Tag Archives: African-American

Black short fiction, 1899-1967

A book of 46 stories by as many authors is pretty certain to be uneven. Originally published in 1967 as The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers and retitled The Best Short Stories by Black Writers: The Classic Anthology from 1899-1967 includes some particularly good stories (some of them close to being parables) by more than a Who’s Who of African American writers active before the mid-1960s. It is easier to mention who is conspicuous by their absence than whose work editor Langston Hughes sampled: Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, and Bruce Nugent — the latter two part of the Harlem Renaissance faction whose poet Hughes was. Not that any of those three produced many short stories, but Hughes detached stories from novels by some other writers (including “Fern” from Jean Toomer’s Cane, a highly regarded classic by which I am underwhelmed.

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I also would have chosen different stories by Harlem Renaissance writers Arna Bontemps, Rudolph Fisher, Zora Neale Hurston, and Eric Walrond. Nonetheless, the choice of a story by Hughes himself (“Thank you, ma’me”) is excellent, and there are good representative stories by the two authors of contenders for the title Great African American Novel Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison (“Almos’ a man” from Eight Men and “Flying Home,” respectively), one that much later became the title piece in the collection of short fiction and nonfiction pieces by the youngest Harlem Renaissance writer, Dorothy West (The Richer, the Poorer) and a pointedly ironic story about political machines and getting ahead by Paul Laurence Dunbar from around the turn of the 20th century (The scapegoat). The earliest one by Charles W. Chestnutt (The sheriff’s children) is at least pretty good.

I particularly liked two stories by authors of whom I had not previous heard: Ted Poston (Revolt of the evil fairies) and Cyrus Colter (The beach umbrella). About half the stories are by writers who must have appeared promising around 1965 but whose promise was not fulfilled.

I was underwhelmed by the two longest stories in the volume, both written by celebrated authors: James Baldwin (This morning, this evening, so soon) and Ernest J. Gaines (A long day in November) and one of the weakest of the many stories written by Chester Himes (Marihuana and a pistol).

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I was also disappointed by Hughes’s brief (5-page) and bland introduction, which does little more than say that black writing talent is abundant but support was and is not, particularly from Hollywood. My rating is brought down by the superficial introduction more than by the dubious choices of some now-forgotten authors and of the stories by some authors with whose work I am familiar. There are, nonetheless, a number of interesting stories (tastes will differ on which ones, I realize). The book has some interest as a historical artifact (not least as a survey of African American writers who were little-celebrated than and are forgotten now.)

The bio-blurbs at the back are helpful, but it is annoying that it is impossible to tell when most of the stories were first published (let alone written) and that there is no discernible order to the copyright notice listing of stories.

©2008, Stephen O. Murray

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Dorothy West’s belated The Wedding

Ralph Ellison’s attempt to “top” his much-heralded masterpiece Invisible Man was the most long-awaited African American novel, one that was never achieved, though some of the sprawling manuscript was posthumously published as Juneteenth.

The pressures on Dorothy West (1907-1998) were less intense. A few years before Invisible Man, she had published a well-reviewed novel (The Living Is Easy, 1948). She was, however, primarily a short-story writer, not a novelist, and not expected by anyone to grab for the brass ring of writing The Great American Novel.

Still, this woman who, having been the youngest of the Harlem Renaissance’s “niggerati” faction, had become the last survivor was known to have long been working on a multi-generation novel. The project was brought to fruition by a New York acquisition editor by the name of Jaqueline Kennedy Onnasis (to whose memory the book was dedicated when it was published in 1995). During the summers of 1992-94, “Jackie” worked with West on organizing the book on weekly visits to Martha’s Vineyard, where the novel is (mostly) set, and where West had moved in 1947.

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Confronted with a six-generation genealogical chart on the first page (a welcome one to which I turned many times in reading the novel!), I wondered how such a large cast of characters could be encompassed in a not particularly bulky volume. I mean, did the whole shelf of Faulkner novels encompass six generations?

Compared to Faulkner, West was short-winded. Her old-fashioned sentences sometimes bring Faulkner to mind, and I could imagine Faulkner expanding each of the chapters set in the 1855-1920 span in the South into full-length novels. He wrote great short stories, too, but wove his characters into a narrative far better than West.

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In The Wedding, the burdens of the past are being slogged around on the day before a wedding taking place in August 1953 in a black bourgeoisie enclave on Cape Cod called “the Oval.” The bride-to-be, Shelby Coles, is from the most prominent family within the black bourgeoisie able to summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and is wedding (of all things) a white jazz musician, instead of a light-skinned African American professional with proper family and income. She, “who could have had her pick of the best of breed in her own race,” is marrying “a nameless, faceless white man who wrote jazz.”

