IIn 2018, two other novelists and I were being driven back from a reception in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, to our hotel in downtown Detroit, when we saw a black man being arrested on the side of the road. The driver of our car, a white woman who had spent the first part of the trip ranting about how Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, had ruined the city, looked at the lone black man surrounded by police officers with their guns in hand and He said, “It’s good that they have so many on him. You never know what they will do. “
Two years before, I had published my first novel, Homecoming, a book that deals with, among other things, the beyond of the transatlantic slave trade. The book pushed me into a kind of recognition that is rare for fiction writers. I was on late night shows and photographed for fashion magazines. I did countless interviews, very little writing. Most of my working life was spent touring the country giving various readings and lectures. I spent about 180 days of 2017 at an event or traveling to or from one. By the time that Michigan car trip came around, I was exhausted, not just from the ride, but from something that’s harder to articulate – the black spotlight dissonance, of being revered in one way and vilified in another, a revulsion. which makes clear the emptiness of reverence.
The next morning, I delivered my speech to a room full of people who had gathered for a library fundraiser, a speech where I insisted, like many black writers, artists, and scholars before me, that America has not been able to deal with the legacy of slavery. This failure is evident all around us, from our prisons to our schools, our health care, our food and waterways. I gave my lecture. I accepted the applause and thanks, and then got into another car. It was a different driver, but it was the same world.
I was thinking about that driver’s words again last summer when news came in about the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. I was thinking about the way that white people, to justify their own grotesque violence, often engage in a kind of fiction, a completely insidious denial that creates the reality they claim to protest. By what I mean, the unwillingness to see the violence that is actually happening before you due to a presumption of violence that could occur, is itself a type of violence. What exactly can a man do with a knee to his neck, what can a sleeping woman do to deserve her own murder? To make room for that grotesque thought, that depraved thought, to believe in the necessity of any murder, you have to abandon reality. To see a man with several weapons pointed at him, with his hands on his head, like the problem, you have to leave the present tense (“It’s good they have so many in it “) and into the future (” You never know what they will be do “). A future that, of course, is completely imagined.
I make a living out of my imagination, but this summer, as I watched Homecoming Climbing back onto the New York Times bestseller list in response to its appearance on anti-racist reading lists, I saw again, with not a little bile, that I also make a living from pain articulation. Mine, mine. It is heartbreaking to know that the occasion for renewed interest in his work is the murders of black people and the subsequent “listening and learning” of white people. I would rather not know this feeling of experiencing the highs of the race while being inundated with pain so old and worn it seems unearthed, a fossil of other old and worn pain.
When an interviewer asks me what it’s like to see Homecoming On the bestseller list again, I say something short and empty like “it’s bittersweet” because the idea of crafting exhausts and offends me. What I should say is: why are we back here? Why am I being asked questions that James Baldwin answered in the 1960s, that Toni Morrison answered in the 1980s? I read Morrison’s The bluest eye for the first time when I was a teenager, and it was so crystalline, so beautiful and perfectly formed that it filled me with something close to terror. I couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t imagine how a novel could pierce my heart and find the inarticulable wound. I learned absolutely nothing, but a little adjustment was made within me, an imperceptible change that occurs only when I find wonder and amazement, the best art.
Seeing my book on any list with that one should have filled me, in a better world, with uncomplicated pride, but instead I felt deflated. While I devoutly believe in the power of literature to challenge, deepen, change, I also know that buying books by black authors is nothing more than a theoretical, seriously late, and totally impoverished response to centuries of physical and emotional harm. The bluest eye was published 51 years ago. As Lauren Michelle Jackson wrote in her excellent Vulture essay “What’s an Anti-Racist Reading List Good for?” someone at some point has to read.
And it is this question of “the business of reading”, of how we read, why we read and what reading make for and for us, that I keep turning in my mind. Years ago, I was at a festival with a friend, another black author, and we were exchanging stories. He said the first time he did a panel with a white author, he was surprised to hear the questions they asked him. Craft questions. Character questions. Research questions. Questions about the novel itself, about the quality and content of the pages themselves. He knew exactly what he meant.
Many of the black writers I know have had white people treat their work as if it were some kind of medicine. Something they have to swallow to improve their condition, but they don’t really want it, they don’t really enjoy it, and if you’re totally honest, they don’t actually even take the drug half the time. . They just buy it and leave it on the shelf. What pleasure, what deepening, could there be in “reading” like this? To enter the world of fiction with such a tainted mission is to condemn the novel or short story to fail it at its most essential levels.
I have published two books during particularly tense election years and the general tone of many of the question and answer sessions has been one that I would describe as a frantic search for answers or acquittal. There’s a lot of slippage between “please tell me what I’m doing wrong” and “please tell me I’ve done nothing wrong.” The suddenness and intensity of the desperation to be seen as “good” runs completely against how deeply ingrained, how old the problems are. There is a reason why Homecoming covers 300 years, and even that was just the shallowest dip in a bottomless pool. A summer of reading can’t fix this. Some may want to call the June 2020 events a “racial reckoning,” but in a country where there was a civil war and a civil rights movement 100 years apart, at some point it would be helpful to ask how long a reckoning is needed. wear. When, if ever, have we counted it?
So where exactly does all the “listening and learning” leave us? In the early days of summer, as my dog barked at the protesters flooding the streets in front of my building, I tried to decide if I wanted to join. When I finally did, I felt a million things at once: moved, proud, hopeful, enraged, offended, and desperate. There was something legitimately beautiful about being in a multiracial, multigenerational, multiclass corps of people who for months filled the streets, shouting, marching and defying.
And yet. Seeing white people holding Black Lives Matter signs as we march through gentrified Brooklyn. Seeing white parents carrying kids on their shoulders, singing Black Lives Matter, when I suspect they’ve done everything they can to make sure those same kids never have to go to school with more than a handful of good-looking black kids. taste. All of this brings back dissonance. The revulsion that makes clear the emptiness of reverence. Black Lives Matter, a reverent, simple and true phrase, can only be hollow in the mouths of those who cannot stand black life, real life, when they see it in a school, in the doctor’s office, on the side of the highway. Still, I left. A few months later, I went back on tour to write my second novel, knowing what I had always known. The world can change and stay exactly the same.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism