Can Black Literature Escape the Representation Trap? - The New York Times

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When I first read Raven Leilani’s 2020 debut novel, “Luster,” it struck me as both more middling and more strange than many of its reviews made it out to be. In a post-Sally Rooney, post-Black Lives Matter landscape, it scanned as a savvy fusion of millennial economic anxiety and the roiling racial tensions that had lately become of such interest to the publishing industry. Its protagonist, Edie, is a 23-year-old painter and low-level employee at a New York publisher. She is fired and stumbles into an affair with Eric, a married older white man whose family she winds up living with, perversely, at the behest of Eric’s wife, Rebecca. This isn’t an act of selfless charity — the couple’s adopted daughter, Akila, is a Black girl who they worry is having a tough time in their white world. They won’t say it explicitly, but maybe Edie can help her, their both being Black and all.

“Luster” is a novel whose concerns are very much au courant. And so, when Edie and Akila return home from the mall and encounter a cop, we know what to expect: The two end up face down on the front lawn of their white benefactors’ home, saved only by Rebecca’s appearance. I was initially turned off by the dutiful recapitulation of familiar ideas about Black vulnerability. But for all its self-conscious concerns about race, “Luster” is pockmarked with evidence of its own exhaustion with the tropes that it invokes. Edie is inundated by stereotypes, images and conventions that circulate under the guise of “Blackness,” and Lelani writes sardonically of the police stop’s ubiquity as the ur-text of contemporary Black life. At work, Edie reads “an article on a Black teenager who was killed on 115th for holding a weapon later identified as a shower head, then an article on a Black woman who was killed on the Grand Concourse for holding a weapon later identified as a cell phone.” Her arch manner about these killings gives her political engagement a sheen of cool millennial irony. “Luster” registers skepticism about the generalized push for representation.

At base, the notion that representation matters is not new — especially not to the history of African American literature. In the West, Black people have functioned in white people’s imaginations as walking symbols — of difference, or of barbarism, inferiority, danger, inhumanity — rather than people. This extends to cultural productions, where the reality of a Black person’s life often takes a back seat to myriad stereotypes: the Tragic Mulatto, the Uncle Tom, the minstrel fool, the oversexed harlot and the caring mammy, to name only a few. Part of the work of the Black literary tradition has been to challenge these images; it has always carried the unique burden of representation: who gets it, who decides who gets it and what “it” even is.

Publishing had managed to turn its terminal failure into a market opportunity.

The last decade of upheaval around our racial politics has led to a belated embrace of diversity in our culture industry and the products it peddles. As Jeff Chang puts it in his 2016 book, “We Gon’ Be Alright,” we’ve entered a “golden age of representation,” where artists of color have garnered increased exposure and acclaim. All of this is buttressed by the conviction among creators and activists that who shows up in our culture’s books, television shows, movies, ad campaigns and comics — and how they’re depicted — unsettles the racist assumptions that sustain Black suffering.

In the wake of the killings that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, literary celebrities like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Colson Whitehead were awarded publishing’s top honors. Coates’s memoir, “Between the World and Me,” won the 2015 National Book Award for nonfiction and Whitehead’s 2016 speculative novel, “The Underground Railroad,” won the award the following year for fiction; Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing” took the same award home in 2017. Veteran authors (Kiese Laymon, Tayari Jones, Roxane Gay) and debut writers (Brit Bennett, Yaa Gyasi, Bryan Washington) alike found widened audiences. When George Floyd was murdered, Dana Canedy, Lisa Lucas, Jamia Wilson and Yahdon Israel ascended to some of publishing’s top jobs. Black books both old and new shot up the best-seller lists; anti-racist reading lists circulated as syllabuses for budding activists and concerned liberals; and the industry’s appetite for Black stories even led to hefty advances for a select few.

To be clear: These writers and editors would have been deserving of praise whether or not publishing had decided to recognize their merit. But this golden age presents a distinct set of challenges for Black writers and editors from what their predecessors faced in the past.