Skin shade is exceptionally prominent in the book and likely to strike many readers (and Shelby’s sister, Liz, who eloped and married a dark-skinned husband, producing children too dark for their grandmother to want to touch) as black self-hatred. “Black is beautiful” was a pronouncement still a decade and a half in the future, though I suspect that this obsession is more 1920s than 1950s—the era of Nella Larsen and Jean Toomer rather than that of Richard Wright (whose career West had helped launch) and James Baldwin.

Also, for those familiar with the 1920s battles between the “niggerati” writers who were West’s friends (Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes) and the political correct demands of W. E. B. DuBois to portray the “talented tenth,” there is considerable irony in West’s focus on the Negro establishment rather than the struggling, downtrodden folk about whom her Harlem Renaissance friends wrote. I don’t know that she changed sides, but the families she wrote about were definitely among the strivers rather than those who felt hopeless (the physician with a Harvard degree and a Harlem practice, even lived on what was popularly called “Striver’s Row”).

There is a present-day (that is, 1953) plot that is more than a little contrived, involving a confident would-be seducer of Shelby, and race and pigmentation positions of Liz and of their grandmother are exhaustively covered in the novel.

I found the soap opera attempts to dissuade Shelby from going through with the wedding less interesting than the chapters involving earlier generations (in the South, in Harlem, and on Martha’s Vineyard).

The male characters are not very well-developed, and I’d like to have learned what happened to several of the forebearers. The dialogue is often stilted and programmatic, too (the class and pigmentation programs of the characters). Moreover, the novel is difficult to get into and has a too-pat (double-barreled) ending. Still, there was much of interest about the upward path of Shelby’s ancestors and I was not sorry that I made the effort to stay with the book. (In contrast, I did not feel that Cane, my original choice for a Black History Month review, was worth the effort. My second choice, Claude McKay’s Banjo did not require much effort, but was also disappointing: Claude McKay all too aptly subtitled it “a story without a plot.” Portraying schemers and ne’re-do-wells, it was taken as an exemplar and validation for the “niggerati” writing about non-elite Negros.)

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There was a 1998 Oprah Winfrey-sponsored miniseries based on The Wedding, starring Hale Berry as Shelby and Lynn Whitfield as her mother (and Shirley Knight as her white grandmother, not exactly the frail ancient of the book!),. It was not critically or commercially successful.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Fictions of Nella Larsen

I have read a lot of Harlem Renaissance literature. I had not read the work of Nella Larsen (1891-1964), who like Claude McKay was a decade older than the “niggerati” writers, because I thought that she was an exemplar of the more genteel “talented tenth” literature. I confused her with Jesse Fauset, though I was not completely wrong. In Larsen’s autobiographical first novel, Quicksand (published in 1928 at the urgings of “Negrotarian” Carl Van Vechten) there is a discussion between the heroine, Helga Crane, and the man she loves about the low fertility of educated Negroes in contrast to the high fertility of the black masses. The main characters in both her novels move within the black bourgeoisie in Harlem, and have a surface gentility… But beneath that surface, passions roil.

The short story “The Wrong Man” (1926) features a married woman seeing a former lover at a party, and going to a summerhouse on the property to plead with him not to reveal their past. I think it is Larsen’s most perfect work (though she regarded it as “hackwork”). The male stream of consciousness story “Freedom” (also from 1926) does not impress me.

Although there is much of interest in the peregrinations of Hazel in Quicksand, I don’t find her last stop convincing. Like Larsen, Helga fled a Southern black college (Fisk), had a Danish mother, spent some time as an exotic flower in Denmark, and lost the man she most wanted (she also spurned a prime catch in Copenhagen, to the disappointment of her aunt and uncle there).

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The more fully realized of her published novels (apparently, she wrote three more with all-white casts that were no published and are now lost) is Passing (1929). The narrator is a light-skinned South Side of Chicago mulatta, Irene Redfield, who runs into Clare Kendry, a childhood acquaintance who left the “hood” and is passing as white, married to an outspoken racist.

