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?

  • 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

    But you know, in the end, six million died in the Holocaust and uncounted more had they're lives upended by it, and each one of those is a 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 th Panthers, as well as breaking up efforts by Black 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 and on the record, call out their errors. But to say that an area of history--of Our Stories-- is passé is just another way of trying to silence us. Do not heed it. Write what you are called to write. Your stories have power. We need them.

    Sara selznick
  • Yes, the Jewish community will never have this conversation. In remembering, we can use our history to empower us. If the story so happens to start as Johnson reflects, then it would be our job as storyteller to craft that history to shape the story. Jews will never forget, so why should we?

  • I guess I'm just going to have to go on and just toot my little horn. Perhaps Johnson, and others, will be just overjoyed to learn about writers like myself who've written, and have in the works a full shelf of books written on, not only black life, but life. 

    I write in a multitude of genres, primarily on family life, and used to write for, and produced a newsletter written for, and about family. A part of *my* particular story is inside Tavis Smiley's book, Keeping the Faith. See the Rev... which not only the Rev, but that book includes many other amazing stories (albeit it's a collection)... but I loved that book, and as well have come across many, many others out there. *Life is So Good, The Black Girl Next Door, A Country Called Nigeria, Miss Muriel and Other Stories, The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation (Powerful!!), Sugar of the Crop, Cotton Field of Dreams, Ever is A Long Time, Pieces of Life's Crazy Quilt, You Aint Got No Easter Clothes, My TImes in Black & White, Foxy, When We Were Colored, Brotha I'm Dying, Life on the Color Line, The Silence of Grace... and I just love that one... SOmething's Wrong WIth Your Scale.* COme on now... these books are out there, the stories are out there. Instead of trying to steer the lit, maybe we can start reading and supporting it.

  • " The thought of wanting to alter (or redefine?) this process is offensive, and not necessarily only to writers, but to the arts, to the breadth of what my experience with literature is."


    This was right on. It is offensive that our lives which is part of the historical fabric of the buildfing of this nation should be summarily dismissed because it has already been told. Our culture runs the gamut as you say to the Arts, Sociology, History and so much more.

  • Exacly! I don't dare tell a writer what he or she can or cannot or should or should not write. But as long as others think they can relay the stories of my ancestors, then I need to be right there to tell my story, and if necessary refute or support what they have written. I honestly don't know what Johnson wants. He told his story with The Middle Passage. Was that supposed to be it? Sometimes scholars sit down and think up stuff just so they can have a platform to hear themselves pontificate, I'm going to assume he got out of the wrong side of the bed or there is some underlying issue going on.

  • Whew! There is a lot here Zetta. You touched on quite a few topics. You went from sterotypes to black family make-up to teling different stories. It's late and I need to get up early to take my granddaughter for the day but I just wanted to note a couple of things.

    I feel the same about the Cosby show. I was always getting into debates. I can remember in the late 60s and 70s, my dad''s Black professional organization would gather in the Santa Clara Hills (I called it our Martha's Vineyard. LOL) for the Fourth of July week. There were doctors,dentists, lawyers, real estate busineman, accountants, school teacher and principals, police seargeants, two parent families descending on the cabin my parents owned with Dr. Wrights's family. Some families were wealthy, some came from money, not all, but most made decent living to provide for their families and send their children to college whereas most of them came from rural areas with parents with 8th grade educations.  

    These were folks who migrated from the Jim Crow south, went to Historically Black Colleges, left there and came to make new lives and stories. Growing up, my black friends whose parents were professional, or worked for the post office or the Naval supply compaany, or in factories  or drove buses were two-parent homes. Remember how Grant Hill was dfissed by another basketball family wo was jealous of his upbringing. Crabs in a barrel. We are not a monolith.

    In my stories, I try to impart the family values that I know while delving into the fabric of racial strife. I read something years ago by one of the old school writers that stuck with me. Some writers feel an obligation to tell the stories of the past and I feel that I am one of them. I want to do it not as we were a people of woe and no hope, but the contrary, that the trials ande strives were made for a greater hope. Anyway, I digress. Suffice it to say, this is a thorn in my side when I hear folks talk about the black family.

    My first published piece was about my grandmother's quilt that she pieced going through Alzheimers. My mother took the quilt and redid it keeping the patterns my grandmother had started; the monkey wrench, the flying geese, codes for the Underground Railroad. I don't know if I am getting my point across, I'm scattered but I guess what I'm saying is there are hopes in that story. And gosh darnit, I'm still waiting for John Singleton to do the Nat Turner story. LOL. I guess Charles Johnson will break his neck to say how wrong that is. :-)

    Shoot, if our children don't know these stories, as it is so many of them don't know. They think they always walked into any restaurant in Alabama or Missisippi and sat where they wanted andf sat with children of all hues. They need to know how it got that way.

