I find it interesting how limited the range of emotional response and analysis seems to be by the average White reader of Black literature (assuming of course, they actually read it and know it exists, which is already a hurdle unto itself). One response that I usually hear, especially regarding Black women’s literature is “oh that book was so sad!” And, I’m like…“And…that’s it? Is that all that you thought?” Naturally this evokes a hyperbolic response by some White people who will incredulously say “well it’s not like abuse/sexual abuse is happy!” (Abuse is a part of much literature from every race of writer, revealing the complicated and destructive human condition, included in Black literature as well.) I then wonder, who created such a limited (in depth and range) binary of emotional expression and reaction to Black literature, “sad vs. happy?” Is that it?
What’s interesting is that some of the Black literature that they have such pedantic and limited emotional reaction to is some that has even won awards that they created and idolize. National Book Award. Pulitzer. Nobel.
They read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and others of our exquisite literary treasures of such a calibre and think “that’s so sad!” And that’s it. (I’d also point out how they view Black men’s literature as “that’s so scary/angry,” such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Native Son or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Again, such a limited response. I won’t even address how some of them don’t even have these reactions at all and instead, they rather books like these be excluded from curricula/personal reading altogether.) The most our lives on paper and that level of literary exquisiteness evokes is such a limited range of emotion and analysis for many of them, because ultimately, the responses that many Whites can offer are truly limited to pity or indifference altogether. They’d have to recognize the cultural references, emotional nuance, and complexity of such literature. Also, they’d have to see the characters in those works, the skilled and insightful Black authors who wrote them and Black people themselves as truly human, capable of layers of experience, reflection and life itself. To be human is to be more than solely what happens to us. If they can only view Black women and Black men as victims/victimizers (as well as the White characters [if present, and I mention presence since some Whites reject Black literature solely because Whites aren’t central/lead/hero characters] as random and disconnected from actual Whiteness) with the roles of race, gender, sexuality etc. and racism, sexism, homophobia and White supremacy itself as vapors floating by but not actually impacting the actual stories and lives of the characters, the Black authors and Black people at large, then I’m not sure what it is that they are experiencing when they read Black literature. It makes sense then that their responses are so juvenile and limited.
I can’t classify such complex literature as “sad” or “happy.” That’s a simplification that I actually find offensive. I view the fullness of those characters and what they mean for actual Black life. It evokes a range of emotions, complexities and thoughts for me, in the way that say…the Blues does. I just…even bubble gum evokes more in me than “sad” or “happy.”
Certainly, some people will wonder if my analysis of White responses is cloaked in educational privilege. I almost wish this were true. The problem is when equally educated (or not) Whites can clearly offer nuance and range in their responses to someone White in the same genre, say…William Faulkner, then I KNOW that this is not a question of am I just being hard on White people who perhaps don’t have a graduate degree like I do. Nope. This isn’t the issue. In fact, I recall my days in high school AP English courses in 11th and 12th grade at one of the top 10 of the top 1000 high schools in the United States. The White students there offered the same imagination-less, pitiful, pedantic responses to Black literature. These were some of the smartest students in the nation yet their analyses were barely different from an uneducated older White person. However, they offered the opposite for White literature. They could see depth there. Not surprising.
The bigoted concept of hierarchy in terms of what is deemed quality literature (White) and even within that literature, what characters (White) are considered human and more than what negative events occur within their lives prevails. It’s not an intellectual or comprehension issue (though of course, privileges of both education and literacy itself are at play here to even be able to read and respond to any literature at all); it’s a racial one that micro-cosmically reveals through the response to Black literature what’s happening macro-cosmically in response to us in actual life. Disconnection. Pity. Indifference. Devaluation.
3 things come to mind here: 1) How James Baldwin wrote about Whites’ refusal to come to grips with the delusions (fostered by White supremacy) that they create and live by, regarding their own existences; it makes it that much harder for them to examine our existences beyond the lies that they’ve learned to live by. 2) How bell hooks wrote about their tendency to turn our sacred into spectacle. 3) How Alice Walker wrote about how both Black and White writers seem to be writing one immense story, the same one for the most part, with different parts of the story emerging from different perspectives—and she focused on this more than the differences (though she acknowledged differences exist), but since this commonality isn’t recognized, White people rather pretend that Black literature is completely different, disconnected from them, and thus, for some, inferior.
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