Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What Will Black Writing Be?

The question “What Was African American Literature?,” the title of Kenneth Warren’s book, took me back to an unanswered question I’ve been asking: What will black writing be?

I’m interested, as Warren is, in shifts in the social conditions of black people and writers in this country over a long period of time, but for now, I’m also thinking that when it comes to “black writing” in addition to paying attention to the “black,” we might also do well to consider the “writing” issue a little closer.

In particular, I’ve been thinking about how various developments over the years as well as new media or technologies may have expanded options for what even constitutes writing and, as we push, what constitutes writing by black folks.

Off the top of my head, of course, blogging comes to mind. I’m an avid reader of Ta-Nehisi Coates on his blog at The Atlantic. No question, he’s among my favorite writers. He’s written a memoir and several articles and essays for print and online publications, which I’ve read. But, I most often engage his blog, where I follow him just about every weekday.

I’m one of many who consider themselves “followers” of Coates’s blog. And so I wonder: if enough of us viewed Coates and other black bloggers as leading writers, would we eventually expand definitions of what constitutes black writing? Would we shift the definition of writers?

What about comic strip artists? Aaron Mcgruder became one of the most well-known African American comic strip artists, though he was hardly the first or only one. I’ve heard a number of scholars highlight the work of Ollie Harrington, for instance. And then on the contemporary scene, you have folks like Keith Knight, Darrin Bell, and many others.

Still, McGruder has drawn quite a bit of attention over the years. His strips have drawings, of course, but McGruder has always shown a strong interest in being a writer over the years. In fact, in an article in The New Yorker, he was quoted as saying “If something had to give, it was going to be the art. I think I'm a better writer than artist.”

When we add on that McGruder was the chief writer, not animator, for his cartoon The Boondocks, we might ask: given the wide popularity of McGruder’s work, what happens when we view The Boondocks -- the comic strip and television show – as models of black writing? And finally, what about twitter?

The other day Colson Whitehead, a successful novelist who’s really active on his twitter page, joked that he was getting feedback on his recently completed manuscript from his mother who allegedly complained that she was hoping that Whitehead's new work contained “more Twitter Colson & less Writer-Guy Colson.”

Given his humorous tweets, it’s likely that he’s joking. But still, how do we resolve the double consciousness of the “Twitter Colson” vs. “Writer-Guy Colson”? How, to extend the Du Bois metaphor, do we appreciate those two modes of writing, those "two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body”?

Blogs, comic strips, twitter. What else, or maybe, where else, will black writing be? 


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