance isn’t a recent trait; Wiley has always been, in his own words, “hardheaded.” His father died early, and Ralph was the man of the house until age 11, when his mother remarried and followed her new husband from their hometown of Memphis to Washington, D.C.
She wanted her son to join them, but he said no. A fuss ensued. Wiley won, and eventually he was allowed to live with his grandmother in Memphis during the school year, spending only his summers in D.C. The arrangement certainly didn’t hurt his studies.
“The house was filled with books,” Wiley recalls. His grandparents were “great believers in the liberal arts,” and passed down the love of reading—and writing. Wiley aced the standardized tests in high school, and he says Brown University offered him a scholarship.
Wiley knew nothing about Brown and had never been near Rhode Island, but he quickly learned that the school was famous, historic, and superb, just the kind of academic pinnacle that the civil rights movement had fought for the right to climb. It was 1970, and Brown, like most of the nation’s elite colleges, was vigorously recruiting the most talented black students it could find.
Wiley turned the scholarship down. “I still don’t know why I did that,” he says.
Instead, he enrolled in Knoxville College, a four-year, historically black college at the other end of Tennessee. Wiley says that he didn’t learn much of importance there. But that wasn’t the point.
“It’s not what I learned,” he says. “It’s what I didn’t learn.” Among the things he didn’t learn: how to change his behavior to fit in with white society; how to feel odd, different, unique, and unwelcome as a black man; how to feel guilty for affirmative action. Or how to depend on the patronage of white people.
What he did learn was that black schools, though born in the shame of American apartheid, had nothing to be ashamed of. They offered continuity and a tradition of excellence, just as black businesses did.
Wiley’s favorite example is black baseball. That’s a contradiction in terms, of course; there is no black baseball anymore. The old Negro leagues were home to some of the greatest players in the game, and stood as examples of black achievement, operating in, of, and for their community. But when integration came, Henry Aaron and Willie Mays left the Birmingham Black Barons for The Show, and the Negro leagues collapsed. The great majority of players, fans, and owners were left with nothing to call their own, and today there is not one minority-owned baseball franchise in the majors.
Wiley sees this pattern repeated throughout America. White schools were integrated with the best black students, white businesses were integrated with the best black dollars, and nice suburban neighborhoods were integrated with the black elite. Meanwhile, the poor schools collapsed, the cities rotted, and many blacks received no ticket to the promised land.
Integration leveled the playing field—but not the players. When Wiley chose Knoxville College over Brown University, he was like a fan entering a half-empty stadium to root one more time for Negro baseball.
For all his independence, Wiley took a fling at the patronizing process of affirmative action. He applied to a minority program at one journalism school, only to see his request rejected. It’s worth wondering how Wiley would be different today if he had taken the Brown scholarship, or benefited from corporate or academic affirmative action—would he feel the same about race relations if white America’s feeble efforts had reached him?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know.” Denied assistance with his career, Wiley wedged his way into the newsroom of the Oakland Tribune as a “copyperson” and then worked his way up from there. He describes his first two years in a blur as “city it was a formative, useful rut.
Wiley couldn’t help noticing that, compared to the arid news columns, the sports page was a lush paradise. Sportswriters were expected to smack the language around a little bit. They could tell real stories, with narrative and dramatic conflict and more clichés than you could…well, shake a stick at. The sports hacks had latitude and space and style. They could skinny-dip in rich pools of allegory and metaphor that were off-limits to straight-news reporters.
Wiley claimed the boxing beat and took Muhammad Ali as his model. The self promoting—and self-affirming—boasts of The Greatest filtered through Wiley’s brain during late nights in the newsroom, and gradually trickled from his fingertips. Each night he found himself typing a refrain over and over again: “Ralph Wiley is the greatest sportswriter in the world.” At the end of the night he carefully shredded the page.
Although he rose to become a columnist and stayed at the paper six years, it is those early days that emerge vividly in a chapter of Serenity called “Dues”:
Oakland was the real melting pot, the sister with the great personality, populated by what seemed like all mixtures of continental origins. The names on the “copyperson” call sheet reminded me of this every day. It was a good place to be at the time. There wasn’t enough room or time to discriminate, and no one seemed to be in a mood for it anyway.
Not in the mood. California had a strong impact on Wiley, who was used to the racial and social caste arrangements of Tennessee. People went to California for a new start, and often left their racial baggage back East somewhere.
