“Black men die more catastrophically, across class, than anybody else in America.”
“Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead negro’s grief.”
One frigid January night in Boston, an eerie voice and slide guitar cut through the still air of our apartment. Eric in the Evening, whose deeply suggestive voice invited me to savor authentic jazz and blues on nighttime NPR radio, played four cuts from the 1990 Columbia re-release of Robert Johnson’s blues. As the heavily syncopated guitar whined and thumped and the almost unintelligible voice wailed, I was caught up in the primal force of the blues. I, who had somehow missed its vibrant revival of the sixties, began to learn the blues.
From his first note, Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail,” stopped me in my tracks. Raw feeling coursed through my body; his plaintive tone haunted me. Could his song have foreshadowed an ironic fate? He was murdered at age twenty-eight just as he was about to be rescued from obscurity by John Hammond’s 1938 “Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall. And then British rock groups discovered Robert and transformed him, posthumously, into a blues legend. But then again, like Robert, bluesmen were trying to escape share-cropping, working like mules in the field. In the Jim Crow south, there was no way for a black man to get and stay ahead. Developing one’s voice, playing for change on street corners and in jukes resisted that peonage. Record companies discovered a market for such down-home sounds among recently arrived southern blacks. They sent talent scouts to record southern bluesmen for what came to be called “race records”. Studying the blues began my learning about racism.
Voice, naming the pain, and syncopated rhythm transformed the victim of Jim Crow into an artist, a performer. Such full-bodied anguish can also be conveyed in print. I was struck just as deeply reading “Father Stories,” John Edgar Wideman‘s lament over losing his son Jake to crime and life in prison. His sorrow was so palpable I joined him, on his knees as he dug in the dirt, saying “I was praying to join you. Offering myself in exchange for you. Take me. Take me (40).”
More than a decade later I was stunned again by the loss of another promising black man. Though not conveyed in the oral style of African American literature, this biography testified poignantly. Jeff Hobbs’s The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace told the story of a ghetto youth who earned free passage through parochial school and Yale. Hobbs explored the paradox of Robert’s triumph and self-destruction. Robert’s wearing a du-rag throughout his Yale career should have prepared me for his return to ghetto trafficking. I joined the lament for such losses.
As I was revising this essay, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, his book-long indictment of America’s systemic racism, came out to acclaim from Toni Morrison:
I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates. The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates’s journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading.
Coates shows how fear rules the lives of many black males, how as a child he was conditioned by his angry and violent peers in the ghetto to survive constant intimidation and harassment. In retrospect he realizes this prepared him for life in America where often black lives, especially male, don’t matter. His title is taken from Richard Wright’s poem that dramatizes a lynching (1935), the phrase an indictment of this violence against the black body that separates the speaker from the world. Coates’s personal experience, deep research, and powerful writing are stunning, his argument both persuasive and frightening.
Most significant to me was the source of his indictment of American society, his despair over his college friend’s, Prince Jones’s, murder. This handsome, loving, and intelligent son of a successful black woman anesthesiologist, had been murdered by an irresponsible [black] police officer who mistook him for a suspect and was not held accountable. Prince had been given every privilege by his wealthy mother, had been well loved and successful; yet his black body made him a victim of violence. Coates told Jon Stewart that this random waste forced him to see racism as our country’s fatal flaw. Like Wideman in “Father Stories,” Coates is addressing his son, in his case, he hopes, to prevent him from being lost. Outing “the talk” that black Americans feel they must give their children, this text indicts the country for its necessity, challenging us to make “the talk” unnecessary.
I bow to Coates’ great achievement and hope to join that quest. As a white woman professor, my connection to the suffering of racism is more distant. African American literature has taught me how American society wounds and terrifies, but also how African American ritual—story, music, religion, and dancing—sustains the humanity of everyone open to participating in it. I offer a small voice to what I hope will be the choruses of protest against racism.
But black art is not simply protest. Ta-Nahisi Coates, when he received the 2015 McArthur Genius Award, quoted James Baldwin denying that he ever felt a victim. Instead he was an artist creating in a dynamic tradition. It is that conviction and accomplishment of African Americans that has engaged my soul.