Our current problem isn’t an insufficient amount of Black representation in literature but a surfeit of it. And in many cases that means simply another marketing opportunity, a way to sell familiar images of Blackness to as broad an audience as possible. In early 2020, the critic Lauren Michele Jackson argued that representation had essentially become a meaningless rallying cry that could encompass, yes, the publication of worthy Black voices but also the ridiculousness of corporate responsibility pledges and diversity initiatives. Insofar as there is a market for Blackness, it generates a series of conventions for telling stories about race — most often nothing more than updated versions of themes that Black literature has tangled with from its inception. The critic and novelist Elaine Castillo describes mainstream literary publishing as seeking out “writers of color for the gooey heart-porn of the ethnographic: to learn about forgotten history, harrowing tragedy, community-destroying political upheaval, genocide [and] trauma.” This is representation’s trap — the whittling down of Black life’s full scope into marketable, digestible facsimiles that are then thrust onto Black writers. As a new generation of debut novelists tries to tell its stories amid this new consensus, they are encountering the pressures of easy legibility that Black writers have always faced in America.

In “Luster,” when Edie first encounters another Black employee at her job, she feels “incredible relief” at no longer being a token. Zakiya Harris’s “The Other Black Girl” is a Pynchon-esque fever dream of conspiracy-theory-inflected satire, laying out the paranoid specifics of work life in publishing and media environments that make Black people suspect they are not wanted — or, worse, only wanted for specific ends. In Brandon Taylor’s “Real Life,” Wallace, the novel’s protagonist, is a gay Black man from rural Alabama trying to keep himself from suffocating in the confines of a Ph.D. program in biochemistry at a largely white Midwestern university. In their own ways, these novels — and others like Kiley Reid’s “Such a Fun Age,” Candice Carty-Williams’s “Queenie” and Jo Hamya’s “Three Rooms” — interrogate and ironize the scenes, phrases, ideas and narratives that have become shorthand for Blackness in the literary marketplace. These writers play into representation’s trap even as they express an anxiety about its limits and what it demands.

Literary history is rife with anxiety over representation. One of Black literature’s longstanding projects has been to counteract negative images of Black people and create more dignified and complex ones, and authors spent much of the 19th and 20th centuries quarreling over what those new images should be.

The middle-class Black elite promoted their vision of racial uplift by running away from any forms of culture that smacked of the rural South’s folk customs. In his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” published in 1926, Langston Hughes lambasted elite taste as a crude replica of white culture and argued that an authentically modern Black art would only emerge from an engagement with “the low-down folks.” But even the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance were compelled to translate slave spirituals, the blues and folk tales into poetry and fiction that would prove their worth to American society.

A decade later, in a review of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Richard Wright accused Hurston of placating white readers by invoking the blackface minstrel. She would later return a similar accusation, saying that Wright’s book “Uncle Tom’s Children” ignored “the broader and more fundamental phases of Negro life” in favor of sensational and violent scenes of racial conflict, which “numerous Negro writers, published and unpublished, have written of.” The unspoken assumption was that Wright’s emphasis on the sensational was a tired play for white readers.

In 1955, Wright’s former friend and mentee James Baldwin levied a similar charge against him in his essay “Many Thousands Gone,” in which Baldwin excoriated Wright for writing a “protest novel” (“Native Son”) whose subject, in Baldwin’s opinion, was not Black life but a representation of Blackness calculated to shock white people. Rather than creating his protagonist, Bigger, as a person, Wright had assembled a myth out of images and ideas — the presumed capacity for violence that lurked in Black men’s bodies, for one — that his readers would be familiar with. “What this means for the novel is that a necessary dimension has been cut away,” Baldwin argued: Wright had severed “the relationship that Negroes bear to one another.”

The specter of the white audience — its expectations and judgments — haunts this discourse, showing us how the project of representation has been burdened by the tropes that American culture has developed to depict Black people. Sketching this history reveals the difficulty of avoiding the trap of representation. In attempting to critique and complicate white misconceptions of Blackness, Black writers have often been (justifiably) anxious about recapitulating those misconceptions along with white-supremacist frameworks for understanding racial experience in America.

Toni Morrison would later characterize this as a worry about the “Africanist presence” in American literature. Morrison spoke of the way that Black characters had become metaphors, a compilation of the “assumptions, readings and misreadings that characterize these peoples in Eurocentric eyes,” in literature that lacked concern for Black people’s actual lives. To me, it is important to acknowledge that this tendency wasn’t particular just to white writers. Black writers, too, fell prey to processing their own experiences through these distorted views, in which Blackness was “sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical but always choked by representation.”

