KWANZAA 2016/UMOJA NOTES
Based on his reading of John Edgar Wideman's Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File (New York: Scribner, 2016), the philosophical novelist Charles Johnson might choose one day to enlighten us about race and being and some infernal functions of narrative. He might choose to expand ideas he presented in "The End of the Black American Narrative" (The American Scholar, Summer 2008, 32-42). There he suggested that "the old black American narrative has outlived its usefulness as a tool of interpretation" and that in the 21st century we need "new and better stories…with the understanding that each is, at best, a provisional reading of reality" (42). The identities of "we" and "need" are still mysterious in 2016; they dance with other sub-atomic particles. We who need epistemological comfort recognize the old white American narrative is a fragile, rusty tool. It has utility neither in a Donald Trump world nor in a Bob Dylan one. The vexed, bogus, ancient primal colors of race ---brown, yellow, white, red --- need attention the splinters of narrative emotion on Twitter are incapable of providing. Johnson is philosophically honest. He warrants our philosophical trust.
Stories are true lies; lies, true stories. It is universally acknowledged that actuality demands the publication of reality lies for its completion. Wideman is an accomplished writer of fictions as well as the factions appropriate for confessional autobiography. Just reread his novels The Lynchers, Reuben, The Cattle Killing, Philadelphia Fire, and Fanon and his nonfictional anatomies of the heart Brothers and Keepers: A Memoir and Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society. Should these works fail to evoke your sympathy, know that you are as post-human as Trump and his fascist soulmates. So be it. Don't worry. Be happy.
In a Christmas Eve letter to a former student, I recommended that he read Writing to Save a Life. He wrote in a letter, dated Dec. 18, 2016:
I did read the two books you reviewed last year, "The Education of Kevin Powell" and "Between the World and Me." I found the Powell book to be well worth the read, but was disappointed in the Coates work after all the favorable comments in the mainstream media. I found that neither rose to the level of "Black Boy," the complete version which I read earlier this year, and a reminder of my esteem for Wright. There are so much variety in the lives and histories of black folk in this country, and yet it seems race as a chief character is usually present, having an influence that is unmistakable. Is that how we are most defined even today, by our skin color?
Race certainly seems to be the central force in the books by Powell and Coates. I am not sure whether I should simply accept that as reality, should regret that two contemporary black writers have that as their reality even today, or should consider that this race thing is taken too seriously by some black folk.
I recommended the Wideman book, so that his trepidation might be confirmed. My former student and I have not transcended Richard Wright or, as native Mississippians, the legacies of Louis Till and his son Emmett, or as American citizens the Medusa-headed phenomenon that is taken too seriously by some provisionally white, brown, yellow, and red folk who have no mirrors for their faces. Writing to Save a Life is an aesthetic model of literature that all of us need and deserve.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. December 26, 2016