Sunday, May 22, 2011



I told him that black literature is often approached as records of oppression, but that my students don't focus on white cruelty but rather its flip side: black courage. Jerald Walker, "Dragon Slayers."
In the future, whenever we talk about the black American narrative or story, I  hope that my 2008 essay in American Scholar entitled "The End of the Black American Narrative" will be part of that discussion (It has been reprinted often, used in classes and by one think tank, and I did interviews for this with radio programs from Los Angeles to Australia). But what I really want to talk about, and have other people talk about, is Jerald Walker's brilliant essay "Dragon Slayers," originally published in Iowa Review.

Walker says that in his courses on black American literature, he betrays "the belief that blacks are primarily victims...a common view held by both races. I, too, held it for many years. When I was in my early twenties and making my first crude attempts at writing fiction, I'd sit at my word processor and pound out stories brimming with blacks who understood only anger and pain. My settings were always ghettos, because that was what I knew, and the plots centered on hardship and suffering, because I knew that, too."

It was one of his distinguished teachers in the Iowa Writers Workshop, Pulitzer-prize author James Alan McPherson, who helped Walker see that what he was doing was easy art, as I've often called it since 1988 when I published Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970: a form of writing that is as false as gangster rap written by rappers who live in wealthy white suburbs and send their children to private schools. McPherson said, "What some gangster rappers are doing is using black stereotypes because white people eat that stuff up. But these images are false, they're dishonest. Some rappers are selling out their race for personal gain...That's what this writer is doing with his work." Later, McPherson added, "Less time needs to be spent on the dragons, and more on our ability to forge swords for battle, and the skill with which we've used them."
Initially, says Walker, he was crushed by this brutally honest critique in a creative writing workshop. But then he realized this was a long overdue awakening.

"I had become my own stereotype," writes Walker, "a character in one of my short stories who insisted on seeing himself primarily as a repository of pain and defeat, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The very people with whom I had been raised and whom I had dedicated myself to rendering in prose had become victims of my myopia. My stories showed people being affected by drug addiction, racism, poverty, murder, crime, violence, but they said nothing about the spirit that, despite being confronted with what often amounted to certain defeat, would continue to struggle and aspire for something better. That old slave song 'We Shall Overcome' pretty much says it all."

Jerald Walker, in my view, has published an essay that provides for a younger generation of writers (and some older writers, I would add) an aesthetic statement as important as Richard Wright's 1938 manifesto "A Blueprint for Negro Writing" or Ralph Ellison's "The World and the Jug." It is reprinted in The Best American Essays, 2007. Please read it.

And let it be a touchstone for all your future conversations about the black American narrative or story.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr. Johnson,

    One of the books that James Alan McPherson had me read was your masterpiece "Middle Passage" and it—along with Ellison’s "Invisible Man" and Albert Murray’s "The Omni-Americans"—was instrumental in helping me shape my literary aesthetic. (I should also mention that “Exchange Value” is, in my view, one of the best short stories ever written.) Because I have long held you as one of my literary idols, I cannot adequately express how much your extraordinarily generous review of “Dragon Slayers” means to me. Thank you, kind sir. I hope we have the opportunity to meet some day.

    Jerald Walker