Irene says: “It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same tiem dondone it. It exceites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away form it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.” Shopping downtown, she shows a willingness not to embrace stigma, and passes. (I know how exhausting it is to correct assumptions, and from Erving Goffman’s Stigma, I also know that everyone is either discredited or discreditable, at least in their own eyes…)

The scene moves to New York City. Irene is married to a black physician who wants to move to the more racially equitable land of Brazil, but instead supports Irene in the manner to which she has become accustomed. Clare starts coming around, slumming at a Harlem ball (with a character who resembles Van Vechten), and interesting Dr. Redfield to Irene’s dismay and mounting suspicion. Some read lesbian undercurrents into the mutual fascination of the two women with the lives the other leads, one in an affluent white milieu, the other in the Harlem professional aristocracy. And how literally one causes the other to die is very open to interpretation.

Larsen lost her husband (the second African American to earn a Ph.D. in physics, who took up a position at Fisk, the very college from which Larsen had fled or been expelled years earlier) to a white woman rather than a passing-as-white one and the anguish about losing the economic support of a husband is presumably autobiographical. (Larsen lived on alimony until her ex-husband died in 1941, then worked as a nurse, writing nothing more.)

The DuBois (anti-nig-gerati and outraged by Van Vechten and the Harlem vogue) embrace of Larsen for portraying well-off Negroes seems ironic, given how dissatisfied Larsen’s heroines were with the black bourgeoisie. Hazel, Irene, Clare, none is a model of uplifting the race: Hazel and Clare flee its constraints, though both live an approach-avoidance pattern. And Irene’s smugness is far from admirable.

Van Vechten got Larsen and Langston Hughes published by Knopf, and Larsen dedicated Passing to him (and took some lines form Hughes to place before Quicksand). She was of his “tell it like it is” (“sensationalizing”) branch, even if she wrote about a “better class” of Negroes (not to mention the dilution of their “black blood,” a conception she did not reify in the Faulkner manner).

Novels about women’s concerns and romances are often dismissed as “soap operas” (in invidious contrast with works focused on male concerns and actions). Hazel Carby asserts that Quicksand provided “the first explicitly sexual black heroine in black women’s fiction. There is nothing remotely sexually graphic, but there is female sexual agency (whether there is in Zora Neale Hurston’s character Janie in her 1937 post-Renaissance (and post-Harlem) Their Eyes Are Watching God, is a matter of debate, but that it was later is not). And Passing is sometimes classified as a “murder mystery.

Larsen’s final published fiction, the short story, “Sanctuary” (1930), was, very untypically for her, set in the Deep South among racially solidarity-exemplifying black characters. I think it is a solid story and the author whom Larsen was accused of plagiarizing, Sheila Kaye-Smith, had based her story on one recorded centuries earlier by (Saint ) François de Sales. Accusations of plagiarism did not prevent Larsen getting a Guggenheim grant to return to Europe (southern rather than northern) but seem to have shaken her self-confidence (along with her losing her grip on her husband). Though she lived until 1964, she published no more, slipping into obscurity (to the literary world) even more than the most famous Black Renaissance writer, Zora Neale Hurston. (And the youngest, Dorothy West, published her first novel, The Living Is Easy, in 1948, her second, The Wedding, in 1995.)

Larsen’s Complete Fiction includes a very informative introduction by its editor, Charles R. Larson that includes the reader report recommending not publishing Mirage, the novel with an all-white cast (triangle) she wrote on her Guggenheim grant. The Knopf referee wrote that “the husband is the chief defect of the novel because of the passive and shadowy characterization,” a defect I also find in the two published novels.

 

©2011, Stephen O. Murray

 

Rudolph Fisher’s Walls of Jericho

Although my interest flagged in the middle (with long pedantic explanations of the forensic applications of medical knowledge), I finished Rudolf Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies, the first African American mystery novel, originally published in 1932, and much celebrated by Walter Mosley, the most successful African American writer of mystery novels.

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I was impressed by the section of Rudolph Fisher’s (1928) novel The Walls of Jericho in The Portable Harlem Renaissance, and picked up a remaindered hardcover copy (University of Michigan, 1992). I don’t know to what extent Fisher was stung by W. E. B. Du Bois’s complaint about Walls that Fisher didn’t write about black professionals like himself. Fisher was a member in good standing (contributor to Fire!) of the niggerati faction writing about what Du Bois termed “the debauched tenth.” The protagonists of Conjure-Man are drawn instead from DuBois’s much-touted “talented tenth,” including a physician (like Fisher himself), a policeman who is the only black who has risen to the rank of detective, and an African prince with a princely sense of noblesse oblige. And an important part is played by a mortician, a kind of professional.