Morrison wondered how writers could undo this bind; her novels did so by inquiring into the substance of Black experience, while largely eschewing any encounter with whiteness. It was only through this conscious setting-aside that she — and the generation of writers she nurtured — wrested their stories from the trap. There are myriad contemporary novels that follow Morrison’s blueprint, including Laura Warrell’s “Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm,” Sidik Fofana’s “Stories From the Tenants Downstairs” and Deesha Philyaw’s “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.” They are unburdened and unbothered by concern for the encounter with whiteness, preferring instead to investigate, each in his or her own distinct style, the Blackness of Blackness.

But the market’s recent call for more representation has produced troubling new tropes. In various forms, successful novels will center the encounter between a Black protagonist and a white social environment. In “Such a Fun Age” and “Luster,” a protagonist enters into white domestic space, unsettling the privileged lives of their white female counterparts. In “Luster,” Edie’s recognition that Akila is being bullied by a tutor shocks the unaware Rebecca, who is confronted with the limits of her perception as a white woman. In “Such a Fun Age,” Alix, the comfortably middle-class influencer who hires the Black 20-something babysitter Emira, constantly surveils the younger woman’s phone for clues to her inner life. She knows Emira is a college graduate who studied English but can’t reconcile that fact with her taste for generically named rap songs like “Dope Bitch” and “Ya’ll Already Know.” In those moments, she “was filled with feelings that went from confused and highly impressed to low and guilty in response to the first reaction.” The purpose of the Black presence here is to knock whiteness off its pedestal, to serve as the catalyst for edging white characters toward an awareness of their own racialized perspective.

In another manifestation of this trope, protagonists are placed in white professional spaces — a publishing or media company or the academy — where they suffer all sorts of microaggressions and indignities. These protagonists are upwardly mobile individuals marooned in a no man’s land between the often impoverished Black worlds from which they come and the white professional spaces they want to inhabit. In “Luster,” Edie hails from a poor family and troubled past (her mother committed suicide and her father is a sociopath). In “Real Life,” Wallace is an outsider, a lone Black figure bobbing in a frigid sea of whiteness — all the while haunted by the experience of being sexually assaulted as a child. In both books we find racialized versions of what Parul Sehgal has called the “trauma plot,” which often seems to translate to critical and commercial success.

In a 2020 interview in The Guardian around the publication of “Real Life,” Taylor spoke about what it meant to write in a literary form — in this case the campus novel — that tended to relegate lives like his to the periphery. “So many of my queer, Black friends were like, ‘We’re here on college campuses and yet none of these stories represent us in any sort of substantive way,’” Taylor, himself a gay Black man, recounted. “So I told myself, ‘I’m going to imagine myself at the center of this space.’” Paradoxically, the queer Black friends who supposedly inspired the book are nowhere to be found, and Wallace’s family is a cast of torturing ghosts who continue to haunt him. As a result, Wallace himself is mostly the target of cruelty, and he can sometimes seem less like a character than a series of traumas.

For example, when Wallace’s mother catches the man assaulting him, she tosses him from her son’s bed and berates Wallace. “She turned to me and slapped me and called me faggot called me sissy called me everything except son,” Wallace remembers. She does not comfort him because, having herself been raped, “she had no language for such a thing.” The image of Black life on display here, once again, is one of generational dysfunction, a repetitive narrative of hardened resistance to both the world’s cruelties and its pleasures. In trying to make Black queer life legible to readers, Taylor winds up isolating his character, in turn reproducing the pathological Black social dynamics that Hurston and Baldwin mourned in Wright’s work.

And with Edie in “Luster,” we’ve already seen our most popular device: the police stop. Still, Edie complicates this storied interaction — when it’s all over, she shrugs it off, channeling Biggie: “Because there will always be a part of me that is ready to die.” If she can’t be concerned, why should we? Edie is nothing if not wry. This nonchalance, the embrace of obliteration, is the author’s attempt to put her thumb in the eye of white readers who hunger for this kind of sentimental representation.

