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Saturday, June 6, 2015

Venus Flytrap of Literature Past


By tacit but deliberate accident, the American imagination of dubious color has been attracted to James Baldwin and Richard Wright in 2015.  On March 1, 2015, Ayana Mathis and Pankaj Mishra published “James Baldwin Denounced Richard Wright’s ‘Native Son” as a ‘Protest Novel.’ Was He Right?” in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.  More recently, one finds Benjamin Anastas reporting in The New Republic, May 25, 2015, on his teaching of a course on Wright and Baldwin at Bennington College.  His title “James Baldwin and Richard Wright in the Ferguson Era” is a smokescreen.  There is no Ferguson Era any more than there is a Waco Era.  We just have domestic terrorism and violence that dates back to 1619.  Anastas planned his course “as a chance to revisit the work of two writers who loomed large in African American literature of the twentieth century but who had fallen, in recent years, out of favor and off of syllabi.”  In my circles of inquiry, Baldwin and Wright have never been out of favor, and we think people who make such a claim inhabit a monstrous fib, an item of Vermont fakelore.

Mathis, author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, believes that Wright’s Native Son “is limited by a circumscribed vision that fails to extend much beyond the novel’s moment in 1940.  Certainly the racism that made Bigger Thomas still exists, but, thank God, Bigger Thomas does not ---he never did.”  She is wrong.  She is right.  Native Son has extended indirectly into the lives of twenty-first century males who are potential targets of selective profiling.  It is true, of course, that the character Bigger Thomas is a construction of words.  The words do not breathe; they have just “lived in” the thinking of many males. Mathis has no obligation to be much concerned with nuances of male matters.

Mishra, on the other hand, does have so gendered an obligation.  Yet, he fails in his reluctance to admit that the protest novel in American English is not some unique property of African Americans but a legacy that extends from James Fennimore Cooper to John Grisham.  It is curious that Mishra embraces Baldwin for unmasking “treacherous clichés in ostensibly noble programs of protest and emancipation” even as he reifies the treacherous cliché of putting Baldwin and Wright into Ralph Ellison’s battle royal.

Anastas admits to being a Baldwinite, but he does recognize Wright’s comments on “police-induced terror” do bear a nightmare relationship to “the United States of Trayvon Martin and ‘Stand Your Ground’.”  What he does not recognize is how complicit he is in what Baldwin identified as the crime of innocence, the state of neither knowing nor wanting to know how one may be an author of human devastation.  Perhaps two or three of his Bennington students were not caught by the Venus flytrap of literature past and were able to detect what lurks in the heart of whiteness.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

June 6, 2015

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