Tuesday, December 6, 2011

OCCUPYING PROSE: THE PROTEST NOVEL


"If an American negro finds that he has a vocation as a writer, he discovers his subject at the same time. He is the man who sees the whites from the outside, who assimilates the white culture from the outside, and each of his books will show the alienation of the black race within American society." Jean-Paul Sartre, Literature and Existentialism.


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Whatever happened to the term "protest" novel?  This was once a label quickly placed on many books written by black authors. Has the black writer stopped protesting? Is this one of those terms that clashes with post-blackness? Did the protest novel have specific elements in its text? Has the world of Richard Wright disappeared?"

Thinking about Ethelbert's question, and Sartre's statement in the above epigraph, I'm reminded in 2011 of (1) Just how dated are Sartre's general ruminations on black American writers in the 1940s (and they were wrong back then in the '40s, too); and (2) Of how far black American literature has progressed  in the last forty years beyond the "protest novel" and its aesthetic and intellectual limitations.

You can blame the Civil Rights Movement for making the black protest novel more or less obsolete by bringing the wide-spread policy of racial segregation to an end. (It's basically of historical interest now, I guess, like the slave narrative.) Now, the Movement did not end racism. We know better than to say that. But it did take some of the wind out of the sails of traditional, black protest fiction, which even James Baldwin complained about in his 1949 essay "Everybody's Protest Novel." Nevertheless, I rather suspect that many members of my generation (and older) have a difficult time adjusting to black fiction that isn't protesting or complaining about something---in other words, some people have a hard time "processing" a joyful (even playful) fiction by black writers that celebrates the beauty and mystery of life. As with Sartre, that just doesn't "compute" in the minds of some white as well as black readers. How, they wonder, can it be that black people love and enjoy life? And wouldn't want to be white? How can black American life be good? For many people I've met that's an oxymoron. Black equals bad. Black equals unhappiness. Black equals misery. Why would any sane person want to be black? (My wife and my best friend and I have laughed for many hours over that popular, supposedly "sympathetic"and "sensitive" understanding of black people.) The fact that such people are so stuck in the past (and know so little about black people), and are attached to a pre-1970s image and understanding of black America, is simply tragic. (Not long ago, rapper Snoop Dogg said, "When I started to star in films I used to say, 'I dream of becoming the black version of Tom Cruise.' Today I think it's the other way round, 'Tom Cruise could dream of becoming the white version of Snoop Dogg'.")

It's tragic because black people and the world have moved on, as well they should have. Busy, creative and constructive people really don't have any time to waste at a Pity Party. They have work to do (especially for the benefit of their loved ones and others) and they are about the business, each and every day, of doing it.

However, I see no reason why the protest novel per se or in general should vanish. I can imagine powerful works of fiction that dramatize many things that are wrong with the world, such as futile and self-destructive wars, global warming, violations of human rights, poverty and global hunger, the exploitation of women and sexual abuse of children, our treatment of animals, Wall Street greed, the abuse of the environment, organized crime, and the Mexican drug cartels. On and on, there is no end to the subjects a writer can protest, because the world is---and probably will always be---a cauldron of problems. As one of my former writing students once said to me in the '80s, "It's easy to be despairingly effective," and his statement suggested by implication that it's hard to convince contemporary readers of the beauty and rewarding aspects of life. Or of the goodness of our fellow men and women. Or of the sense that things turn out well. So there's always room in America for some kind of protest novel. For we will never see an end to worldly problems that are ripe for protesting. But it's a little late now to protest legal Jim Crow as a current problem.

But think about this: across America the Occupy Movement is engaged in protesting a rather long (and probably growing) list of problems. Its participants are engaged in many forms of protest, rather than sitting at home and reading fictitious events in a protest novel. They are in the streets, in parks, in foreclosed homes, on college campuses. They are moving their savings from banks to credit unions. Which approach do you think is more effective---the actions of the Occupy Movement or reading a protest novel---for changing the world? (Ahem, all you high school teachers and those teaching Freshman Composition out there reading E-Channel can lift that last sentence for an essay question for your students, if you wish.)

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