This exciting collection introduces the first-ever annual anthology of writing by African Americans. Here are remarkable essays on a variety of subjects informed by—but not necessarily about—the experience of blackness, as seen through the eyes of some of our finest writers.
From art, entertainment, and science to technology, sexuality, and current events—including the battle for the Democratic nomination for the presidency—the essays in this inaugural anthology offer the compelling perspectives of a number of well-known, distinguished writers, among them Malcolm Gladwell, Jamaica Kincaid, James McBride, and Walter Mosley, and a number of other writers who are just beginning to be heard.
Selected from a diverse array of respected publications such as the New Yorker, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Slate, and National Geographic, the essays gathered here are about making history, living everyday life—and everything in between. In “Fired,” author and professor Emily Bernard wrestles with the pain of a friendship inexplicably ended. Kenneth McClane writes hauntingly of the last days of his parents’ lives in “Driving.” Journalist Brian Palmer shares “The Last Thoughts of an Iraq War Embed.” Jamaica Kincaid describes her oddly charged relationship with that quintessentially British, Wordsworthian flower in “Dances with Daffodils,” and writer Hawa Allan depicts the forces of race and rivalry as two catwalk icons face off in “When Tyra Met Naomi.” A venue in which African American writers can branch out from traditionally “black” subjects, Best African American Essays features a range of gifted voices exploring the many issues and experiences, joys and trials, that, as human beings, we all share.
Please click the "Behind the Book" link for contributor’s bios.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Debra J. Dickerson was educated at the University of Maryland, St. Mary’s University, and Harvard Law School. She has been both a senior editor and a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report, and her work has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, the New Republic, Slate, the Village Voice, and Essence. She is the author of The End of Blackness and An American Story. She lives in Albany, New York.
Gerald Early is a noted essayist and American culture critic. A professor of English, African & African American Studies, and American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Early is the author of several books, including The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture, which won the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, and This Is Where I Came In: Black America in the 1960s. He is also editor of numerous volumes, including The Muhammad Ali Reader and The Sammy Davis, Jr. Reader. He served as a consultant on four of Ken Burns’s documentary films, Baseball, Jazz, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, and The War, and appeared in the first three as an on-air analyst.
Black for No Reason at All
To be a minority is, among many other things, to live as a sort of cultural vampire: one is forced, by bad luck at birth, to subsist on the popular lifeblood of a majority which bogarts (if only by sheer force of numbers) the airwaves, bandwidths, museums, and performance halls. It’s to search hungrily for your group’s face in the zeitgeist’s mirror and rarely find it there.
We at the margins hunger for glimpses of ourselves in the cultural viewfinder, for proof that we leave footprints in the earth, footprints that will still be visible in millennia to come when archaeologists, even extraterrestrials, comb through America’s myriad scientific, cultural, and artistic layers to figure out who, what, and why the hell we were. How we long to see black footprints embedded in amber and not just in the shifting, momentary sands of fads like novelty rap, Barbershop movies, and gauche clothing lines. That search, subconscious though it may be–and more necessary because of it–is not even primarily for the “positive” images that blacks so justifiably demand to offset America’s insatiable preference for encountering us via inner-city perp walks and welfare statistics. Rather it’s the unexpected, off- topic encounters with ourselves for which we most long. Blacks climbing mountains. Arguing environmental policy. Composing symphonies. Spelunking for lost treasures. Singing our children lullabies. Producing literature about the human condition. Blacks where you least expect to happen upon them and encounters that don’t require our race, which should be the ultimate non sequitur, to be what matters most about us or, most daringly, even to matter at all.
Blacks, in other words, are human; and all humans are narcissists, enamored of their own existence and frustrated as hell not to be widely acknowledged as the fascinating creatures we, no less than every other self- absorbed group, most definitely are. We’re here. We’re black. Get used to it. Get used to it, and for the love of God, let us talk about something else for just a few minutes please. That, dear reader, is the purpose of this anthology.
Here, we are creating a space in which blacks may be unpredictable. Off message. Quirky. Individuals. Human. Black for no reason at all. Where better to happen upon ourselves than in the essay? Essays about life, essays about history, essays about nothing much. Essays by blacks, but not necessarily about being black, though that’s all right, too. With this long overdue inaugural collection, we ’ll go spelunking for memorable essays, by or about diasporic blacks, on any subject at all. Anything. Whatever they happened to be thinking about that day and felt compelled to share with the world. With this series we announce the hunt for black essayistic art. Art–not protest or politics, unless those topics are rendered with transcendent, time- testing mastery. If you’re interested in beautiful writing or thought informed by blackness but not required by it, this series is for you. Best African American Essays calls a time- out on the black artist’s duty to his people, his country, or his livelihood and provides a place simply to be an artist. It’s a place for the black artist to be free.