In 1981, he joined Sports Illustrated and moved to New York. Like many aspiring writers, Wiley had only entered journalism for the paycheck, and nine years later he’d had enough of deadlines. He quit SI and New York, and while looking for a place to settle and write, he discovered he could not go West again—his faith in California had faded, a premonition that would be confirmed with the Rodney King beating and ensuing riots. Instead, Wiley comparison-shopped the East Coast and found that no place could compete with Washington. Along with the presence of his mother and recollections of summers here, Wiley found the city filled with “intellectual, artistic, hopelessly ineffectual, monumentally gifted, eclectic, poetic, insufferable, irresistible, provincial, nationalistic, apologetic, loud, slow, hard, dirty, quiet and clean Negroes.”
That’s from one of his most elegant pieces, a little ditty in Why Black People Tend to Shout called “D.C. Stands for Damned Confusion,” which is nominally about the impossible traffic circles of Washington but really concerns Wiley’s stepfather, a man who could never realize his ambition to be a lawyer in segregated Washington and so became a perfectionist instead, a keeper of “great traditions.” Wiley spent summers under the watchful eye of this man, a hygiene-obsessed postman and former soldier who saw Wiley’s long hair as “an admission of some kind of guilt.”
The man was clean. He had creases in his pants that could open letters. His chest of drawers was immaculate, everything in its place. He owned more colognes than a forest.
My stepfather tried to make me believe the only shoe to wear was a Swiss Bally, the only way to go was first class, and in order there was strength of a kind that would do well when power was unavailable and when discipline grew old. My stepfather and mother lived on Halley Place, Southeast, then on Dupont Circle in Northwest, then finally on Second Street, Southwest, before he keeled over and died one day when my mother was out….My stepfather was given a full military funeral and this was one of the few occurrences I’ve ever witnessed in D.C. which made absolute sense to me.
And like the traffic circles of this city (“No spy could get out of town without first getting lost and asking directions,” Wiley wrote. “The place is set up like a fingerprint.”), what goes around comes around. The great traditions were passed on. Wiley is still impeccably groomed. And though he has found his way out of the District, he only went as far as P.G. County.
It’s not fair to say that Wiley owes his success to a blood clot. He had already paid his dues in California, and the blood clot just came along at the right moment.
That time was in November 1982, during the final rounds of a minor fight in Miami. Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini pummeled Duk Koo Kim 39 times in one 50-second frenzy. Kim went soft. In Round 14, Mancini clocked him twice more in the head, and the South Korean collapsed. Wiley was sitting alongside the ring, in just his sixth month as the second-string boxing reporter for Sports Illustrated.
Kim was taken from the ring on a stretcher, barely breathing, a massive clot forming in his brain, and he died the next day.
Wiley got a call from his editors in New York. They sounded worried. Wiley was still a cub at the magazine and now they needed to front the story. Ten pages. A photo spread, maybe sidebars. The cover.
“Exactly,” Wiley says he told them. “Relax.”
He wrote and filed, and the story became his first cover at SI. When he returned to New York and entered the offices again, “people were looking at me like they had never seen me before.”
For some writers, that would be a tale of unalloyed pride. When Wiley tells it, he sounds bitter. The editors, Wiley believes, assumed he was incompetent.
“A guy died for me to be recognized as a good writer,” he says softly.
It was the first of many covers at SI, and Wiley traveled widely throughout the ’80s, covering everything from pro football to an “appreciation” of the 1973 swimsuit-issue cover model. He stayed nine years.
When he left it was to write Serenity, as much a memoir of his own life as an exploration of boxing. The chapters covered everything from the fatal Kim-Mancini bout to the recollections of old boxers, including Wiley’s own uncle and an airport lounge encounter with Muhammad Ali. There’s a whole essay on the town that fighting built, Las Vegas:
My impression was that Las Vegas was a place built on, and in the anticipation of, the misfortune of people. Its existence is based on the assumption that the seven deadly sins are a heavy favorite to at least show, and that vice needs a place to call home—a place where it can name its own price, and get it. Joy was an unsubstantiated rumor I only heard mentioned once in Vegas, and that was in passing.
