ChickenBones: A Journal

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white and black are more than mere racial designations, that they are moreover class and cultural affiliations determining the way one writes, one’s idiom, rhythm, style and location within the city.

 

 

Books by John Oliver Killens

 

Youngblood  /  And Then We Heard the Thunder  /  The Cotillion  /  The Great Black Russian

 

A Man-Aint-Nothin But A Man Adventures of John Henry  /  Slaves  / Sippi A Novel Black-SouthernVoices: An Anthology 

 

Great-Gittin-Up-Morning: A Biography of Denmark Vesey The Black Man's Burden

 

Keith Gilyard, Liberation Memories: The Rhetoric and Poetics of John Oliver Killens (2003)

 

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Coal Charcoal and Chocolate Comedy

the evolution of satire, self-examination and hopefully Harlem

by Keenan Norris

 

from John Killens to Mat Johnson:

“Nevertheless and basically, this is a Black comedy. I mean a Black black comedy.” (The Cotillion, Killens, Foreword)

 

“…a bucket of drive-through chicken and Snowden’s uncle in the front seat saying, ‘It’s 1983 and nobody gives a damn about that shit no more, so just shut up and stop hogging all the white meat.’ ”  (Hunting in Harlem, Johnson, 6)

Mental Notes Toward a Thesis: Before I begin in earnest, with a thesis and everything, let me just say, the idea of a thesis is very strange to me: isn’t it to you, too? Doesn’t positing a conclusion at the very outset of one’s exploration seem more like a statement of belief, or prophecy, than a hypothesis? I prefer to think of critical essays as scientific and exploratory, personally, so I dislike theses.

That said: the critical divergence between these two satires, The Cotillion and Hunting in Harlem, arises from the different ethical-political viewpoints wherefrom they approach black Harlem. The former is infused with the righteous convictions of the Black Arts Movement and its moral calculus (by which I mean that lucid distinction between what is deemed right versus what is deemed wrong which powers all great satire) glorifies the modish afrocentricity of the 60’s.

By contrast, the latter satire is not nearly as funny because its calculus is a troubled, unstable one: written at a later point in history, it finds the affirmation of Afro-American pride an insufficient philosophy in view of the urban chaos which characterizes the city. The ridicule is sent in all directions, at all philosophies and agendas; affirmations are nil, the conclusion nihilism. The drastic difference between these two books indicates the disillusionment and deeper honesty that has entered the urban (black) intelligentsia between 1968, when John Killens published his funny book, and 2003, when Mat Johnson published his.

The Cotillion: The Cotillion, Alexs Pate writes in his introduction to the new Coffee House Press edition of the novel, “was written for the black reader of the Black Power era” (Pate, The Cotillion, XI). As such, the material herein might seem dated, relegated to the year, 1968, in which it was written. Pate goes on to write that Killens “was at the forefront of delineating the details of what it meant to be a black writer in the Black Arts Movement” (XIII).

To support this view of Killens, Pate quotes the novelist’s scholarly work at length, referencing passages in which Killens self-consciously sets out to explicate the exactly what a black writer, and for that matter, a black person is in 1960’s-era America. Killens status not only as acclaimed novelist but founder of the Harlem Writer’s Guild and representative spokesperson for the Black Arts Movement more generally means that his novels not only partake of Black Power ideas and ideals, but are, in a sense, intellectual manifestos of the Movement. The only way, then, to read The Cotillion  is as a time-bound document, one shrouded, as Pate rightly observes, in “contemporary obscurity,” articulate only in a language “that has no political currency in our…age” (XV).

When Killens published his grand satire, the movement most certainly had not moved on, as Mat Johnson writes in his Harlem satire some thirty-five years later (Johnson, 6); it was a current reality. Pate claims for it significance as “one of the few glimpses of the transformational power of resurgent black consciousness rendered in fiction” (X). The Cotillion, therefore, must be read as if in the midst of that resurgence, in the present tense in which its narrator tells it to us: in other words, it’s 1968.

1968:

"My name is Ben Ali Lumumba,” Lumumba declares at the novel’s outset, “and I’m free, Black and twenty-three” (Killens, The Cotillion , Foreword).

He is playing on the phrase which, as I remember it, goes "I’m free, young and twenty-one," which generally goes unuttered by young black militants, reserved instead for social climbers. This is the first of many rhetorical challenges that Lumumba, as the novel’s narrator, will lob at society’s status quo, which he and the book assume to be white, well-off and politically white supremacist. Lumumba is a writer determined to write his memoirs about his time at sea, where he had gone at the age of seventeen to escape the Vietnam War.

(“I wandered… carousing, reading, brawling, learning, looking, drinking, fornicating from Tashkent to Johannesburg…” [Foreword].)

But his initial forays into the literary world, he writes, have been less than inspiring:

[A]nd like I went one of them downtown white workshops for a couple of months and got all screwed up with angles of narration, points of view, objectivity, universality, composition, author-intrusion, sentence structure, syntax, first person, second person… I said, to hell with all that! I’m the first, second and third person my own damn self… I was uptight with the craft shit. Can you dig it?

I decided to write my book in Afro-Americanese. Black rhythm, baby. Yeah, we got rhythm, brothers, sisters. Black idiom, Black nuances, Black style.” (Foreword).

Lumumba’s tangent, besides being a glorious declaration of authorial intent, also suggests the assumptions on which his ideas are based. First, that white and black are more than mere racial designations, that they are moreover class and cultural affiliations determining the way one writes, one’s idiom, rhythm, style and location within the city.

Hence, the “white” creative writing workshops are situated “downtown,” presumably in the middle of Manhattan, whereas Lumumba signs his Foreword, “BEN ALI LUMUMBA, son of, Harlem, U.S.A. (Foreword).” Thus, the black writer lives in Harlem, out on the furthest edge of the island, while the white people and their white concepts live elsewhere. Those white-coded concepts are dismissed as hopelessly formalized and stale, irrelevant to Lumumba’s literary ends: in place of the conventional academic jargon of the creative writing classroom, Lumumba pledges to write in “Afro-Americanese … Black idiom, Black nuances, Black style.”

