Friday Fiction: Black History Month Part Two by Alex Snider

It is a common for clueless privileged White people to plead "colourblind" when talking about racism today and the real ways in which it continues to hurt Black Canadians and Americans*. "Colourblind" means that one simply doesn't notice any differences between White and Black people, we're all the same. "Colourblindness" shuts down any conversation about racism and the disparities between racialized groups and White people. "Colourblindness" erases and silences.

White supremacy demands that the topic of racism only be discussed on White conditions and only in abstract terms – racism is bad, slavery was awful but we live in a Post-Race society now, blah blah blah Obama!!!! Racism is only racism if it's a redneck in a white hood burning a cross. Racism can only be racism if it's White-approved. And so there is a real problem with charges of racism, by People of Colour, being taken seriously. The amazing Melissa Harris-Perry wrote in September, "[i]n a nation with the racial history of the United States I am baffled by the idea that non-racism would be the presumption and that it is racial bias which must be proved beyond reasonable doubt". History, everyone, frakking context.

So to tie this back into my actual topic at hand, is it racist to moan on, asking "why is there a Black history month anyway"?? A person who believes they are colourblind or that we live in a Post-Race society may say no. A person who has never listened to how Black people feel, to what they have to say about racism, about the insidious nature of everyday racism would probably say no as well. Personally, I think it is pretty damn racist to challenge every hard-won victory, to consider our society to be some zero-sum game when it is so blatantly set up to privilege White people.

This Friday Fiction, I've picked novels that highlight the legacy that slavery, racism and decades of discriminatory policies has had on the lives of Black Canadians and Americans. Novels that engage with the subtleties of racism and challenge the norm of White supremacy. Each novel looks at the ways in which poverty, abuse, depression, violence and crime have sprung from the diaspora created by slavery and the strength, community, hope and spirit that will not be crushed. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was published in 1913 and both Dancing in the Dark and Man Gone Down were published in 2006 meaning this list of novels examining North American (minus Mexico) racial tensions spans nearly a hundred years. We've got a hell of a long way to go.

((I'm doing something a little bit different this week and instead of writing about each novel in detail I'm going to post the synopsis from the jacket for now and hopefully I will get a chance to write a proper review (can what I do actually be called a "review"?), but I got to jet now and I really wanted to get this up today.))

Kindred by Octavia E Butler – "Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana's life will end, long before it has a chance to begin."

At the Full and Change of the Moon by Dionne Brand – "Written with lyrical fire in a chorus of vividly rendered voices, Dionne Brand's second novel is an epic of the African diaspora across the globe. It begins in 1824 on Trinidad, where Marie-Ursule, queen of a secret slave society called the Sans Peur Regiment, plots a mass suicide. The end of the Sans Peur is also the beginning of a new world, for Marie-Ursule cannot kill her young daughter, Bola -- who escapes to live free and bear a dynasty of descendants who spill out across the Caribbean, North America, and Europe. Haunted by a legacy of passion and oppression, the children of Bola pass through two world wars and into the confusion, estrangement, and violence of the late twentieth century."

Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips – "In this searing novel, Caryl Phillips reimagines the life of the first black entertainer in the U.S. to reach the highest levels of fame and fortune.After years of struggling for success on the stage, Bert Williams (1874—1922), the child of recent immigrants from the Bahamas, made the radical decision to don blackface makeup and play the “coon.” Behind this mask he became a Broadway headliner–as influential a comedian as Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and W. C. Fields, who called him “the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew.” It is this dichotomy at Williams’ core that Phillips explores in this richly nuanced, brilliantly written novel, unblinking in its attention to the sinister compromises that make up an identity."

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison – "Invisible Man is a milestone in American literature, a book that has continued to engage readers since its appearance in 1952. A first novel by an unknown writer, it remained on the bestseller list for sixteen weeks, won the National Book Award for fiction, and established Ralph Ellison as one of the key writers of the century. The nameless narrator of the novel describes growing up in a black community in the South, attending a Negro college from which he is expelled, moving to New York and becoming the chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of "the Brotherhood", and retreating amid violence and confusion to the basement lair of the Invisible Man he imagines himself to be. The book is a passionate and witty tour de force of style, strongly influenced by T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Joyce, and Dostoevsky."