Blacks Landing on the Moon
In the 1960s, when blacks were first integrating television in real numbers, we set the phone lines asizzle, letting each other know whenever one of our own was on the small screen. As if the entire black community hadn’t already planned Sunday dinner or the kids’ homework around those pre- VCR, bated- breath events. Whenever Sammy Davis Jr. or Diahann Carroll was on TV, the streets of black America were deserted, just as they were during America’s landing on the moon, both paradigm- shifting, fish-out-of-water events that changed American life as we knew it. For the entire half- hour of The Flip Wilson Show or Julia, Afro’d kids would sit entranced while adults just held the phone that connected them to another equally bemused Negro. All silently watched ourselves take part in America as artists and not, for once, as invisible, underpaid, much abused labor or–god help our psyches– as the all too visible “Negro problem.”
Shaking our heads in prideful wonder at seeing ourselves in the tuxedoes and evening gowns of the day, finally invited into America’s living rooms, blacks accepted that our public presence then had to be qua black people. We could not be simply the new neighbor–we had to be the new black neighbor that America could practice not calling a realtor at first sight of. We could not be the new co- worker, but the new black first-of-his-kind office mate, whose every utterance had to be wackily misinterpreted by well- intentioned whites (who had to be construed as well- intentioned, or integration was over) as racial protest, so that high jinks, neutered of any substantive politics, could ensue and be resolved before the credits rolled. It was Kabuki theater, a highly stylized enactment of catharsis whose preformatted, feel- good outcomes threatened the white psyche not at all and that achieved nothing but teaching whites that they could remain calm with us in the room without police protection. It was enough for us then–it had to be enough–simply to be allowed into the room.
Cultural encounters with us then, as America took baby steps toward racial tolerance, could include us only as the proverbial Other, extraterrestrials landed on Main Street. People who’d been here for centuries, people who’d both cared for and borne the children of the majority–the inscrutable, unpredictable strangers who’d lived in America since before it was America–were taking blackness for a wary stroll on the other side of the color line. It was a perp walk of a different kind, the kind intended to teach America it could encounter us as humans, fellow citizens. We were free but on our best credit-toour- race closely-monitored-by-both-sides behavior. Literal chains were replaced by existential ones.
Popular culture was the way America got to know its blacks–got used to its blacks–as something other than its volatile serfs; there was nothing then but for blacks to serve as the one- dimensional proxies via which America could confront its integrationist terrors: its terrors, its guilt, and its fear of justified confrontation. Hence the ritual thrashings from the overly but impotently politicized Negroes of Maude, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. Indeed, blacks then also felt a need for the existential training wheels of participation as symbols and tokens only, as refutations of innate white supremacy or black quiescence; our art, understandably, focused mainly on the black condition. In the 1960s, as we had for centuries, we primarily sought to answer the mind- strangling question that W.E.B. Du Bois implored us to resist: “How does it feel to be a problem?” As he did, black artists have either “smile[d] or [were] interested, or [were] reduce[d] to a boiling simmer, as the occasion [required].”*
But them days is over. Now, more than a century later, we’ve caught up to Du Bois: “To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? [We] answer seldom a word.”
That’ll tick them off.
The question is, and always was, stupid, a subject- changer, not to mention ingeniously devised to keep us on the defensive, looking up at our interrogators, trying to figure out what they were thinking and what we could do to change it. But it’s 2008. Let those determined to figure out what’s so fundamentally wrong with blacks–and who require us to flail in vain for the answer to the wrong question, their question–spin their wheels on that racist, white supremacist, and narcissistic notion (i.e., “why do we find you, with your Quintellas and your swagger, to be so disturbing?”). However fascinated by the construction of blacks as problems, as defectives, as Other, the world might be, blacks have increasingly struggled uphill to change the bloody subject from their race to their minds. As late as 2002, the acclaimed sculptor Ed Hamilton, who labored in obscurity until his commemorations of black heroes like those of the Amistad and Booker T. Washington brought him prominence, had to unleash his frustration at race ’s constriction of his art. In an installation called Confinement, “faces peer out of holes in slabs, as if looking to break free . . . [his curator] Julien Robson sees in Confinement an African American artist struggling to become visible on his own terms.”* Unfortunately for him, a Best African American Sculptures is not likely in the offing.
Hamilton faces the same realities all black artists do: museums and editors industriously keep us on speed dial whenever “black” issues arise, but not when there ’s a mortgage crisis, an ecological issue, or a humanitarian disaster on another continent. We seldom occur to them except through our blackness. But art must ta...
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