Thus, the ideological basis for the book is set down in the prelude that leads to it: that which is white is oppressive and out-of-date, that which is black is enlivening, artistic. Lumumba’s clarity of vision will allow for the blistering satire against white and white-identified institutions that The Cotillion contains.

Lumumba concludes his Foreword by informing the reader that the story will not be about him, but actually a beautiful young woman named Yoruba. Yoruba is introduced and quickly marked as the book’s heroine: “Pure, beautiful, untampered-by-the-white-man, Yoruba. Black and princessely, Yoruba” (1). Again, that which is good“princessely,” in this caseis identified as black and any trace of whiteness is denounced as impurity.

Thus, to be “[p]ure,” by Lumumba’s rhetorical logic, is to be “untampered-by-the-white-man.” Obviously, this color-based system of valuation reverses the traditional symbol system imposed on back writers by the Eurocentric literary canon; the race-based rhetoric of Othello, in which blackness represents deceit and evil, while whiteness confers goodness is no more in Lumumba’s book. Still, the earlier rhetorical scheme reminds one of this newer one because they are as inherently similar, in that they impose a black-white dichotomy, as they are superficially different.

Anyway, the first chapter essentially functions as Yoruba’s introduction to the reader: it evens opens with a free-form introductory ode to her:

Hey!

CALL HER YORUBA, RIGHT?

High Priestess of the Nation!

You ready for that?

Negritude? Okay?

African queen!

Black and comely was this Harlem princess.

Yoruba, her father named her (1).

Actually, her full name, Yoruba Evelyn Lovejoy, is compound of her father and mother’s wishes. Her father Matt Lovejoy named her ‘Yoruba,’ more symbolic of his “wondrously angry and terribly frustrated nationalism” than any black nationalist sentiment on her part; her mother added ‘Evelyn’, “like the woman made from Adam’s ribs,” Lumumba glosses, “and like Christmas Eve and the night before the New Year” (1).

Thus, her name foreshadows the principal question of the book, which is whether the girl will choose the clenched militancy of her father and of Lumumba, to which she is partly heir, or the colonial mentality epitomized by her mother, Lady Daphne. “How do you tell your mother you don’t want to be a lady?” Yoruba wonders. “That you would rather be a good Black woman?” (46).

This is the melodramatic either-or conflict between black-identified and white-identified systems that she is faced with and the axis on which all the action spins. Obviously, Yoruba favors being a good girl for her race rather than a proper lady: to that end, she falls in love with Lumumba and they go to Harlem’s Grand Cotillion sporting matching afros.

The black bourgeoisie is, thus, mocked and then won over to the side of the nationalists. But the eurocentric side of things has its say along the way and provides formidable opposition, mainly in the person of Yoruba’s mother, Lady Daphne, who epitomizes the colonial mindset.

Lady Daph’: Lady Daphne Braithwaite Lovejoy is the zealous defender of all things British, as she is a black lady from Barbados. She idealizes the United Kingdom and sees herself as a rightful heir to its glory, such as it is. “Daphne’s father was a Scotchman,” Lumumba informs, “with eleven Black concubines, one of whom was Daphne’s lucky mother. Right? You’ve heard of black Irish? Would you believeBlack Scotchmen?” (37-38). Instead of seeing him as a colonial rapist, which is no doubt how her militant husband would cast him, Daphne thinks of Angus Braithwaite as “a gentleman for true” (39).

Of the Lady, Lumumba later laments, she “lack[s] a sense of humor, which should have been her heritage as a colored woman” (113). While this disqualifies her as a character in a serious drama about black folk, it makes her a perfect foil for Lumumba’s satire. Since examples of Daphne’s comic greatness are so numerous, at this point it may be most useful to simply quote a cross-section of statements and expository passages regarding her:

Daphne was a slender woman, almost thin, who ate like seven lean years of drought and famine were just around the corner. And food was going swiftly out of style, decidedly. The dear one ate only one meal a day, continuously all day long… (39-40).

Daphne was the kind of proud Caribbean beauty who loftily cherished her British heritage. The only songs that really made her heart leap wildly and warmly wet her eyes were ‘God Save the Queen’ and ‘Rule Britannia’; and as long as Brittania ruled the waves, though, when challenged by Matthew, Daphne never remembered when Brittania ruled the waves… nevertheless—she was comfortably confident that Britons never would be slaves (40).

‘…And I truly would have been living the life. Down there [in Barbados] my folks had a staff of servants waiting on them hand and foot. I had my own private maid, my dears, but I was such a spoiled one, and I wanted to see how the other half lived. That’s why I came to America’ (46-47).

‘The nation is working for an integrated society, and our church is a shiny example. The dear Vicar is giving up his entire career as a white man, just to give us an integrated experience’ (36).

Though my method might be a bit unconventional, I hope these excerpts from Chapter 3 of The Cotillion , “Daphne,” illumine Daphne’s peculiar character. She is the most one-dimensional character in the novel and thus the most susceptible to satire. Her utter identification with the United Kingdom and with her scoundrel Scottish father and all things associated with whiteness makes her an apt character for ridicule in a book written from the perspective of a Black Power spokesperson. (And here I refer not only to Lumumba but Killens as well, since he founded the Harlem Writer’s Guild and was a leading voice in the Black Arts Movement.)

Parsing the quotes, first, Daphne’s identification with white mores is cast in physical terms: if whiteness is sterile, ineffectual and unalive, then its acolytes must be skinny, underfed breathing corpses. Hence, she eats one meal continuously, all day (40). This reverse stereotyping lives on in today’s disseminated images of super-thin white supermodels, who may never eat, let alone fuck, versus the big-butt black girls exalted in hip-hop and Essence.

The second quote casts Daphne’s white-love in historical and cultural terms. Her favorite songs are ‘God Save the Queen’ and ‘Rule Brittania.’ Her understanding of history, while inexact, elevates Britons inarguably above blacks because Britons never were slaves. The underlying idea here is her shame at her black heritage of enslavement and powerlessness and her need to join up with the winning side.