Corregidora by Gayl Jones – "Here is Gayl Jones's classic novel, the tale of blues singer Ursa, consumed by her hatred of the nineteenth-century slave master who fathered both her grandmother and mother."

Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson – "This remarkable novel documents the life of an American of mixed ethnicity who moves freely in society — from the rural South to the urban North and eventually, Europe. A revolutionary work which not only probes the psychological aspects of "passing for white" but also examines the American caste and class system."

Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas – "Evoking the work of great American masters such as Ralph Ellison, but distinctly original, Michael Thomas’ first novel is a beautifully written, insightful, and devastating account of a young black father of three in a biracial marriage trying to claim a piece of the American Dream. On the eve of the unnamed narrator’s thirty-fifth birthday, he finds himself broke, estranged from his white Boston Brahmin wife and three children, and living in the bedroom of a friend’s six-year-old child. With only four days before he’s due in to pick up his family, he must make some sense out of his life. Alternating between his past—as an inner city child bused to the suburbs in the 1970’s—and a present where he is trying mightily to keep his children in private schools, we learn of his mother’s abuses, his father’s abandonment, and the best and worst intentions of a supposedly integrated America. This is an extraordinary debut about what it feels like to be pre-programmed to fail in life—and the urge to escape that sentence."

Native Son by Richard Wright – "Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Wright's powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America."

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison – "Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl, prays every day for beauty. Mocked by other children for the dark skin, curly hair, and brown eyes that set her apart, she yearns for normalcy, for the blond hair and blue eyes that she believes will allow her to finally fit in.Yet as her dream grows more fervent, her life slowly starts to disintegrate in the face of adversity and strife. A powerful examination of our obsession with beauty and conformity, Toni Morrison’s virtuosic first novel asks powerful questions about race, class, and gender with the subtlety and grace that have always characterized her writing."

Passing by Nella Larsen – "Generally regarded as Nella Larsen's best work, Passing was first published in 1929 but has received a lot of renewed attention because of its close examination of racial & sexual ambiguities. It has achieved canonical status in many American universities."

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead – "Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist wowed critics and readers everywhere and marked the debut of an important American writer. This marvellously inventive, genre-bending, noir-inflected novel, set in the curious world of elevator inspection, portrays a universe parallel to our own, where matters of morality, politics, and race reveal unexpected ironies."

George and Rue by George Elliot Clarke – "It was a “slug-ugly” crime. Brothers George and Rufus Hamilton, in a robbery gone wrong, drunkenly bludgeoned a taxi driver to death with a hammer. It was 1949, and the two siblings, part Mi’kmaq and part African, were both hanged for the killing.

Those facts are skeletons in George Elliott Clarke’s family closet. Both repelled and intrigued by his ancestral cousins’ deeds, which he learned about from his mother shortly before her death, poet, playwright and screenwriter Clarke set out to discover just what kind of forces would reduce men to crime, violence and, ultimately, murder. His findings took shape in the 2001 Governor General’s Award–winning Execution Poems and culminates brilliantly in George and Rue. The novel shifts seamlessly back into the killers’ pasts, recounting a bleak and sometimes comic tale of victims of violence who became killers, a black community too poor and too shamed to assist its downtrodden members, and a white community bent on condemning all blacks as dangerous outsiders.

This is a book about a death that brims with fierce vitality and dark humor. Infused with the sensual, rhythmic beauty that defines Clarke’s writing, here is a literary debut that will be marked by celebration—and controversy."

Have a wonderful weekend everyone!

* Obviously, racism affects People of Colour all over the globe and PoC beyond Black people within Canada and America as well but this post is about Black History Month and for the sake of narrowing the scope I'm focussing only on Black Canadians and Americans today.


Alex Snider does not have a degree in Literature. This was originally posted on her blog, What Fresh Hell is This?. You can also find her on Twitter


Anonymous said...

More "whitey owes the poor black man" bullshit from a rich white liberal.

White privilege only exists for white liberals, not working class whites.

Alex Snider said...

This is a post about White privilege and Black History Month. It doesn't discuss class privilege within White society because that's not what it's about. Thanks for playing, though, you sound great.

Post a Comment