Monday, August 1, 2011


 E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Richard Wright once encouraged African American writers to look to African American folklore for inspiration and material. It would appear as if your work begins in African American folklore but then moves East into Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. Is this a correct assessment?  Do you see your work opening a "new" door for African American writers to explore? Or is this simply "the changing same" something that African American writers (such as Toomer, and Wright himself)  have always explored? In other words, where do the new text books on African American literature begin and end?"
That seminal 1937 essay "Blueprint for Negro Writing" by the father of modern black fiction, Richard Wright, had a very large influence on my conceptualization of Faith and the Good Thing, a novel in the form of a folk tale that is filled with folk tales, a few of which I adapted from Zen Buddhist stories. But as Ethelbert notes, with my next novel, Oxherding Tale, the "mini-stories" within that philosophical slave narrative are generally drawn from Hindu and Buddhist sources. As an American writer, my personal, philosophical, literary and artistic journey begins in the "ground" of the black American experience, expands to include the warp and woof of Western philosophy, then---as in the case of Jean Toomer--- adds to that the philosophical and religious traditions of the East. Writer Tony Ardizzone once told me, way back in the early '80s, that he saw me as a "transitional figure" in black American fiction. (Transition to what, he didn't say.) Perhaps there is some truth to that. I'll let the literary scholars decide. But let me shift gears for a second or two.

I must confess that the last part of Ethelbert's question makes me feel a tad uneasy. Educators, literary critics and the anthologies they use in their courses have always been fond of organizing literary art in ways that are, say, either thematic or historical. We could "begin," for instance, with slavery and slave narratives, and "end" with the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." But why not begin earlier with tribal life and folklore in African villages before the start of the trans-continental slave trade and end with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s? It all depends, I suppose, on whether one sees black American life and literature as unique to these shores or as part of an African Diaspora, which is the approach taken by the PBS series and its companion book, Africans in America. Personally, I generally tend toward the former way of framing this material, i.e., that there is a unique and distinctive black American experience, but I'll certainly break that mold if the demands of a particular story require that I do. These conceptualizations or ways of shaping the raw material of the "black" experience create a neat and manageable narrative, are heuristic, and help students get a temporary, provisional handle on a large body of complex, ambiguous and often contradictory information.

 Howeverthis very notion of where things "begin" and "end" is deceptive (especially for a Buddhist like Thich Nhat Hahn) and far from being unproblematic. Our brains are pattern-seeking engines, which is all well and good, but sometimes we impose patterns that create as many problems as they solve. Talking about where the new black literature---or any literature---"begins" or "ends," then, has for me a slightly Procrustean bed feel to it, for we tend to eliminate whatever fails to fit with that conceptualization. In terms of black American literary production in the post-civil rights era, and especially in 2011, we are better served, I believe, if we just think of this new body of work in terms of what writer Reginald McKnight says of black Americans in general: namely, that we are "as polymorphous as the dance of Shiva." There is no reason to see our artistic creations at this hour in human history representing any sort of "end," or even exhaustively portraying the lives of people of color. 
          But let's return to Ethelbert's first question: 

If you order, The Teaching Company's Great Courses DVD  (or Audio CD) for "Great World Religions: Buddhism," which is taught by Boston University Professor Malcolm David Eckel, you'll see that toward the end of that course (Course No.687, 24 lectures 30 minutes each) he has a section on how "Buddhist influence has permeated many other aspects of American culture." In the 24th  and last lecture, "Buddhism in America," Prof. Eckel, who is winner of the Metcalf Award for Teaching Excellence, says, "To grasp the significance of Buddhism in American life, it is important not to stop with organized denominations and centers. Buddhism has also influenced literature and the arts." 
He then lists what he feels are three examples to support his claim: (1) The "novels of Jack Kerouac and the Beat Poets, especially Gary Snyder"; (2) "Siddhartha, the novel by German author Hermann Hesse"; and (3)  "The African American author Charles Johnson has written novels that explore the implications of the change of consciousness that takes place when ex-slaves experience freedom. Buddhism weaves its way through these characters' lives and produces a distinctive image of enlightenment."
So the answer is, yes. I do feel, humbly, that my work contributes in some small way to opening a door to the East for Western readers. But that is certainly not the last door to philosophical explorations that will open in black American fiction.

No comments:

Post a Comment