In the third quote, she idealizes life in Barbados as a pampered half-white girl: the servants who must wait on her “hand and foot” (46) because they are black are ignored functionaries in her nostalgic scheme. The point, as far as Daph’ sees it, is that it is good to be spoiled and, therefore, life in Barbados was great for her.

In the last quote, she argues for the white Vicar at her family’s church; he is, presumably, doing Harlem a service by integrating his whiteness into their hopelessly black milieu. That Daphne idealizes whiteness and despises blackness is obvious enough; more interesting are the desperate devices by which she tries to deal with the fact of her blackness and the fact of her daughter’s blackness. She knows she lives in the Negro section of apartheid America, so she attempts to alter her given space with as many white conventions as possible.

In The Cotillion, all Daphne’s biased desires coalesce under the banner of the Grand Cotillion that she wants desperately for her daughter to join. It seems, to me, that the Harlem Cotillion functions in the novel as a last ludicrous vestige of the colonial white power structure. It is the closest thing to Daphne’s nostalgic memory of Barbados. As such, the progressive blacks within Harlem despise the Cotillion, and those such as Daphne, who associate black America with everything downtrodden and horrid (“…I wanted to see how the other half lived. That’s why I came to America”) cling to it all the more strongly.

Anyway, to understand Lady Daphne more fully, one must understand her cherished Cotillion, so:

The Cotillion: This book is in many ways a comedy of manners, bad manners, more precisely. The analysis of Harlem’s Cotillion begins with Chapter 5, “First Instructions on the Rites of Ladyship.”

An early scene suggests many of the themes that run throughout this scathing critique on the institutionalized beauty pageant. As the socialites of Harlem coo over their church’s sweetly ringing chimes, one Mr. Patterson holds a dissident sentiment.

Especially did he not appreciate those heavenly chimes at six o’clock of a Saturday morning when he had just gotten to bed at five a.m. and was in that land beyond the river known as Hangoverville (68).

Mr. Patterson, despite being a member of the black bourgeoisie, is immediately situated as a less-than-noble figure: his social station and his carousing behavior do not seem to correspond. To borrow a line from later in the book that refers to a similar character, “He was of the high and Black society. He could not possibly be as uncouth as he obviously was” (221).

“[Mr. Patterson] got painfully out of bed,” the passage continues, “his wife beside him gone for a time into the land of sweet oblivion, snoring gently like a hog calling expert… He stumbled around the room (bang! bang! boom! boom!), cursing softly to himself the goddamn motherfucking chimes, the cocksucking preacher, the church, some religions, all religions” (69).

Here, the church and, in fact, religious faith generally, is denounced by Mr. Patterson. He cannot stand the chimes, a local quibble, perhaps. But the larger problem of maintaining an artifice of virtue via institutions such as church and Cotillion while the unholy world still holds sway is suggested in the man’s discontent.

Further on, he dreams of recruiting the street gangs, “pay them to blow up the goddamn church, chimes and all.” And finally he “[p]uts the ladder up against the church and starts up the ladder with his cocktails a la Molotov and a pocketful of matches. And a lighted cigar in his mouth. Sweating, cursing, stoned for days… Halfway up the ladder, he is accosted by two policemen, friends of his, who bring him laughingly home… calling God and the Devil’s choicest damnations down upon the church, the chimes, the police, people in general, Black folks in particular” (70).

This sally into terrorism by one of the Negro community’s leading men highlights many points of hypocrisy: first, the obvious charade that is his status as a gentleman. Second, the maintenance of that charade by his circles of “friends,” in this case the policemen who will not reprimand his psychotic behavior. Third, the people in general and black folks particularly who let church chimes ring at all hours to layer over the obscene world with what finally amounts to symbolic gestures of piety. Mr. Patterson’s anecdote exposes this upper-crust community as hypocritical in that its members are as low, down and dirty as anyone else, except that they commit the crime of denying it.

High black society’s real crime in The Cotillion is, of course, the denial of their rightful heritage as black Americans. As she is initiated into the rites of ladyship by the Cotillion supervisors, Yoruba notes that they prefer to refer to their predecessors’ “previous condition of servitude” (73). Her cosmetologist teaches she and the other girls “How to curtsey, how to sip their tea, and all the other white cultured graces. Likewise how to walk, again” (105).

She is compelled to pick her date for the Cotillion ball from a pre-arranged list of deserving black lads from “superior family background, first family and all that, second-generation Brooklyn at the very least; doctor’s, lawyer’s, preacher’s son… [who] must be suave, urbane, presentable, must have a good reputation, regardless of his character” (124).

Parsing these quotes: first, the Cotillion madams who refuse to even utter the word slavery, replacing it instead with the euphemism servitude (73), I read as a denial that that period was any worse than an Englishmen’s seven-year indenture in America.

The efforts made at teaching the girls the “white cultured graces” such as sipping tea (105) are, again, a denial of black culture and its peculiar graces, which the girls grew up with and can consequently only unlearn. In the logic of Lumumba’s satire, white culture is the completely negative and undesirable opposite of black culture.

Finally, the insistence that Yoruba bring an heir of the high society to the Cotillion as her date (124) denies that any but the most financially fortunate black boys have anything to offer her or the Cotillion. A black boy without a big billfold is simply a black boy, and, apparently, something is undesirable in that. Worse than simple elitism, these class prejudices suggest race prejudices and a self-hatred on the part of the black upper class.

When Yoruba falls in love with Lumumba and determines to take him to the ball, Lady Daphne musters all her elitism and race-hatred. “He’s a wort’less black woolly-head nigger, and I should have got me a pistol and blowed his brains out when he was seven or eight years old the first time I saw him grinning in your face” (132).

It is a statement that hardly needs parsing: as blunt as possible, Daphne is saying that she would love to exterminate all signs of blackness threatening to contaminate her family. What she imagines herself and her daughter to be if they are not black is harder to define. Lumumba tells Yoruba that “the white establishment is one thing, your mother is a different establishment altogether” (183). I think the “establishment” Lady Daphne represents is one denying blackness, seeking out whiteness and ending up confused somewhere in between: she is an archetypal representation of the self-hating black bourgeois.

