Thursday, August 11, 2011


 E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Do you still feel that much of the work of black intellectuals is still confined to race and race matters?  Is this a result of "duty" to community or a form of intellectual segregation? Do you feel your interest in philosophy unlocks the race box many black thinkers are placed and locked in? Do you see your essays on Buddhism still holding on to race matters? Is Charles Johnson a free man?"

I'm going to concentrate on the last sentence in today's question. In Passing the Three Gates: Interviews with Charles Johnson, edited by Jim McWilliams (University of Washington Press, 2004), the second interview in this work was conducted in 1987 by my former student, writer Nicholas O' Connell. In that interview I said---and I truly meant, "The great fight in life and literature always is to prevent some form of idea or situation from enslaving you. It's to keep your mind open and your eyes open and your life open, to find ways of not being limited. Fiction should open us up to new possibilities. It should clarify for us. It should change our perception."
Let's start this discussion with an obvious fact: real artists are sensitive people. They must be sensitive in order to see and feel what others ignore or don't see and feel as intensely, or have not consciously confronted in terms of the human experience. During the creative process artists must make themselves vulnerable, sometimes exposing their hearts and hurts in ways that are painful, or presenting ideas and innovative works that challenge the status quo. Some superb black male writers I've met (I'll name no names) are very fragile people in social situations, a bit awkward because they never learned how to bullshit and bluster or they prefer not to do that. (The one I'm thinking of is a genius and received one of the first MacArthur fellowships; he seems to have no ego-armoring at all, speaks softly and seldom, but when he does speak, everything he says---and publishes---is brilliant, insightful, and true.) They might even seem eccentric. If they are not careful, they can become the prey of bullies or those who are less sensitive.
 So a first rule emerges, I think, one that every writer and artist, young and old, would do well to pay attention to: You must protect yourself and your talent. You and you only have to be the shepherd of your talent. (Have you noticed how seldom literary scholars use that term, talent? Perhaps this is because we, as Americans, tend to emphasize equality and egalitarianism.) This is doubly true if you are an artist of color in a Eurocentric society such as America.  From childhood forward, you will meet people who will recognize your talent and support you. (Sadly, some young artists will have parents not able to recognize or appreciate that talent. Or they will be born in communities that historically do not have the support structures for nurturing various kinds of intellectual and artistic gifts.) But you will also encounter people---a great many people, I'm afraid---who will either deliberately not recognize that talent or, if some do, they might out of jealousy try to suppress or destroy it (or direct it as they think best), which is the storyline for the play and film Amadeus. Some people, recognizing a black artist's talent, will try to exploit it for their own purpose or agendas. This is especially the case with those who embrace a particular religious or political agenda. Or some will oppose that talent simply because the work it produces does not reflect the cherished ideas they are attached to. There are well-meaning people who feel that a black artist should only address matters of race or politics. That his or her curiosity about this vast, mysterious universe we find ourselves in should be limited to a single subject.       
This is a result of the tragedy of racial segregation. What I mean by that is simply this: the institution of Jim Crow, with all those decades of erasing or marginalizing the black experience in America from our school books, curriculum, and the national consciousness, did, in fact, render black people---their lives, histories and ideas---invisible to white people. Both Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright used the metaphor of "blindness" to powerfully describe the epistemological damage done to white America by racial segregation. On the other hand, black Americans do know whites. We had to in order to survive, and to excel. Furthermore, we are bombarded 24/7 with information about our fellow white citizens in our schools, media, etc. A natural consequence of this situation is that a black artist or scholar can speak with greater authority about race in America that a white writer or scholar can. It's easy for us to do that---clarifying questions related to "race." (And during the decades between the 1970s and now such a limited focus could be very profitable in terms of speaking engagements, teaching posts, and writing assignments.) James Baldwin, for example, spent his entire career doing that, and was much loved by blacks and especially whites for performing that sociological service. 
But therein lies a trap for a black artist. Therein lies a minefield littered with IEDs that an unsuspecting black writer or artist might step on. We feel it is crucial for us to do the "race work," as my friend, scholar Rudolph Byrd puts it, because others can't or won't do it as well as we can. For example, I've always been eager to write introductions and prefaces to clarify and celebrate the work of my black predecessors whom I admire, from Ellison to Gordon Parks, James Weldon Johnson to Jean Toomer. And who is better qualified to discuss and dramatize the lives---trials and triumphs---of my black parents, grandparents, ancestors, and friends systematically removed from official "history" than I am?  And, yes, the subject that editors at some Buddhist publications overwhelmingly ask me to write about is Buddhism and the lived-illusion of "race." But should that be the only thing I direct my intellect and imagination toward? (I'm thinking now of a well-known native American writer, much celebrated, who bemoans the fact that he has difficulty publishing his works that are not specifically about being native American.)
 Just now I'm reading Mat Johnson's very funny novel Pym. At the beginning of the novel, the black protagonist loses his job because he was hired to teach black American literature, as I was in 1976 at the University of Washington because the white faculty, with a stroke of honesty, admitted they were not culturally or intellectually or personally prepared to teach those classic texts of American literature. He was hired to be a "Professional Negro," which is something quite different from being a Negro who is a professional.  But he stops doing that in order to teach American literature in general. (He also refuses to serve on his school's Diversity Committee.) His specific interest is in Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. The school's president makes it quite clear that the protagonist is no longer useful to this white institution if what he wants to do is teach what the white faculty members are teaching. "You were hired to teach African American literature," says that school's president. "Not just American literature. You fought that...We have a large literature faculty, they can handle the majority of literature. You were retained to purvey the minority perspective. I see nothing wrong with that."
As well meaning as this fictitious school and its president might be (and the students certainly want and need to read these works), what they have done---and Mat Johnson's narrator recognizes this---is intellectually segregate the protagonist. If he had not stopped teaching only black literature, if his interests and curiosity had not gone elsewhere, he would have received tenure. To his credit, the protagonist realizes that promotion at this school would be nothing more than golden manacles on his mind.
       Let me toss two other items at you for the purpose of adding a couple of more logs to the fire of my argument:

