American culture is black culture, of course. The music, the language, the food, the literature, the very definition of what it means to be American – all of it is shot straight through with us. Try to remove the African presence from the house that is America and the whole thing collapses upon itself. Ask Toni Morrison. And yet those contributions are still too often marginalized or minimized, or gotten just plain wrong, even when told through well-intentioned voices. Anyone but me roll their eyes through the movie Hairspray? What’s up with the equation of black struggle with physical stoutness? Why did the white girl have to tell the black folks to stand up for themselves? And why or why were all the black kids spending their school days dancing in detention? Shouldn’t somebody protest that?
No, the great writer John Oliver Killens was right when he insisted on the revolutionary power of writing, and the need for people of color to tell their own stories. And to read them and watch them and hear them, too.
Sometimes a body needs a break from the dominant description of things.
Two days into my experiment and I come home to find The New Yorker in the mail. My first thought: well, guess I have to give that up. My second thought: Huh, that’s interesting.
I mean, The New Yorker? Half the time I can’t even stand it. Half the time the latest white-boy navel-gazing issue goes right in the trash. Why would I even consider that a giving-up instead of a clearing away? A making of space for something else? Hegemony anyone?
Books are easy. I have my own stash, plus the Boston public library is incredibly helpful. Weeks before, when visiting an unfamiliar branch, I’d asked the white librarian at the desk for directions to the fiction stacks. She kindly pointed them out, then added, unprompted, “All the African-American books are marked with a little red sticker.” At the time I was looking for Doris Lessing – but hey. It’s always good to mark the black books so folks can find them. Or not.
Movies are better than I might have thought. Among the choices I would never ordinarily make: Norbit, Code Name: The Cleaner and Stomp the Yard. Among the choices that I would: Dreamgirls, The Last King of Scotland, The Pursuit of Happyness. Blood Diamond is still around but I decide it does not count. God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan is likewise lurking next door to Boston, in the People’s Republic of Cambridge, but I lack the spirit to go.
Even among the best of these, how many of them are really “black films?” How honestly do they reflect some aspect of black experience, or not? And to what extent are they the result of black creative forces behind the camera and behind the desk, as opposed to just the faces out front?
These are questions I do not ask myself, not yet. It is enough to sit in the dark and stare up at some pretty brown faces on the screen. Television is fleeting. Teaching late and parenting later keeps me from the tube until 9:30 or ten, and none of the shows I usually find to fill that hour before bed manage to meet my requirements. They fail even when I, in a fit of weakness, amend it from “must be black-created, inspired or produced” (also good, which eliminated Grey’s Anatomy) to “must feature a cast that is at least 25 percent black, in regular, reasonable, non side-kicky, non-Magic Negro roles. Goodbye Boston Legal. Kiss, kiss, to the guilty pleasure of Nip/Tuck. Instead I catch Girlfriends and The Game and go to bed.
After a few weeks of this it occurs to me to make use of my college library. In the video collection I find a wonderful documentary about James Baldwin called The Price of the Ticket. Inspired, I return for one called I’ll Make Me a World – also good, but long. Eyes on the Prize after that – wonderful but depressing; By the time the Movement crawls, bloodied and battered to 1961, I can’t take anymore.