Boxing produces more overwrought prose and literary symbolism than any sport except perhaps fly fishing. It’s a sport built for the word, for novelistic tests of character. The fighters are a writer’s dream, antagonists in a classic drama. The violence and sweat have filled pages of great prose by A.J. Liebling, Norman Mailer, and Joyce Carol Oates, but they have also given birth to volumes of dreck. In the pages of Sports Illustrated and the essays of Serenity, Wiley’s language can range from sublime to ridiculous, and often combines the two. Like a punch-drunk fighter in the final round, sportswriting is simultaneously horrifying and compelling, glorious and squalid.
An up-and-coming teen-age fighter named Mike Tyson “hit harder than winter at the South Pole.” Larry Holmes pounds a lesser fighter “with everything but the Bible.” Of the minor fighter Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Wiley wrote, “You could have struck a match on [his] eyebrows. The rest of his face seemed to be even harder.”
Serenity included the obligatory accounts of boxers and fights, but Wiley began to tell his own stories as well. Freed from the polite pages of SI, he could start to examine the role of race in boxing—and therefore in America. He included autobiographical sections on his days at the Tribune and SI, and, like a bird at dawn, he seemed to like what he saw of the world. He found inner peace in boxers, and the book was quite obviously a search for peace with himself.
“I may never write a better book than that,” Wiley says. The New York Times loved it, but the public didn’t. Serenity sold less than the initial press run of 7,500. “There’s a thousand copies sitting in a warehouse somewhere,” Wiley notes glumly. “It sank like a bowling ball.”
The book itself offered a premonition of this fate. At one point, Wiley recounts visiting his Uncle Charles, a retired boxer, to confess some despair. He’s not sure that writing really matters.
“Hardly anybody reads anymore, they say,” he says to the old man. It’s a new game out there, he tells him. “Movies.” He’d like to write for the movies.
Four years—and another book—later, on one of the last days of January 1992, Wiley was sitting at home when the phone rang.
“Ralph,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “What’s your writing schedule like for the next few months?”
The voice belonged to Spike Lee.
“Uh…,” said Wiley. He had just written a profile of Lee and actor Denzel Washington for Premiere magazine, a warts-and-all piece about the filming of Lee’s Malcolm X. Wiley was already on to other things, rising at 6 every morning to write his new book of essays, What Black People Should Do Now. As Wiley learned from his stepfather, order is how to get things done. Routine is important. Stick to your knitting.
“Kind of busy,” Wiley said.
Wrong answer. You don’t tell Spike Lee no.
Wiley’s eventual “yes” produced his third book, a 90-day wonder called By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X. The book threw together production photos, an annotated script, and the transcribed anecdotes of Washington and Lee (who gets the primary author’s credit) on the financial, logistical, and political difficulties of the film. It has been nominated for the NAACP’s annual “Image Awards.”
Wiley had already traveled to Egypt on Premiere‘s dime, and when not tailing the director and Washington around the set with a tape recorder, Wiley had toured museums and dosed heavily on African history. Maybe he overdosed—in What Black People Should Do Now, Wiley asserts that Napoleon’s soldiers shot the nose and lips off the Sphinx (true) in order to hide the African heritage of mighty Egypt (well, maybe).
(“Big nose, big lips,” Wiley will tell the library crowd, which breaks up laughing. “It looked like Oprah!”)
Wiley is uncomfortable talking about his friendship with Lee, and downplays it as much as possible. Wiley acknowledges sending original screenplays to Lee, and, according to John Singleton, director of Boyz N the Hood, Lee has been deeply affected byWiley’s essays and criticism of pop culture. During an appearance on WOL radio here, Singleton went so far as to say that Lee was “a better person” for his friendship with Wiley.
Of all this, Wiley will say only, “A friendship with Spike means 45 seconds on the phone with him once a month.”
Writers often hate to speak freely, as if stories spilled in the back of a Town Car could never be recovered for later use on the page. But Wiley carries his circumspection to unusual degrees. He keeps an unlisted phone number. He won’t allow a reporter or photog rapher to visit his house (“no, that’s my sanctuary”). He won’t explain what he and Lee discussed over a business lunch here in late November (“that’s private”). And after praising the public school his son attends, Wiley is almost paralyzed by a request for the school’s name (“that’s just…uh…I don’t know if naming the school…uh…I’m not sure that’s pertinent”).
About all Wiley will say is that his son is 11, and like his father before him, shifts between households. During the week, the boy (no name given) lives with Wiley, and on weekends with the mother, who lives nearby.