Passions have often jeopardized my success–whether anger, desire, or fear–my feelings can be larger than life. Hitting a favorite seventh grade teacher on the head with a book I was returning, snubbing a crush, fighting with others whose values clashed with mine, are awkward moments haunting me. Often I can harness my exuberance, but as that suggests, it’s uncomfortable. Convention often controls feelings roiling below my surface, sometimes, as with a flame, threatening to snuff them out.
After dropping out of college to be with my lover, I began to raise our kids. From reading Shakespeare aloud to my six month old to scribbling formulas for psych statistics as I monitored my kids in the playground, I tried to multitask—mother and learner—at all times. As one hand stirred the pot, the other turned the pages. I loved my spouse and kids, but there were moments when I longed to read, discuss issues with peers, be free to hang out.
Once they were in school, I poured my passion into learning, writing essays after they went to bed, balancing teaching with carpools. Having passed the milestones of marriage and motherhood, I was free to make my own way. I earned my BA, MA, and PhD specializing in19th century British literature, a voracious reader testing her identity, belief, and conventions. I explored the Victorians’ struggle with a new world–urban, industrial, and scientific. Dickens drew his universe larger than life, creating aoral order out of urban chaos. George Eliot provided fiction and reflection to bolster one’s strong sense of duty despite her loss of faith. Thomas Hardy’s tragic protagonists dramatized the cost of unleashed passion. Matthew Arnold captured the paradox of passion and morality in “The Buried Life”:
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
After I heard Robert Johnson sing, I began to create a new specialty. I wondered whether I shouldn’t just quit my job and begin again at an excellent program in African American studies. But my husband had lost his job, so I couldn’t quit mine or juggle both teaching and earning yet another PhD. Passion fueled this ambition as I explored the tradition, learning from its scholars what to read, and ways of interpreting. This was before the major anthologies of African American literature appeared in the 90s accompanied by tapes or CD’s of the oral tradition, so I had to compile my own musical playlist. When the major anthologies, the Norton and the Riverside, were published, their music was almost identical to my own, a vote of confidence that kept me listening.
The backbone of my study was the blues. From Charley Patton through Cassandra Wilson, I taped representative stories and songs. This was a culture still immersed in its oral and musical roots, like the rawness of Johnson’s blues. African American writers adapted this intense way of telling, using voice, rhythm, and sound to create meaning. Both within the text and between it and the reader, call-response—as in spirituals, sermons, blues and jazz—dramatized the telling. All this spoke to my buried self. DuBois, Hughes, Ellison, Walker, Morrison and Wideman offered original ways of depicting sexuality, hatred, prejudice, drunkenness, playfulness, mother love.
In the first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk (1903), DuBois dramatizes how he experienced racism. Many African American writers since have testified that his metaphor captures this trauma.
. . . the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil and gifted with a sort of second-sight in this American world, —a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder (10-11).
Consider how in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Baby Suggs, the grandmother whose son had bought her freedom, exhorts the other freed slaves in an Ohio clearing and their response:
“Here in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances
on bare feet in the grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. . . . More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music. Long notes held until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for their deeply loved flesh (88-89).
Langston Hughes introduces his blues poetry describing a man playing his “Weary Blues:” “In a deep strong voice with a melancholy tone/ I heard that Negro sing, that made the old piano moan.” Blues voices his feeling even through the piano.
In All Stories Are True, John Edgar Wideman introduces his brother Robby by describing his body:
My brother’s arms are prison arms. The kind you see in the street that clue you in where a brother has been spending his time. Bulging biceps, the rippled look of ropy sinews and cords of muscle snaking around the bones. Skinned. Excess flesh boiled away in this cauldron. . . . Men fashioning arms thick enough to wrestle fate. . . . I see them in their sun-scoured playground, sprawled like dazed children (11).
Always explicit, written on the body, musically and metaphorically, these texts evoke
passions, making me whole.
