Saturday, June 1, 2013

Other kinds of "Recovery Work"

In a 1975 issue of Ms. magazine, Alice Walker described her "search" for Zora Neale Hurston. Many observers credited Walker's article with providing wider interest in Hurston and her work. Over the ensuing years and decades, the "recovery" of black writers, especially black women writers, became a major imperative in the scholarly discourse on African American literature. Graduate students and scholars were motivated to search for, identify, and recover writers and artists who had been previously overlooked or under-valued. 

Reading about actors Gene Anthony Ray (1962 - 2003) and Avery Brooks (b. 1948) in Mark Anthony Neal's Looking for Leroy had me thinking about other kinds of recovery work. Whereas I usually cover essays that seek to recover writers, rarely had I read pieces that sought to re-present black men actors. Ray was most known for his role as Leroy in the movie and television series Fame, and Brooks is known for a variety of television roles, most notably perhaps as the character Hawk from Spencer for Hire and in A Man Named Hawk and as Commanding Officer Benjamin Sisko from Deep Space Nine. In recent years at least, Ray and Brooks have received little scholarly attention. 

Neal does more, however, than identify two overlooked figures. He concentrates on questions of legibility or, more specifically, illegibility concerning black men and masculinity. More than simply recall the character Leroy, Neal urges, we should consider what aspects of his character were we perhaps misreading or unable to decipher even when we were aware of him. 

By identifying unusual, queer, or hard to account for features of black men who were once more widely known as leading figures in television programs, Neal performs a kind of recovery work that is somewhat different than the excavations that we initially envisioned in the field of say black literary history.  Many of the black men Neal discusses throughout his book, in fact, are living and actively pursuing careers, so they have not even faded from public consciousness. Jay-Z and Stringer Bell don't necessarily need to be recovered yet, do they?

And that's the place where the recovery work is different and useful. The processes of pinpointing the illegibility of even popular black men amounts, in some ways, to making them more legible.  

A Notebook on Mark Anthony Neal's Looking for Leroy 

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