“Just nearby,” he says.
The polemic and the prize fight have one thing in common—certainty of purpose. The fighter must cultivate his killer instinct, his ability to rain blows without compassion or doubt onto the weakest point of an opponent. In the ring this savage assault is horrible and magnificent, a ballet of destruction over which the spectator has no control. But in an essay, it may be the reader who comes away bruised.
Sometimes the blows are too hard, too blunt. In turning from sports reporting, novels, movie scripts, and profiles to the earnest and bitter political arguments of his last two books, Wiley surrendered something: subtlety. His boxing memoir was called Serenity for good reason. In the prologue, Wiley wrote, “I have always considered serenity to be an admirable state of existence. I have pursued serenity and found it elusive.” The book was filled with haunting images of supernaturally calm ring men, men who had stared down death, men who had been struck by the hardest hitters in the world and felt there was little left to worry about. The depth of their souls was immeasurable.
But Wiley is quick to concede that serenity has been mostly replaced by anger. With a few exceptions like “D.C. Stands for Damn Confusion,” the essays that have made his reputation are relentless, fierce, and deeply certain. They are polemics—and perhaps inevitably lesser pieces of writing than the literary, elegant arguments of a James Baldwin or a Ralph Ellison. Or, of course, a Martin Luther King Jr.
“Clearly, a more ambiguous, nuanced piece is going to stay the test of time longer,” says Gerald Early, a black editor and essayist who has written about many of the same topics as Wiley—boxing and racism—but without the explicit political content. While professing admiration for Wiley’s writing, Early says it is really journalism, not literature. “Those kinds of things that he has done are things people 20 years from now won’t read,” Early says. “That’s inevitable.”
The difference is one of transcendence—art holds some universal appeal, and remains accessible over time, beyond its immediate context. The early ambiguity and gentle touch of Serenity offered those qualities, but in Why Black People Tend to Shout and What Black People Should Do Now, Wiley’s once-floating prose has been weighed down with anger and topicality.
“Microwave type of stuff,” says E. Ethelbert Miller, a novelist and director of the African-American Resource Center at Howard University. He too places Wiley’s books on the wrong side of the divide between art and mere polemic, tossing Wiley into a newgenre of what Miller calls “black male confessional” literature that is easily digested and convenient—but not great cuisine.
Echoing Early, Miller asks of the new wave of black male writers, “Years later, do they read with the same urgency?” The question is rhetorical, of course: Miller predicts that future readers will still reach for their Baldwin in preference to their Wiley, “and it has nothing to do with them being alphabetic.”
What both Early and Miller will grant is that, while Wiley’s books may not be undying literature, they are still valuable as journalism. Early places Wiley in the company of James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois, who wrote advocacy journalism several generations ago in black newspapers. Early calls this highly charged political writing “very effective in the short run.”
Miller cites less august examples—he places Wiley with Dorothy Gilliam and Courtland Milloy of the Post—but makes the same point. “Wiley and some of the others are doing important work, because they keep these issues before the public. Like Milloy and Gilliam, he serves as the conscience of [his] community, and that’s important.”
A few days after the radio interviews,Wiley is sitting at a book fair in the National Press Club, his elbows resting on stacks of What Black People Should Do Now. Book buyers are milling about, snatching copies of cookbooks and Conversational Klingon, but no one in this predominately white crowd purchases the book whose cover displays The Gaze, the confrontational image of a black male author intent on agitating.
Wiley is perfectly calm about the criticism of his books. “This is my best voice,” he says, tapping one of the hardbacks. He then explains that Now is his best voice now. The voice evolves, and though Wiley intends to write a third book of essays, he plans to wait at least five years. These days, he is rising at 6 a.m. to work on a novel called Flier. Asked about the plot, Wiley stares one way and then another, opens and closes his mouth, sighs deeply, and generally vents a sense of frustration, before he dredges an answer from the creative depths: Flier is about “sports and identity.” A statement like that isn’t just evasive, but naturally vague—the novel is no place for certainties, and Wiley is again traveling through the territory of fiction, where even he can find no certain answers, no guaranteed truths or confident lines of development. It sounds like Flier might actually be…ambiguous.
Wiley smiles. “As a writer,” he says, “you have to write the book that’s in front of you. There’s no getting around that.”
And that’s exactly what Ralph Wiley should do now.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.