Leilani’s provocation suggests that, no matter how much these books appropriate tired depictions of contemporary Black life, they are meaningfully straining against the limits of representation. In a 2021 short story, “Prophets,” Taylor introduces us to Coleman, a fledgling writer who, like Wallace, has left his rural past behind to attend graduate school, this time an M.F.A. program. When a “famous Black writer” visits a local bookstore, questions of representation, reputation and marketability come to the fore. The famous writer is a slick performer adept at deploying an appealingly transgressive version of Black queerness — he opens his reading with a Black hymn and he lets his voice tremble melodramatically as he reads from a personal essay; when an audience member asks where the hymn came from he answers, “Oh that nigger music?” and lets out “a mean little laugh” as the audience gasps. Though Coleman finds the whole act unbearable, he has to admit: It works. By the end of the reading, “Nothing had been said, really.” But, Coleman speculates, “perhaps that’s why people came to these readings, to the famous Black writer, to have something illuminated for them even if they were the ones holding the flashlight all along.” Taylor is satirizing a certain kind of contemporary Black literature that at once upbraids and flatters its white audience, reprimanding them within the safe space of conventions that they will recognize. If “Real Life” participated in some of these conventions, “Prophets” finds Taylor looking for a way out of the bind.

The idea that playing to a reductive, prurient interest in Blackness can be profitable for the Black protagonist finds echoes in “Luster.” Edie resents the easy connection that Rebecca makes between herself and Akila, but her desire to foil “this attempt to create a link where there is none” takes a back seat to her empathy for the child and her need for money and shelter. (One misconception begets another: Though Edie is not a housekeeper, Rebecca regularly leaves her money in an envelope — out of guilt, malice or curiosity we are not sure.) In the end, the most strenuous attempt in “Luster” to slip representation’s handcuffs comes when Edie tries to paint a self-portrait; she can only manage to paint various scenes from Eric and Rebecca’s house. What at first seems like a failure of self-creation and imagination ends up looking like a strategy by the novel’s end, a way to capture something more inscrutable than her physical body: her perspective on the world rather than her place in it.

For all their efforts at a winking complexity, these texts never fully execute their plan to subvert the problems wrought by the white gaze. Zakiya Dalila Harris’s “The Other Black Girl” proves to be the most successful in its critique about the market demand and institutional failures of diversity that helped make the book itself a success. Nella is wary of publishing’s intentions. “Nella was no fool,” the narrator tells us. “She understood that characters of color were en vogue, as was maintaining vigilance when it came to calling out anything that lacked proper representation.” Harris’s agent surmised in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly that the novel might owe its success to the scandal over the novel “American Dirt,” a trauma-porn take on Latin American immigration. Publishing had managed to turn its terminal failure into a market opportunity. Maybe that’s why there’s a sense of queasiness at the novel’s heart. Nella is ambivalent, simultaneously desperate to be a part of the culture industry and suspicious of how publishing has leveraged its lack of Black characters and turned it into a literary trend that speaks to today’s political affairs.

Harris’s insistence on self-effacement and close attention to Black social relations is what makes her commentary effective. When Hazel, the eponymous Other Black Girl, is hired, Nella can’t wait to connect with her, but Hazel turns out to be anything but an ally: She’s the agent of a shadowy cabal whose goal is to bring uppity Black women in white professional spaces to heel. Nella’s presumptions of Black solidarity — or at least, what Black solidarity looks and sounds like — keeps her from seeing that her new co-worker is her enemy.

“The Other Black Girl,” then, turns out to be a novel about the insufficiency — maybe even the danger — of representation’s centrality to contemporary Black culture. The novel’s title encodes a dual meaning: The other Black girl in the office is also an Other, ultimately unknowable. Blinkered by a set of popular presumptions of what good representation looks like (see me, see you, to paraphrase Jay-Z), Nella offers herself up to a sinister plot.

What Harris, Leilani and Taylor insist on here is a kind of mystery, a resistance of the easy legibility that the market demands. These writers are clearly casting about for possible readings that exceed the frameworks we’ve been given. Where they founder is in their inability to conceive of a Blackness that exists independent of what white audiences think. At the end of “Prophets,” Coleman wonders about all the writers yearning to be prophets and of the readers who yearn to be led to enlightenment. He questions what these readers see when they look at the prophets, aside from “vague and mysterious shapes attaining and losing form in the smoke that rose from the ash.” But disappointingly, the story ends there — with Coleman seeing Black writers through the eyes of their readers. It’s a devastating way to end a story about falling prey to the market’s siren call: not with an alternate vision, but with an image of the double consciousness that white supremacy imposes on the Black writer’s psyche.


Source photographs: Getty Images

Ismail Muhammad is a story editor for the magazine. He last wrote about waves of migration to New York.

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