Pretty Is The New Black

Dinner Speech on Black-British aesthetics, Howard University

I do not claim for the following the rigour and full measure of the academic paper. This is more in the way of some remarks, really, about the types of black-British literature that are out or have been out there, from a current, someway ideological, practitioner. I guess it’s something of a plea for a change in emphasis, a reorientation of energies, in what we “black-British” writers produce. A plea for more lightness really, more styles and more style. More, you could say, prettiness.

Before I continue, I should declare my interest. I think you can divide the literary world, very broadly, between story- or narrative-centred work, such as you find most obviously in commercial fiction, and voice-driven work, and I’m definitely one of and for the latter. I grew up on narrative-driven work—the Sherlock Holmes stories, Greek myths, the births, marriages and deaths novels of classic European literature; but the first thing I read that I really wanted to write, the first book I fell in love with, was J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye—just for the voice of its teenage hero, Holden Caulfield: conversational, particular, unimpressed by authority, societal or literary. Its opening, you remember, explicitly rejects the births, marriages, and deaths—what you might call the Dickens approach: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to hear is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap....”

At the time I was also feeling P.G. Wodehouse, and here, too, you had the sense that his rather identikit plots weren’t the main point of the books; rather, they were the necessary vehicle for his local, verbal pleasurings, his ludic love: “I could see that, if not exactly disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled....” Later, Samuel Beckett, Hunter S. Thompson, Donald Barthelme, the essays of James Baldwin, and then, still later—as I ventured beyond the black familiar—Greg Tate’s early 1990s’ Village Voice columns.

All of these writers were doing things with words and cadence. They were all stylists, and style is what I think makes you fall in love.

It’s the same, often, in real world love. We meet quite a few people with relatively similarly content, but we tend to fall for few. It’ll be something about the way they hold their head when they smile, or their particular way of apprehending the world; the things that make you you.

Rhythm, vibe, is what seduces: the patterning, attitude towards words; these are what charges a character, a universe. I think the great worldwide impact of reggae in the 1970s wasn’t primarily about the lyrics of Bob Marley et al., but that lulling Nyabinghi bass-drum sound, rumoured to echo the human heartbeat.

The sadness for a lot of black literature, though, is that we have mainly been remarked upon and desired for our content. Ever since the eighteenth-century days of Olaudah Equiano, whose depictions of the slave experience helped fuel the abolitionist movement in Britain, or the nineteenth-century days of Frederick Douglass in America, you could argue that black writing has been prized chiefly for its ability to bring information about lives beyond the experience of your average book buyer.

You could place the novels of Richard Wright, the gritty social realism of early hip-hop—Grandmaster Flash’s The Message, etc., inside this camp. As Granta magazine said, tellingly, in its introduction to its pick of Young British Novelists 2003, about a friend of mine, Monica Ali, and her first novel, the London-Bangladeshi-set Brick Lane: we so liked this (I paraphrase) because it brought us “news.” This does beg the question, “News to whom?” I don’t think they meant news to Bengalis. 
This “news to others”—information for those who don’t know—has had a distorting effect, I believe, on black work down the years, from the Harlem Renaissance onwards, and is one aspect of this possibly un-winnable, multi-focal game that minority writers often find themselves ensnared in, that I call the “Black Catch 22.”

It has also contributed to a certain heaviness in the black novel—or, at least, to most of the black novels that are held up as being “important.” One thinks of the frequency of the “slave” or the “racism” narratives, or of the fact that Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright seem more prized than the lady who, for me, wrote the most exquisite novel of that whole period, Zora Neale Hurston, and her non-slave, non-racial Their Eyes Were Watching God; or that the headline-friendly black vs. white dramas of Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever) attracted so much more attention than the wonderfully subtle studies of modern African-American interiority made by that master Charles Burnett.