 Some years ago, Modern Library published a list entitled, "100 Best Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century." Out of l00 books only seven are by African-Americans. These are  Up from Slavery  by Booker T. Washington, Black Boy by Richard Wright, Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin,  The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Du Bois, The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X,  Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King Jr., and Shadow and Act by Ralph Ellison. To be sure, these texts are among the most influential, discussed, and debated books in black literature since l901. No one can doubt that they have been foundational---indeed seminal--- for any and all discussions of race for the last five generations. 

 But compare now these "black" titles to the ones by white authors on the Modern Library listing. William James explores The Varieties of Religious Experience;  John Maynard Keynes offers The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money; G.E. Moore gives us Principia Ethica; and Lewis Thomas explores The Lives of a Cell.  Readers would have to be blind not to see that the intellectual commerce represented by white authors ranges over all possible subjects and phenomenon---from mathematics  (Principia Mathematic) to literary criticism ( Aspects of the Novel),  history (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) to philosophy (A Theory of Justice)---including titles on race (An American Dilemma and The Strange Career of Jim Crow) while the work of black intellectuals is confined to race alone.
 Now consider National Academy Press's "Summary Report l992: Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities," which I quoted in my essay, "The Role of the Black Intellectual in the 21st Century." There, we discover that in the early l990s only five black mathematicians were at America's twenty-five top-ranked universities, and that less than 2% of this nation's scientists were black. For doctorates earned by various groups in l992, this report provides the following breakdown:
                                      Whites            Asians       Hispanics     Blacks     Native Americans    
Mathematics                   423                  51                12               4               2
Computer Science           376                   86                 8                5               2
Physics and Astronomy   733                   92                 30               7               6
Chemistry                        1,211                 132               42              l7               6
Engineering                     1,874                 447              72                48             11
Biological Sciences         3,043                 262               101             61              l3

 Added to that, in 1992, nearly one-half of all black doctorates were in a single field, education, with most of the rest in fields like social work and sociology. In a long list of specialized areas, such as algebra, geometry, logic, atomic physics, geophysics, paleontology, oceanography, biomedical engineering, nuclear engineering, cell biology, endocrinology, genetics, microbiology, geography, statistics, classics, comparative literature, archeology, German language, Italian, Spanish, Russian, accounting, and business economics, in l992 there were no blacks who earned doctorates in the United States.

 I sincerely hope and pray that in the 19 years since that report was issued, things have changed, with black scholars working in all the fields mentioned in the previous paragraph, seeing all the phenomenon in our enveloping world as proper subjects for their intellectual exploration, and not just the narrower range of topics assigned to a Professional Negro, an archaic role that dates back to the era of racial segregation.

 "Is Charles Johnson a free man?" asks E. Ethelbert Miller. The answer is that I work day and night, from my childhood until this very hour, at being free to pursue passionately intellectual and imaginative questions and problems that stretch the modicum of talents I was blessed to have at birth. And I have always been very careful about doing whatever nurtures those talents, and avoiding anyone who would deny or attempt to diminish or re-direct them in ways that did not serve what I saw as best for their efflorescence. This is a subject I could talk about forever, so I think I'd better wrap things up now insofar as this post is already a bit long. 


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