Not my idea, not really. Credit mostly belongs to a poet friend of mine.
We were discussing some independent movie by an unknown black director he had just seen at a special screening at his local art house. It would be cool, said The Poet, to be able to see more movies like that, movies by black writers and directors. Perhaps even see only movies like that, for some designated period of time.
"Sure," said I. "See only movies which reflect us and our experience."
"Only black movies," said The Poet. "Also, read only black books and magazines."
"And listen to black music," said I. "And get all your news from black newspapers and websites."
"For maybe a year," said The Poet.
"A year of black culture," said I, buzzing now. "Imagine the experience. Imagine how one's perspective might change and shift."
"Either that," said The Poet, "Or the effort would drive you insane."
Fear of insanity not being a deterrent, I decided to try. It would be a grand experiment, an attempt to immerse myself in the warm waters of blackness, to swim beyond the sight of whiteness land.
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.
I try to brace my spirits with a filmed version of one of my favorite plays, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. It is so Seventies bad, so painfully awkward, it takes the wind right of my sails. All I want is to curl up on the couch with Will & Grace.
February comes – Name a Negro Month – and momentum returns. One night I return home late and dispirited from trying to teach the beauty and emotional complexity of Gayl Jones to white grad students, and catch Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise on PBS. Does this count, I wonder? Is a program about the nation's failure to truly desegregate its public schools about black folks and black culture, or simply about America? Near the end of the program, a white woman is opposed to her town spending money on Boston's Metco program that buses a handful of black city kids to suburban white schools. She says, "Hey, I like diversity, but it's not the biggest issue in my life." Your blues ain't like mine.
A few days later, I attend an opening of a new exhibit at the Massachusetts State Archives called Fire and Thunder: Massachusetts Blacks in the Civil War. Very moving, especially when our newly-elected Gov. Deval Patrick shows up to speak. His hopefulness and optimism regarding America's progress on race is both convincing and moving. How he does it, I do not know.
The following night I watch, again on PBS, a special on the black chemist Percy Julian. I have never heard of him before. His story is both inspiring and sad. Afterwards I go to the computer and order a poster of him, along with posters of Malcolm, Baldwin, Douglass, Sojourner and Harriet. I have a sudden urge to hang them all along the upstairs hallway. When I do, my daughter asks, "Why are all these black people suddenly on the wall?"
February ends and I again lose momentum, this time for good. I have too much reading for the classes I teach, too much white reading because that is what curriculum demands. I contemplate teaching only first novels by black writers in my first novel class – I mean, Invisible Man? The Bluest Eye?Go Tell It On The Mountain? Hello? But I know the students, all white, will balk and I don't have the energy to power through. I can't keep my car radio tuned away from NPR. I miss gritting my teeth at The New York Times.
Which means what? Have I been indoctrinated beyond myself or just expanded? Educated or sold out? Outgrown small and confining definitions of blackness, or assimilated beyond the point of no return? Is resistance futile after all?
At the end of my Not-Quite-Quarter Year of Living Blackly, I was no more insane than before, but I was newly possessed. Possessed of an appreciation for how much better things are than when I was a young thing and the mass-media symbols of blackness I most recognized were Jimmy Walker and Huggy Bear. And possessed of an understanding of how critical it remains for us to tell our stories to our children, and to make sure those stories are heard.
Next year, I think I'll try again.
Kim McLarin is a regular contributor to The Root.