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The main lower-status participants, who liven things up with a running game of the dozens, are not debauched, and the “conjure man” turns out to be not paranoid, not a murderer, and not preying on the poor. If he is an infusion of mumbo-jumbo direct from Africa, he is extremely sophisticated, possessing much knowledge about medicine, electronic, and, most importantly, human nature. Like Du Bois, he is a Harvard graduate.

There’s not a lot of “local color,” though there are a series of Harlem types (there are no white characters in the book). The novel has a typically convoluted mystery plot. As it turns out that Frimbo’s lack of interest in women is only apparent, not real, my main interest in the book is as one that focused on the responsibility of “the talented tenth” for the rest, while bringing some of the lively quotidian reality (including numbers running and other forms of gambling) of Harlem to the page without condescension (I can’t say without sensationalism, but isn’t that a genre convention for books focused on solving murders?). And if Frimbo is “primitivism,” it is of a kind of which Du Bois must have approved. (I have no idea if he commented on the book.)

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

I wonder if teenagers who are assigned to read Ralph Ellison’s (1952) Invisible Man or who pick it up on their own (as I did when I was a teenager) have the experience necessary to “get it.” There is the exhilarating language, which I know I appreciated when I first read the book long ago, and enough happens to keep the pages turning… And even on rereading I remain unsure what happened at the end of the narrator’s employment at the paint factory, so longer life experience does not make everything in the book clear…

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Besides being certified (immediately) as one of the greatest 20th-century American novel (it received a National Book Award and has appeared high on every list of the canon of 20th-century literature written in English), Invisible Man is a particularly good choice as an object of contemplation for Black History Month, because it was a historical novel even when Ellison began to write it, during World War II. I don’t mean to say that it fails to deal with timeless themes of alienation, self discovery, discovery of the duplicity of others, racisms (black and white), etc. But the events in the novel occur before World War II and the multiple social effects on the United States and, especially, on its South related to the mobilization to fight fascism(s). The particular forms of racism portrayed in the book are hard to imagine occurring now. Moreover, the fall of Soviet communism has made the sustained portrayal of the American Communist Party (“the Brotherhood” in the novel) and its zigzag lurches following changes in policies and alliances commanded by Stalin’s politburo a matter of historical interest, whereas American communists dabbling with encouraging and discouraging black rage was a “current event” when Ellison was writing the book.

During the 1930s (the era of the Harlem portion of Invisible Man), no group other than the communists was pressing for equal rights for what were then politely known as “colored people” (as in the name NAACP). “Equal rights” is an overstatement of what the CPUSA was pressing. Before anything like equal access to public accommodations, efforts were made to enact anti-lynching laws and end kangaroo court proceedings against colored defendants. A major cause célèbre was the mockery of a trial of the “Scottsboro boys” for alleged rape of white prostitutes.

In the North, the avant-garde of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” sought to include Negroes (as they were increasingly frequently called) in nonmenial jobs, often in the face of bitter opposition from white unionized workers. The issue the never-named narrator of Invisible Man happens upon is eviction of aged Negroes from white-owned Harlem tenements. It is an ad hoc speech by the narrator (henceforth designated as Y) that attracts the attention of a communist official looking for Harlem organizers. The narrator is groomed for leadership, but when he takes initiative is slapped down (subjected to “party discipline”), told that he was not hired to think and put in his inferior place, just as he was for trying to please patronizing whites in the South (first in being added to the blindfolded “boxing” mêlée staged for businessmen of his native town, then in showing a Northern patron of the thinly fictionalized Tuskeegee Institute some of the underbelly of Southern black life).

Presumably at start of the Popular Front era (though possibly as late as the notorious Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact), Y is supposed to channel the rage he has been mobilizing away from racial issues to neighborhood beautification (prefiguring Giuliani?). Those whom Y has helped to stir up turn to his black nationalist enemy, Ras, in a race riot. The immediate historical point here, is that in such riots, imaginary or momentary gains, including looting, were followed by real losses, including the loss of homes and personal property of those in the tenements set afire. The wider historical point is that the CPUSA was not committed to equal rights for Negroes (or, for that matter, for the “universal class,” the proletariat) but used and dropped mobilization of black disaffections as they suited Stalin’s jockeying for position in the world.

Everyone whom Y trusts, even conditionally, uses and betrays him, including his role model, Dr. Bledsoe who has succeeded The Founder (Booker T. Washington) at Tuskeegee, and his “brothers” (Clifton, who is black, and Jack, the one-eyed white brother who is the local commissar and more equal than others). Well, not quite everyone: there is the maternal Harlem landlady who shelters Y after his industrial adventures and the elderly “brother” who entrusts the shackle from his chain gang days. Still, betrayal and abuse comes from blacks as well as whites, until the Candide-like Y tumbles down a hole and makes it his home there. Like his forerunner, Dosteovesky’s The Man Who Lived Underground who deliberately collides with others in the street, Y continues to have near-violent collisions above ground (in the novel’s prologue).

