Is It the End of the Black American Narrative?
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I was recently referred to this 2008 essay by Pulitzer Prize author Charles Johnson.


The End of the Black American Narrative

A new century calls for new stories grounded in the present, leaving behind the painful history of slavery and its consequences.


This essay left me with so many feelings, not good feelings. I thought of the forum most of us chimed in a few months ago referring to can't black folks be happy? But this essay, while I respect Charles Johnson and his work, left me saddened.

What are your feelings?

  • Hi Jolie,

    I hope you were able to click on the link Zetta provided to read the essay by Charles Johnson, The End of the Black American Narrative. I don’t think anyone here is saying black people are incapable or do not deserve happiness. What is our objection, or speaking for myself, my objection is Mr. Johnson’s assertion that the time for stories of slavery or similar themes, which do exhibit a time of hardship, poverty and unhappiness is over and no longer necessary. As much as I admire and respect Mr. Johnson’s writing and talent, I disagree on several levels. I believe that all of our stories have value, whether it is a Cosby family-like story or a Richard Wright’s Black Boy themed story. I believe in the intrinsic value of all our stories. I hear black people all the time that say they don’t want to read stories about slavery or other stories about hardship because: we need to move on, that’s in the past, we’re in a different time, racism is not the extent it used to be, and other similar statements. I respect those opinions because there is some validity in those statements. But, on the other end of the spectrum, by not telling or writing these stories we risk the possibility of “forgetting from whence we came.” There are states like Texas and Arizona who are trying to rewrite history in school curriculum to exclude or minimize the contributions of blacks and Latinos. I meet too many young people here in California who do not know more than Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. I digress.

    Anyway, there needs to be a balance and equal opportunity in literature for all kind of stories by black writers. Recently, Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award for Salvage the Bones. This link to an interview with the author was very telling and indicative of this conversation. It is timely on this subject here.

    Ward writes about a poor southern family and what is interesting is this book got little publicity until it was nominated. I admit when I heard about the book months before it was nominated, I was hesitant to read it. Is aid, why another hard-knock-life, down-and- out story about po' folks. I did read and review it and I’m glad it did because I “got it.” See my review:

    I was happy Ward won but a part of me wondered, hmmm, if she had written about a rich black family in Martha’s Vineyard or the Hampton’s,  could it have received such acclaim? Does the literary world want to read about well to-do happy black folk? I could only conclude that if a story of that caliber was written with as much humanity, insight and introspection as Salvage the Bones, then, yes, the literary “powers that be” would have to take notice. I would love to see that story by a black writer.





  • first, joy of the season to everyone. I know you must be really busy round about now, so am I; thus I am surprised that I am online. But then, there's nobody home but me at the moment, and I can do a little musing about writing while I cook.  

    It seems to me we have to maintain "a fine balance," as intimated by the East Indian novelist, Rohintin Mistry. Of course he was writing about the pains people of different castes have to take not to disturb their cultural taboos and yet be compassionate and loving toward each other. We have to maintain our own "fine balance." We can't forget our past or neglect to write about it, but we must also remember that our ancestors created some grand cultural traditions and contributed their genius to every field of endeavor, even as they were oppressed and often terrorized. I also think we have to remember that the struggle continues today. Although related to the struggle of the past, it presents clearly different challenges as well as triumphs and accomplishments. For me, our creative universe is vast and not limited to either or propositions about what we should write or emotions we should convey.  We can write about it all; that's another message we can give our young people.

  • The link tells me the article is not yet available online.

    However, based on everyone's comments, I think I get the gist of the theme.

    I guess all I'd like to add is that I welcome contemporary African American stories that explore positive, original themes.  This is not to say that we should forget about our past.  However, what I *am* saying is that no black person should feel guilty for feeling happy.  The notion that blacks are incapable of complete happiness, because of the past, is completely wrong. It also serves as a way to suppress self-esteem, something that more African Americans need.

  • Where are people seeing the article?  From what I see the article is not yet available online. 

  • Hello Ladies, I'm excited to introduce a new community AFRICAN BLOGGERS COMMUNITY to you all.

    This community is created by a mom like us (for African and non-African bloggers) and I would like us to join her to make this community a home for every blogger with African heritage and also those who love and want to experience Africa.

    Let's make it work!!! See you there

  • The Jewish community is constantly told that we are "milking" the Holocaust, or commercializing it, and that it's time to shut up and move on. But those stories percolate through the generations. New perspectives come up or new research comes to light or the story we just learned triggers something we must say. That is history. Shoud we collectively ignore the founding fathers because theyve all been "done" to death? Should we stop producing Shakespeare? no. We should write our stories. We know the stories we need to write. Write your stories, even if they are grim, or wholesome with intact families, or echo something of Nella Larsen or James Baldwin. Heck, write MLK in sci fi. Please. The world needs your stories. I count on you to give them to us. Please. Sara Selznick
  • Okay, as the token Jew here, I bet I can give perspective. Like, okay, get over the Holocaust already. like, I should never write about the Inquisition either. like what's the point? It's already been done.

    Well, Sarah's Key, for all it's faults, is sticking France's nose in its collective racist memory. The Invisible Bridge is letting people know about the experience of Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust. New research, new information from the fall of the Iron Curtain, new insight into those who were not previously considered survivors (those who fled to Shanghai, those who managed to get to Russia and survived Stalin's labor camps, those who were hidden), all these justify new works.

    How many of us are wading through the newly released j. Edgar files on the Black Panthers? Etc etc etc
    Think of the insights and stories that will come from an analysis of those?

    But you know, in the end, six million died in the Holocaust and uncounted more had their lives upended by it. Millions suffered from slavery, endured Jim Crow, tried to escape it in th Great Migration, reverse migrated in the 1990's and early 2000's. Each one of those millions is one story, a real story, that like all such stories, deserves to be told.

    Sometimes, the story comes from an outside source, a non-Jew, like Sarah's Key or a white person, like Sarah Peretsky's gut-wrenching "Hardball" shining new light on 60's gang members in Chicago and the complicity of church, cops and state (church of both colors) in vilifying and demonizing the pseudo Panthers who ran Chicago's black gangs, as well as breaking up efforts by those gangs to help their inner-city communities. Nobody, but nobody has the right to tell you, or me, or any of us that our story is passé. It is our story that we are called to tell, and the world will be far richer for us doing the work of telling it. Yes, blind fools will put out blind books that misrepresent us. We can call them out in reviews, call out their errors and set the records straight.

    But to say that an area of history--of Our Stories-- is passé is just another way of trying to silence us, even if it comes from seeming wisdom, even if it comes from our "own kind." Do not heed it. Write what you are called to write. Your stories have power. We need them. We *all* need them.

    Sara selznick