Onyekachi Wambu picks up on this legacy of heaviness in his introduction to his black-British anthology Empire Windrush when he quotes two American critics writing in the 1960s. David Littlejohn had become discouraged wading through the African-American catalogue for his study, Black and White: “A white reader is saddened, then burdened, then numbed by the deadly sameness, the bleak wooden round of ugly emotions and ugly situations: the same, small, frustrated dreams, the same issues and charges and formulas and events repeated over and over, in book after is finally bored by the iteration of hopelessness....” And African-American Blyden Jackson can only concur: “It seems to me that few, if any, literary universes are as impoverished as the universe of black fiction. [Of greatest interest] are the things that cannot be found there.”

Writing in the late 1990s, Wambu did not find the black-British universe quite as bleak as that, and this was before the often comic voice, for example, of Zadie Smith emerged. Nevertheless, looking more widely at the British cultural scene—to judge, say, from a bunch of mainstream black feature and documentary films that have recently aired in the U.K., including Bullet Boy, Shoot the Messenger, The Trouble with Black Men—we remain in a heavy place, where black life is seen as problematic, or pathological. Simultaneously (and somewhat-related), within the literary world I detect an ongoing desire in certain quarters to revivify the big, psychological, realistic, nineteenth-century European novel tradition in post-colonial hands: the seemingly safe hands of a V.S. Naipaul or a Monica Ali.

I’m not saying this heaviness comes just from the tastes of white critics or commissioners; we have our own agents of gravity. Many of us, in the West, in Africa, do lead heavy lives and writers, unsurprisingly, wish to bear witness to them. Moreover, the drive to “represent” is particularly strong in minority cultures. Most of the black Western public, in truth, aren’t about, aren’t really concerned with, the art in their art; they’re more about being “represented.” And the pressure to “represent” tends to be a conservative-leaning force, both politically and stylistically.

One could, of course, say much more in this connection, I think, about African artworks in the British Museum and about how, in ancient African societies, the artist was often the figure that gave voice to the community on its big days—for its religious ceremonies, and so forth. (Many of us do indeed collect artefacts for their “representational aspects,” there is no doubt.)

It’s funny because, even if what helped to draw me into black writing was some of its obvious relevance and “representational” power—Langston Hughes’s short story collection The Ways of White Folk produced my first adult tears as a reader—what made me stay was language.

Hughes’s jazz-inflected poetry, Greg Tate, music, black-British slang—all greatly increased the registers of English I had at my command, the same impulse that took me to Wodehouse. I liked how they inverted standard phrases. Not “We haven’t met in ages,” but its patois equivalent: “Is how long an’ we don’t catch up?”—or Roberta Flack’s “The first time ever I saw your face....”

There was linguistic experimentation even at the beginning of black-British literature. Ignatius Sancho was an ally, both on the page and off it, of Lawrence Sterne, and more recently, in the diaspora, Sam Selvon, Amos Tutuola, Ayi Kwei Armah, Dambudzo Marechera, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jean “Binta” Breeze, Nate McKee, and so on. Beyond them, in other fields, cinematographer Arthur Jafa, or the formally exciting British work of Sankofa and the Black Audio Film Collective in the 1980s. We can root “black” in other, non-race centred things: black as improvisation, as we found in jazz; black as rhythm, as we find in much music; black as vexing the Queen’s English. Black, too, as the quintessential post-modern position—double consciousnesses, less or multiply-rooted identities, that should give rise naturally to daring, “post-modern” work: genre-riffs or New World “takes” on old-country notions, more playful, speculative fiction, perhaps, or musical, rhythmic, pretty work.

I think of (another) aspect of the pieces in the British Museum’s African collections. The sculptures there are not properly figurative, but symmetrical, geometric—the external quality pinpointed by the European Cubists who bit off them. But their carvers were attempting to give outward expression to a feeling or aspiration: the divine potential in human beings. The idea is that, once one has attained a certain level of overstanding, there will be an inner calm, a composure that they sought to express through these graceful shapes. It harks back to notions of cool—Itutu—in old Yoruba societies. Writers have that same feeling when they’ve nailed a passage, an insight. It manifests itself in a certain fluency, an ease on the page. Everything just so, in its place. As Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

As black artists, we have the reputation of innovators in other fields. If we can bring that to the page, bring more of the attitudes and energies we find elsewhere, we can alter, not just revivify, the vibe of the British poem, the British novel. And then there’ll be no end to our audience, black and other.

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