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The High and Low of Black Literature

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  • ravenadal
    ... Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards, given each year by the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation. The awards, now in their third year, honor the highest
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 1, 2004
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      > http://popmatters.com/columns/reynolds/041020.shtml
      > NEGRITUDE 2.0
      > The High and Low of Black Literature
      > by Mark Reynolds
      > One of the big events on the black literary calendar is the
      Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards, given each year by the Zora
      Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation.
      The awards, now in their third year, honor the highest
      achievements by black authors, as part of the foundation's
      mission to encourage young, black writing talent. They're
      especially significant because they're one of the few accolades
      that come from a black literary organization.
      This year's fiction winners were Mat Johnson's Hunting in
      Harlem (Bloomsbury, 2003) and, for debut fiction, Purple
      Hibiscus (Algonquin Books, 2003) by Nigerian
      author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Among the other nominees
      were Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks for her
      debut novel Getting Mother's Body (Random House, 2003), and
      Edward P. Jones for The Known World (Amistad, 2003).
      Nowhere on the list of Hurston/Wright Award nominees were any
      of the slim trade paperbacks with alluring faces and bodies
      poised for action of some sort or another on the cover. None of
      the nominees can routinely be found for sale on sidewalk tables,
      alongside other tables hawking knockoff jewelry and bootleg
      DVDs. Zane, Vickie Stringer, and Omar Tyree are not routinely
      mentioned in the same breath as any of the award winners. Yet
      it's probable that their names are better recognized in the 'hood.
      That's because they're part of a new landscape in black
      literature. This landscape is called urban fiction (or "hip-hop
      fiction"), and it has publishing companies salivating.
      Through word-of-mouth and the same entrepreneurial street
      hustle that fuels the dreams of countless aspiring rappers,
      people with stories to tell have found a way, thanks in large part
      to self-publishing, to reach readers who otherwise might not
      have cracked open a book for years. They've gone â€" again not
      unlike a lot of rappers from selling their wares from the trunks of
      their cars to major deals with publishers anxious to tap into new
      > Zane, who has become the leading name in urban erotica, got
      a breathless profile in the 22nd August Fashion & Style section
      of The New York Times. Stringer, whose resume includes a
      seven-year stint in the pen for money laundering and drug
      trafficking, not only began to publish other urban fiction authors,
      but has a two-book deal with a Simon & Schuster imprint. And
      Tyree, one of the veterans of this relatively young game, spun
      himself off: his latest effort, Cold Blooded (Simon & Schuster
      Paperbacks, 2004) is published under his pen name "The
      Urban Griot", and has a companion CD out on Hot Lava
      Entertainment; surely the straight-to-video DVD cannot be far
      All this is happening while Jones is becoming a star in
      American letters. The Known World (Amistad, May 2004), an
      intricately-woven saga of black slaveowners in the
      1800s, earned him not only the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the
      National Book Critics Circle Award, but a MacArthur Foundation
      "genius" grant. Yet Jones' achievement almost unfathomable for
      a first novel probably has gone unnoticed by the readers of Cold
      Blooded, a quickie tale of a young woman who falls in love with a
      hit man.
      That's because urban fiction has more to do with pulp fiction (the
      genre, not the movie) than high art. The stories are simple, and
      they're told simply. Love, sex, and violence are pretty much the
      major plot categories in these novels. There's no attempt to
      resolve complicated story lines a la The Known World, no
      interest in finding new stories to tell or new ways to tell the old
      ones. Plumbing the depths of the human condition, searching
      for some universal truths about mankind . . . urban fiction
      authors leave all that to somebody else. Urban fiction is pop
      entertainment for readers that are more comfortable with the
      easygoing concoctions of Terry McMillan than with the knottier
      works of Alice Walker or Ishmael Reed.
      Opinion is divided about the merits of urban fiction. Many
      booksellers and critics can't stand the stuff, belittling the
      amateurish prose of many of these books, even
      as they concede its ability to move product. Some folks think that
      by attracting new readers into bookstores, the market for more
      serious-minded efforts will eventually grow. I'm not prepared to
      buy that argument, if the current state of jazz is any indication.
      See, once upon a time in the early '70s there was fusion; the
      adventurous melding of rock and jazz as popularized by Miles
      Davis and his cohorts, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick
      Corea, John McLaughlin, and others. Fusion's rougher, more
      exploratory side gradually lost its hard edge as the decade
      progressed, giving rise to a funkier sound (think Grover
      Washington Jr. and the Brecker Brothers). That would
      get watered down even further, leading to the rise, if that's what
      you want to call it, of Kenny G and the advent of "smooth jazz".
      This genre, which in all honesty makes my blood hurt, consists
      of faintly uptempo grooves, pleasant solos, and nary a scent
      of the risk-taking that characterized fusion back in the day; not for
      nothing is it derisively known as "happy jazz". It's the perfectly
      inoffensive soundtrack to elevators, dinner receptions, and any
      other social gathering which calls for innocuous,
      unthreatening background sound that won't offend anyone
      (except me, of course).
      This strain of recorded sound has become hugely popular, to
      the point where even the lamest of these efforts will get airplay
      on commercial radio stations devoted the the form. Smooth jazz
      has grown so popular that it is, in effect, a separate genre
      from the "real" jazz that spawned it several degrees of
      separation ago. It's also eclipsed serious jazz in the broader
      marketplace, basically because it's an easier sell. It's closer in
      style and tone to other forms of pop music, and it's not
      something that requires any work or prior exposure to enjoy.