While she admires and imitates white establishment values, because she is black she necessarily reinterprets these oft-times sick values. What among white people is simple racism, becomes in Cotillion circles self-hatred, what otherwise would only be elitism, here becomes the denial of one’s heritage and a need to erase or revise one’s history. Therefore, blacks might have been servants but certainly not slaves.

The Cotillion  relentlessly satirizes this culture, setting it up as a kind of apex, or nadir, of lies and denial. Against that untruth stands Lumumba, Ben Ali, the novel’s hero and author’s surrogate narrator. He represents the articulation of the Black Power ethos that figures as the sole antidote to a sick culture. If Lady Daphne is paragon of the Negro’s hateful, recalcitrant past, Lumumba represents a hopeful future for the race.

Ben Ali: Ben Ali Lumumba begins the book by disclosing that his is a “[G]iven name. Dig. The name I gave myself” (Foreword). The name his parents gave him is actually Ernest Billings and it is revealed in the course of the story that he and Yoruba were neighbors as small schoolchildren in Brooklyn: “I used to live right on this street right up the block—a million years ago” (64). This little detail of origin is important because it suggests the basic dilemma in Lumumba’s personality: does he identify as an unallied traveler of the world and explorer of cultures, or is he, more simply, a black American?

[Yoruba] said, ‘Where are you from?’

He said, ‘Especially from all over.’  (63)

At first, Lumumba seems to choose the mask of worldliness: in the Foreword to the book, he boasts not only of traveling the world wide, but also of having sex with women of all ethnic descriptions, spreading his seed far and wide. Further on, there are more extravagant claims to this effect:

In love passionately, entirely, all the way, to the Phillipines and back, by way of Timbuktu. In love, oh my yes, and with no holds barred… from Hong Kong to Honolulu. All colors and denominations. He did not discriminate (77).

Lumumba is so infatuated with his persona as world-traveler that he has even embarked upon writing a book called From Harlem All the Way to Timbuktu, which, in its description, would seem to be a sort of glorified travelogue for African-Americans; that is, a species of escapist literature. Escapism, in this context, refers to the avoidance of or inability to confront the pressing issues at hand. Instead, one runs away to far off lands, or at least reads about someone else who already has.

If Ben Ali follows this literary path then he has simply traded on a false brand of black-African-jive to further his own ends. The judgment accorded the various fake black militants that pass throughout the book would have to apply to him as well:

[T]hugs and hoodlums who had skimmed through a few books and memorized a few catch phrases, bought a few dashikis, put their do-rags in hiding for a season. . . . and gone into the business of Black Nationalism. They saw the Movement as a hustle, and a mighty fine one. But they were not the Movement. Not even were they of the Movement. They had been pimps before and were still pimps (61).

The italics are my own: they highlight the complete impasse that the moral logic of the book sets between those inside and those outside the Black Power Movement. Those who cannot or choose not to claim allegiance might as well have generated from an alien species, for they are not even “of the Movement.” Therefore, one of the crucial moral questions of the book becomes who Ben Ali Lumumba actually is and what kind of writer he will become.

These dilemmas have a moral clarity, a right versus wrong simplicity that is only possible in a universe understood through ideology. In Hunting in Harlem the Black Power ideology on which all things in The Cotillion are judged has broken down and the moral-ethical dilemmas are less easily understood.

For a time, Lumumba plays a kind of Invisible Man role in the book, denying any kind of affiliation whatsoever and even going so far as to call himself “a phony” (155). But eventually he becomes identified with a kind of pure black militancy that cares little for style (“The cause was not hair or beard or dashiki” [156]), replacing that falsity with a more substantive ideal:

‘There’s a half a dozen soothsayers to the block in Harlem… I ain’t no soothsayer either, cause I don’t know no sooth. I’m just a cat who’s trying to get his thing together. So when I do say something, it will have some small significance for Black People’  (159).

What Lumumba ends up ‘saying’ is, of course, the book which he ends up writing: that work is not the escapist travelogue From Harlem All the Way to Timbuktu, but a powerfully committed satire, The Cotillion.

As Lumumba and Yoruba commit themselves to the Movement, the satire only gains momentum because now the battle lines have been firmly drawn. They attend several preliminary Cotillion functions; then, in Chapter 11 “The Really Real Thing”, they go to the downtown white Cotillion ball. Here, the “beaucoup ambivalent” nature of the “cream of the crap”—quotes courtesy of Lumumba (195, 190)— is on full display. Rich white kids get wildly drunk and high and begin to proposition Yoruba and proposition each other and proposition Lumumba, without respect to race, gender or any other conventional boundary.

Sex of all descriptions is perpetrated on the dance floor, in the dining halls and doorways and bathrooms. There comes a kind of culminate scene in which Lumumba happens on “a four-eye rosy cheeked dude who had been giving Yoruba and him such a bad time. . . . Apparently he had forgotten his gender and had sat down to make water [and] had somehow managed to get his cutest little fellow caught between the toilet seat and the commode.” He begs Lumumba for help, professes to be a “member of the Urban League, the N-double-A-C-P, the CORE, Snickers, Panthers…”

But instead of heeding his pleas, Lumumba smashes the toilet seat on his penis—“The poor rich white dude’s rosy cheeks lost color as he fainted clean away. Shouting ‘Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!’ Even after he lost consciousness, from deep in his unconscious, he kept mumbling ‘Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!’” (197).

It is instructive to analyze all this: the ambivalence of the white kids is ridiculed and given a sexual connotation when the whiteboy attempts to “make water” in the women’s lavatory. By contrast, the ideological certainty that Lumumba has come to—essentially, that black is good and white is bad— functions as justification enough for him to assault the poor dude’s penis instead of helping him. In this hilariously vicious version of race war, Lumumba is the ultimate black man and thus the ultimate hero.