There is considerable latitude for interpreting how much of Y’s alienation comes from his experiences of racism in America, how much from the experiences of an initially trusting (and almost unbelievably naive) youth in the harsh world of postagrarian anomie, how much is the existential condition of human beings. In addition to Dosteovesky’s underground man, Richard Wright, who encouraged Ellison’s vocation as a writer, had published a novella “The Man Who Lived Underground” in 1944… and existentialism was very much in vogue in Francophile American literary circles after the Second World War.

Wright had also written about communism as a “God that failed” black liberation (and Wright) in the second half of the memoir he completed in 1943, a much-edited version of which what was published in 1944 as Black Boy (and not published as he wrote it until 1977, as American Hunger), “I Tried to be a Communist” (1944), etc. Chester Himes (who was encouraged by Wright and by Ellison) sketched the duplicity of Communist championing of black workers in If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1945) and made it central in his 1948 novel The Lonely Crusade.

Invisible Man is a peak in a chain of novels about black alienation from its communist would-be tutors in the science of history (the functionaries who believe that “the trick is to take advantage of them [the masses] in their own interest”). Invisible Man is not an isolated outcropping, rising from a plain (like Mount Lassen or Devil’s Tower). Similarly, it is the highest peak in a chain of novels about the absurdities faced by black males trying to survive amidst the fantasies and fears of black virility that haunt many white men and women (including the businessmen watching the Battle Royale and the drunken white woman who wants to be violently taken by Y) and to survive the complex strategies of black entrepreneurs like Dr. Bledsoe and Rinehart to get and stay ahead, often by exploiting other blacks.

Invisible Man is a long book (568+xx pages in the Vintage edition), and there is a lot going on in it. I suspect that I understood little of the political context when I read the book as a high school student, and I had not read related work by Wright and Himes.

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There is much to admire in Ellison’s creation of characters and milieux and in his often exhilarating language and shifting style. (Ellison himself characterized it as moving from naturalism (à la Richard Wright) to expressionism to surrealism — though the Battle Royale seems already quite surrealist/absurdist to me.) I don’t question that it is a great book, but great books (e.g., Moby Dick, The Charterhouse of Parma) are often not perfectly crafted books. I’ve already suggested that Y is a little too naive to have survived to junior year in college, so that there is some sense in Dr. Bledsoe’s shock and irritation at having to tell Y

You let the white folk worry about pride and dignity—you learn where you are and get yourself power, influence, contacts with powerful and influential people—then stay in the dark and use it.,,, Play the game but don’t believe in it—that much you owe yourself.

Ther novel contains too many long speeches (in particular, I’d cut the blind speaker at a Founder’s Day assembly) and Y seems to lack any sexual desire of any sort. Defining himself as “invisible” seems a dead end (although many is the life that goes into a dead end), and Ellison himself seems not to have known where to go after Y embraces his condition (which he considers externally imposed, but which has to be to some extent a choice as existence becomes essence).

In focusing on the political context of communist Negro-mobilizing, what I’ve written gives little indication of the pleasures of the text. I think that rather a lot of the book is intended as satire, like much in the fiction of Chester Himes (and not nearly enough in the fiction of James Baldwin…) and in Soviet writers in the Bulgakov tradition. For a work of High Modernism, Invisible Man is more fun to read than might be imagined from what I (or many others) have written about it.

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After the acclaim for Invisible Man

There was a successor “Work in Progress” that was overdue before the grandchildren of Ras (black nationalists of the 1960s) attacked Ellison. I have my doubts of how finished a project the manuscript that was lost in a fire was. Ellison only somewhat pulled together the strands of Invisible Man, and it’s easy to extrapolate that he would have had problems bringing together the strands of a more epic project than the story of one disillusioned Southern black boy gone north to new confusions. Ellison worked on it for forty years (he died in 1994). Part of it was assembled posthumously by John F. Callahan as Juneteenth and there is also a posthumous collection of interesting and mostly accomplished short fiction written between 1937 and 1954, Flying Home and Other Stories and the collection of pithy essays Ellison published, Shadow and Act (incorporated into the Modern Library’s Collected Essays). Still, Ellison was something of a “one-hit wonder,” like Lorraine Hansberry and Eric Waldron.

©2003, Stephen O. Murray