“The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every color. The black boys called it the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn’t need to be embellished. The White House delivered the law and everybody obeyed.”
Colson Whitehead’s book after Underground Railroad tells the story of a reform school, the Black boys in the school, the devastating impact of the school and the system that enables it.
This novel has similar strengths (based on a true story, the concept, the research and historical truth behind the concept, the heft of the prose in the best parts) and weaknesses (underdeveloped secondary characters, the sometimes less inspired prose in transitional plot phases) as Underground Railroad. It’s still a great book that is important and deserving of its success and accolades.
But it also made me realize how the important, successful, critically acclaimed, powerful ™ books by and about Black people too often focus on (historical) hurt and pain. I could use some recommendations for important, successful, powerful ™ books about Black joy. Not because books like Nickel Boys or Underground Railroad make white people like me uncomfortable – that’s the best part about Whitehead’s work – but because stories of joy and success need to be celebrated and supported, too. Especially in these times.
After Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison died just a few days ago, I thought a lot about what her work meant to me, and I read a lot of tributes to her. The piece of writing that struck me most is this letter by nonbinary writer/ogbanje Akwaeke Emezi:
The elderspirit of you leapt into my head the day Professor Mayes played a VHS tape from her archive of an interview you gave after you won the Nobel Prize.
‘I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central. Claimed it as central, and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.’
Your words reached like an arm of fire out of that television screen, and I swear they were just for me. This is the you I know. It is no small thing to give a being like me language.”
Their letter was published by Them.
The letter may be the most beautiful, center-challenging – and in that combination most Morrison-like – piece I read these days. Morrison’s writing meant a lot to me, but I can barely start to understand what she meant to people who live closer to the edges than I do.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, painter, activist, and co-founder of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers turned 100 years old today.
Ferlinghetti is maybe best known for “A Coney Island of the Mind” and as publisher of the beat poets, which included being arrested for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the ensuing First Ammendment trial.
My favorite work of his is the little book Poetry As Insurgent Art which a good friend gifted me a few years ago.
A few of my favorite quotes:
- “The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.”
- “Haunt bookstores.”
- “Think long thoughts in short sentences.”
- “Don’t ever believe poetry is irrelevant in dark times.”
Image: Christopher Michel, CC BY 2.0
The New York Review of Books published a long, wide-ranging interview of Wole Soyinka, Nigerian Nobel Laureate in Literature, by Henry Louis Gates. The conversation touches on Trump and why Soyinka cut up his green card, the African diaspora, desegregating motel swimming pools, Obama and burdening a leader with a Peace Prize, federalism in Nigeria, classism in South Africa, women’s rights and fundamentalism, and Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize. I can only recommend reading it in full:
‘There’s One Humanity or There Isn’t’
Image: Frankie Fouganthin (CC BY-SA 4.0)
A sentence like a punch.
From Sheryl Lunas “Neighbors Smoke on an Apartment Porch Owned by a Mental Health Agency” Poetry Magazine, January 2018
Went out to buy a book by the new Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, bought the new rupi kaur “The Sun and Her Flowers” instead. I’m fine with that.