The many recent victims of police violence are the tip of the iceberg of the thousands who have been brutalized and killed away from the spotlight, a terrible sign of our systemic racism. As Coates argues powerfully, we all must own this dilemma and work to resolve it. Despite such truth-telling, change comes slowly, for whites must admit the problem and agree to share the opportunity that has been denied by institutional policy and private prejudice. Literature from Douglass through Faulkner and Morrison dramatizes this dilemma. However, there are other casualties of our systemic racism, coming from within the young black man and his experience rather than from a policeman’s gun. That is equally troubling. Jake Wideman and Robert Peace were well-educated young black men with promising futures. Yet each destroyed his chances. Jake’s father and Robert’s roommate testify to their tragic loss.
His confused rage led sixteen-year-old Jake to murder his roommate. Fleeing nullified his plea of insanity, and he’s serving a life sentence in Casa Grande, an Arizona prison. In “Father Stories” John Wideman tries to make sense of his loss. Was there any way he could have prevented it? He returns to the site of Jake’s grandfather’s camp where the family spent summers to muse about two previously unfathomable incidents. Could they have recognized Jake’s illness when he hid the keys of all the camp vehicles? Or when Wideman was giving his young son a ride on his shoulders, should he have recognized Jake’s violent response to leaves brushing his face as extreme? If only they had grasped Jake’s private dilemma. Wideman testifies that he and Jake’s mother despair for this son’s fate. After hearing these father stories, I tried to make sense of Wideman’s narrative epigraph. He presents a fable, beyond the earth, of an unknown group of people telling stories. When the fog clears, they see that their stories have changed the earth’s surface. Perhaps Jake’s only escape from prison comes from his imagining another world. And his father’s “Stories” have humanized Jake, complicated our sense of this prisoner.
All my information about Robert Peace comes from his white roommate’s, Jeff Hobbs’s, powerful biography based on his own experience with Robert and over three hundred hours of interviews. Though a novelist, Hobbs refuses to depict the world through Robert’s eyes, leaving us to wonder about Robert’s motives and reactions. Robert Peace was a model student, worker, and athlete throughout elementary and high school; continuing this at Yale, he also wore a du-rag and dealt marijuana. A straight A student in microbiology and chemistry, Robert was also a valued lab assistant in medical research, where he laundered his drug money.
Robert had been heroic even earlier. As a high school senior he had researched the law and got his father released from being held without bail for three years in prison because he had been denied a speedy trial for a murder. However, what happened next may have been why the du-rag beat Yale as Robert’s adult identity. The state mounted a trial in which Skeet, Robert’s father, was found guilty with dubious evidence and sentenced to thirty years before coming up for parole. A loyal son, Robert visited Skeet weekly at Trenton State Prison. When Hobbs as a roommate asked Robert what his father did, the answer was terse with no hint of this history. “He’s in prison.” And after another beat, Robert added, “Manslaughter.” He responded to Hobbs’s sympathy with the cliché, “It’s all good.” Yet Skeet didn’t allow either Robert or his mother to attend the trial, so Robert didn’t know how justice had miscarried. When his father developed a brain tumor in prison, Robert tried unsuccessfully to have it treated.
Researching after Robert’s murder, Hobbs discovered how badly the public defender had served his father. His account of Skeet’s response to his sentencing, which Hobbs got from someone who was in the courtroom, is heart-breaking. Skeet praises his lawyer for trying to help him, but repeats what he’s been saying for years, “I didn’t kill the women; I was never in that room. My friend who died before his statement was taken would have testified that I had no weapon with me, that it must have been planted later (52).”
And then he began to ramble, praising Robert and wishing that he could continue to be his father. It was clear that Skeet’s speech made everyone in the court uncomfortable, that it seemed sincere. But the police had testified over and over that they found the weapon on him. Robert’s anguish, his existential belief, must have been colored by this terrible injustice, whether they framed Skeet, or by delaying the trial so long, prevented a fair trial. What faith could one have in our justice system having experienced that?
