Thursday, August 4, 2011


 E. Ethelbert Millers asks: "The first chapter of Dreamer contains a considerable amount of violence. From the riot outside on the streets of Chicago, to Chaym Smith providing an account of his life. Why the reference to so much violence around King - a man of peace? Smith seems like another black man having difficulty with black women. Might a literary critic accuse you of creating negative stereotypes of black family life?
Readers of Dreamer should easily see that Chaym Smith is Cain, the first murderer in human history, and the fictitious King in this novel is Abel. "Chaym" is, in fact, another name for Cain.

 If a literary critic did accuse me of "creating negative stereotypes of black family life," I would say that "critic" needs to go back to school and study literature, philosophy, and world religions a little longer. Such an accusation would be embarrassing for its naivety. Forgive me for dwelling on this, but I think it should be addressed.
 I once spoke with a group of black high school teachers and their students in an east coast city. One of the teachers, a nice lady, said to me in all innocence, "We read your story 'A Soldier for the Crown' in Soulcatcher and Other Stories, and we liked it when the soldier turned out to be a black woman. But then you created Isadora Bailey in Middle Passage and made her fat and unattractive." I guess that detail about adipose tissue caused this teacher to feel uncomfortable. But let me assure you, there is simply nothing a serious writer can do with her comment. 
 A "critic" of the kind Ethelbert is describing is obviously not a trained, professional critic at all. And not even a good reader. He (or she) by such an accusation reveal that they have no imagination and wear their feelings on their sleeves. They have too little courage when it comes to facing reality and what is given to us in experience, which isn't always pleasant. Should every fictional portrait of a black man and woman or family be a sugar-coated, feel-good, air-brushed fantasy intended to soothe a black reader's ego? (Remember: we're talking about literary art here, not what you see in a sitcom on your television screen.) I think not, even though I've always been a proponent for more "positive" images of black Americans. Why? Because I'm also a realist. I don't flinch from ugliness or the evil human beings, white and black, are capable of doing.  
Dreamer presents the inspiring family images a black reader might wish to see when the character Amy Griffith describes the life of her kinfolk in southern Illinois. But the novel also delivers Chaym Smith's tragic relationship with Juanita Lomax, which is based 90 percent on a real, unpleasant event I was privy to in my teens, one that was very painful for me to finally put on the page. 
 In my view, then, such a hypothetical "critic" must be judged as someone who simply doesn't know how to read literature and needs a good teacher to assist him (or her) in developing the ability to do a close, unbiased reading of complex, multi-leveled works of fiction---stories that contain all the contradictions we find in life. 
 In this novel's parallel depiction of Cain/Abel  and Smith/King, we have a meditation on inequality: two men who are physically identical but who fate has given very different lives. As a man who trains to becomes King's double, Smith is acutely aware that King has experienced advantages that he will never know---loving parents, a childhood of happiness (he is consumed by envy, like Cain)---and King, for his part, is deeply troubled by the misfortunes life has visited upon this man who looks enough like him to be his twin. This meditation on sameness and difference in the novel is very much about the perennial question of Self and Other, and why some men (Abel) are favored by the Almighty or Providence or fate and some men (Cain) are not.
 Furthermore, the years Dreamer spans (1966 to '68) were steeped in violence, especially cities like Chicago during the "long hot summers" of rioting. In the 1960s, the federal government was preparing for the possibility of civil war. Of race war. And so the novel opens in media res, at the white-hot center of that social violence, which feels as if it has torn the world asunder, and perhaps even torn at the very fabric of reality, allowing a character as unusual, dangerous, existential, and unpredictable as Chaym to enter King's life from a parallel world in the multiverse or an alternate reality. Sad to say, this kind of violence followed King during his entire career, beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He consistently set an example of nonviolence and ahimsa---"doing no harm." Those associated with him in the Movement adopted that same stance. But not all black people (or whites) embraced nonviolence as King did in the cities where he challenged segregation and inequality. Thus, as it says in Dreamer, violence followed him "like a biblical curse."

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