(His greatness is not only intellectual but encompasses body as well as mind and in the last scene when he and Yoruba come to the Harlem Cotillion in dashikis and afros, she thinks “He was so handsome in his African robe, he actually looked edible” [231]. In academic language, this would count as ideology expressed via culinary terms).

Moreover, the fact that the whiteboy whom Lumumba abuses manages to continue screaming “Nigger!” even after he is unconscious, “from deep in his unconscious” suggests that even in their most innocent and unguarded moments whites still harbor hatred toward blacks. Thus, there is no common ground between the sides and conflict is inevitable.

As such, the satire that The Cotillion  directs at white and white-identified folks can be seen as a sort of language-weapon. John Killens, Alexs Pate writes, “used language as a weapon” (XIII). This book stands as evidence of that intent. Though the novel ends with the hero and heroine dressed in African garb at the Harlem Cotillion, it is this scene in the bathroom that most ruthlessly brings home the message of the book.

There is really nothing else to say about The Cotillion  that isn’t obvious by now. It has a design upon its readers. It is as propagandistic as any pamphlet. It uses its humor in the most righteously, viciously, deeply committed manner possible. It is impossible that such a book could have been written in 1948 or 1998; it is completely, solely of 1968 and the unique ideology of that moment, evidence of the former currency of that ideology.

Hunting in Harlem

In Hunting in Harlem, the 1960’s heyday of Black Power ideology is summoned forth and effectively dismissed within the novel’s first few pages. The main character, Snowden, remembers his father as “a man who wasted his life raising banners no one wanted to read, following his conscience wherever it led him—even though that was usually jail” (Johnson, 6).

. . . the bullhorned speeches in Fairmount Park and the crowd that yelled in response to them, so much food that casserole bowls sat on seats while people stood balancing paper plates in their hands. By his last release from a federal penitentiary twelve years later, the reception had been reduced to a bucket of drive-through chicken and Snowden’s uncle in the front seat saying, "It’s 1983 and nobody gives a damn about that shit no more, so just shut up and stop hogging all the white meat"  (6).

The deterioration of Snowden’s father and this small Philadelphia branch of the Black Power Movement is given as an example in microcosm of the criminality, apathy, and increasingly useless rhetoric that beset the Movement as a whole in the 70’s and led to its complete demise. Snowden’s father is reminiscent of Black Panther militants such as Huey Newton and David Hilliard who found themselves more often the object of criminal prosecution than any meaningful social progress. The unread banners and bullhorn speeches that Snowden remembers his father issuing in Fairmount Park are direct ringers for that explosive rhetoric released from any political function or practical effect that the Panthers specialized in.

Snowden’s uncle’s comment that “‘It’s 1983 and nobody gives a damn about that shit no more’”(6) is only a harsher, funnier way of saying that the Black Power Movement was a passing moment in history and only its ideologues still find relevance in its outdated aspirations. The whole thrust of this anecdote, with which the book opens, is to suggest exactly this disillusionment with the loud dogmas of the past. By the bottom of page 6, the reader learns that Snowden himself kills his father in a fit of disillusioned rage, though, by then “there really wasn’t much left of the man that hadn’t already died anyway” (6). Thus, Mat Johnson’s book swiftly rounds out the life of the Ben Ali Lumumba figure so triumphant in The Cotillion: he expires along with his one love, the Movement, and is quickly forgotten. The book moves on.

Cyrus Marks:

It is instructive to note the difference between Killens’ heroic race-man, Ben Ali Lumumba, and Johnson’s rather troubling update of that character type, Cyrus Marks. Marks is a Harlem Congressman and the founder of Horizon Realty, a real-estate group mandated, by Marks, of course, to restore Harlem’s squalid tenements to middle-class brownstones. “Harlem was a ghetto” (9), Johnson notes, but it was “perhaps the most romanticized ghetto in the world,” so it is crucial to Marks that Harlem be a symbol of black progress and empowerment.

To that end, he has hired a team of Philadelphia and Chicago ex-cons to do the manual labor required to actually rebuild the tenements, despite, Johnson dryly notes, "the contradiction that there was no reason to import cheap labor to Harlem" (57). This includes patricidal Snowden, as well as Bobby Finley and Horus Manley, who compete against each other throughout the book for a promotion within Horizon’s ranks.

Marks sees the men as symbolic of the renaissance of the city itself: he is passionate in this vision of civic rebirth. “ ‘Harlem is more than a place,’” he proclaims, “ ‘it’s a symbol. It’s our Mecca, it’s our Jerusalem, the historic cradle of our culture…’” (15).

To an extent, Marks sounds a lot like Ben Ali Lumumba when Lumumba breaks into his long soliloquies on the beauty of blackness, etc. But, in this book, idealistic rhetoric is interpreted not as heroic, but as insane: Snowden listens to Marks’ introductory speech and seems to decide that the man is rabid: “ ‘Harlem is ours!’ Marks yelled, spittle shooting forward, tears dripping straight down” (15). Perhaps Ben Ali, too, soliloquized with froth spilling out his mouth, but Yoruba never noticed it. In any case, Cyrus Marks is decidedly less cool and less in-control of himself and his surroundings than the Black Power people of The Cotillion.

Marks' dream is an updated version of the goals of the Black Power Movement. Disdaining the poetical propaganda of those by-gone days, Marks, Lester Baines and the rest of Horizon Realty favor a progressive plan of economic action: by converting Harlem's worst tenements into brownstones for the young and upwardly mobile, they feel that they are creating a practical economic foundation for the furtherance of black Harlem. By replacing the old tenants dependent on welfare and general relief with those young black professionals, they feel they are maintaining the racial solidarity of the ghetto while at the same time bringing back that class of blacks who left for the suburbs and took with them their middle- and working-class values.

Unlike Lumumba and Yoruba and Matthew Lovejoy, Marks believes that white racism is essentially irrelevant to black success; black people, in his view, are causing their own problems in 2003 and therefore they must create their own solutions in-house, as it were, without recourse to diatribes on victimization.