      Getting the most out of serious jazz asks the listener to pay
      some attention, know something about the history of the music,
      and remain open to what the players are trying to do on a
      particular piece. As with classical music, the audience for
      serious jazz is devoted, but not anywhere near
      the size of Kenny G's. You won't hear too many Miles Davis solos
      in dentist offices, and you certainly won't see many serious jazz
      CDs for sale, bootleg or legit, anywhere in the 'hood. (Most
      serious jazz nowadays is released on smaller labels that are
      hard to find outside of specialty stores or mega-stores, and both
      of those shopping experiences are in short supply in American
      inner cities but that's another subject).
      Once upon a time, it was the hope that smooth jazz listeners
      would eventually find their way to the higher life forms of the
      genre as if by osmosis, I suppose, unless there was something
      to spark some curiosity to dig further. But smooth jazz has
      > grown, in terms of mass appeal, to the level that a fan can
      become totally awash in the stuff, blissfully unaware of modern
      masters like David Murray and Andrew Hill, not to mention the
      likes of Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk. (The record industry
      plays a part in this as well, but that's yet another story.)
      What's happening now in black literature is similar to the
      smooth jazz/serious jazz dichotomy. Readers of the books feted
      by the Hurston/Wright Foundation aren't going to be interested in
      the quickie ghetto tales of Tyree and company. Stringer's
      audience isn't likely to gravitate to Jones' work, let alone
      Hurston's or Wright's, strictly from reading Stringer's books. This
      is not to say that urban fiction has no literary merit, or
      that serious literature cannot speak to masses of people. Nor is
      it to demean those who might not know that headier stuff is out
      there, or those who may know but don't care: people have the
      right to like whatever they choose to like. Rather, this is yet
      > another example of how, in America, and that includes black
      America, art and entertainment seldom meet.
      This phenomenon is well-documented throughout our mass
      culture: Madonna outsells Bob Dylan (at least, she used to); big-
      budget shoot-'em-ups do way more box office per screen than
      Woody Allen's quirky ensemble pieces, and so on. But this
      > might be news to those who think that since we make such a
      big deal of Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison and other such
      titans during Black History Month, since we make such a point of
      honoring music legends from Duke Ellington to Donny
      Hathaway, black people must obviously love and support the
      arts. Think again. It's not that we don't appreciate the arts when
      we have the chance, it's just that we actually get those
      > chances less and less frequently.
      > Support for artists and cultural endeavors has always been
      tenuous at best in black America, but now it's worse than ever.
      Black heritage museums in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit and
      elsewhere are, for various reasons (including poor
      management, but usually boiling down to a lack of patronage) in
      dire straits. Many black theater companies are struggling, and
      the venerable Dance Theatre of Harlem suspended its
      > current season before it began in earnest. Harlem's Hue-Man
      Bookstore is the rare exception of a thriving house of letters in
      the 'hood; throughout the summer, Washington, DC's
      Sisterspace & Books has been fighting a major rent hike to stay
      > open. Coverage of culture in black media is all but nonexistent,
      save for blockbuster events and Black History Month.
      > Not at all unlike the rest of America, black folk may not
      patronize serious art, but they'll shell out bucks for good
      entertainment. The Broadway audience for August
      > Wilson's newest installment in his chronicle of the 20th century
      black American experience, Gem of the Ocean, will be
      considerably less black than the one at whichever touring black
      indie theater production next rolls through town. These
      > melodramas, full of outsized characters and performances
      based on familiar archetypes, make no pretenses towards
      higher ambitions, just as urban fiction authors aren't trying to
      pick up where Ellison left off. But the audiences love these
      > plays, they enjoy seeing the B-list TV stars and recording
      artists who pick up a check doing these shows, and they have
      no idea August Wilson has a new play on the boards.
      > If you know of a way to guide even a sliver of the black
      entertainment audience into the black arts scene, please contact
      a black artist or arts institution immediately. Maybe someone
      could sell Alice Coltrane's new CD Translinear Light (Impulse)
      next to the latest batch of hip-hop mixtapes. Maybe Jones could
      put a barechested young stud or scantily clad hottie on the cover
      of his next book. Or maybe an urban fiction fan might be
      intrigued by Eddie B. Allen Jr's new biography Low Road: The
      Life and Legacy of Donald Goines (St. Martin's Press). Goines
      was to urban fiction what the Last Poets were to rap: godfather to
      a movement that emerged long after his heyday.
      > Goines, a one-time drug addict and criminal, found his voice
      by translating his harsh experiences into novels that continue to
      sell 30 years after he was murdered. His tales of the ghetto
      underlife crackle with a resonance today's urban fiction writers
      > can only hope to emulate. Low Road is the first biography to
      tackle Goines' journey from anonymous junkie to acclaimed
      author, and to make the case for his importance
      > in black American literature.
      > Low Road could well turn out to be a more viable bridge from
      urban fiction to the richer pleasures of black literature than The
      Known World. Goines' characters, indeed his life story, hew
      infinitely closer to the urban fiction milieu than Jones' slaves and
      > slaveowners. And Goines' tale might lead a reader to other
      author biographies, or in another direction entirely: perhaps
      towards crime stories by Walter Mosley or Chester
      > Himes, perhaps towards other novels of Goines' era like Toni
      Morrison's Sula (1971), maybe even Claude Brown's classic
      Manchild in the Promised Land (Macmillan, 1965).
      > Granted, all that may seem like a gigantic leap of faith, a
      temporary setting aside of the practical to imagine the possible.
      But isn't that the essence of art?
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