Robert had many good friends at Yale, and was a leader, but he also hung out in the New Haven ghetto and made bi-weekly trips back to Newark to get more marijuana. He didn’t leave his ghetto self behind; it coexisted with his highly successful Ivy self. True, in his graduation picture, the du-rag is gone, his hair is worn neatly, and he wears a very proper suit, tie and shirt. But his other side has been there throughout Yale, helping him get along. Though both sides have always been there, I was shocked and disappointed, when he returned to Newark, took on a dangerous drug deal, and was murdered.
Didn’t he know better? His friend Oswaldo, also from the ghetto, fully understood Robert’s ambivalence and called him stupid for concealing his academic success and flaunting his drug dealing. Shortly before graduating, Oswaldo had a breakdown and Robert was his most comforting visitor to the psychiatric ward. Though the cause isn’t spelled out, it’s probable that he was having trouble reconciling his impending success with his drug-dealing family, that he was in a way leaving them behind. This interpretation is further supported by the psychiatric specialty that Oswaldo developed: helping people cross over from under to professional class. As both he and Robert learned: leaving the ghetto behind can be a difficult journey.
As a parent and teacher for most of my adult life, I was struck by these stories about young black men. Read a decade apart, they capture the tragedy our legal system is perpetrating. Each fate is caused by the individual’s choice, however compulsive: Jake to kill a roommate, Robert to return to the ghetto and expand his marijuana business. Jake serves a life term despite the fact that he had what seems to have been a psychotic episode, and Robert refused to take the professional path that his education had prepared him for. Whether he couldn’t imagine himself in that world, needed to return to his comfortable environment, wanted to enjoy his life through travel and weed, there may have been an even stronger motive under the surface, one that he never articulated. Perhaps he was demoralized after saving his father from prison only to lose him to an unfair trial and denial of his rights to health care.
The lament about these two young black men personalizes the trend we’re experiencing in America. Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow that racism has been profoundly institutionalized. “Like Jim Crow (and slavery) mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that collectively ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race (13).” That coupled with police violence toward unarmed black men is making them an endangered species. And yet the antagonism goes both ways, only one of them lethal. As David Remnick quoted James Baldwin’s “Fifth Avenue Uptown: A Letter from Harlem” on why police respond to angry black men violently:
Rare, indeed, is the Harlem citizen, from the most circumspect church member to the most shiftless adolescent, who does not have a long tale to tell of police incompetence, injustice, or brutality. I myself have witnessed and endured it more than once. . . . It is hard, on the other hand, to blame the policeman, blank, good-natured, thoughtless, and insuperably innocent, for being such a perfect representative of the people he serves. He, too, believes in good intentions and is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed. He has never, himself, done anything for which to be hated—which of us has?—and yet he is facing, daily and nightly, people who would gladly see him dead, and he knows it. There is no way for him not to know it: there are few things under heaven more unnerving than the silent, accumulating contempt and hatred of a people (19).
How can such antagonism be lessened? A small but satisfying step in that direction comes from reading black lives, as one does in African American literature. Learning what happens—how it feels, how this culture expresses and challenges its people—can open ways of seeing with understanding, empathy, and respect. This is not just information, but art that can transcend the borders between peoples when their imaginations are engaged. The complexity of its postmodern phase challenges me to new ways of seeing. August Wilson, Toni Morrison, Tracy Smith and Yusef Komunyakaa weave the oral tradition into a literature that changes the reader.
I’ve engaged my passion with music, visual art, and literature. African American culture has opened up that possibility. But even more, they feed my soul. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in his letter to his son, Between the World and Me, we all lose as long as our country continues its history of systemic racism. Our best hope is to recognize how we’re all implicated. Literature can help create that community.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. NY: The New Press, 2010, 2012.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk, 1903. NY: Norton, 1999.
Hobbes, Jeffrey. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. NY: Simon and Shuster, 2014.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. NY: New American Library, 1987.
Remmick, David. “Talk of the Town.” Quoted James Baldwin in The New Yorker January 12, 2015.
Wideman, John Edgar. All Stories Are True. NY: Vintage, 1992.
“Father Stories” The New Yorker. August 1, 1994.