We were raised [in the 60's] to fight white oppression, and guess what? We won! Not every battle, but that war is basically over, as we knew it. Nowadays, black folks' biggest problem isn't white racism, it's ourselves. White people aren't breaking into our homes, attacking us on the streets, or selling drugs to our children. . . . Harlem doesn't need another mural or community center, another law or bill, we need new blood, new ideas to fight new enemies. That's why you're here. This is your destiny. This is our last stand (121).

That the "war" against white oppression has effectively been decided is the assumption upon which Marks bases his philosophy. Accepting this as fact allows him the rhetorical leverage to claim that black people are their own worst "enemies" and that re-vitalization of black neighborhoods as the principle means by which the race can improve its desperate situation. I, personally, agree that white people are not the greatest of black people's worries. It is a basic reality in life that we are always our own severest challenge.

Therefore, Marks is correct in saying that "black folks' biggest problem [is] ourselves." But his rhetoric is still problematic on many fronts. First of all, he runs the risk of making out of a complex race a monolith. Black people are not, of course, a single community. Therefore, they have no single "destiny" or "stand" to make. Viewing Harlem as anything more than a city among millions of cities in the world is an embellishment rooted in poetry and loose logic. It allows Marks the rhetorical leverage to take his fever-dream a step further so that he begins to use a romantic vocabulary of war and embattled conquest.

During segregation, he implies, blacks fought a "war" against white oppression. Now, he indicates, they have a new battle to fight. They have "new enemies." Those enemies, so-called, are now their fellow black people, in this case the impoverished old denizens of Harlem. Violent rhetoric leads to violent action, and when life is misconstrued in romantic terms, death too becomes misconstrued in just the same fashion.

Thus it is that Marks and Lester Baines have devised a speedier solution to Harlem's woes than gentrification could ever bring: they are killing off the criminals and welfare cases to clear space for the incoming young professionals. In the final phase of their plan, they subtly disappear the neighborhood drug czar by "[s]hov[ing] a pound of C4 explosives against the adjoining living room wall, walk through the burning hole, and shoot everything living" (231). 

Snowden discovers their brute method of neighborhood takeover when he is given an assignment to clear out the rooms of all the people who die in Harlem every week and realizes that the dead make up an alarmingly high figure. After a few uncalculated machinations, he realizes the truth. "[S]ocial gardening": Lester explains, and rationalizes, their method  (118).

Indeed, it is this idea, that to kill the undesirables is a form of local beautification, that allows the men the ideological leverage to carry out their economic cleansing. Cyrus Marks tells Snowden that "almost all drastic social improvement is the result of moments of inhumanity. It was the staunch disregard for the humanity of blacks and Indians that made America the great nation it is today" (121).

At this point, Hunting in Harlem becomes a more complex, if less funny, satire than is The Cotillion. Where in Killens' book, problems arise from sex, money and other people's racism (9), here in the current-day satire of Mat Johnson, problems arise from all over but are resolved internally.

Thus, Marks willingly, consciously takes on the persona of his historical oppressorsthose who disregarded the humanity of blacks and Amerindiansand argues that it is now his duty to be similarly inhumane. The book, essentially, becomes a satire on how radical ideology replaces ethical judgment with moral rhetoric. Cyrus Marks claims to do good and therefore would have Snowden disregard the evidence of his eyes and believe what he is told.

Perhaps more compellingly, Lester threatens to kill an abusive father right in front of Snowden, saying, "Our people can't afford another generation of males raised by wolves to drag us down" (114). Then Lester kills the abusive man, whose name is Baron Anderson. I cannot argue that the child deserved a better parent than the forementioned wolf, Mr. Anderson; certainly, Baron Anderson deserved to lose custody of his son. However, upon his father's death, the boy is immediately turned over to Horizon's Youth Development Program, founded and controlled by one Cyrus Marks. The child's old father was an abuser, but his new one is a killer-by-proxy. He seems to have incurred the worser of two evils.

Evil: The evil that ideologies sponsor is the dominant theme of Hunting in Harlem. Whereas in the Killens book, ideological commitment released from the slightest ambivalence is portrayed as virtuous, in Johnson ideology functions as a malignant strain of insanity. After he uncovers the entirety of the Horizon plot, Snowden thinks to himself, "They were all mad, the men of Horizon, even the best of them" (139).

Not only madness but evildoing comes from their ideological commitments. The killing of Piper Goines forms the nadir of their ambition.

Piper:

She appears initially as the mutual love interest of the three ex-cons, Snowden, Bobby Finley, and the burly sociopath Horus Manley. She is basically a sexpot for the first half of the book, as she passes from Snowden's bed to Bobby's. It is only in her continuing relationship with Bobby that Piper's full character becomes expounded: she is the young, rising news reporter at the old, decaying New Holland Herald, Harlem's oldest and increasingly most incompetent daily. They are both literary typesBobby is a nascent writer of multiple novelsand the fact that Piper is the only person who understands the genius underlaying his work helps him to overcome the knowledge that she "was Snowden's whore" (173).

Piper recognized the sorrow at the core of all living, the unexpected blessings that resonated because of it. . . . Piper kept reading because she couldn't bring herself not to, out of control and hell yes resenting that, but her only defensive action was to read faster (252).

This quote references the second book of his which she reads, entitled The Orphean Daze. Though her reaction to it is roughly the same as her reaction to the first bookessentially, that Bobby possesses an unrecognized geniusthis second reading inspires Piper to her own zealous act in service of her literary passion: she delves into the mystery of the deaths in the Horizon buildings.

Earlier in the book, Piper commented to Snowden that she vehemently disliked Cyrus Marks. " 'It's like he's implying it's some bourgeois Manifest Destiny, like Harlem is just weeding itself to make room for the moneyed fucks to come steal it away for themselves' " (151). Those "moneyed fucks," insensible to the needs of the less fortunate, are epitomized by Piper's sister and her husband.

For this corporate couple, Piper has a mixture of envious and contemptuous thoughts: "[A]s bankrupt as their value system was, it would never force them to accept its insolvency," (77) she thinks. Her posh Horizon brownstone is compromised by her slovenly personal habits, clothes scattered across the floor, boxes of take-out strewn about like a college kid. By contrast, Dee and Brian live in a house that is "a museum of all the class accoutrements they'd collected..." (75).