  • Excellent. Very well stated. Why should our history be obliterated when other ethnicities or cultures make sure their histories are not forgotten.
  • I can understand what Johnson is trying to say. I'm not mad. It had to be said. While I don't think anyone should ignore or dismiss the events of the past, we cannot allow ourselves to be stuck in the past. It’s called “progress”...not to be confused with “perfection.” The world is far from perfect but there’s been a hell of a lot of change in the last 111 years and that cannot be denied.


    How many of us ever thought we'd live to see a black/bi-racial US president? I know I didn't so I'm happy that 2 of my 4 grandparents, who lived through Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, were alive to see it happen.


    And I can REALLY understand the lesson to be learned from the Kelley-Hawkins situation. The book I read that prompted me to write the blog post "Can't black folks be happy" stemmed from reading a book that I thought was written by a black man (I had received a galley copy to review) but turns out to be written by a white man. It occurred to me that, despite the author’s personal experience, do people only see blacks as sharing a similar fate?


    I’m not going to go into a long dissertation about what I think—I’ll save that for my mythical blog LOL!—but I do wish for more stories—correction, more well-written stories that portray black people in a more positive light. We are not all gloom and doom and baby mamas and pimps and hos and welfare cases and hip-hop stars. We're also not a bunch of Step 'n Fetch Its or comic relief stock characters.


    One thing that pissed me off years ago was how some people—white AND black—criticised The Cosby Show for being “unrealistic.” As if a black family would have a doctor and a lawyer at all...let alone in the same family. As if a black family could be middle/upper-middle class. As if a black family could have both parents live together and love each other and raise their children. As if.


    That attitude still pisses me off. Why? Because it makes ME look like a freak just because my parents were married for 25 years until my mom’s death and loved and raised two kids who went to college and would eventually go on to have successful careers and raise families of their own without going to jail or raising multiple kids by multiple fathers and living on welfare. Why should I feel “guilty” for having a relatively “normal” upbringing that, if I were white, people wouldn’t think twice about?


    Personally, I have about 5 projects that will hopefully see the light of day in the next 12 months or so that touch on themes about race and identity and not all of them stem from lessons learned by our ancestors.


    I guess what I’m trying to say is that there should be room for all types of stories that relate to or touch on the black experience without feeling that we need to keep drawing from the same least not all the time. All of us have different stories to tell—not the same story.




  • I whole-heartedly agree with you, Dera. Based on where we are now and Johnson's reference to  King's statement of  judging us on the content of our character and not our color, is somewhat a misnomer. You might even say that it's a myth that assimilation has the potential to eradicate the color barrier and I dare say that King's words are misconstrued in how Johnson references it in relation to his essay. Looking at where we are today in race matters, at no time have I understood that we would we would ultimately end up in a colorless society. While it's ideal and can occur in a perfect world, America is so far from that. Johnson's essay somewhat points a finger at writers for crafting narratives he wants to stir us away from. Yet, what happens when a writer of non-African descent tells the stories of us? He doesn't answer who is better fit to relate these stories to our children should we move in new direction he prefers. Do we leave it to the Kathryn Stocketts and movie producers to portray us as marginal and minimize the emotions of our grandparents and simply forget and move on to speak more along the lines of class? What makes us so inclined to want that? He leaves a lot of unanswered questions and his direction is along the lines of serving the bourgeoisie.
  • This article strikes an interest for me because it is one in a long line of discussions among African Americans or otherwise, where one continuously views writing or telling the story of the black experience  in America as a dilemma or obstacle to progressive thinking. No other race of people speak along these lines but African American people and interestingly enough, these type of conversations are primarily initiated by black scholars.


    I agree with some points in the article but race and gender were not born of the first slaves arriving in America in 1619, but its systemic use of exploitation, not only of African Americans, but of any nation of color, perpetuates dialogue that ultimately unfolds in the form of literature. As part of building a country, as America, relied so heavily upon the labors of African people, it's very disturbing that we should want to erase what is innately a part of who and what we are. We cannot erase that from our history and speech no more than we can our skin color and changing the narrative to fit contemporary times won't necessarily make us more fittingly appropriate or acceptable in certain circles. I think we should tell our history as we experience it and a part of what we live is through our parents' stories, who may or may not be "victims" of race and culture. Whatever that story is, we should not minimize it to fit Johnson's narrow directive for translating our stories.