E. Ethelbert Millers asks: "Michael Boccia once wrote that Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 is required reading for anyone interested in better understanding the thinking of Charles Johnson. Is this still true? Are writers best defined by their early work?"
Monday, December 12, 2011
BEING, RACE AND BROAD CELEBRATION
"This idea suits me down to the ground, the possibility that our art can be dangerous and wickedly diverse, enslaved to no single idea of Being, capable if necessary of unraveling, like Penelope, all that was spun the night before and creating from entirely new social and scientific premises if need be, or adjusting the seminal work of the past to address issues relevant to this age." From Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970.
Did Michael Boccia really say that? If so, then he's right. This work, my dissertation for which I received my Ph.D. in Philosophy, is something of an unusual hybrid: a phenomenological literary manifesto and a critical survey of black fiction between 1970 and 1988.
Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 was composed during a heightened period in the Culture Wars of the 1980s, and I spent a year and half writing it. I recall that you, Ethelbert, said to me that if I'd lived where you do in Washington D.C., people (you didn't say who exactly) would not have allowed me to publish it. I've always remembered that remark because it captured so well the challenge that non-ideological, independent black writers faced from the early 1970s well into the 1980s (and probably still face to a certain extent today). They faced censorship and suppression---that within a democracy that prides itself on its First Amendment.
It was published two years before I received the National Book Award in fiction for Middle Passage and the same year as Henry Louis Gates's The Signifying Monkey, a work that somehow managed to discuss many black writers Dr. Gates apparently liked, but made no mention whatsoever of my work (not one word), although by 1988 I had published a great deal to excellent reviews (Faith and the Good Thing, Oxherding Tale, the story collection, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner; and, of course, two collections of comic art and much work during my time as a professional cartoonist as well as "Booker," an award-winning PBS docu-drama). I was also identified in the 1980s as one of the 10 best short story writers working then in a survey conducted by a university in California.
This was a period in American literary history when, during a reading I gave in Detroit, my white host remarked that he saw novelist David Bradley (The Chaneyville Incident) and myself as being the "pariahs" of black American literature; when writer Tony Ardizzone once said he saw me as a "transitional figure" in black literature. One should ask, "Transition from what?" The answer: from decades of black American fiction locked within the confines of poorly conceived, highly politicized, race-based "aesthetic" notions popularized during the Black Arts Movement (and black Cultural Nationalism) of the 1960s. Thirty years ago I moved---and move still---outside ideological frameworks for the creation of art, and Being and Race was the philosophical and theoretical document I published to create a path for that "transition." For myself and others who needed a refuge from political correctness. And the dumbing down of black thought. Its intention was the same as that of John Locke when he wrote An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, i.e., that of "clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way of knowledge." To my knowledge, it is the only book-length, philosophical manifesto of literary aesthetics in black American literature by a creative writer.
So, yes, Boccia is right. The first section of this book, titled "First Philosophy" (which means a laying down of foundational ideas and principles) consists of three chapters, their titles being "Being and Race," "Being and Fiction," and "Being and Form." I stand by every word written in those chapters twenty-three years ago. And since its publication, I have only sought to deepen and refine (or build upon) the meditation in the opening three chapters of that first section. I'm still so fond of that book that I will conclude this post with the way Being and Race came to rest in 1988:
"Everyone," Schopenhauer wrote in The World as Will and Representation, "must stand before a picture as before a prince, waiting to see whether it will speak and what it will say to him; and, as with the prince, so he himself must not address it, for then he would hear only himself." And so it is for both the critic and the creator of fiction. Such egoless listening is the precondition for the species of black American fiction I see taking form on the horizon of contemporary practice, one that enables us as a people---as a culture---to move from narrow complaint to broad celebration.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 8:18 AM