"For fun they bought things and went to foreign resorts that called themselves 'spas', hung out with other finance men and their creative wives" (77). Piper seems to organize her life in exact contradiction to her sister; she lives off her own salary, remains unmarried and casts her lot with Harlem's archetypal newspaper. She lives in service of journalism, displaying exemplary courage in her perilous research of the Horizon accident-deaths. 

She exhibits the greatest integrity by remaining unswayed in her investigation when Marks offers to leverage the Herald's aged managing editor, Olthidius Cole, out of his position so that she can take the positionon the condition, of course, that she avert her investigative journalism to some other topic. Piper, instead, pursues her story.

She finds the Horizon files detailing the tenant-murders: " 'Based on the files I just read,' " she says to Snowden, " 'I'm eighty-five percent sure Lester Baines is some kind of mass-murdering vigilante maniac' " (261). Snowden, having found out what she is up to and in fear for her safety, attempts to persuade her not to go public with the information: " 'Imagine what this neighborhood would be like if all those animals were still around?' " (262) he argues.

Evidently, Snowden is no longer horrified by the madness of Cyrus Marks' and Lester Baines' final solution; as his argument suggests, now he seems to agree that the criminals of the ghetto must be eliminated by any means necessary, including criminality, before a better future can be attained. Piper, however, takes his argument as confirmation of her original suspicion, that the elimination of the old tenants and their replacement with young black professionals is a kind of bourgeois Manifest Destiny enacted by people indifferent enough to universal human worth to view murder in a good cause as nothing worse than a weeding process (151). Indeed, she is right.

She is also dead moments later, when Horus appears out of nowhere and throws her off the apartment roof ("Piper cleared the railing as smoothly as if she wanted to," Snowden observes [263]). Death, then, is the fate accorded those irreverent to the long-term good Horizon seeks to bring about. That they will leave a trail of undeserving, if not quite innocent, dead in their wake is simply a necessary evil.

Piper's death, which occurs in the third-to-last chapter of the novel, signals the death of rational skepticism in the story. Horizon is declared a success in Harlem. Snowden becomes its new chief spokesman. And the program expands its reach to black communities in Brooklyn, Newark, Pittsburgh's Hill District and Washington D.C. Observable facts, no matter how distressing, are disregarded in fealty to the aspirational.

This is the plot of the book. In the larger context, however, Johnson's critical satire of these black ideologues signals an intellectual progression from the days of Killens' clinched militancy. At the end of the book, Olthiduis Cole dies and his son takes over at the New Holland Herald. A student from NYU named Lucretia Yates sends in an application the writing sample to which argues the point that "this [is] a less sentimental group, secure enough for the harshest of self-criticism. They [are] the first generation of black leaders not formed by the struggle against a hostile white world. . . more likely to be focused on their own world's internal dilemmas" (282).

Yates' thesis seems very much to mimic Johnson's authorial position: the novel is essentially indifferent to white people, whether they be racist or well-meaning. Unlike The Cotillion, the central conflicts in Hunting in Harlem  have nothing to do with white people or white, or white-identified institutions. The Johnson novel is the product of a later period in history and is an evolved Harlem satire taking as its target of ridicule not the hostile white and white-identified world of Jack-and-Jill and Grand Cotillion balls, but black people in their own environs. The "internal dilemmas" of black folk are dramatized in Hunting in Harlem  through the interplay between Cyrus Marks' self-made institution, Horizon Realty, and the ex-cons (Snowden, Bobby, and Horus) and young professionals (like Piper) whom it lures to it.

The novels are separated by thirty-five years and limitless ideological space. Whereas Killens is firm in his ideology, Johnson has none except, perhaps, the belief in skepticism. Hunting in Harlem  occupies a kind of negative ideological space. It disowns ideology and the forward momentum of thought and action. In its place, the book leaves one with disillusionment, much as at the end of Invisible Man the narrator is left in a state of pain and emptiness (Ellison, Invisible Man, 569).

To best illustrate this rejection of hope, note the difference between the books' heroes. Ben Ali Lumumba is a hero through and through, and the narrative sentiment of The Cotillion rewards him with all the traditional trappings that a hero enjoys, a beautiful girl, fine robes and the attention of a vast readership (not to mention the amazed audience at the Cotillion ball).

Yoruba, too, is granted the charms of the classic heroine. Both are exalted figures whose actions lead to the successful Africanization of Harlem's black Cotillion. They are beautiful in their afros and dashikis. By contrast, Snowden is the central man in Hunting in Harlem, the main character.

Snowden, the anti-hero:

In the war satire Catch-22, the young soldier Snowden appears over and over in the memory of another character, but always in the same characteristic pose, lying prone and bleeding to death in the cockpit of their fighter plane. The new black Snowden occupies a similarly impotent position throughout the bulk of Hunting in Harlem: he, remember, is the one who disdains his father's militant legacy as an organizer and Black Liberation Army front man. Before the novel opens, he's done a bid for that man's patricide. So in Snowden, we have the embodiment of the death of black militant action and the emergence of the opposite of action: stasis.

Snowden was so determined to believe in nothing he'd made that a belief system in itself. The man was dedicated to no more than getting unharmed from one day to the next one. . . (Johnson, 146).

As the bodies pile and the murderous plot of Cyrus and Lester becomes clearer to him, Snowden is repelled but avoids the kind of confrontation that Piper heroically welcomes. He has frequent recourse to alcohol and his apartment closet. When Lester seeks him out for one of the many covert assignments, Snowden prepares by trying to drink himself into a stupor: "In disbelief and defiance, Snowden swallowed another double of the same, determined to make himself useless if no alternative presented itself" (179).

Actually refusing to participate in the work would place him in willful opposition to Marks and Lester and Snowden does not want that. While he is disgusted by the killings, he is even more disgusted by the possibility of his own death and will not do anything to hasten it. Caught between endorsing Horizon and rejecting it, he wanders, often drunkenly, through the space of the book. After witnessing Piper's death, he goes into seclusion in his apartment: "At first Snowden's inaction was out of shock and hysteria, but after a couple of naps his motivation for immobility had evolved into resistance and passive aggression" (222).

That he could come to view his inaction as a form of resistance is a radical re-interpretation of the methods of resistance when contrasted with the way that word would have been used in a black militant context. In that radical vocabulary, resistance could mean anything from a non-violent march, to a sit-in, to armed struggle in the streets. But Snowden's only sit-in is in his own apartment and at this point in the story he might be resisting the atrophy of his muscles as much as anything. Because he simply refuses to act, Snowden becomes the opposite of Ben Ali and Yoruba, an anti-hero.

Moreover, when he finally does determine to act, he sides against Piper and the better people in the novel. He carries out Cyrus Marks' grand plan by shooting the Harlem crack kingpin, Parson Boone. For this act, Snowden wins the informal competition between the three ex-cons. He becomes Horizon's newest lead spokesman. He is invested with a false sense of self-worth. The New Holland Herald characterizes him as "A swashbuckling figure in his public relations photos, a rags to riches story" (283). Apparently, their journalistic integrity has been sacrificed along with their lead reporter, Piper Goines, for the righteous cause that is Horizon Realty.

That an institution as inhuman and indifferent to humanity as Horizon could become the focal point of a city and the source of a man's personal renaissance is the disturbing note on which Hunting in Harlem ends. Snowden, in the final analysis, becomes the anti-hero twice over, first for his refusal to act, then for his determination to act in the service of a cause he knows to be morally bankrupt.

Whereas The Cotillion reads as a funny satire with a message of uplift for its black readers, this newer work is satire of a darker and more unfunny kind; it is nihilistic and despairing in tone. Its message, if there is one, is only that belief is false. Snowden observes before his metamorphosis into true-believer, "A dream was a drug. In a world without meaning, belief was an aphrodisiac" (86).

This can be read as an accurate articulation of the book's main idea. Mat Johnson's severe criticism of inner-city renewal efforts ends with the seeming conclusion that zealous belief is always problematic, and perhaps even outright terrible in its effects. In the world of his novel, which is one decisively released from final truths, the only real virtue is honesty, which, evidently, has the most terrible of consequences; conversely, lies sustain those who live by them.

Coda:

Between John Killens' outraged and ideologically committed satire and the disillusionment and despair of Mat Johnson's novel lie thirty-five years of evolution. The two writers offer vastly different visions of Harlem and in that essential difference they suggest the changes that Harlem, the site of their ruminations, has undergone between the 1960's and now. Their books map a movement from Black Power to intellectual severity and detachment. What Johnson's book lacks in outright funniness and creative spark (at least when compared to Killens' book) it makes up for in the rigor with which it investigates its characters and those characters' crazy ideas.

In one sense, I strongly favor a work like this, which forgoes the easier pleasures of ideological certainty in favor of the nihilistic void that lies beyond. I appreciate Johnson's unsparing candor and his ability to turn the mirror not only on the white power-elite, but on black people as well. On the other hand, I sympathize with the critic Irving Howe, who once wrote that politically uncommitted writing is a cop-out in an exploiting, murdering, dying capitalist nation: The Cotillion is a book that beyond its explosive humor serves purpose in the fight against this country's deepest cancers, particularly racism. 

The disconnect between Killens and Johnson is, finally, indicative of the tragic predicament by which a marginalized people are forced to choose between truth and power. Where ideology is utilized as the most brutal extension of our prejudices, a perfect literature, it would seem to me, would somehow combine an effective rhetoric for political dissent, an ideology, if you will, with the most unfettered honesty. That, I think, would be my utopian fantasy, that kind of freedom.

Keenan Norris has been published in the Santa Monica, Evansville and Green Mountains Reviews, as well as Rhapsoidia magazine, ChickenBones and other journals. His short stories were nominated for the Pushcart in 2004 and in 2005. The title piece of his short story collection "hap & hazard highland" will appear in Heyday Books' Inlandia, an anthology of Inland Empire literature, in November 2006. He is currently marketing the book-length collection (which also includes "fresno gone") to publishers. He teaches at College of Alameda and lives in Oakland, CA.

Call for Papers on Street Lit

The Takeover

Street Lit Subjects, Controversy, Commercial Phenomenon & Art

By Keenan Norris, Editor

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AALBC.com's 25 Best Selling Books


 

Fiction

#1 - Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark
#2 - Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree
#3 - Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane
#4 - Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper
#5 - Stackin' Paper 2 Genesis' Payback by Joy King
#6 - Thug Lovin' (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark
#7 - When I Get Where I'm Going by Cheryl Robinson
#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
#9 - The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 - Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 - Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 - Don't Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 - For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 - Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 - Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 - Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 - Stackin' Paper by Joy King

#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 - The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 - Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter

Non-fiction

#1 - Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
#2 - Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans
#3 - Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane
#4 - Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper
#5 - Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You're Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant
#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 - Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
#24 - 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism

By Keith Gilyard

“I congratulate Keith Gilyard for bringing to life, in the pages of this absorbing book, a figure of genuine importance who certainly deserves a full-scale biography.”—Arnold Rampersad, author of Ralph Ellison: A Biography

John Oliver Killens is a genius of the South, and Keith Gilyard has honored this youngblood, civil rights and union activist, novelist, dramatist, and screenwriter in a superb biography. Gilyard’s engaging written voice draws us into a dramatic and important life, and his deep commitment to the highest standards of research inspires our trust and admiration. John Oliver Killens ably documents and brings to life the yearnings and accomplishments of a major figure in our national literature.—Rudolph P. Byrd, Emory University

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.”

We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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Ratification

The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

By Pauline Maier

A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her book’s footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a convention’s decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maier’s accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents’ objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly).

Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state convention’s verdict affected another’s. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.—Booklist

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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posted 6 November 2005  /  updated 12 June 2008 

 

 

 

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